Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Mar 02, 2018 9:45 am 
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Dancing in desolate places

Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot: so begins the military "phonetic" spelling system. And from it comes the title for Samuel Maoz's troubling movie about the death of a young Israeli soldier and his grieving parents. Foxtrot: the word has an ominously jaunty air that hints at grim absurdity.

Death arrives at once: soldiers come to tell a couple their young solder son Jonathan has passed away at the remote checkpoint where he is stationed. Dafna (French-born Sarah Adler), the (decade-younger) wife, collapses at the mere sight of the pair come bringing news. Her husband Michael Feldman (Judd Hirsch lookalike Lior Askenazi of Cedar's Footnote, powerful here) simply withdraws into terrifying, hostile silence. The military messengers of death, as they help, are ritualized and controlling. They drug Dafna and put her to bed. They offer Michael a pill he refuses, and suggest informing connections for him - he refuses - then instruct him (since they know he won't eat) to drink a glass of water, cued by his cell phone, every hour to stay hydrated. Later a rabbinical death officer - the entire process is to be controlled by the military - describes how the funeral will go, step by step, like a wedding or a bar mitzvah. Maoz satirizes while he sympathizes.

Foxtrot is very good here, if it seems like a play. There is a sharp contrast between controllable and unimaginable. When Jonathan's sister Alma (Shira Haas of Princess) learns of the death she roars and screeches horribly. The big apartment with the large geometric tiles and interesting artwork is a stage and the scenes are dramatic. Other "characters" appear. Michael visits his aged mother (Karin Ugowski), a Holocaust survivor who answers his Hebrew only with German and clearly gets his message, then takes him for his brother. The tight closeups of the mute father show how grief shrinks the world of the grieving. Overhead shots, while artificial, neatly convey disorientation and alienation. Michael's cruelty to the sweet family dog, Max, is a strong hint of his macho, authoritarian personality; but he is artistic, too, an architect, whose son, we learn later, draws. I'm not as clear where Michael's brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) fits in, except to get him a little more out of himself, the reasonable one, not too devastated to be practical and take charge.

Now Foxtrot pulls a switcheroo on us, rushing in new military messengers to tell Michael and Dafna the good news, a horrible mistake was made, and Jonathan isn't dead after all. Then Michael, in character and thus as angry as he is joyous, having insisted he be allowed to see the corpse, insists Jonathan must be brought to him, to show he's alive. From then, for a long while, the POV switches too, to the checkpoint. As the word "foxtrot" is a linchpin, woven through, Michael has seen an endearing dance class for oldsters while visiting his mother, where they were doing the step; in the film's final segment he will show Dafna its simple box-moves.

Now the soldiers talk of it, how it's "also" a dance, because to them, it's the code name of their location.

This "Foxtrot" duty seems borderline absurd, the details of it often trivial and dreary, the soldiers' off-duty clothes shabby and rundown. Lots goes on as Maoz depicts this nowhere place. It rains a lot. They trek through mud and puddles. They sleep in a former shipping container.They feast on potted meat In cans they roll across the floor, whose growing tilt shows them the container they sleep in is rapidly sinking into the mud, which Manohla Dargis says is symbolic. It is certainly surreal. They have their amusements, video war games, stories they tell each other, spare time hobbies. They even shoot off flares that become like fireworks in the night. They also do their job: they computer-check ID's of all who drive up, spotlight glaring and machine-gun at the ready.

Then comes the visual highpoint of the whole film when one of the soldiers, apropos of "foxtrot" as a dance, suddenly does a sly swivel-hipped dance with his rifle making love to it. This has become the movie's signature, an inspired doodle, youth having fun in the middle of nowhere.

Finally violence comes, a mistake that leads to multiple murders that are swept away with the cynical approval of a general who's helicoptered in, then, upon a directive, has Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) sent home right away, with another switcheroo coming.

Maoz, whose 2009 Lebanon is a wartime tour-de-force, is a brilliant filmmaker but maybe this time he has been just a little too brilliant for his own good. Cleverness isn't much use in the face of grief and doesn't hide some very conventional plot points: that the premature loss of a child will break up a marriage; that the beloved son originally wasn't wanted; even the tired cliché that pot makes you giggle and gives you the munchies. I wish instead we had learned more about these people, than the Holocaust-survivor mom who understands "everything and nothing," the vulgar last bedtime story, the girly-mag with pages stuck together with dried semen.

Foxtrot is exceptional in the tightness of its construction, the vividness of its details, and the fineness of its acting. The rave reviews are understandable, Israel's choice to make the film their "Best Foreign" Oscar entry as well. There is no doubt that the surreal anarchy of this film springs from deeply felt sorrow and rage. But Maoz is trying too hard, and needed to sit down quietly with his subjects and let them speak for themselves.

Foxtrot, 108 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2017 (winning the Silver Lion) and showed at many international festivals including Telluride and Toronto, with 16 wins and 13 nominations. It opened in NYC Dec. 2017. Wider opening 2 Mar. 2018. Watched at a public screening at Angelika Film Center, NYC 2 Mar. 2018. Metacritic rating 92%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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