Pick of the Litter – November 2015


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Spectre

Spectre

(MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci. With the success of Skyfall, setting the new franchise box office record, James Bond is back and stronger than ever. Here he discovers that a sinister criminal organization has ties to his own past as his search for answers leads to places that he doesn’t want to go while MI6 is undergoing tribulations of its own. Bond films are always greeting with heavy anticipation with the fans; this one has a higher bar than usual to live up to but has most of the behind-the-camera team returning to give it the opportunity to break some records of its own. November 6

INDEPENDENT PICKS

What Our Fathers Did A Nazi Legacy

What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Niklas Frank, Philippe Sands, Horst von Wachter. The children of Nazi Germany were not all Hitler Youth; some were the sons (and daughters) of men who committed terrible atrocities against humanity, or men who did nothing while those atrocities were committed. Some of these children, now old men and women, have never come to terms with the actions of their fathers, while others have become embittered. Still others have learned to accept what their fathers have done and have moved on. This moving documentary looks at the effects of these men on their children which reverberate in their lives and those around them even to this day. November 6

Shelter

Shelter

(Screen Media) Jennifer Connolly, Anthony Mackie, Amy Hargreaves, Bruce Altman. Two homeless people in New York City find each other and find love in the most extraordinary of circumstances. This, actor Paul Bettany’s first film as writer and director, couples powerful performances from Connolly and Mackie and a timeless story of the power of human will in the face of adversity to make a movie that may well be one of the most powerful films to hit theaters this month. November 13

Kilo Two Bravo

Kilo Two Bravo

(Honora) David Elliot, Mark Stanley, Scott Kyle, Benjamin O’Mahony. A British army squad, fighting in Afghanistan finds themselves literally caught in a minefield. With one of their number already down, they are trapped in a dried riverbed with no way out other than through courage and sacrifice of the sort most people will never have to face. This taut war suspense thriller was nominated for a BAFTA and is based on an incredible true story. November 13

Spotlight

Spotlight

(Open Road) Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber. A team of investigative reporters for the Boston Globe that called themselves Spotlight became aware of a story involving Catholic priests molesting young boys and then being quietly moved from parish to parish without the knowledge of the parishioners who would entrust the care of their sons to these pedophiles. The ore they dug, to the shock of the reporters – many of them Catholic themselves – the greater the dimension of the story grew. This festival favorite which is now getting some Oscar buzz is based on the true story that shook the Roman Catholic church to its very core. November 20

Stink!

Stink!

(Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Leonard Lance, Cal Dooley. It all began with a Christmas present; a pair of child’s pajamas with a strange odor when they were taken out of the package. A single dad decides to look into this; calls the manufacturer and is shocked to discover that some of the chemicals that go into the pajamas are “proprietary.” This takes him on a crusade to take on the trillion dollar chemical industry and find out what precisely we are putting on our bodies – and in them. November 27

 

The Book Thief


Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetezer to rehearse their lines with her but he's too tired.

Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetzer to rehearse their lines with her but he’s too tired.

(2013) Drama (20th Century Fox) Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watkins, Roger Allam (voice), Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Carina Wiese, Rainier Bock, Barbara Auer, Kirsten Block, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Hildegard Schroedter, Levin Liam, Sandra Nedeleff, Carl Heinz Choynski, Sebastian Hulk, Beata Lehmann. Directed by Brian Percival

The power of words can be transformative. The description of the day can bring someone trapped indoors into the world even for just a few moments. They can transport us to faraway places, transfer us into heroic beings and leave us like we can do anything.

In 1938 Germany, young Liesel (Nelisse) is being taken by train to meet her new foster parents by her mother (Makatsch) who is no longer able to keep her. Unfortunately before they can get there, her younger brother (Lehmann) dies suddenly and is buried by the tracks. At the graveside Liesel finds a book and even though she can neither read nor write, she impulsively takes it with her.

She is brought to a small German town where her new parents are waiting for her – kindly Hans (Rush), an out of work housepainter whose business has suffered because he hasn’t joined the Nazi party, and his harpy-esque wife Rosa (Watkins). She attracts the attention of Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the blonde young boy next door who happens to be the fastest runner in the neighborhood and who idolized Jesse Owens although that’s not exactly looked upon with favor by the Nazi regime.

Liesel’s illiteracy has caught the attention of the kids in school, particularly school bully Franz (Liam). Hans determines to teach Liesel how to read and write and turns their basement into a kind of living dictionary where Liesel writes new words she learns from various books she picks up.

Rosa takes in laundry to help make ends meet and one of her clients is the Buergmeister Hermann (Bock) and his wife Ilsa (Auer). At a book burning, Ilsa had noticed Liesel picking up a slightly charred copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man but tells no-one about it. Instead, she introduces Liesel to her library, a kind of homage to her son who had been killed. Laundry day becomes reading day for Ilsa and Liesel until the Buergmeister discovers what’s going on and puts a stop to it – and Rosa’s laundry.

