Los Ultimos Frikis


Heavy metal thunder.

(2019) Music Documentary (Cinema Tropical) Diony Arce, Hansel Arrocha Sala, Eduardo Longa, Ivan Vera Munoz, Yamil Arias, Alberto Munoz, Dario Arce. Directed by Nicholas Brennan

When thinking about where great heavy metal originates, the first place that would come to most people’s mind would not be Cuba. Yet Zeus, an iconic band in their home country, has been (head) banging away for thirty years in an atmosphere not always favorable to rockers. Early in their career, the band was often hassled by police and frontman Diony Arce spent six years in jail for unspecified violations. Rock and roll was considered a capitalist tool and was effectively illegal in Cuba.

Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan spent ten years in Cuba documenting the band as they are affected by the tides of political trends; eventually the Cuban government relented and allowed the band to play at a Havana venue called Maxim Rock once a month; for their 25th anniversary the group was even allowed to tour the island (which makes up the bulk of material in the documentary.

The band members are individually interviewed with Diony coming off as introspective and a little less egotistical than his American counterparts. Lead guitarist Hansel Arrocha Sala is the musical force in the band and his dedication to his music is obvious. Drummer Eduardo Longa is candid about his love for drumming, but also about his drug and alcohol problems (apparently that is a rock and roll universal). Guitarist Ivan Vera Munoz is the young buck, happy to be a part of the band and bassist Yamil Arias rounds out the band.

It is notable that the band comes off looking and sounding like their counterparts anywhere else in the world. While Zeus does sing obliquely about political topics, they have to tread a very careful line lest the hard-fought government approval they enjoyed suddenly dry up; Diony speaks of the band having to essentially reflect Cuban revolutionary ideals in order to exist, even though the band often protests what they see are deficiencies in the Cuban government.

The tides of political change do effect the band; the death of Fidel leads to the relaxing of restrictions, allowing the band to play “officially” in Havana and occasionally outside of the capital. It even allows them to embark on the anniversary tour. Obama’s movement to normalize relations with Cuba further improves things for the band, although Trump’s reversal of that policy leads to a more restrictive policy towards American musical idioms. Currently in favor is the reggaeton form which the band members individually detest; additionally, rock bands are often assaulted by reggaeton fans who look with equal disdain on rock music.

When the Maxim Rock venue suffers roof damage, Zeus is left without a place to play and go more than a year without performing. This creates a good deal of despair within the band, who begin to question their future. Diony says flat out “the (government) made a fool of me,” referring to the years that the band compromised their message in order to be allowed to play.

However, the very short (73 minutes) documentary ends on a hopeful note and that should leave the audience exiting the theater on a bit of a high. I’m not a particular metal fan but their music sounds pretty strong. In a lot of ways, they are very much like a metal band anywhere else in the world; mugging for the camera, banging their heads in time to the music, enjoying the human demolition derby of the mosh pit, but they are unmistakably Cubano.

There is some lovely cinematography and some of the landscapes of the hinterlands as well as the urban cityscapes of Havana do show off the uniqueness of the country; one sees the Colonial-style architecture of Havana with the classic cars rolling around and one can only say “Ah, Cuba!” The film isn’t particularly hagiographic towards the government of Cuba but they aren’t necessarily hostile to it either. I would have liked a little more context in the movie; although we are told that Zeus is iconic  and essentially the godfathers of the Cuban metal scene, we never get an idea of how extensive the scene is. We also don’t get much of an idea of how their music is recorded and distributed. One wonders if it can be downloaded here.

The movie was going to be screened this very evening at the Miami Film Festival but sadly coronavirus fears have led to the remainder of the Festival being canceled. Hopefully the film will be screened in some way in Miami; there will likely be a fairly strong audience there for it.

The tittle translates roughly to “The Last Freaks” and it doesn’t quite convey what the term Freaks means in Cuban culture; it generally refers to long-haired rockers and is not quite affectionate; think how the term “Hippies” makes you react and you’ll have the general idea. Rock and roll was never a respected form of music in Cuba and it is on the decline there as we speak. Still, the movie is a fascinating look at Cuba which in many ways remains as mysterious to us Americans as Antarctica is. Maybe it’s time that changed.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to make Zeus look like a typical heavy metal band while not shying away from their differences in circumstance. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little sparse on context.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originated as a short film, Hard Rock Havana, which Brennan turned into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Anvil! The Story of Anvil
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
White Lies

Defiance


Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

(Paramount Vantage) Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, George MacKay, Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Sam Spruell, Mia Wasikowski. Directed by Edward Zwick.

More than 60 years after the events of World War II, the events of that conflict still resonate with all of us. It was a time when ordinary people were forced to confront true evil, rise up and make a stand for their very survival, as well as everything they hold most dear. Some of those stories, particularly those that took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are only now coming to light in the West.

It is 1941 in Belarus, and the Germans are systematically capturing, murdering and imprisoning Jews in ghettos. In a small Belarusian town, smuggler Zus Bielski (Schreiber) and his young brother Asael (Bell) hide out in the woods as the Germans decimate their town. They return to the family farm to find their parents murdered and their younger brother Aron (MacKay) traumatized by what he has seen.

Knowing that the Germans are not yet done with their pogrom, and that the local police are co-operating with the Nazis, they flee to the nearby forest where they are joined by their older brother Tuvia (Craig). Experienced at hiding from the police in the woods, they are confident they can hide from the Germans indefinitely. However, Aron soon discovers several other refugees who have fled to the safety of the forest. They are joined by still others from surrounding towns and villages. The number soon swells beyond the ability of the brothers to feed and shelter. There are many elderly and sick, some children and most truly unable to fend for themselves. The brothers give them unity and protection. The brothers give them hope.

After Tuvia confronts the police captain responsible for the murder of his parents and executes him, he forswears from further violence and reprisals, which creates a rift with his brother Zus, who wants nothing more than to get justice, or more to the point, revenge against those oppressing his people. After a food raid leads to the death of some of their number, and leniency with a collaborator brings armed police to their camp, the rift is broadened to the point where Zus leaves to join a Russian partisan group made up of Red Army.

In the meantime, winter comes, food is scarce and they are hunted by a determined and better-armed German army. Tuvia’s determination to adhere to non-violent standards begins to erode in the face of starvation, disease and fear. With the overwhelming odds against them, it would take a miracle for this starving group of refugees to survive.

Zwick, whose resume includes such big-budget fare as Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, crafts a movie that has a big-budget look but an intimate feel. Gorgeous vistas of forest, bog and meadow are accentuated within the context of the nuances of the relationships between the brothers. Craig and Schreiber bring a quiet power to their roles as sibling rivals. These are men, proud and wounded, frustrated and helpless in the face of events they cannot control.

The supporting cast, for the most part made up of character actors and Eastern Europeans, does a solid job of portraying starving refugees, terrified townies, arrogant communists and/or occasional Germans, who for the most part remain an enemy without a face, other than the opening sequence, and one later on in the movie in which a terrified soldier is captured and brought before the camp to face a mob of angry Jews.

As for historical accuracy, well, the movie is probably about as accurate as any Hollywood film is (for example, a battle with a Nazi tank near the film’s climax never occurred). There has been some grousing that the film portrays much of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe as being passive in the face of mounting evidence of their own extermination, but I disagree. Certainly, there are scenes like the one where Tuvia pleads with the council of a ghetto to flee to the forest while the elders point out that the Germans kill 20 for every one that flees. However, the fact is that there are instances in which Jews were passive about what was happening to them, whether out of a desire to appease the Germans, or out of an unwillingness to believe the rumors of death camps or that the Germans would annihilate their own slave labor workforce, something that had never happened in the history of the world to that point.

This movie hasn’t received a lot of critical love. Some have called it heavy-handed, which I admit it is in places. Some have called it emotionally manipulative, but then again it is a story which incites strong emotions. Some have compared it unfavorably to Schindler’s List but honestly, that’s like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone With the Wind. Schindler’s List is a classic and most films about the Holocaust are going to come off unfavorably next to it.

I’ll cop to being a bit of a history buff, and I especially enjoy movies that inspire me to find out more about the era or episode that inspired them, and I certainly was hitting the Internet after I got home from the multiplex. The war in Eastern Europe is certainly a bit of a mystery to us in the West; while we are aware that there was a particular ferocity and savagery that took place there, we are for the most part unacquainted with the particulars. I, for one, am always grateful for the opportunity to learn more.

However, at the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. It is their strength that sets them apart and their pride that splits them apart, but ultimately it is their love and fierce loyalty that unites them. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the movie worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: Lovely Lithuanian vistas. Oscar-nominated musical score. A compelling, believable fraternal relationship.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional heavy-handed storytelling. Some unnecessary historical inaccuracies to make the movie more “salable.”

FAMILY VALUES: Some intense battle scenes and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Much of the movie was filmed within 100 miles of where the actual Bielski camp was located.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A criminally brief interview segment with descendents of the Bielski brothers, and a photo gallery of camp survivors in 2008 give faces to the real participants in the drama.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Secret Life of Bees