City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

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Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

Fury


Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

(2014) War (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Minca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman, Daniel Betts, Adam Ganne, Eric Kofi-Abreva, John Macmillan, Saul Barrett, Marek Oravec, Orion Lee, Stella Stocker. Directed by David Ayer

If war is hell, the hell of war are metal tubes and tanks. During the Second World War, America lost tanks and their crew at a terrifying rate. It took (and continues to take) a special kind of warrior to lock themselves in those iron coffins and duel other warriors in an effort to pan-fry or blow off the face of your enemies before they do the same to you.

In the waning days of that war, the tank crew for the tank nicknamed “Fury” is led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), a hard, rough fellow who has only one goal – to get his men back home alive. He’d started killing Nazis in North Africa; now he’s killing them in Germany. However, there isn’t much left of the once-mighty German army. They’re mostly children and old men drafted from villages to protect the Fatherland. Those that refused were hung in the name of the defense of the Wehrmacht.

Inside his tank is his lead driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena), an even-tempered man with a quirky sense of humor; gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), a devout Christian who believes that killing the evil Germans is God’s work (and he’s not far wrong). The mechanic is Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), a wizard with mechanical things but an absolute horror with people. Surly and prejudiced against…well, EVERYONE, he’s meaner than a hound dog with a butt itch.

There’s also a second driver whose face and eyeball and a good deal of his skull as well as assorted bits of brain and blood have painted the inside of the tank.

They receive a new second gunner, young Norman Ellison (Lerman) who has not fired a shot in anger at anyone and was originally conscripted to be a clerk-typist for the army who has been forced to start replacing the staggering losses from wherever they can. He has a hard time with this change in duties and when the time comes to fire his weapon at a living human being, he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction costs another tank crew their lives.

However, even as the Allies are pushing through to Berlin, word comes that a column of battle-hardened SS soldiers are coming down the road to pierce into the heart of the forward command. If they’re successful, they may set the Allies back a bit and add more time and casualties to a war that already has plenty of both. It will be up to the valiant crew of the Fury to stand fast. Will they be up for the challenge?

This was originally thought to be a major Oscar contender but the studio ended up pushing it back from a Holiday release to an October one. I can’t say as I blame them. This doesn’t quite have the feel of a movie that’s going to have a great deal of attention from Academy voters, although there’s a good chance Pitt might get at least some nominating votes.

Ayer was a stickler for authenticity throughout from the uniforms that the soldiers wear, the fashions of the French women that Wardaddy and Norman take a brief break with, and the machines themselves, American Shermans and a fearsome German Tiger. The actors learned to drive the antique vehicle as well as fire the guns it carried. Oddly, they don’t spend a lot of time displaying the claustrophobia of fighting in those tanks, although we get a sense of the limited visibility of the vehicles.

There is a good deal of gore as bodies are burned, blown to pieces and riddled with bullets. While it doesn’t have the visceral you are there feel of Saving Private Ryan, it’s still from my admittedly inexpert viewpoint a pretty accurate representation of tank warfare as it existed in the last days of the war.

The plot is not unlike other movies you’ve seen before, given the characters are pretty cliche including the wise but gruff commanding officer, the nervous rookie having to suddenly re-evaluate his moral code in the heat of battle, the ignorant drunk from the deep South and so on. Pena and Bernthal make the most of their roles and at least offer some personality. Unfortunately LaBeouf doesn’t seem to embrace the role in the same way and quoting the Biblical passages sounds as foreign coming out of his mouth as they would were he saying them in Mandarin Chinese. His Really Awful Mustache doesn’t help matters.

While the authenticity is there, the creativity kind of isn’t. This doesn’t really add anything to the short list of films about tank warfare. Yeah, there’s plenty of camaraderie and some battle thrills. That’s been done. The more interesting elements of the story – how the war affected the men who served in the tank, desensitizing them to what we would consider their humanity, falls by the wayside during the last third of the movie when it becomes a standard “last stand” story. It’s a shame because the movie has a ton of promising elements; it just doesn’t become greater than the sum of its parts but rather, equal to them. Good enough may well be good enough but I was hoping for more.

REASONS TO GO: Drips authenticity. Fine performances by Pena, Bernthal and Pitt. Some intense battle sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t add much to the tank warfare movies. A little bit too long. LaBeouf is a distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, some fairly grisly images, plenty of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the uniforms, weapons and tanks used in the movie were authentic and loaned from various museums around the world including the only currently functioning Tiger tank on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Judge

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill

Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.  Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship

 

Lore


Lore's future looks bittersweet.

Lore’s future looks bittersweet.

(2012) Drama (Music Box) Saskia Rosendahl, Nele Trebs, Andre Frid, Mika Seidel, Kai-Peter Malina, Nick Holaschke, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Sven Pippig, Philip Wiegratz, Katrin Pollitt, Hendrik Arnst, Claudia Geisler. Directed by Cate Shortland   

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

The Second World War left millions of refugees at its end, many traversing shattered lands as survivors tried to find some semblance of family, often with roughly the same odd of finding a needle in a haystack.