In the meantime, following the infamous Kristallnacht of November 10, 1938 a young Jew named Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) shows up at Hans and Rosa’s door, needing to be hidden. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the First World War at the cost of his own so Hans feels honor-bound to save his son. For two years, Max lives in their basement and becomes fast friends with Liesel.

However as World War II begins and things start to go badly in Germany, things go from bad to worse for Liesel’s new family. While Liesel defiantly “borrows” books from Ilsa’s library, the war begins to turn against the Nazi’s and Hans’ refusal to join the party begins to get him viewed with further suspicion. What can good people do to survive such evil and such horror in their midst?

Based on the award winning bestseller by Marcus Zusak, this is brilliantly realized by Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey so he is at least experienced with the period. The German village (filmed in picturesque Gorlitz in Saxony) is bucolic and lovely but the ugliness hidden within is at times shocking. Not everyone in the village is a Nazi nor are most of them heroes; they are simply trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible and turn away when things get ugly, hoping that the ugliness won’t touch them directly. This is human nature, like it or not.

Nelisse, who was impressive in Monsieur Lazhar last year positively shines here. It is not an easy thing for an actress her age to carry a motion picture but Nelisse manages without being overly cute while being completely believable. It doesn’t hurt that she has actors the caliber of Rush and Watson to play off of. Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine may actually be more memorable here. He brings incredible humanity to the role of Hans without making him too good to be true. Hans simply put has a warm heart and a poet’s soul. Watson has a more difficult role with the prickly Rosa and manages to keep Rosa’s heart well buried beneath her gruff exterior. I think she has a good shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination when the Oscars come around.

Some critics have groused over the narration which is done by Death himself, in the guise of Roger Allam. The book was also so narrated and part of the book’s message requires Death to be involved because Death is a part of life. We are reminded of our mortality in the movie early and often and we are also reminded how precious life is and how easily we can lose it. Those who are complaining about Death’s narration may well have missed the point.

The movie is extremely moving and while there are elements of fantasy involved – not just Death’s narration but a scene in which the bodies of unfortunates caught in a bombing are lined up next to each other, beautifully untouched and looking mostly asleep (whereas if they had been in a bombing raid of the sort depicted they would have been charred and battered beyond recognition) – that’s fantasy. That’s death through a child’s eye (and perhaps through Death’s eye as well) in which death is a peaceful naptime, a transition from wakefulness to slumber.

Chances are the Academy is going to ignore this one – it simply hasn’t generated the buzz that American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have (haven’t seen the former and the latter is certainly justified). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. While this is based on a young adult novel, the subject matter may be a little too much for smaller kids. Do exercise parental caution is determining whether or not your kids are ready to see this. However if you feel they can handle it, it is well worth a family movie outing and is definitely one of the best movies this year.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and occasionally beautiful. Fine performances by Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Blend of fantasy and reality doesn’t always work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes that may be too intense for the very impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer of the book this is based on, Marcus Zusak, is actually Australian.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Nebraska

Kinyarwanda


Kinyarwanda

A Lieutenant Rose by any other name doth smelleth sweet.

(2011) Drama (Visigoth) Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Marc Gwamaka, Zaninka Hadidja, Mursari Jean, Cleophas Kabasita, Hassan Kabera, Mazimpaka Kennedy, Assumpta Micho, Kena Onyenjekwe, Edouard B. Uwayo. Directed by Alrick Brown

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda underwent 100 days of madness in which one ethnic group tried to wipe another off the face of the earth, and did it largely without any notice from the Western governments or media. It’s a crying rotten shame they don’t have any oil there or chances are we’d have been in there guns blazing.

There have been other motion pictures based on the events of that horrible summer, but unlike the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda this movie aims not to tell you a single story, but to share several stories of those who lived through the genocide.

The Grand Mosque in Kigali became a refuge for Tutsi and Hutu, Christian and Muslim alike. The Mufti of Rwanda (Jean) argues that the Koran requires that they offer shelter to those who require it. There is some dissension among his Imams, not all of whom agree with his interpretation but at last consensus is reached.

Jeanne (Hadidja) sneaks out of her house to attend a party where she meets up with her erstwhile boyfriend Patrique (Gwamaka). While Jeanne is too proper to allow even a good night kiss, it is clear she has strong feelings for him and him for her. He walks her home, past what appears to be a Hutu militia about to murder a group of Tutsis. Their leader Emmanuel (Bamporiki) waves at Patrique who waves back, and then quickly ushers Jeanne, a half-Tutsi, down a back alley so that she can sneak back into her house, which is ominously quiet and dark. When she switches on the lights, she discovers that her parents have both been murdered.

