`Joe' shows a man's heroism, refracted through a bottle

Movie reviews

May 14, 1999

Ken Loach is one of the few British directors of his generation to preserve that unglamorous, unloved cinematic genre known as social realism. Swift, gritty and featuring a magnetic performance by Peter Mullan in the title role, "My Name is Joe" ultimately succumbs to melodrama, but not before drawing film-goers into a world and group of characters bursting with life and pathos.

The movie's title will be familiar to anyone who has ever attended a 12-step meeting: Joe is a recovering alcoholic, off the bottle for several months and still sweating every minute of it. When Joe meets Sarah (Louise Goodall), a social worker with issues of her own, his life begins to turn around, only to be threatened by his loyalty to a heroin-addicted couple.

"My Name is Joe," which was filmed in Scotland and is subtitled to help film-goers with the characters' heavy burrs, is not about alcoholism, but rather the universal themes of intimacy, boundaries and self-worth as seen through addiction's prism.

Mullan fairly crackles with the energy of a man living on the psychic ledge. Without an ounce of self-pity, he imbues the simplest rituals of Joe's day with profound, pugnacious heroism.

"My Name Is Joe." Starring Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall. Directed by Ken Loach. Rated R (pervasive language and some violence, sexuality and drug use). Running time: 110. Released by Artisan Entertainment. Sun score ***

-- Ann Hornaday

`Windhorse' deceptive delight

"Windhorse," Paul Wagner's film about the Chinese occupation of Tibet that was recently shown at the Maryland Film Festival, is a deceptive movie. With its simple story and raw production values, it is actually quite an extraordinary movie.

Filmed undercover in Tibet using a digital video camera and a great deal of bravery, this dramatic feature has all the energy and immediacy of a documentary made under extreme conditions, which in many ways it was.

Wagner cast mostly non-professionals to play the characters in his story, about a brother and sister and their cousin whose lives take different paths after the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. One becomes a singer, eager to please her Chinese producers; one becomes a layabout; and one becomes a Buddhist nun, whose firsthand experience with Chinese oppression spurs her cousins to action.

Filmed mostly in the capital city of Lhasa, "Windhorse" (the title refers to slips of paper carrying Buddhist prayers) captures the beauty and diversity of that city, even if the camera can never stop for very long. (Wagner had to dodge constant police surveillance while filming, and many of the cast members have withheld their names out of fear of retribution from the Chinese government.) What's more, Wagner is never simplistic, taking care to portray Chinese characters with as much sympathy and understanding as the Tibetans.

"Windhorse" is a movie worthy of its spiritual subject: Compassionate, wise and beautiful.

"Windhorse." Starring Dadon, Jampa Kelsang, Richard Chang (other names withheld). Directed by Paul Wagner. This film is not rated. Running time 97 minutes. Released by Shadow Distribution. Sun score ***

-- Ann Hornaday

`Steam: A Turkish Bath'

A paean to the civility of the old ways, as well as a plea to keep an open mind in matters of sexuality, "Steam: A Turkish Bath" ("Hamam: Il Bagno Turco") lures viewers into a world they may find themselves in no hurry to leave.

The plot is an old standard: Take a tautly strung professional, throw him into a world where tension and haste are seen as decided non-virtues, then watch as he slowly and inexorably realizes the fruitlessness of his ways.

In this case, the key figure is Francesco (Alessandro Gassman), an Italian designer whose aunt dies in Istanbul, leaving to him an ancient Turkish bath she had operated for years. At first, Francesco wants to sell the place as quickly as possible and get back to Rome and his model-thin (and equally high-strung) wife, Marta (Francesca d'Aloja).

But soon, the gentle spirit of the people he meets in Turkey -- including the handsome Mehmet (Mehmet Gunsur), with whom he begins to experiment sexually -- and the insightful letters left behind by his aunt win him over. When Marta shows up, the question becomes, will she be likewise seduced?

Production notes for the film reveal that many of the locations used (including the baths) have since been destroyed or turned into warehouses, lending the film a heightened poignancy. Quiet and unforced, "Steam: A Turkish Bath," directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, is a reminder that friendship and civility should never go out of fashion.

"Steam: A Turkish Bath." In Italian, with English subtitles. Starring Alessandro Gassman and Francesca d'Aloja. Directed by Ferzan Ozpetek. This film is not rated. Running time 96 minutes. Released by Strand Releasing. Sun score ***

-- Chris Kaltenbach

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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