Lore (Rosendahl) is a beautiful young German girl just entering her mid-teens. Her parents are important people and they live in a beautiful home near Buchenwald. She has a younger sister, younger twin brothers and a baby brother. Life is good.

Except that this isn’t modern Germany but Nazi Germany and the war is grinding to a conclusion. Her father (Wagner) and mother (Lardi) are fleeing their home and headed to a rural cabin to hide, hoping for the best but fearing that if the Americans win the war that they’ll be arrested. In fact, that’s what actually happens. Alone, Lore knows she must take the children to her grandmother’s house 900km away. Without any choice, she hits the road.

Once there they are followed by a mysterious young man in black. Lore frets. At a schoolhouse where many have taken refuge, the American soldiers have posted pictures of the concentration camps. Lore is shocked at the horror depicted. Some disbelieve it completely – “they’re actors,” is the general thought. Lore knows better – one of the “actors” peering down at a pit of dead emaciated bodies is her father.

When Lore and the kids are stopped on the road by American soldiers demanding travel papers, she is terrified but the young man, who calls himself Thomas (Malina) and has the necessary papers (not to mention a Star of David identifying him as a concentration camp survivor) intervenes and gets them  a ride for at least part of the distance.

Lore is drawn into a love-hate relationship with Thomas. There’s no doubt that the kids love him and that he is looking out for them as he would his own family, but he is also everything her parents warned her against and was the object of their scorn and hatred. She doesn’t know what to think about him – nor of her own burgeoning sexuality which is beginning to emerge. It’s a long, long road to Hamburg and they’ll have to get through plenty of obstacles to get there.

This is a movie that looks at the other side and not necessarily with sympathy. Lore’s parents are monsters, and the more we see of them the more we realize that they had full knowledge of what was happening in regards to the Final Solution.

The problem I had is with Lore herself. One moment she’s sympathetic, the next intolerable, the following plucky, and the moment after that sensual. Her emotions are like a pachinko machine, bouncing from here to there without any real rhyme or reason. Part of that is endemic to being a hormonal teenage girl, another part is inconceivable stress. Either way, it makes it very difficult for an audience to identify with Lore.

That’s not necessarily Rosendahl’s fault. She seems to be a very capable young actress with a great deal of promise – she’s just given a character to play who isn’t an easy one to pull together and she does the very best she can. I’m not sure that any actress, even a Meryl Streep, could have pulled off this part any better.

Lore is beautifully photographed as we see pristine German woodlands and bucolic country villages which makes the heinous deeds we see even more wrenching. There are unburied bodies everywhere, some dead by their own hand. A misguided old woman who takes Lore’s family in temporarily wails at a portrait of Der Fuhrer “We let him down. He loved us all so.”  It’s disquieting to say the least.

These aren’t perfect kids and the world they inhabit is chaotic and unpredictable. There are no real rules and surviving is not an easy task – just procuring food isn’t a given. Survival isn’t a given. The baby give them a bit of an advantage and Lore knows it but she also realizes that she is becoming a woman and that can be an advantage with certain kinds of men.

Lore grows from being something of a spoiled brat at the beginning of the movie into a cynical woman who is in bare-bones survival mode. Her last actions in the film are of defiance and transformation as she realizes that what she has been through has changed her forever – nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a powerful message.

And yet I didn’t connect with the film the way I think I should have. Perhaps it’s the pacing which is very slow. Perhaps it is the emotional pinball machine that is Lore. Or perhaps it’s just the wrong day and the wrong time for me to see a movie like this. It certainly requires a good deal of commitment from the viewer. It’s a movie whose skill and technique I admire, and whose story I think is one that should be told. I just didn’t fall under its spell the way I would have liked.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed. Gripping material.

REASONS TO STAY: Lore’s character is all over the map and gives us nothing to hold on to emotionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, a bit of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family photographs in Thomas’ wallet actually belong to Shortland’s husband, who is of German Jewish descent and whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; this is a critical hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 3

Offshoring


Offshoring

 

Last year Cinema365 started a new mini-film festival we called Offshoring; six days of films from countries other than the United States. I won’t lie and say it was a big hit but neither did it generate any letters of complaint. Therefore, being a fan of movies from all around the world, we are presenting it once again here in 2013 starting on Friday, April 26th.

This year, the movies will be from Australia, South Africa, Ireland, France, Denmark and Germany and run the gamut of drama, action, and comedy with plenty of impact to all. Half of the films in this year’s Offshoring played at the recent Florida Film Festival and will not only carry the distinctive Offshoring 2013 banner above but also the Florida Film Festival 2013 – two banners for the price of one.

These are all worthy bits of film that may not have gotten the ink other movies have but all are worthy of your attention in one way or another. One of the movies this year is a very serious early contender for the best film of 2013. So put on your beret, heat up a bunch of caramelized ginseng and smoke ’em if you got ’em – Cinema365 is about to take you on a trip around the planet without you ever having to leave your computer screen. Bon voyage!