The Referee (L'Arbitro)
★★★★ (out of five)
If you're a student of the art of movie making, or just a fan of whacked-out cinema, put The Referee on your Must See list. Director Paolo Zucca's gorgeous black and white comedy/drama nods at everyone from Sergio Leone to Busby Berkeley, incorporating religious imagery, surprising visual flourishes and a couple of verbal exchanges that trigger memories of Abbott and Costello. The movie, in Italian with subtitles, is beautiful, funny, melodramatic and weird. Despite all that's going on stylistically, it manages to follow its narrative threads in a mostly coherent fashion.
In a translated interview, Zucca explained his approach, "Aesthetically speaking, one of the avenues I investigated for this film is blending tones and film genres. While I have mainly opted for comedy and the light touch, I've interspersed the film with darker moments, such as a few of the stages in the international referee Cruciani's descent into professional 'hell,' or the minor subplot involving the ancestral codes of sheep breeding in Sardinia. By the same token, the epic and the grotesque, the highbrow and the lowbrow all mingle in the film and switch places quite unpredictably at times. I chose to film in black and white, partly to achieve the maximum degree of abstraction from reality and from the constraints of tie and place, to avoid the film's being seen as an objective representation of the world of football, or a particular geographical context."
Zucca's story deals with football (soccer to Americans), fanaticism, ambition, ethics and more. Atletico Pabarile is the worst team in the Sardinian third league. The townspeople particularly hate getting thumped by Montecrastu, which is led by Brai, an arrogant owner of a great deal of land. Ah, but things may change, because young Matzutzi, sporting a world-class mullet and facial hair straight out of '70s porn, has come back to town. With his great athletic prowess, he may prove to be the savior of the town.
Meanwhile, Cruciani the referee has eyes on advancing to the big-time. Others are interested in helping him further his career, but only if he cooperates with their plans. And in the midst of the sporting excitement, two cousins playing for Montecrastu are feuding over the proper methods of sheep breeding.
By setting his stories in small towns, Zucca can offer a more intimate take on the joy and madness that accompanies football. Listen to the odd insults hurled by some fans — "Wrinkled ass face!" "Go get fried, egghead!" "May you suffer a stroke with all the little strokes behind!" — and consider some of the things you hear at local games. Listen to athletes taunt their opponents by chanting, "Dead! Crazy! Ugly! Dumb! Faggot!" — and you'll be reminded why it's still a big deal when players come out.
Or just watch for all the treats as Zucca shifts from one homage to the next, from one style to another, and one striking camera angle (hey, it's a kick from the ball's point of view!) to a peculiar visual (look at that player's ta-daaa skid onto the field!). Sure, sometimes the substance trips over the style, but even that is interesting. And it looks phenomenal. —Ed Johnson-Ott
CAPSULE REVIEWS by Ed Johnson-Ott (EJO) and Scott Shoger (SS)
Amira and Sam
Freaks and Geeks veteran Martin Starr gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Sam, an army vet trying to adjust to civilian life at home. After a failed attempt a stand-up comedy, he lands a job working at his cousin's Wall Street firm. Amira (Dina Shihabi) is at tough cookie who fled Iraq after her brother was killed by U.S. soldiers. She meets Sam and the encounter does not go well, because this is a romantic comedy/drama and that's how it works. Thankfully, the "Angry Amira" part of the story turns into something much more specific and satisfying. The whole cast is strong, but Starr does an exceptional job fleshing out Sam. (EJO)
Ben's At Home
I'd venture that most people who decide never to leave the house again aren't in quite as fine fettle as Ben (Dan Abramovici), who manages to get laid and keep his job during a brief, self-imposed exile following a tough breakup. But that's part of the light, breezy charm of Mars Horodyski's 70-minute, Montreal-filmed comedy. Sure, Ben's in danger of losing friends and looking like a full-blown agoraphobe to the delivery girl who stayed at his place after her shift. But this whole exile thing will likely be a momentary setback for a relatively well-balanced guy with puppy-dog eyes. There's something to be said for this Ben's At Home's let's-make-a-movie earnestness, and the stakes are low enough that it's okay if a joke falls flat or a performance doesn't quite jive with the rest. (SS)
Interesting Japanese relationship drama with intertwining storylines. Jempei is a mild-mannered teacher getting ready to propose to his girlfriend. He visits the doctor as part of his pre-proposal regime and is devastated to learn he is infertile. Meanwhile, his nine-year-old nephew is being bullied in school. The boy's upset mother reaches out for advice on how to fix the problem and complications ensue. Finally, an old storyteller exasperates his friend with his depressing tales. Everything comes together at a party that takes some surprising turns. The characters are exasperating at times, but always relatable. In Japanese with subtitles. (EJO)