The Hutu Militia are hot on the trail of the priest Father Pierre (Kennedy) whom they refer to on the radio as Father Cockroach (the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches by the Hutus on the radio, which blared anti-Tutsi propaganda non-stop for the entire length of the Genocide and urged listeners to chop up any Tutsi they encountered – machetes were the most common form of execution during the Genocide). He has taken refuge in a church but is betrayed by the Hutu priest, along with the dozens of Tutsi refugees inside. He flees along with several other refugees but they are ultimately captured. However, they are fortunately rescued by a woman reputed to be a witch and quickly shepherded to the nearest Mosque whose Imam is sympathetic. However, his mosque doesn’t have the facilities or the supplies to shelter everyone there, so the decision is made that they must go to the Grand Mosque, which they do but not without cost.

Lt. Rose (Freeman) trained in the Rwandan army in Uganda where they were exiled, but was leading her troops back into her native land to try and put an end to the Genocide and save as many people as she can. She develops a camaraderie with Sgt. Fred (Onyenjekwe), who is married with a baby on the way. They discuss their reasons for fighting and he has some very compelling reasons on his mind.

Little Ishmael (Kabera) is sent by his father to the corner grocery. On the way home he encounters a group of militiamen who are upset and irate that they can’t find guns or Tutsi. Ishmael informs them that he knows exactly where these can be found and leads them to his own home.

Years afterwards, those who committed the atrocities were sent to camps where they were made to confess their crimes and come to repent their awful deeds. For some, they could only manage silence. Others were so traumatized that rather than live with their shame they took their own lives. Finally, some found the grace of forgiveness.

This is a powerful, moving experience. I was astonished to discover that this was director Alrick Brown’s first feature-length film; he shows the deft hand of someone who’s been at it for decades. The movie is presented in a non-linear fashion, weaving the stories together in much the same way as Crash or Babel, so it required a firm hand in the editing bay – or bedroom, as Brown revealed during a Q&A following the screening, which is where he and NYU student Tovah Leibowitz edited the film.

Many of the cast members were Rwandans, who lived through the events of those 100 days, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to relive them; it takes a director with a great sense for his actor’s emotional state to make it work. The script was essentially written from true stories collected by the producers and the director from Rwandans and eventually combined; as Brown explained it, he didn’t have enough time to write a feature film so he wrote several short films instead and wove them into a whole.

This isn’t a movie you merely watch; it’s something you experience and it will undoubtedly stay with you for the rest of your life. That human beings can do such things to one another is entirely incomprehensible but despite what you might think, this isn’t a movie about genocide and depravity. It’s a movie about forgiveness and reconciliation; that Rwanda is moving as quickly as it has to reuniting the two ethnic groups who share a common language (which is the title of the movie) – albeit that the ethnic groups were essentially created by the Belgians who colonized the country – is nothing short of a miracle.

I don’t hand out perfect ratings lightly and it often requires a great deal of soul searching for me to finally decide a movie worthy of that rating. Not so here – it was an immediate and necessary response to the movie. I honestly hope and pray this movie finds a major distributor because it so deserves to be seen by a wide audience. If a major studio had this, you can bet there would be Oscar buzz aplenty for the film, and for actress Zaninka Hadidja who turns in a riveting performance as Jeanne.

The movie is playing again on Tuesday, April 12 at the Regal Winter Park Village in Winter Park, Florida at 6:30pm and I urge anyone in the Orlando area to make an effort to go see this remarkable film. And if anyone reading this works for a theatrical distributor, I would urge you highly to look into acquiring this film for distribution. It may not necessarily pull in a box office bonanza, but considering how low the production costs were it could be profitable with little or no effort – and could conceivably be a huge blockbuster if people take to it the way I did.

It was a bit of a somber occasion upon viewing the movie at the Florida Film Festival; Assistant director Steve Ntosi had unexpectedly and tragically passed away just the day before, to which we here at Cinema365 extend our deepest sympathies. It also is appropriate that the screening took place during a week when Rwanda was in mourning in remembrance of the 17th anniversary of the Genocide.

This is a movie that could never have been made by a studio. It is clearly a project of passion, made by people committed to sharing not only the stories of survival, but the overall hope for reconciliation that permeates Rwanda to this day. One cannot help be moved by it but also be inspired by it as well. While the subject matter may sound like a downer, I left the theater feeling uplifted. Man has an endless capacity for cruelty but also an amazing capacity for forgiveness – that is what makes our future worth fighting for.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing motion picture event that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get.

REASONS TO STAY: If the genocide hits too close to home.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is perhaps too intense for the youngest sorts, and there is a bit of violence and implied rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot on location in Rwanda in just 16 days using mostly local cast and crew.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that deserves to be seen with a crowd – a big crowd.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: 13 Assassins