Back to the Fatherland


Conversations on a train

(2017) Documentary (First Run) Gil Levanon, Katharina Rohrer, Uri Ben Rehav, Lea Ron Peled, Guy Shahar, Dan Peled, Gidi Peled, Yochanan Tenzer, Katharina Maschek. Directed by Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer

 

What is the purpose of a documentary? Is it to enlighten? To educate? To bring up a discussion and then let us make up our own minds? None of those are wrong but your answer might be different from someone else’s. Some go to a documentary to find answers while others go to better understand the questions.

The question that is raised here is why would a young Israeli move to Germany or Austria? For their grandparents who experienced the atrocities of the Nazis first hand, the very idea is abhorrent. Not only did those countries give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there wholesale turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated. One grandfather puts it starkly: “The people were bad. They were always bad. They are bad still.”

The documentaries follow three families, two of whom have had members who have already moved to Austria and one whose granddaughter (who is one of the directors of the film, although that isn’t made clear initially) is contemplating a move to Germany. For some, the reason is purely financial; they are seeking better economic opportunities than they were able to find in Israel. One, Dan Peled, has issues with Israel politically. He is disturbed by their turn to the hard right and specifically with their policies regarding Palestinians. He regards Israel as “an apartheid state.”

Mostly, the movie is about conversations – some inter-generational with grandparents and their grandchildren, others are between the grandchildren as we get an interesting view of Israel that we in the States aren’t used to getting. Some of the grandchildren (who, I remind you, grew up in Israel) lament the “culture of victimhood” that they see Israel has become. They feel that this culture, which relies on the concept that Jews are hated everywhere except in Israel has kept Israel from growing as a nation and made it impossible for them to move on. I’ve never heard this expressed in quite this way and it is an interesting conversation to say the least. All of them are for the most part.

But the filmmakers rarely give much context and all we are left with is the opinions of the various people conversing. I have no doubt that these types of conversations take place in Jewish homes in Israel and throughout the world but context isn’t required in those households as much as it is needed in Gentile households.

The pacing is fairly languid and the idea of sending the grandparents to visit the places they fled after the war seemed a bit gimmicky and there wasn’t anything particularly revelatory about their visits. Some might well find the idea of watching this kind of boring and I would understand why, but I’m here to tell you that watching this movie does allow you some insight into how young Jews view modern Israel and the Holocaust. Personally, I don’t think finding insights into how other people perceive things ever to be anything less than worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Very talky but the conversation is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers met while in college in New York City and discovered that they had a link in their backgrounds; Levanon who was from Israel is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor while Rohrer, who came from Austria, her late grandfather was what she termed a “super-Nazi” who helped carry out policy in Austria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bird Box

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Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

Chalet Girl


Tamsin Egerton and Felicity Jones have a lot on their plates.

Tamsin Egerton and Felicity Jones have a lot on their plates.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Felicity Jones, Tamsin Egerton, Ed Westwick, Bill Nighy, Brooke Shields, Bill Bailey, Georgia King, Sophia Bush, Nicholas Braun, Rebecca Lacey, Tom Goodman-Hill, Jo Martin, Miquita Oliver, Ken Duken, Alex Macqueen, Mike Goodenough, Tara Dakides, Gregor Bloėb, Adam Bousdoukos, Abbie Dunn, Amber Atherton, Jessica Hynes. Directed by Phil Traill

Not everyone has an easy life. In fact, most of us don’t. It can be a matter of circumstance – being born into poverty, in a place where escaping from poverty isn’t an option. Sometimes, we make our own lives hard through poor choices and foolish mistakes. However, sometimes life just serves up lemons. It’s up to us whether to suck on those lemons or make lemonade.

Kim Matthews (Jones) has every reason to make a sour face. She was brought up in a happy, middle class English family and had become a champion skateboarder but all that came to a screeching halt when a car accident that she was involved in took the life of her mother. The trauma of the crash rendered her unable to take on the more daring aspects of her sport, so she is reduced to flipping burgers at a British fast food joint to make ends meet for her and her dad (Bailey). Then, opportunity knocks.

After fruitlessly searching for a better-paying job, she finally nets one – working at an Alpine chalet as a kind of factotum for wealthy vacationers wintering there. She’s a combination waitress, maid, butler, chef and essentially facilitator for Richard (Nighy) and his snooty American wife Caroline (Shields). However, she takes more than a passing interest in their hunky son Johnny (Westwick).

At first, the other chalet girls look down on the less posh girl, particularly Georgie (Egerton) but as time goes by the staff at the resort begin to warm up to Kim as does Johnny, which doesn’t please Caroline. No, not one eensy weensy tiny little bit, especially since his girlfriend is spoiled American rich girl Chloe (Bush) whom Caroline thinks is far more suitable for little Johnny. Well, not so little anymore.

Mikki (Duken), seeing a bored Kim struggling while learning to snowboard, teaches her and realizes she has a natural gift for it. He urges her to enter a competition in which the top prize is $25,000 and after some persuading, she agrees to. Johnny, noticing that Kim has gotten good at snowboarding, pays her additional cash to teach him as well, which doesn’t sit too well with either Caroline or Chloe.

However, the same demons that haunted Kim in skateboarding continue to make her snowboarding difficult. Will she be able to get past her fears and become the athlete she is capable of being? Or will she lose everything to the ghosts of her past?

Like most romantic comedies that are being made today, both in Hollywood and on independent sets, Chalet Girl is fairly formulaic. You have two people from opposite sides of the tracks, both extraordinarily good-looking and surrounded by quirky but supportive friends who are almost as good-looking, who fall in love despite having little in common, then a misunderstanding and/or mistake on the part of one or both tears them apart only to (and this shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to anyone who watches a lot of rom-coms) get back together in the end.

Jones, who has since gone on to bravura performances in films like The Theory of Everything and True Story with high-profile roles in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One and Inferno, is delightful here. A cross between an English rose and the American girl next door, she’s winsome, a little bit naive, but pure pluck. She is grappling with the demons resulting from the car accident, but she soldiers on nonetheless. She’s the kind of girl that you figure a fella would be crazy not to fall in love with.

Nighy is always reliable and turns in a solid performance here; veteran British comic Bailey also shines in his brief role. The humor here is bone-dry which fans of English humor will enjoy but those who don’t like British comedy may find this not to their liking, although I’m glad to say that I’m a fan. For the most part unfortunately, Traill and writer Tom Williams seem content to follow establish formulas and play it safe at every turn. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – not every film should be an excuse for innovating – but this one feels so forgettable and disposable that it wastes some fine performances and some good chemistry.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones is a charming romantic lead. Dry humor welcome.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Rom-com cliches abound. Takes no chances.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough rough language to merit an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming was briefly interrupted when a snow storm threatened the location in Austria where the skiing sequences were being filmed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Cast interviews and YouTube “viral videos.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Wears Prada
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Brooklyn

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just a couple of hotties.

(1989) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Allison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, Kevork Malikyan, Robert Eddison, Richard Young, Alexei Sayle, Alex Hyde-White, Paul Maxwell, Isla Blair. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In the third film in the series Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Spielberg and producer George Lucas wisely returned to the elements that made the first movie great. The movie opens with a prologue that shows Indy as a teenager (Phoenix) trying to foil grave robbers from stealing Coronado’s Cross. Much of his backstory is explained, including how he got the scar on his chin, where he acquired his fedora and the genesis of his phobia of snakes. We also see some of the dynamics of the relationship between Indy and his father, Dr. Henry Jones (Connery) who is obsessed by the legend of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be a real artifact.

After retrieving the Cross as an adult, Indy (Ford) receives a strange package at his office in the University from his father . He is then summoned by wealthy industrialist Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), Indy learns there is an expedition underway to retrieve the Holy Grail itself. That expedition’s leader has disappeared; and the leader turns out to be Indy’s father. Indy and Brody go to Venice, to meet up with his father’s colleague on the team Dr. Schneider (Doody), who turns out to be a she, and together they find the missing information needed to locate the resting place of the Grail.

First, however, Indy is determined to rescue his father, whom he discovers is being held in a castle in Austria. Indy arrives there only to discover that not everyone he has been trusting should be trusted and that some of them are in league with the Nazis (them again). Once again, with Brody and now Sallah (Rhys-Davies), Indy and his father set out to rescue the Grail in a race against the Nazis.

The chemistry between Connery and Ford is absolutely awesome; the two often communicate with merely a glance or a stern look. Their relationship becomes so well defined because of the natural qualities of their by-play. The two spar with each other verbally, with Ford as the son trying to please his father who may well be unpleasable. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who to that point had done Innerspace and The Lost Boys) gives Ford and Connery a slambang story to work with, and the two run with it. Spielberg provides some stunning visuals, and John Williams provided one of his best scores in any film ever.

Doody is an appealing blonde who may well be the prettiest of Indy’s love interests; she is his intellectual equal and is stronger a character than either Karen Allen’s Marion or Kate Capshaw’s Willie from the first two movies. Rhys-Davis and Elliott turn in strong performances and prove why they were so instrumental to the success of the first movie.

The third installment of the Indiana Jones films is almost as good as the first, and in some ways, better. There are some wonderful action sequences (such as a fight in the canals of Venice, a rescue from an Austrian castle and subsequent motorcycle chase and a daring desert rescue from a tank. At the center of the movie however is the relationship between father and son and Connery and Ford, two of the best in the business, make it believable; touching at times, funny at others but authentic in every moment. It is a little ironic that the measure of success for a big summer blockbuster lay in the details of the relationship between father and son, but it is true here. Hollywood could learn a lesson there in how to make a summer film timeless, as this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Great chemistry between Ford and Connery. Excellent action sequences. A slambang story that has familiarity to the legend. A lighter touch than the last.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The villains are a little less vicious in some ways than the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sensuality as well as a bit of action violence. There are a couple of disturbing images as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Fedora (Young), the character who chases the teenaged Indy through the Utah desert, was originally meant to be Abner Ravenwood, the father of Marion and Indy’s mentor.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $474.2M on a $48M production budget; by any standards the movie was yet another blockbuster in the trilogy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raiders of the Lost Ark

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Strangers

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost