The Look of Silence


Hindsight rarely is 20/20.

Hindsight rarely is 20/20.

(2009) Documentary (Drafthouse) Adi Rukun, M.Y. Basrun, Amir Hasan, Inong, Kemat, Joshua Oppenheimer, Amit Siahaan, Ted Yates. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

 

One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen is The Act of Killing. A look at the death squads that murdered between half a million and a million people in Indonesia in 1965-6 as a brutal military junta (which is in power to this day) took over. In an effort to rid the country of “communists” (which was broadly defined to include ethnic Chinese and basically anyone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time) the government employed civilian thugs, often criminals and gangsters, to do their dirty work for them. The film allowed the men, who freely admit their deeds and are admired and venerated for them in Indonesia, to re-enact their atrocities which they do in the style of Hollywood b-movies of which they were all generally admirers.

The movie raised some questions, particularly after one of the most brutal of the death squad leaders has a sudden epiphany as to the horrible crimes he’d committed, as to whether men like that can be forgiven, whether there is any redemption for them and whether there are crimes so heinous that they simply can’t wipe the stain of them off of their souls.

The question in this follow-up film – not a sequel in the broad sense – has to do more with closure. We meet Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose older brother Ramli was murdered during the takeover; he is watching footage from The Act of Killing of his brother’s smiling murderers describing his murder. In his guise as an optometrist giving them eye tests, he confronts those men, often subtly asking them about their roles in the death squads and asks if they feel any remorse. The results are often stark and sometimes surprising.

We also meet Adi’s parents – a mother whose grief remains as intense 50 years later, and a father who has succumbed to dementia and is blind as well as deaf. He is cared for by Adi’s mother for the most part. It’s not a fate I would wish on anyone but considering what he lived through it might be a kinder one than that of his wife who remembers all of it.

When evil is institutionalized, fear becomes an everyday occurrence. Many of the people who appear in this film do so anonymously; after all, the perpetrators of these crimes are still in power as are their descendents. The closure most of the families of the victims need is likely not to be forthcoming in their lifetimes. Adi and his family were compelled to relocate after the movie came out. Reprisals are not unknown in Indonesia, even today.

Oppenheimer is a masterful documentarian and these two movies will go down as two of the best ever made. These are powerful films that are not for the faint of heart or more accurately, the faint of stomach. The descriptions of acts of atrocity are not only grim but they can be downright nausea-inducing. Nonetheless the two movies make for excellent bookends, looking at these atrocities from the points of view of the murderers and the survivors. I don’t know if Adi Rukun got the closure he wanted – he certainly got something from this venture but I don’t know if it helps him sleep any better. Either way, both movies are must-sees for any lovers of movies and for those who believe in social justice. Together, they will form an eye-opening experience that is absolutely going to be unforgettable for you.

WHY RENT THIS: There are powerful moments of revelation. The beautiful countryside juxtaposes with the brutal events that took place there. The observation of the whitewashing of history in the classrooms is bone chilling. Again we are reminded of man’s capacity for utterly inhuman actions.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The description of the killings can be gruesome and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it eventually lost out to Amy.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, footage from the film’s Indonesian premiere as well as audience reactions to the film and an interview with Oppenheimer about various aspects of production, particularly how the movie (and its predecessor) came to be.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,616 on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Act of Killing
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Raise Your Kids on Seltzer

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made


Dr. Jones, I presume.

Dr. Jones, I presume.

(2016) Documentary (Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Stompolos, Jayson Lamb, John Rhys-Davies, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, Chris Gore, Kurt Zala, Casey Dillard, Rob Fuller, Ryan Pierini, Scott Lionberger, Ernest Cline, Tim League, John E. Hudgens, Karl Preusser, Mark Spain, Guy Klender, James Donald, Michael Mobley, Angela Rodriguez. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen

Florida Film Festival 2016

The dreams of our childhood are often set aside in favor of those things that as adults we are required to do; to create a family and home of our own, to earn a living, to raise children. Those dreams don’t die completely; they stay with us, often as regrets which is what unanswered dreams generally become.

For a trio of boys in Mississippi in 1981, that dream was the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark. This tribute to the serial pulp adventures of the 1930s really captured the imagination of these boys and inspired them. For Eric Zala and Chris Stompolos, the solution was simple; make their own version of Raiders but shot for shot like the one Spielberg directed. And, that summer, they set about doing it themselves.

For seven more summers and several winter breaks as well, they did just that. Stompolos, who played Indiana Jones, aged from age 12 to 19 onscreen; Zala (who played Belloq and was director for the venture) went from 11 to 18. They were joined by Jayson Lamb who also stayed mainly behind the camera and did much of the special effects.

They were aided by many adults who gave the kids serious leeway, allowing them to follow their dream although later on when some saw the results of their labors accused their mothers of “bad parenting,” particularly in lieu that one fiery scene set in the Nepalese bar owned by Marion Ravenwood that they created in the basement of the Zala home nearly burned the house down.

What is striking is how the boys, with zero filmmaking experience, managed to think outside the box to make things work. For example, they substituted the family dog in place of the “Sieg Heil” spider monkey that is used in the Cairo scenes. The boys were too young to drive in the truck chase, so they got someone to lend them a truck without an engine and had someone who could drive (a parental chaperon as it were) haul the truck (you can see the hauling  vehicle in a couple of shots).

The boys eventually got every scene in the movie filmed but one – the scene after Indie and Marion escape the Well of Souls and stop a Flying Wing airplane from carrying the Ark to Berlin, blowing up the plane and creating general mayhem in the process. At seven years in and their friendships frayed to the breaking point (Jayson had already left the project), they decided to call it quits.

But the idea stayed with them and it bothered Zala and Stompolos to a lesser extent that they’d pulled the plug so close to completing their dream. They took the footage they had and edited it together, made a videotape of it, staged a world premiere in their hometown and went on with their lives.

The funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they refuse to die on their own. A copy of the tape made its way to actor/director Eli Roth of the Hostel franchise. He was blown away by what he saw and arranged to have the movie shown during a meal break at Harry (Ain’t It Cool News) Knowles’ annual birthday celebration and film festival the Butt-Numb-a-Thon at the Drafthouse Theater in Austin – Tim League, the influential owner of the Drafthouse was also in attendance.

The audience was so enraptured by the adaptation that they booed when the projectionist stopped the film to prepare for the world premiere showing of a Peter Jackson Hobbit film, no less – and gave the film a three minute standing ovation. League and Knowles were both impressed. The buzz about the movie began to circulate and a cult film was born.

Eventually word got back to Zala and Stompolos, both living separate lives and the two old friends decided to get the band back together again and raised a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of the final scene in their hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Even so, it wasn’t easy; Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the very pyrotechnic-heavy scene proved more difficult to stage than they’d anticipated, even with a professional pyrotechnician calling the shots.

There is plenty of footage from the Adaptation as well as outtakes and interviews (I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Adaptation twice, once in the backyard of a friend’s house and the second time as part of a Raiders! Event at the Enzian) and while it’s true that the footage of the Adaptation is crude, you do get a sense of the love and care that went into it. Because of copyright laws, it is next to impossible to view the Adaptation theatrically, but it can be done so if you’re interested, contact your local art house theater and have them look into it.

The movie is about the heart and soul of a dream. Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who has distinguished himself as being one of the most clueless film reviewers in the country, sniffed that the venture is like “rewriting Moby Dick in crayon.” For one thing, he oversimplifies the difference between copying and adapting. The boys with no training at all proved to be resourceful and persistent, both traits that should be encouraged rather than torn down. They showed their love for a film that by paying tribute to it, putting their own stamp on it at the same time. Both of them, since this documentary was completed, have formed a production company of their own and quite frankly I’m eager to see what they turn out next (Lamb also works in the industry). Either way, this is the kind of movie that may inspire others to follow their dream, be it remaking a beloved movie shot for shot or making a movie of their own.

REASONS TO GO: One of those movies that sneak up on you and lift your spirits. Fascinating story.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will get why this story is inspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zala for awhile lived and worked in Orlando for EA Sports as a game developer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: March of the Living

Roar (1981)


Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my...

Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my…

(1981) WTF (Drafthouse) Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Zakes Moakae, Lenord Bokwa, Shamasi Sarumi, Will Hutchins, Eve Rattner, Peter Thiongo, Michael Franz, Alexandra Newman, Pat Barbeau, Michael J. Jones. Directed by Noel Marshall

Some movies are extraordinary due to technical achievements, acting performances, excellent writing, beautiful cinematography and/or sure direction. This isn’t one of those. It is extraordinary due to the fact that it got made.

Husband and wife Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren were a successful Hollywood couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Hedren had been an actress who’d starred in the Hitchcock classic The Birds and was one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her husband was a producer, who had among other credits The Exorcist and The Harrad Experiment to his credit.

Both were animal activists, particularly when it came to big cats, and kept nearly a hundred animals on their ranch in Soledad Canyon, near Los Angeles. They hit upon an idea to make a movie that would inspire audiences to conservation and preservation as many big cats were hitting the endangered species list. Oddly, they decided to use their own wild animals rather than trained ones that were more used to human company.

The production was plagued with problems from the start. What was supposed to have been a six-month shoot would stretch out for seven years – this after it took four years to get the financing together to make the movie in the first place. However, two years into shooting, the financing was withdrawn and Marshall and Hedren were forced to use their own funds to complete the movie, putting up their own property and possessions as collateral. Animal attacks during the shoot would lead to 70 confirmed injuries, some of which were serious (an assistant director had his throat partially torn out and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to make Speed had most of his scalp torn off in a wound that required more than 200 stitches). A flood and brush fire in 1979 wiped out the set and took out most of the completed footage, and feline disease took the lives of many of the cats, including Robbie, who plays the King of the Cats in the film.

Still, the filmmakers persevered and the movie was completed but after all that it tanked at the box office; especially galling was that it didn’t get a release here in the United States. However, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse chain found the movie at a local video store and fell in love with it. He arranged to buy the rights and is giving it a brief theatrical re-release before bringing it back out on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year.

The movie’s plot is simple; Hank (N. Marshall), a scientist living in the African veldt trying to protect big cats from poachers while examining their co-existence with humans in a wild state, invites his family to come visit him. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, he ends up being late to go fetch them from the local airport so while he is off going to get them – no easy feat – they find alternate transportation to his ranch. They are horrified to find dozens of ferocious predators inhabiting his home and spend much of the movie running from room to room trying to escape.

The movie definitely has a 70s vibe to it, with songs that would appeal to the James Taylor/Carole King crowd and clothes and hairstyles that date the movie. So too does the broad sense of humor complete with sitcom musical cues. Noel Marshall as an actor makes a great producer; most of his lines are half-shouted and his character seems completely out of touch with reality. His Chicago accent sounds a bit bizarre on a scientist studying cats in Africa – and Africa by the way except for a few establishing shots, is Southern California. At least here. Marshall, incidentally, passed away in 2010 having never acted again.

Someone had to think this was a good idea and it’s a good bet that some sort of drug use was involved with the decision making process. Put a cast and crew in among a hundred wild animals whose actions would be unpredictable to say the least? Sure! Because of that unpredictability give the cats co-writing and co-directing credit? Why not! Encourage people to support conservation and animal rights causes by depicting multiple harrowing animal attacks on humans by those same animals? That’s gotta work, right?

I’ve heard this film referred to as less a movie so much as a carnival sideshow and there is something to that description. This is a movie that has to be experienced; describing it doesn’t do justice. Ratings therefore go out the window, which is why it has essentially a 50% rating here. You are either going to love it or hate it, you’ll get it or you won’t. Me, I vacillate wildly between loving the movie and the heart that is obviously put into it, with the footage of the big cats doing their things and wondering what on earth these people were thinking. Words can’t possibly do this film justice.

REASONS TO GO: Curiosity factor. Some beautiful cinematography and the animals can be delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its time. The acting is not so good. The comedy is awfully broad and occasionally inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Animal attack footage that ranges from comical to gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While no animals were harmed during the film, 70 human injuries were reported and at least one was life-threatening, although thankfully not fatal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Animals Attack
FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but a N/A would be more applicable)
NEXT: Amy

The Keeping Room


Augusta, get your gun!

Augusta, get your gun!

(2014) Drama (Drafthouse) Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, Charles Jarman, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Luminita Filimon, Delia Riciu, Stefan Veiniciuc, Bogdan Farkas. Directed by Daniel Barber

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of war, we think of the men (and lately, women) on the battlefield, the ones actually shedding the blood and dying for their cause. We rarely think of those left behind to take care of things while their kinfolk are off to war.

As the Civil War was coming to an end and William Tecumseh Sherman was making his inexorable march to the sea, three women on a bucolic South Carolina farm were desperately trying to survive. Augusta (Marling), the eldest, is the most practical and the hardest working. She has come to realize that her daddy and her brothers are not coming back and that whatever they have to eat is what they grow and what they hunt, so she’s getting to business.

Louise (Steinfeld) is a teenager, spoiled by her place as the younger daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. She’s used to be coddled and cared for, her every little whim taken care of by someone else. She’s never worked a day in her life and still thinks that once the war is done and the Yankees vanquished, things will return to the way they were.

Mad (Otaru) is a slave that has become indispensable, strong and tough by years as a slave but compassionate for the girls that were once her mistresses. She, like Augusta, knows the war isn’t going well and hopes it will come to a swift conclusion so that her man Bill (Pinnock) will come home to her and help her tend this farm.

When Louise gets bitten by a raccoon, Augusta realizes that medicine will be needed or Louise might die. She stops at a neighboring plantation, only to discover horrors that she never could have imagined. She continues on into a nearby town which is mostly deserted except for a kindly bar owner (Dennehy) and a compassionate prostitute (Nuttall) – and two scouts for Sherman, Henry (Soller) and Moses (Worthington). Henry has lost any sense of decency; he’ll kill anything that moves and rape anyone who’s female and will drink anything that will banish such demons as men like this possess. Moses is looking for love in all the wrong places and by all the wrong means. The two had recently murdered a white woman they’d raped, a carriage driver and a passing slave. When Augusta gets away from them, they decide to track her and follow her back to the farm. What they don’t know is that the women don’t plan to give up without a fight.

Barber has a keen eye and an understanding of setting a mood; often his scenes are shrouded in midst or bright sunlight depending on the mood. He uses a lot of stunning images to get across more than any dialogue could tell; for example, early on he shows a flaming carriage pulled by terrified horses in the night. The spooked equines are galloping as fast as they can to escape the flames, not realizing they are pulling their own destruction with them. I don’t know if you could get a better metaphor than that.

Marling is becoming one of my favorite young actresses; she’s very poised in her roles (this one included) and seems to have a very good sense of which projects to choose as I haven’t really seen her in a movie that doesn’t showcase her talents well yet. She has the kind of self-possession that Robin Wright has always carried, which bodes well for Marling’s future.

Steinfeld who is no stranger to period pieces isn’t given as much to do, mainly acting the spoiled brat and then the frightened young girl. When backed against the wall Louise comes out swinging but for the most part she’s been used to depending on others all of her life and not on herself; the chances of Louise surviving the post-war South will depend very much on her ability to find an eligible husband.

Otaru is a real discovery. I hadn’t heard of her before, but she holds her own and then some against two very capable young actresses. She is mostly silent throughout the beginning of the movie but she has a couple of long speeches in the movie that really give you a sense of who Mad is and what drives her.

Barber also knows how to ratchet up the tension to high levels and the second portion of the movie is basically up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 in that regard. There are those who may say that there’s too much of a good thing in the tension department, but I would guess that Alfred Hitchcock might disagree; while this isn’t Hitchcockian in the strictest sense, I think the Master of Suspense would have approved of this. Some of the cliches of the genre however are very much in evidence, maybe a little too much so.

I found myself completely immersed in the film and committed to the story, which is exactly where you want your audience to be. While there are a few missteps – some stiff or awkward sequences by some of the actors, an overuse of an unconscious hero waking up just in the nick of time to save one of the others – by and large this is a beautifully crafted, intensely thrilling work of cinematic art. Definitely one to keep on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful images. Beautifully atmospheric. Impressively tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Overuses the same thriller cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of violence, a bit of sexuality, some cussing and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set during the American Civil War in South Carolina, it was entirely filmed in Romania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Uncle John

Mood Indigo


Audrey Tautou doesn't mind Roman Duris' extreme case of dandruff.

Audrey Tautou doesn’t mind Roman Duris’ extreme case of dandruff.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (Drafthouse) Audrey Tautou, Roman Duris, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte Le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Vincent Rottiers, Philippe Torreton, Laurent Lafitte, Alain Chabat, Zinedine Soualem, Natacha Regnier, Marina Rozenman, Mathieu Paulus, Frederic Saurel, August Darnell, Wilfred Benaiche, Francis Van Litsenborgh. Directed by Michel Gondry

There are those film directors whose imaginations are so manic and so inventive that most of the rest of us can’t keep up. French visionary Michel Gondry, auteur of such films as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is one of those guys. Something like Terry Gilliam on an LSD trip, Gondry has employed a good deal of stop motion animation in his films and a kind of frenetic sense of humor that is sweet and avant garde all at once. Words don’t do his work justice; he speaks a language all his own and the only way to really understand what I’m talking about is to see one of his films, like his latest f’rinstance.

