The Mighty Atom


Steel chains: breakfast of champions!

(2017) Documentary (SDG) Joseph Greenstein (voice, archival footage), Mike Greenstein, Steven Greenstein, Slim Farman, Pamela Nadell, Dennis Rogers, Dave Yarnell, Edward Meyer, Jan Dellinger, Duane Knudson, Donald Kuhn Jr., John Klug (narrator), Lauren Kornacki, Alec Kornacki, Liz Kornacki, Dan Cenidoza, Paluna Santamaria, Heather Ablodi. Directed by Steven Greenstein

 

In this Internet age, we make heroes of people who do crazy stunts on skateboards, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, or simply taking dumb risks for 15 minutes of Internet glory. Back in the roaring 20s and Depression-era 30s, that particular function was fulfilled by vaudeville and the circus, where stunts of derring-do were routinely performed in theaters all over the world.

Feats of strength were certainly audience grabbers at the time but few could match the marvel that was Joseph Greenstein. Known by his nickname “The Mighty Atom,” he stood 5’4” tall and weighed 148 pounds soaking wet. He is as far from the traditional muscle men as it’s possible to get but he still performed amazing exhibitions that even today can’t be replicated easily. One of his feats was to bend a horseshoe; a modern strongman attempts to do so in a Florida lab but is unable to match what Greenstein did routinely into his 80s.

The movie centers around a 1967 radio interview that Greenstein did for WNBC in New York. The film adds interviews of his sons and grandson, fans and disciples in the muscle man (and women) community, experts on the nature of human bio-physiology and assorted spectators and interested parties. There are some diversions such as a story about a woman who seeing that the car her father was working on had slipped its jack and was crushing him lifted the 1.5 ton car off of him and pulled him to safety.

Greenstein’s success wasn’t brought on by muscle mass but rather by mental focus. As a young boy he contracted tuberculosis (which had already taken the life of his father) and he wasn’t expected to live more than a year. He got it into his head after seeing posters of strong men in a local shop that the strength these men possessed might be able to save him. He pleaded with a wrestler in a travelling circus to train him and the man took pity on him and invited him to join. Greenstein spent a few years on the road with the circus learning proper nutrition and how to focus mentally and use that focus to do amazing things.

He eventually returned home to Poland to marry and unable to find work immigrated to Galveston, Texas. There he started his own business – a gas station. Greenstein’s son Mike recalls the time when Harry Houdini, travelling through town, got a flat tire. Greenstein was summoned to change the tire and he did so without the use of tools or a jack. Astonished, Houdini’s manager brought Greenstein to New York to work on the vaudeville circuit and once he began to make some real money, he sent for his burgeoning family which now included six sons.

Besides his size, another unusual feature about Joseph was that he was Jewish and as his grandson wryly relates, there weren’t a lot of Jewish athletes at the time. Greenstein was proud of his heritage and was a devout member of his congregation for the rest of his life.

I will say the movie is entertaining although not vital; the archival footage verifying some of Greenstein’s legendary exploits which included preventing a plane from taking off using only his hair, biting through chains, bending nails, horseshoes and steel bars as well as hammering nails into plywood with his bare hands is absolutely riveting. In the footage Greenstein looks positively grandfatherly and somewhat of an academic which he was; he also marketed salves, lineaments and nutritional supplements that he created himself. He was also well-versed in the science of nutrition long before it became fashionable.

The overall tone is that Greenstein is proof that a human being can do anything he or she put their minds to, even the impossible. It kind of makes me want to go out and see for myself what I’m capable of, not a bad feeling to have after watching a film.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at strength and how much of it is not physical at all.
REASONS TO STAY: Like many documentaries, there is an overuse of talking head footage.
FAMILY VALUES: This is completely suitable for general audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was directed by the grandson of the Mighty Atom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunesVimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Beguiled (2017)

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?

Offshoring


OffshoringTraditionally as April turns into May and after the Florida Film Festival has turned out the lights for the year, Cinema365 likes to do what we like to describe as a mini-festival. We call it Offshoring and it is all about movies that come from places other than the good old U.S. of A.

This year we have two films that screened at the Florida Film Festival as we continue our coverage of that event as well as films from a variety of nations; this year our five films will cover Thailand, China, Australia, France and Poland. They range from action films to dramas to comedies and cover a variety of styles. Not all of them will be easy to find (although you may be able to catch a couple of them on cable or through Netflix or other streaming services) but all will have something worthwhile about their point of view that may cause you to re-examine yours.

Hear at Cinema365 World Domination HQ we’ve always considered foreign films a means of travelling without leaving, ways of peaking in on other cultures and hopefully learning something about them in the process. Hopefully you’ll do the same when you view these films we have lined up for you. The festival begins tomorrow and runs for five days before we return to our regularly scheduled programming, which will include reviews of theatrical releases like Bears, Transcendence, The Zero Theorem and The Railway Man among others. We’ll also be publishing our Summer Preview in the next few days as well as our monthly Four-Warned with a more detailed look at what’s coming out in May in theaters across the country as well as in some cases on VOD or in limited or local release.

It’s gonna be a great summer at the movies and before we get started with that, let’s take a little vacation around the world. Hope you’ll join us.

Aftermath (2012) (Poklosie)


You can't beat Ireneusz Czop's performance with a stick.

You can’t beat Ireneusz Czop’s performance with a stick.

(2012) Drama (Menemsha) Ireneusz Czop, Maciej Stuhr, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szarflarska, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialova, Wojciech Brzezinski, Danuta Borsuk, Andrzej Mastalerz, Anita Podderbniak, Magdalena Gnatowska, Ryszard Roncziewski, Zbigniew Konopka, Elzbieta Romanowska, Lech Dyblik, Jaroslaw Gruda, Zbigniew Kasprzyk, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska. Directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski

We really don’t know what darkness lurks in the hearts of our neighbors. Even in the nicest, most bucolic towns there can be absolute horrors beyond imagining. Some people will go to the most extreme of measures to keep those secrets hidden.

Franck Kalina (Czop) has flown to Poland from Chicago. His destination is a pretty remote one; to get there he has to take a plane, a train, a bus and then walk the rest of the way. He is there to visit his brother Jozef (Stuhr) who runs the family farm.

Franck has been in America nearly 20 years and has been estranged from his brother at least for that long but when Jozef’s wife Jola shows up at his door with their kids and without explanation, he returns to the land of his birth to get to the bottom of things. There he finds Jozef has been essentially ostracized by the town. Why? Because he’s unearthing old Jewish tombstones that were repurposed by the Nazis during World War II as flagstones, pavement and other uses. He can’t really explain why he’s doing it other than it seems right; there’s nobody left to look after them.

Franck soon becomes embroiled in the controversy as the incidents escalate from rocks thrown through windows to anti-Semitic graffiti on their barn to physical violence directed against Jozef and his dog. Only the retiring village priest (Mastalerz) and a kindly medic (Fialova) seem to have any sympathy for them at all. Franck’s dogged determination to discover what the reason is for all the hatred over stones for people nobody can remember leads to a shocking discovery.

This movie took nearly a decade to secure the financing to make it to the screen. The movie is inspired by a real incident in the village of Jedwabne during the Second World War. The controversial non-fiction book Neighbors by Princeton scholar Jan Gross (which was denounced as anti-Polish and inflammatory) about the subject inspired the filmmakers to make Aftermath. Even now the events are a sore subject with the Polish people; even reviews of the film in American newspaper have inspired some passionate posts both pro and con; some look at the filmmakers as brave men who have become the first Poles to directly acknowledge the events in Jedwabne and in other places like it in the Arts. Others have condemned it as furthering vicious slander against the Polish people.

This is an incredibly moving film which is on one level the bond between two very different brothers. Franck is taciturn and confrontational but at the same time he didn’t have the decency to return home for the funeral for his parents. Jozef is stubborn and unforgiving but has a curious soft spot for the underdog. Both men, surprisingly, are what I’d call environmental anti-Semites. They habitually refer to Jews as “Yids” and often say things that convey their low opinion of Jews in general and Polish Jews in particular. Franck even intimates that the troubles Poles have getting decent jobs in the U.S.is due to Jewish interference.

They do make the unlikeliest of righteous men but yet they are. It works making them so un-heroic in many ways. These aren’t American action heroes who use their fists to get themselves out of sticky situations; they get beat up and they often seem to go out of their way to avoid conflict but who can blame them – at every turn they are attacked verbally and physically by the townspeople and the new rector (Radziwilowicz) arrived to replace the retiring priest for some odd reason is stirring the town up to do so.

Czop and Stuhr deliver raw, honest performances that depict the brothers as deeply divided and unsure how to bridge the gulf between them until this common cause unites them. They are dogged more than brilliant and stubborn more than compassionate. Perhaps the problem that some conservative Poles have with the film is that none of the Poles in the movie come off as good guys.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart. It tackles the issues of hatred, greed and suspicion in the real world and it does so in a real world way. While I saw this movie at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, there are no living Jews in the movie until the final scene – and yet the ghosts of the Jewish dead in the Holocaust hang heavy over the film itself. This is the kind of movie that will leave you speechless and is much worth seeking out if you can find it (the official website has a list of theaters playing the movie if you want to click on the picture above and find out if it’s playing near you). It is another contender in what is turning out to be a very strong year for independent films as one of the best of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Czop and Stuhr deliver powerful performances. Raw and emotional.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing images and thematic content. There’s also a little bit of violence and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Received the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival for excellence in depiction of the Holocaust.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Attack

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness