Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)


Waltz with Bashir

Smoke on the water, fire in the skies…

(2008) Animated Feature (Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ori Sivan, Ronny Dayag, Shmuel Frenkel, Zahava Solomon, Dror Harazi, Mickey Leon, Yehezkel Lazarov. Directed by Ari Folman

 

War is often ascribed certain characteristics that certain segments of society deem glorious. In truth, war is an entirely different experience for those who actually fight it. Only generals and civilians can admire war; those in the trenches rarely do.

This is a unique combination between documentary and animation; the voices we hear are those of the actual participants, including Folman the director. What occurs is that one of Folman’s friends, Boaz (portrayed here by Leon) has been having this unnerving recurring dream of being chased by 26 dogs, all threatening and all menacing. Boaz believes that this dream is connected with his service in the First Lebanon War in which both he and Folman fought in the Israeli army.

In Folman’s case, he can’t remember anything about his time in the war. He seems to have blacked it all out. Determined to fill in the blank spot, he contacts other soldier friends, a psychologist and a reporter. He begins to suss out memories of the massacre of Muslim and Palestinian civilians by the Christian Phalangist militia members in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps which were carried out in response to the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel by a terrorist who was later thought to be acting on the orders of Syrian intelligence (although at the time that wasn’t known).

The more Folman digs, the more he discovers about his role in the war. However were those memories truly his or were they inventions of his guilty conscience of being aware of what was going on in the refugee camps without taking action to stop the genocide of innocents?

The massacre is a very sensitive topic in both Israel and Lebanon (where this film is officially banned to this day). The investigation into it by the United Nations has not painted a pretty picture about the Israeli military or the government of Lebanon. There is evidence that the Israeli military, while not active in the massacre, was at the very least complicit in the crime and was fully aware of what the Phalangists were up to.

Here in the United States we are woefully ignorant of what goes on in the rest of the world when we are not directly involved. I can’t say I knew much about the First Lebanese War nor anything about the massacre before seeing this film. The images here are both stark and dream-like. Folman spent three years animating this film with an entire staff of eight animators (a single character in a Hollywood animated feature will often utilize dozens of animators) and while it might look otherwise, not a single frame was rotoscoped (a style of animation in which the animation is drawn over filmed content for a realistic look – Ralph Bakshi’s work is an example of this type of animation).

Folman uses color to an advantage, often changing the palette to underscore powerful images. Those images are often brutal, sometimes comical but almost always compelling. The one real issue I have with the film is that the movie can move from hyper-real to surreal in the blink of an eye, which can be jarring. Of course, in this instance, dreams and reality merge to a certain extent to form memory and who’s to say which is which?

This is a powerful movie that may not necessarily be for everyone; some of the imagery is graphic ad disturbing. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar and could  have easily have gotten Best Picture and Best Animated Feature nods as well. It remains a massive critical favorite and is one of the most important films to come out of Israel in the last decade. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but should be at least considered for viewing for those who are looking for powerful movie viewing experiences.

WHY RENT THIS: Gripping and horrifying. Unique animation style. The ending is intensely powerful.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The intensity may be too much for some. Occasionally moves from the hyper-real to the surreal without warning.

FAMILY VALUES: Even though this is an animated feature, it is not for kids – there are scenes of wartime atrocities, graphic sex, brief nudity, extreme violence and some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a Q&A session with director Folman from an unnamed screening or festival screening of the film; there’s also a nifty featurette on the process that went into the unique animation style of the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.1M on an unreported production budget; chances are the movie made back it’s production costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Silverado

The Garden


The Garden

An urban oasis.

(2008) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rufina Juarez, Tezozomoc, Josefina Medina, Eddie Luvianos Rumbos, Deacon Alexander, Miguel Perez, Jan Perry, Juanita Tate, Doris Bloch, Dan Stormer, Ralph Horowitz, Danny Glover, Darryl Hannah, Antonio Villaraigosa, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich. Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy

 

The land is the important thing. It is what nurtures us, gives us sustenance. There are those who identify with the land as surely as they identify with their selves. It is more to them than a plot of dirt, or a bit of grass. It is everything.

After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a 14 acre plot of land in South Central Los Angeles that was intended for use as a trash incinerator until neighborhood activists put a stop to it was given by the city for use as an urban garden. It would be the largest of its kind in the United States.

The garden at East 41st and South Alameda was primarily tended to by primarily Hispanic farmers, many of whom had been farmers or were descended from farmers in Mexico. They grew vegetables and fruits almost all native to the region that encompasses Mexico and the Southwestern United States known as the Mega-Mexico Vavilov Center (sounds like a discount store doesn’t it) some of which are considered weeds (like dwarf nettle and seepweed) but were used for herbal and medicinal uses by the farmers, while others were vegetables and fruits not commonly available at supermarkets.

The farmers used these vegetables and fruits to supplement the diet of their families; the excess they would sell to other families in order to buy new seeds and whatever else they needed to tend their garden.

Of course prime real estate in Los Angeles has a habit of finding different uses. While the city owned the land, they had acquired it through eminent domain, paying what was considered a fair market value for the property. Part of the agreement for that eminent domain was that if the land was sold for non-public or non-housing purposes, the original owners had a right to repurchase ten years after the property had originally been condemned.

Ralph Horowitz, one of the partners in the investment firm that was the largest of the nine owners of the property, sued the city for breach of contract. While the city denied his claim, eventually in a closed door negotiation the suit was settled and Horowitz was allowed to repurchase the land for slightly more than the city had paid for it, which was substantially under the market value at the time.

A few months later Horowitz notified the farmers that he was terminating the use of the property as an urban garden and that all the farmers would be evicted as of February 29, 2004. The farmers, who formed a collective known as South Central Farmers Feeding Families, immediately obtained legal counsel from Hadsell and Stormer Inc as well as Kaye, McIane and Bednarski LLP and a lawsuit was filed seeking to invalidate the sale. The litigants were able to obtain an injunction staying the termination date while the legal matter was settled.

The farmers lost the lawsuit and attempted to negotiate with Horowitz to buy the land themselves. Horowitz demanded $16.3M  for the property, more than three times what he’d paid for it less than two years earlier. The farmers eventually raised the funds with the help of the Annenberg Foundation, but Horowitz didn’t respond to the offer because it came after his eviction deadline.

The case had become a cause célèbre in Los Angeles, with celebrity activists such as Baez and Hannah actively protesting the eviction (Hannah would be arrested for tree-sitting in a walnut tree on the property and refusing to leave when the police ordered her out) and on June 13, 2006 at 3am in the morning, the police surrounded the property, evicted the protesting farmers and allowed Horowitz’ contractors to bulldoze the Garden.

This is what most of us saw. What we didn’t see was the political chicanery going on behind the scenes. Of promises made and broken. Of politicians showing support for the Garden but doing nothing to save it, and of community activists whose agenda was less for the community and more for their own profit.

The sympathies of the film lie clearly with the farmers. The main spokespeople, Juarez and Tezozomoc come off very well, speaking passionately and in Tezozomoc’s case quite eruditely on the controversy. Coming off less well are Horowitz, community activist Juanita Tate and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, both of whom are portrayed as corrupt and politically savvy.

This was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary feature and with good reason. The strength of the farmers, nearly all of whom were from the poorest segment of society, is inspiring as they took on the political powers-that-be in the City of Angels as well as the wealthy segments of society. While it is certainly one-sided, it did capture the facts nicely as well as some of the background as well.

While the story doesn’t end happily for the farmers, it does at least bring to light some of the injustice that took place and made accountable those who gave lip service to serving the people but were in reality serving themselves. That is, unfortunately, all too common a situation today.

WHY RENT THIS: A moving account of underdogs standing up to City Hall and developers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little of the criticism leveled against the activists is explored or even mentioned..

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words used here and there but not so many as to be distressing to parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of June 2011, the site remains a vacant lot with the proposed warehouse and distribution center still unbuilt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the history of the Garden, as well as a look at celebrities who visited it during the protest. There is also a film festival Q&A with director Kennedy and film critic David Poland.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,931 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie was unprofitable from a box office standpoint.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Fair Game

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Frost/Nixon


Frost/Nixon

David Frost and Richard Nixon square off in their historic interview.

(Universal) Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt. Directed by Ron Howard

It is said that the United States lost its innocence during the Watergate affair. That’s a bit simplistic – there has always been corruption and chicanery, even in the highest office, only not quite so public. When Nixon resigned, it was in the face of mounting evidence that he would be impeached for certain. Some of his detractors, however, howled, particularly when Ford pardoned him. It was as if we would never get any sort of admission of wrongdoing, or even acknowledgement that there had even been any. However, the closest we ever got to getting that satisfaction came from the most unlikely of sources.

David Frost (Sheen) was a British talk show host who had ambitions of greater success in America. His last show had failed and he needed something to put him back on the map. For Nixon’s (Langella) part, he was looking for nothing less than a comeback; a chance to redeem his tarnished reputation and restore his legacy. There were many clamoring for one-on-one interviews with the former president, three years after his resignation – three years spent in public silence. Every news anchor on every network was chomping at the bit to get Nixon in front of their cameras. However, Nixon – ever the crafty political fox – chose Frost, thinking he would have no problem controlling the interview and accomplishing exactly what he wanted to do.

Frost was well aware that he was in over his head and hired researchers James Reston Jr. (Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Platt), both rabid anti-Nixonites, to do as much research on Watergate and the Nixon presidency as was possible in the limited time they had to prepare. In the meantime, Frost was having difficulty securing financing and the networks were screaming bloody murder and making accusations of “checkbook journalism.”

It was a minor miracle that the interview took place at all, but on March 23, 1977 Nixon and Frost sat down in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Smith of Monarch Bay, California and began to converse. The stakes were high for both men; if Nixon couldn’t outwit Frost and control the perception of the American people, he would go to his grave a disgraced man. If Frost was unable to gain that control over the interview, he would be responsible for the resurrection of Nixon’s public image and quite possibly, lose the only chance to get Nixon to speak on Watergate for all time.

These interviews were turned into a stage play which has in turn been adapted into a motion picture by populist director Ron Howard, who on the surface would seem to be the wrong man for this job – you would think someone along the lines of Oliver Stone or Robert Redford might be more suitable. Nevertheless, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted the work from his own play) have done a masterful work of making what is essentially a static situation (two guys sitting in chairs in a room) whose outcome is known seem suspenseful, tense and not the least bit stage-y.

The movie is well-served by its stars, who both appeared in the same roles in the stage play both in the West End and on Broadway. Langella, in particular, inhabits his role with some dignity, and justifiably received an Oscar nomination for it. He gives the disgraced president a human side, even charming at times but with hints of the ferocious game player that Nixon was, and at the same time horribly insecure about himself. Langella’s Nixon isn’t the boogie man the counterculture made him out to be; he was just ambitious to the point of self-destruction and even in his own way a good man who became a victim of his own hubris.

Sheen, who had just played Tony Blair to great acclaim in The Queen, gives another bravura performance which was in some ways more subtle than Langella, but no less spectacular. Frost is portrayed as a bit on the shallow side and quite charming in a rakish way, but also with his own insecurities; he was well-aware he was in over his head and managed to bring out the steel in his backbone only when it was really needed.

The interplay between Nixon and Frost was fascinating to watch here. They aren’t friends precisely, but both recognize a bit of the other in themselves. It allows a bit of a bond which the film’s ending seems to indicate went beyond the interviews. Although some liberties were taken with the facts (for example, the interviews took place three days a week for two hours a day for a total of 12 days of interviews over the space of a month; here, Nixon’s famous admission that his actions weren’t illegal because he was president takes place on the very last day of the interviews when in reality it took place on the fifth day.

That’s mere window dressing, however. It is the job of the filmmaker to maintain the essence of the events, not recreate them exactly note for note. Howard accomplishes that marvelously and while some have accused both him and Morgan for having been rather soft on President Nixon, it is by all accounts true that Nixon could be a charming, kindly-seeming man when the occasion called for it and was on friendly terms with David Frost until his death in 1994.

Nixon remains an enigma in modern history. We will never know why he chose to do the things he did, and what demons drove him to make those decisions. He will always be the first – and so far, only – President to resign from office and as Reston says in the voice-over, any political scandal from then to know will have the word “gate” attatched as a suffix. You may not get any insight into Nixon the man, but you will understand better the mystique that swirled around him in those difficult years.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the confrontation between two men, each with their insecurities and into the mind of the disgraced President. The performances of Sheen and Langella are as good as it gets.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The scenes showing the preparation for the interviews go on too long and the movie lags a bit; it’s probably about 10 or 15 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is enough cursing that this movie got an “R” rating; quite frankly, it isn’t so blue that I would prevent the average teen from seeing this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on The Real Interviews in which the principle filmmakers as well as the playwright share their own experiences with interviews, and scenes from the actual interviews are shown to give you an idea how closely the recreation matches the original. There’s also an excellent featurette on the Nixon Library, illustrating the importance of presidential libraries overall. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is also a featurette that shows which of the locations were actually used for the original interviews, and Sir David Frost himself weighs in on his opinion of the play and the movie. The Blu-Ray edition comes with the U-Control feature, which allows picture-in-picture features that correspond to the appropriate places in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Devil