Colin (Duris) is a wealthy man who lives in a Parisian apartment that looks from the inside anyway as something of a railway car. His private chef Nicolas (Sy) is also his lawyer, a brilliant man who makes wonderful dishes that he sweeps into the garbage before Colin can finish eating them. Colin has created the “pianocktail,” a musical instrument in which the notes you play on the piano keyboard determine which liqueurs and mixers are being added into your cocktail.

With his best friend Chick (Elmaleh) having fallen in love with Alise (Maiga), who also turns out to be Nicolas’ niece, Colin realizes how alone he is and demands to fall in love. Nicolas suggests that he attend the party being thrown by Isis (Le Bon) which would necessitate that he learn a bizarre dance to a Duke Ellington song which has the odd effect of turning the legs of the dancer into elongated rubber limbs that allow the dancer to walk about like an art deco-era cartoon.

At the party Colin meets Chloe (Tautou), a waif-like girl who takes an instant liking to the tongue-tied and socially awkward Colin. The two go on several dates, most of which Colin is convinced that he’s messed up. Finally the two take a ride on a swan boat that is lifted by crane over the city and finally into a train tunnel where the two kiss. Six months later they are ready to be married.

It looks like life is going to be golden for Colin but in truth that is not the case. Chick is in desperate need of money so he can afford to marry Alise, and Colin is happy to lend it to him but instead Chick blows the not insubstantial gift on memorabilia related to his favorite writer, Jean-Sol Partre. Chloe gets a rare malady – a water lily is growing inside one of her lungs – and only being surrounded by fresh flowers can save her.

Based on a novel by beloved French novelist Boris Vian, this comes across as a cross between a romantic comedy, grand opera, French farce and a cartoon from the 1930s. Although the synopsis gives you an idea of the story, it can’t possibly prepare you for the visuals you’ll encounter, including an anthropomorphic mouse that lives with Colin and Nicolas, a doorbell that grows legs and skitters about the apartment until either Nicolas or Colin “kill” it and it returns to a docile state on the wall, an office full of writers who are writing the story as we go along on a conveyer belt full of typewriters like an assembly-line script (possibly a dig at what the movie writing process has become), a transparent limousine and a honeymoon in which it is always raining on Colin and the sun is shining on Chloe.

The imagery in fact can wear you down after awhile and given the fact that the American version is 30 minutes shorter than the French, one can only imagine how Americans would be unable to cope with those extra scenes. The humor is distinctly Gallic and can be deceptively subtle or unabashedly over-the-top.

Tautou, who is now and forever Amelie, is lovely here as the gamine Chloe. She is delightfully puckish and were she an American actress she’d be Greta Gerwig. However Gerwig doesn’t quite accomplish the innocent sheen that Tautou conveys so Tautou often comes off as child-like rather than childish. Duris, one of France’s biggest male stars, has an engaging grin and a gung ho “let the director throw whatever he wants at me, I’ll still be incredibly handsome” attitude.

Be warned that this is a bit darker in several senses as a film than Gondry’s other films have been. As Chloe gets sick, the colors begin to fade from the screen and the apartment is overrun with cobwebs, dust bunnies and decay. As the film reaches its end, the apartment gets almost no sunlight whatsoever. The sometimes silly humor is still in full force but it has a grim, gallows element to it that might be off-putting to those who have just managed to get used to the sunny, optimistic fun tone of the movie’s first half.

The imagery gets almost cloyingly cute at times and your capacity to absorb cuteness may well determine the level of enjoyment you have for the movie. Also I think that seeing the movie when you are able to give it your complete concentration is a plus, although here in Orlando it is playing only at the 10pm hour during its run here which may hurt the ability of older audience members (like myself) to enjoy it as fully as I might have.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly delightful images. Very inventive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly cutesy. Sometimes uses out there images for their own sake.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and partial nudity, mildly disturbing images and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer whom Chick is obsessed with, Jean-Sol Partre, is a spoonerism for the name of one of France’s most decorated philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Science of Sleep
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle commences!

The Final Member


It's grand to be a man!

It’s grand to be a man!

(2014) Documentary (Drafthouse) Sigurour Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell, Pall Arason, Peter Halldoresson, Reynir Hjartarson, Petur Petursson, Hannes Blondal, Terry Gunnel, Ari Karlsson, Marci Bowers, Douglas Mason, Siri Hastings, Shahar Tsabari, Lilja Siguroardottir, Jona Siguroardottir, Hjotur Sigurosson, Thorgerdur Siguroardottir. Directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math

Florida Film Festival-2014

Sometimes the subject of a documentary can lend itself to a certain type of humor, which as a reviewer you want to resist. The documentarian after all deserves a sober and dignified review of his or her hard work. Then again, it can be hard not to be cocksure and by extension, possessed of a stiff adherence to a set of hard and fast rules entered into by the reviewer without understanding what they’re getting into.

But this film with the Icelandic Phallological Museum at its center is like that. The Museum is essentially a collection of penises from every species of mammal save one – homo sapiens. Sigurour Hjartarson, better known as “Siggi,”  is the curator.

This unusual collection began as a joke when a friend gave Siggi a bull penis because as a boy, Siggi had owned a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis. Other members followed from different mammals which he stored in his office at the college where he taught history and Spanish. After he retired and moved the collection home, he began to add more and more specimens to his collection. Eventually his wife Jona encouraged him to house the collection in a museum. At first the museum was a bit of a curiosity, located in Reykjavik, but when Siggi couldn’t afford the rent he moved it to a former restaurant in the tiny Northern Icelandic town of Husavik. The villagers initially viewed the new attraction with some suspicion but once they realized that the museum contained nothing pornographic they accepted it.

From there it went from oddity to genuine tourist attraction. Thousands of people flocked to the quirky museum from all over the world, 60% of them women. Still, the museum lacked the crowning specimen from the top of the mammalian food chain. Siggi was in despair; no longer a young man, he had very real concerns about the future of the museum without him. He had his cousin Petur, a doctor, start to quiz patients to see if they would be willing to donate the organ when they were dead.

The trouble was that Iceland is essentially a very small island in terms of population and not everybody wanted to have their most private part on public display for eternity, even after they were dead. However, two people heard about Siggi’s plight and decided to help.

The first was Pall Arason, who already was famous around Iceland. A nonagenarian, in his youth he had been an adventurer and explorer of the highlands of Iceland. He was also a notorious womanizer and decided that such a well-used member should get its due.

The other applicant was a different case entirely. His name is Tom Mitchell and he marches to his own drummer as well. A divorcee living in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, Tom refers to his penis as “Elmo” (so-named as a young man by one of his girlfriends) and is determined that it become the most famous penis in the world. He has tattooed his penis with the stars and stripes so that museum visitors will know that they are looking at an all-American penis and let’s face it; what could be more American than a schlong?

As Tom got more into the idea, he e-mailed Siggi regularly with ideas and suggestions as to how his penis should be displayed. He also sent dick pics of his penis dressed up in costume (I couldn’t make this stuff up). He also decided that in order to be first, he would have it removed while he was still alive.

For a first feature (which this is) this is an amazing documentary. I was not aware that there was a museum of this sort anywhere in the world and when I first found out about the movie, I was sure that I could have gone the rest of my life without having that knowledge.

I was wrong. The filmmakers (and Siggi himself) point out that the penis for whatever reason has become a taboo subject, not just here but essentially everywhere. We can talk about any other body part without blushing more or less but bring up the penis and people start to blush and stammer, yet it is a part of our bodies (for males anyway) just as our heart, our eyes and our hair is. That it happens to be the part of our body which not only urinates but also creates life is simply part of its function, like the lungs oxygenate our blood or our stomachs digest food.

Mitchell doesn’t come out looking too favorable for much of the film, although at the very end we begin to see him as less of an oddball and more of a human being whose motivations for the way he acts and the things he does becomes more clear. I can see how some might view him as an object of ridicule but to be honest I found him to be the most fascinating character in the documentary. To those disposed towards judging him (or anyone else in any documentary for that matter), keep in mind that we are spending (when you tally up all the screen time) less than an hour with these people in order to get a glimpse of a certain facet of their lives. That really isn’t enough time to make any sort of comprehensive opinion on who they are as people.

That said, I found this movie to be something of a celebration of things that are outside our comfort zone. I tend to agree with Siggi that we should be able to talk about the penis without resorting to dick jokes (although a few inevitably show up, not always intentionally) and we should be able to view people who are fascinated with them as something other than perverts.

This is one of the most entertaining documents you’re liable to see this year. I have to admit that I had some trepidation towards seeing this initially – what red-blooded guy will admit to being fascinated by a movie about…well, dicks – but once I sat down and actually saw it I realized this was one of the best documentaries of the year. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: Uproariously funny. Celebrates the unusual.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find having so many dicks onscreen a little bit uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: Obviously the subject matter is not for kids. Also there is some male frontal nudity and some mild foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to the two donors in the film, an Englishman and a German both also pledged to donate their members to the museum.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magical Universe

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Devil’s Knot

The Act of Killing


A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

(2012) Documentary (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sakhyan Asmara, Soaduon Siregar, Syamsul Arfin, Yapto Soerjosoemano. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment, a means of forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours. This isn’t one of those. THIS is a movie that isn’t meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, one that will leave you struggling with the powerful emotions and concepts it brings out in you when the movie’s over.

Starting in 1965, assassinations of Indonesian generals in an attempt to destabilize the government led to General Suharto taking control of the government. This in turn led to almost a year of unbridled mass murder ostensibly to rid the country of communists who were blamed for the assassinations. In reality, the job was given to a large extent to members of organized crime and the definition of “communists” was broadened a bit to include those who in general disagreed with the military junta and all ethnic Chinese. Later it was essentially expanded to “anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more revered of the death squad leaders is Anwars Congo. Now a white-haired grandfatherly sort, he is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth.  He, like the other death squad leaders, have never answered for their crimes of murdering civilians in cold blood. In fact, they are thought to be heroes and boast openly about being able to do whatever they wanted, including wanton rape and looting.

Congo tells us that the stink from the blood of the victims had grown so great that he chose to start using a wire garrote to kill his victims which required less cleaning up after. In an extraordinary move, director Oppenheimer gives Congo and a few of his cronies the opportunity to re-enact their atrocities on film in whatever style they liked.

Why would they want to, you may ask? Well, these were men heavily influenced by American b-movies (Congo had gotten his start scalping cinema tickets) and during those terrible months of late 1965 and early 1966, often used westerns and gangster movies as inspiration to carry out their heinous acts. So they do just that, filming in the style of noir, gangster movies and yes, even a musical number which concludes with the spirit of one of the victims thanking Congo for murdering him and sending him to heaven, after which he shakes the mass murderer’s hand and raises it in triumph like a prize fighter.

The cognitive dissonance depicted in this film is mind-blowing.  Gangsters are looked upon with admiration. They claim that the term gangster means “free men” (a misconception that is repeated often by the ex-criminals) and reveled in the complete freedom to do whatever they chose without regard to law or morality. The bullying and terrifying tactics are looked upon as national symbols of pride.

While most of the perpetrators have no outward remorse or guilt over their acts, cracks begin to show in Congo’s facade. He complains of nightmares that plague him nightly. Things begin to unravel when he portrays a victim being strangled in a police office. He wonders aloud if his victims felt what he did (the experience so unnerved him that he was unable to continue). Off-camera, Oppenheimer says gently but firmly that they felt much worse; they knew they were going to die while Congo knew that in his case, it was just a movie.

This leads to the denouement when Congo returns to the rooftop where he committed many of the savage acts. His growing realization over what he had done leads to one of the most compelling and literally gut-wrenching scenes in modern cinematic history.

In the viewer, there is an immediate instinct to go and comfort the grandfatherly Congo, but then we reach an epiphany of our own – does this man who committed so many monstrous acts (he claims to have killed about a thousand people personally) deserve comfort? Is there no forgiveness for him? That is a question I’m still wrestling with. How does one redeem oneself for mass murder? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think anybody does.

Leaving the Enzian afterwards, there was so much swirling around in my head and in my heart (as was occurring with my wife as well) that the normal discussion about the film was a bit muted. I can’t say that this movie is enjoyable – but I can say that it’s important. Given our own propensity for mass shootings these days and the genocidal events that occur to this day, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there is any goodness inside the human race at all and it makes one wonder if the universe wouldn’t be a better place if the entire planet were wiped out by a convenient meteor strike. However, watching he change that occurs in someone who was such a monster at one time gives me hope that there might actually be some humanity in the human race after all.

REASONS TO GO: Makes you think and feel. One of the most powerful and moving climaxes in recent cinematic history.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems stagnant and redundant in a few places although the film’s climax brings all the parts together.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language. The themes are extremely adult (dealing with mass murder) and there are some intimations of children endangered. Also, lots and lots of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, were so moved by this film that they came aboard as executive producers.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Year of Living Dangerously

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Family