March of the Living


The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

(2010) Documentary (Visit) Hayley Miller, Sigi Hart, Rafael Elkabets, Jake Goren, Débora Niesenbaum, Halina Wachtel, Rolf Joseph, Ariela Pier, Josie Quade, Emil Jacoby, Tess Neumann, Sidi Grűnstein Gluck, Max Zellerhot, Jean Greenstein, Erika Jacoby, Heinz Kallman, Dorothy Greenstein, Jamie Greenberg, Saul Hanari, Joelle Zingerman. Directed by Jessica Sanders

 

The Holocaust remains one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Not because of its brutality, or the horror of it, but because it reminds us that we can be led by the nose to ignore atrocities that are happening in our very midst. Certainly people in Poland had to be at least somewhat aware of the nightmare going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Birkenau and yet not a voice was raised in protest. Of course if any were, those voices were as likely to be stilled permanently.

Every year, concentration camp survivors and teenage Jews from all over the world march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the route of the infamous Death March – except this is a March of the Living, not just a middle finger to the Nazis and the Holocaust deniers but also an affirmation of life. This is a demonstration that the human spirit overcomes and survives. It is hope.

In 2008, the documentary filmmaker Jessica Sanders was recruited by a Brazilian production company to document this event, known as the March of the Living. She followed several teens and several survivors from Los Angeles, Sao Paolo and Berlin. Before the actual March, the participants were taken on a tour of the various Camps, some of which are still standing – and at least one simply a monument to the hundreds of thousands of voices stilled there forever.

We see the gruesome detritus that was left behind; thousands upon thousands of shoes, stacked neatly floor to ceiling; dolls and toys, never to be played with again and human hair, to be used by the Nazis as carpet fiber. The sight of the hair seemed to be particularly disturbing to the teens, many of whom broke down inconsolably. It’s an unforgettable moment.

The problem I have with this 75 minute film is that it’s too short; we don’t get a sense of the journey these teens take. The survivors, we hear some of their horror stories and we are made well enough aware of their justifiable fear that once they are gone (and they are in their 80s and 90s now) there will be nobody to tell their story, nobody to answer the questions of the young. This is the last generation that will have direct access to living Holocaust survivors and the thought is chilling.

But the kids, as is the nature of kids, don’t have the experience and perspective to see it as anything other than what it isn’t – about them. “This could have been me, sixty years ago” says one teen girl in way too much make-up. Some of the teens – to their credit – get it. One makes plans to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after she graduates from high school; she also arranges for the survivors to participate in their graduation ceremony because, as she points out, none of them got to graduate high school because they were in the camps. You can see the delight in the faces of the elderly grads.

But we get no sense of the personal growth these kids experience. One moment their just ordinary kids dealing with ordinary issues, the next they’re seeing the gas chamber at Birkenau. It just feels like we got to that point cheaply, without getting a sense of how this affected them. Some talk about their culture but few seemed to get much out of it more than a sense of accomplishment, that they went to the camps and are somehow better for it. That’s not how it works.

I recognize the difficulty in doing any sort of film about the Holocaust, be it a documentary or a narrative feature. After all, the subject has been tackled in many different ways by many different filmmakers. There really isn’t a lot of new material to add to the conversation. Yes, it is true that this generation and those following must take up the mantle of remembrance, to be the keepers of memory when those who originally lived those memories have moved on, and to pass those memories down to succeeding generations. It is, after all, important that we never forget.

But sadly, this movie has forgotten – that the Holocaust isn’t just something to be blared out at us in capital letters. It affects people differently, like the German girl who felt ashamed of her country because of the atrocities committed in the name of politics. And of course, we can see similar demagogues whipping up the masses against Muslims and Middle Eastern people in general. The sad fact is that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust and despite the best efforts of those who survived it to act as living reminders of the barbarity of our species and its ability to inflict mind-boggling suffering upon each other, the potential for another one is slowly looming it’s shaggy head even as we speak..

REASONS TO GO: Some unforgettable albeit unsettling images.
REASONS TO STAY: Don’t get a sense of the journey these people take.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images having to do with the concentration camps.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sanders was nominated for a documentary short Oscar for Sing in 2002.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: What’s In the Darkness?

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The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ’em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man