Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

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Primeval


Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

(2007) Horror (Hollywood) Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton, Jurgen Prochnow, Gideon Emery, Gabriel Malema, Dumisani Mbebe, Ernest Ndhlovu, Erica Wessels, Patrick Lyster, Eddy Bekombo, Vivian Moodley, Lika Van Den Bergh, Linda Mpondo, Lehiohonolo Makoko, Chris April, Andrew Whaley, Jacqui Pickering. Directed by Michael Katleman

Man is capable of committing absolute horrors to his fellow man. However, man is also part of a larger natural order of things – survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak. And upon occasion, Man isn’t necessarily at the top of the food chain.

The African nation of Burundi is caught up in a terrible civil war that has been ongoing for twelve years. When a mass grave is located in the Northern portion of the country, a United Nations team is sent to investigate the find, led by one of the foremost forensic pathologists (Wessels) in the world. In a shocking turn of events, the woman is attacked and dragged into the waters of the river by a gigantic crocodile known to the locals as “Gustave.”

Tim Manfrey (Purcell), a television news network producer, is riding out a scandal in which he apparently ran a story without adequately checking the facts. The network chief (Lyster) wants to send him to Burundi not only to get the story of the gigantic crocodile, more than 20 feet long, but to capture the beast. He’ll be sent with wildlife reporter Aviva Masters (Langton), Manfrey’s regular cameraman Steven Johnson (Jones) and naturalist Matthew Collins (Emery), who is confident that he has built a contraption capable of capturing the massive reptile.

They are met in Burundi by a political functionary known as Harry (Mbebe) who warns them about a warlord in the bush known as “Little Gustave.” He introduces them to Jakob Krieg (Prochnow), their local guide and an expert on the crocodile whom he has been hunting for years. Krieg wants to kill the creature whereas Collins wants to capture it alive, which leads to some tension between the two.

Once in the village nearest the most recent attack, the news crew is struck by the friendliness of the people as well as by the horrible poverty of the village. They are required to receive a blessing by the local shaman (Ndhlovu) who predicts that they will find what they seek but they will also find death. Meanwhile, Johnson captures on film the brutal execution of a family from the village by a murderous lieutenant (Bekombo) of Little Gustave. Now they are being chased by the warlord’s men and being stalked by the croc. Great, you can end of being dinner or part of a mass grave for some other UN forensic pathologist to examine.

Purcell (TV’s Prison Break) is the lead here and he does a credible albeit colorless job. Unfortunately, his character is written without much for Purcell to work with, leaving him to cling to action hero clichés in order to move things along. Jones provides adequate comic relief in a role in which he is sadly underused, and Prochnow (who deserves better fare than this) handles the Robert Shaw role with as much dignity as he can muster.

The giant croc looks fairly realistic as CGI creations go. Some of the scenes in which the croc is seen below the surface of the water look hastily slapped together by someone with a Commodore VIC-20, but otherwise the monster was scary enough. The cinematographer utilizes the African vistas nicely.

This is based on true events – a naturalist in Burundi did attempt to capture Gustave (who is an actual beast that has been credited with killing more than 300 people along the Ruzizi River and also along the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. They raise some good points about the situation in Africa; it takes the death of a white UN official to bring an American news crew to Burundi to cover a crocodile who has killed more than 300 Africans. The writing is taut and crisp, and they don’t waste too much time getting to the meat of the story – the stalking of the news crew by Gustave.

The film slyly alludes to Jaws which is a bit of a mistake; there are a lot of similarities to that film, and the comparison isn’t particularly flattering. Too many clichés clog up the writing, and the subplot about the Little Gustave warlord is unnecessary. Had they decided to focus on the hunt for the crocodile, they would have had a much better movie…but then again, it would have been Lake Placid.

The filmmakers were going for a cross between Lake Placid and Hotel Rwanda and instead got a four-legged Jaws. This isn’t a total waste of time – Jones is entertaining and the African vistas are worth seeing. However, it’s probably a bit too graphic for those who would be drawn in by the civil war story, and a bit too preachy for those who are more interested in the horror element. Yet another instance of a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be and so it ends up being nothing.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous African vistas. Jones provides much-needed comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lackluster acting. Cliches abound. Some of the CGI is laughable.
FAMILY MATTERS: Kids and dogs are eaten, and people are stalked by a terrifying crocodile. There are also some graphic executions and a boatload of corpses, some half-eaten and others murdered by the two-legged monsters in the movie, as well as some foul language if that bothers you at this point.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: A similar team in reality attempted to capture Gustave, using much the same methods but were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, inclement weather and deteriorating political conditions which eventually forced them to leave the country.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The “Crocumentary” featurette focuses on the actual Gustave who inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $15.3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Robot Overlords

Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

Kinyarwanda


Kinyarwanda

A Lieutenant Rose by any other name doth smelleth sweet.

(2011) Drama (Visigoth) Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Marc Gwamaka, Zaninka Hadidja, Mursari Jean, Cleophas Kabasita, Hassan Kabera, Mazimpaka Kennedy, Assumpta Micho, Kena Onyenjekwe, Edouard B. Uwayo. Directed by Alrick Brown

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda underwent 100 days of madness in which one ethnic group tried to wipe another off the face of the earth, and did it largely without any notice from the Western governments or media. It’s a crying rotten shame they don’t have any oil there or chances are we’d have been in there guns blazing.

There have been other motion pictures based on the events of that horrible summer, but unlike the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda this movie aims not to tell you a single story, but to share several stories of those who lived through the genocide.

The Grand Mosque in Kigali became a refuge for Tutsi and Hutu, Christian and Muslim alike. The Mufti of Rwanda (Jean) argues that the Koran requires that they offer shelter to those who require it. There is some dissension among his Imams, not all of whom agree with his interpretation but at last consensus is reached.

Jeanne (Hadidja) sneaks out of her house to attend a party where she meets up with her erstwhile boyfriend Patrique (Gwamaka). While Jeanne is too proper to allow even a good night kiss, it is clear she has strong feelings for him and him for her. He walks her home, past what appears to be a Hutu militia about to murder a group of Tutsis. Their leader Emmanuel (Bamporiki) waves at Patrique who waves back, and then quickly ushers Jeanne, a half-Tutsi, down a back alley so that she can sneak back into her house, which is ominously quiet and dark. When she switches on the lights, she discovers that her parents have both been murdered.

The Hutu Militia are hot on the trail of the priest Father Pierre (Kennedy) whom they refer to on the radio as Father Cockroach (the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches by the Hutus on the radio, which blared anti-Tutsi propaganda non-stop for the entire length of the Genocide and urged listeners to chop up any Tutsi they encountered – machetes were the most common form of execution during the Genocide). He has taken refuge in a church but is betrayed by the Hutu priest, along with the dozens of Tutsi refugees inside. He flees along with several other refugees but they are ultimately captured. However, they are fortunately rescued by a woman reputed to be a witch and quickly shepherded to the nearest Mosque whose Imam is sympathetic. However, his mosque doesn’t have the facilities or the supplies to shelter everyone there, so the decision is made that they must go to the Grand Mosque, which they do but not without cost.

Lt. Rose (Freeman) trained in the Rwandan army in Uganda where they were exiled, but was leading her troops back into her native land to try and put an end to the Genocide and save as many people as she can. She develops a camaraderie with Sgt. Fred (Onyenjekwe), who is married with a baby on the way. They discuss their reasons for fighting and he has some very compelling reasons on his mind.

Little Ishmael (Kabera) is sent by his father to the corner grocery. On the way home he encounters a group of militiamen who are upset and irate that they can’t find guns or Tutsi. Ishmael informs them that he knows exactly where these can be found and leads them to his own home.

Years afterwards, those who committed the atrocities were sent to camps where they were made to confess their crimes and come to repent their awful deeds. For some, they could only manage silence. Others were so traumatized that rather than live with their shame they took their own lives. Finally, some found the grace of forgiveness.

This is a powerful, moving experience. I was astonished to discover that this was director Alrick Brown’s first feature-length film; he shows the deft hand of someone who’s been at it for decades. The movie is presented in a non-linear fashion, weaving the stories together in much the same way as Crash or Babel, so it required a firm hand in the editing bay – or bedroom, as Brown revealed during a Q&A following the screening, which is where he and NYU student Tovah Leibowitz edited the film.

Many of the cast members were Rwandans, who lived through the events of those 100 days, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to relive them; it takes a director with a great sense for his actor’s emotional state to make it work. The script was essentially written from true stories collected by the producers and the director from Rwandans and eventually combined; as Brown explained it, he didn’t have enough time to write a feature film so he wrote several short films instead and wove them into a whole.

This isn’t a movie you merely watch; it’s something you experience and it will undoubtedly stay with you for the rest of your life. That human beings can do such things to one another is entirely incomprehensible but despite what you might think, this isn’t a movie about genocide and depravity. It’s a movie about forgiveness and reconciliation; that Rwanda is moving as quickly as it has to reuniting the two ethnic groups who share a common language (which is the title of the movie) – albeit that the ethnic groups were essentially created by the Belgians who colonized the country – is nothing short of a miracle.

I don’t hand out perfect ratings lightly and it often requires a great deal of soul searching for me to finally decide a movie worthy of that rating. Not so here – it was an immediate and necessary response to the movie. I honestly hope and pray this movie finds a major distributor because it so deserves to be seen by a wide audience. If a major studio had this, you can bet there would be Oscar buzz aplenty for the film, and for actress Zaninka Hadidja who turns in a riveting performance as Jeanne.

The movie is playing again on Tuesday, April 12 at the Regal Winter Park Village in Winter Park, Florida at 6:30pm and I urge anyone in the Orlando area to make an effort to go see this remarkable film. And if anyone reading this works for a theatrical distributor, I would urge you highly to look into acquiring this film for distribution. It may not necessarily pull in a box office bonanza, but considering how low the production costs were it could be profitable with little or no effort – and could conceivably be a huge blockbuster if people take to it the way I did.

It was a bit of a somber occasion upon viewing the movie at the Florida Film Festival; Assistant director Steve Ntosi had unexpectedly and tragically passed away just the day before, to which we here at Cinema365 extend our deepest sympathies. It also is appropriate that the screening took place during a week when Rwanda was in mourning in remembrance of the 17th anniversary of the Genocide.

This is a movie that could never have been made by a studio. It is clearly a project of passion, made by people committed to sharing not only the stories of survival, but the overall hope for reconciliation that permeates Rwanda to this day. One cannot help be moved by it but also be inspired by it as well. While the subject matter may sound like a downer, I left the theater feeling uplifted. Man has an endless capacity for cruelty but also an amazing capacity for forgiveness – that is what makes our future worth fighting for.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing motion picture event that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get.

REASONS TO STAY: If the genocide hits too close to home.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is perhaps too intense for the youngest sorts, and there is a bit of violence and implied rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot on location in Rwanda in just 16 days using mostly local cast and crew.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that deserves to be seen with a crowd – a big crowd.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: 13 Assassins