Three Navajo young people negotiate coming-of-age crises in this convincing, hopeful feature written and directed by Sydney Freeland, who told Filmmaker Magazine she "wanted to tell a story about the people and places I knew growing up." The angry, impulsive but often well-meaning Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui) plans to join the Army to provide for his wife and kids, but needs to stop acting out (and slapping cops) for a few more days if he's going to get to basic training. Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline), who was born on the reservation but raised by white parents, can't sleep and wonders if finding her birth parents will help quell her anxiety. Felixia (Carmen Moore), a transgendered woman who earns money by turning tricks, dreams of being featured in the Women of Navajo calendar. Sometimes the characters feel like composites, but I certainly haven't seen anyone like Felixia in a film. Her character raises fascinating issues: She's accepted by her grandfather, a medicine man, because Navajo mythology finds a place for liminal "third" and "fourth genders" (which anticipate the modern concept of transgenderism), but her peers, who ought to know better, are capable of hurling just as much abuse as any Bible thumper. (SS)
Highway to Dhampus
Spoiled British heiress Elizabeth James (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is on a damage control mission after landing in the tabloids with her latest foolish behavior. The plan is for her to fly to Ghandruk, Nepal to do charity work at an orphanage while photographer Colt Morgan (Gunner Wright — yes, both the character and the actor have names apparently inspired by Top Gun) documents her efforts. Their pilot for the trip to the remote location is Ajit Thapa (Raj Ballav Koirala), who disapproves of the socialite, while orphanage headmistress Laxmi studies the cynical goings-on. To its credit, the film takes some unexpected turns. (EJO)
Objects in Mirror
An opportunity to see how everyday domestic dramas play out halfway across the world. Leila lives in a Tehran apartment building with her rather churlish husband and young daughter. Another kid is on the way. She depends on neighbors for support — and it's when she borrows, then breaks, a dish that the film starts to raise pesky moral questions about how far one should go to cover for one's mistakes. This is the first feature by Narges Abyar, who's authored 30 books for children and adults, and it has the simplicity and resonance of an O. Henry story, with nods to fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who often works with such down-to-earth material and ordinary protagonists. (SS)
The Sound and the Shadow
A child goes missing and a pair of amateur detectives may be the best chance of finding her in this agreeable mystery that at times feels like a modern day take on the Nancy Drew genre. Harold (Joseph E. Murray) is a recluse with allergies galore who spends his time with microphones, obsessing on the nature of sound. Money is tight, so he reluctantly takes on a roommate, Ally (Mary Kate Wiles), a plucky young woman with a problem respecting other people's boundaries. When six-year-old girl in the neighborhood disappears, Ally and Harry form an uneasy alliance (at least for Harry). (EJO)
Now here's something you don't see everyday. In Uzumasa, the Hollywood of Japan, a genre is fading. Jidaigeki films, period pictures with lots of sword fighting, aren't as popular as they used to be. Making fewer jidaigeki movies means less work for the kirareyaku, actors that specialize in getting killed in battle scenes. The story focuses on a revered long-time kirareyaku performer whose career is clearly near its end, along with a charming rising star who looks up to the veteran. The production offers beautifully choreographed fight scenes, a love letter to filmmaking and some rewarding performances. (EJO)
Alex (Junio Valverde), a handsome young man from Spain living in Santa Monica, falls in love with a woman in a Polaroid he found and sets off to find her, even though he knows absolutely nothing about her or the origin of the photograph. His fiercely supportive female friend (Leticia Dolera) watches the man she deeply cares for set out on a search for another. There's a lot of mysticism here — heck, Alex gets advice from his dead grandfather — and philosophical advice from others. Valverde is a compelling actor and his character's journey is interesting for a while, but the process eventually gets a bit dull. (EJO)
Where the Road Runs Out
This well-meaning drama about a wayward professor who goes back to the land would be a good pick for family audiences — kids may relate to a whipsmart, too-clever-for-his-own-good orphan — but is likely too clunky, sanitized and broad to work for adults. Isaach De Bankole plays the professor, who takes over a field station in Equatorial Guinea from a college friend who has died. He's coaxed out of his shell by the scruffy orphan, who does what he can to push along a relationship between his new friend and the nearby orphanage's headmistress. (SS)