Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

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Tigerland (Taken by the Tiger)


Pavel Fomenko anxiously searches for two tiger cubs whose mother has been relocated.

(2019) Nature Documentary (DiscoveryPavel Fomenko, Amit Sankhala, Karan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Kailash Sankhala, Yulia Fomenko, Vasily Solkin, Jai Bhati, Bittu Sahgal, Valmik Thapat, Elizabeth Kayzakova, Irina Pavlova, Belinda Wright, Indira Gandhi, Tarva Bhati, Dimple Bhati, Anne Wright, Debbie Banks. Directed by Ross Kauffman

Jack Lemmon once won an Oscar for a film entitled Save the Tiger, a title that was a metaphor for his character’s own existence. However, the title has become more literal in this day and age with right around 4,000 tigers left in the wild, down from hundreds of thousands only a century ago.

There are a lot of reasons for their decline. Human intrusion on their habitat, poaching (tiger skins remain an in-demand luxury item and tiger parts also form the basis for a good deal of folk medicine which is also a lucrative trade) and hunting – among Indian maharajahs it was considered an act of masculinity to shoot and kill a tiger with some (as well as the British colonials who followed them) shooting hundreds of the animals alone.

There are those who would halt the decline of the tigers and this film from Oscar winning director Kauffman focuses on two of them – Pavel Fomenko, head of endangered species protection for the Russian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, and Amit Sankhala whose grandfather Kailash was instrumental in directing attention to the plight of the tiger and along with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was responsible for the enacting of legislation that protects them relatively speaking. Both men approach the problem in very different ways; Sankhala follows in his grandfather’s footsteps in creating and protecting tiger preserves in India, whereas Fomenko is more of a hands-on kind of guy rescuing individual tigers in dire need.

Fomenko gets involved with a Siberian village on a nature preserve where a mother tiger has begun to attack village dogs. With kids walking to and from school, Fomenko knew it was a matter of time before villagers would kill the tiger to protect their kids (understandably). He stepped in and captured the mama tiger to relocate her but was less successful in finding her cubs, organizing a tiger hunt in an attempt to find them before they died.

The first third of the movie dwells a bit overly much on the spiritual aspect of the tiger – how it is a symbol of power particular from a male standpoint. There’s a lot of fairly dry material on the elder Sankhala and his efforts to document the plight of the species and to convince his government to step in and save them. The movie also opens with an odd and somewhat disconnected voice over about the history of tigers and how humans have considered them, done in a child’s singsong voice as if in a nursery rhyme.

During the last third the movie picks up steam and ends up packing a wallop; we are shown the gruesome results of a poacher’s work and the danger of advocating for the tigers, especially in the case of Fomenko who is changed by the experience. There is a mournful roll call of the various types of tigers, most reduced to less than a thousand remaining in the wild and several already extinct – all within the lifetime of most of us.

It isn’t until about a third of the way through that we actually see a tiger in the wild – until then all we see are representations and drawings – and we are reminded of what a magnificent animal tigers are. Seeing them padding around their natural environment like the lords they are is an almost spiritual experience; I can only imagine how much more intense and affecting it would be to see one in person (one not in a zoo).

Kauffman peppers the film with watercolor-like animations from Daniel Sousa (himself an Oscar nominee for Feral) that enhance rather than distract. The younger Sankhala is certainly passionate about tigers but he doesn’t have the personality of Fomenko who is a force of nature. The movie really hums along when Fomenko is onscreen.

The movie has already received a brief theatrical release and is currently available on Discovery Go. It is debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight for those who prefer the broadcasting route. Documentary and nature lovers should seek this one out.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers capture the power and spirituality of the animals. The watercolor animations are lovely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the footage is graphic and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some slight profanity as well as disturbing footage of the results of tiger mauling as well as of dead and skinned tigers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kauffman shared an Oscar for co-directing the 2006 Best Documentary Feature Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Journey To a Mother’s Room

Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime

Girl Model


Girl Model

Meat markets come in all sorts of varieties.

(2011) Documentary (Cinereach) Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh, Madlen, Tigram. Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

There is a certain glamour inherent with the modeling industry. Beautiful girls flown to exotic locations, dressing in designer couture, adored by millions. So when talent agents come calling, it’s not hard to understand why young girls answer with eyes full of stars.

One such agent is Ashley Arbaugh who herself was a teen model. Her territory is mostly the former Soviet Union where she plucks young girls to work in the lucrative Japanese market. The promise of easy cash and a foot in the door of an industry that’s notoriously hard to break into brings girls swarming to try-outs, particularly in economically depressed places like Siberia.

Nadya Vall lives in a small village in Siberia. Her parents are poor; they live in a tiny little house that her father has been adding on additional room so that his children may have rooms of their own. However work has stalled on that as he is barely making enough money to make ends meet as it is.

Her shy, sweet demeanor and lustrous child-like beauty get her a contract with Ashley and her Russian boss Tigram. Tigram sees himself as a kind of savior for these young girls, taking them out of bad situations and giving them fame and fortune. Of course, he gets a cut of both but that’s a small price to pay isn’t it?

Nadya sets out for Tokyo and things turn into a nightmare from there. Nobody from the agency meets Nadya at the airport; she is lost, not knowing where to go or what to do and doesn’t speak any other language than Russian; tearfully she begs the filmmakers to translate to English to the Japanese clerks to find out information as to where she can find the apartment she’s supposed to stay at.

Eventually things sort themselves out and she is set up in a tiny little apartment that looks to be the size of a walk-in closet. She has a roommate, Madlen, who is supposed to share the space with her – and it’s not a lot of space, let’s face it.

Japanese law requires her to have two paying jobs in order to remain in the country for the full length of the visa. She is sent to try-out after try-out, to shoot after shoot with no sales forthcoming. The two are made to realize that if their measurements increase even by a centimeter they will be sent packing and not paid; in fact, because of the cost of their apartment and their airfare, they will be deep in debt to the agency.

Homesickness, the psychological wear and tear of not being wanted and the general indifference of those who are supposed to be watching over them take their toll. Madlen, who at last has a credit card from her family that allows her to purchase food, eats her way back home on purpose leaving Nadya alone in a country that she doesn’t understand – and at 13 years old, is she really equipped to handle this situation?

This is absolutely riveting stuff. There are no real regulatory agencies that watch over these girls. 13 and 14 year old girls are encouraged to lie about their ages and are sent to Japan and other countries unsupervised and essentially thrown out into the waters to sink or swim – and they mostly sink. There is a good deal of hypocrisy – Arbaugh tells her next set of girls airily that everyone makes money in Japan after we’ve just clearly seen two girls who returned home deeply in debt, and we are given the impression that it isn’t all that uncommon. Everybody gets paid but the models.

This isn’t just exploitation, it’s white slavery. There needs to be an industry watchdog to ensure that these girls get proper supervision, understand what it is they’re getting into and have some regulatory power to watch that the girls aren’t exploited. Unfortunately, as Arbaugh herself says late in the film, it isn’t much of a step to go from modeling to prostitution. After all, both are instances of a woman selling her body.

I didn’t expect that there was a story here that I’d be hooked by. Fashion interests me not in the least and I’d always had the perception that models are mostly self-absorbed divas who had a very easy life that required very little work on their part. After all, how hard can looking beautiful be?

Obviously, being a guy makes me completely dumb and uneducated as to how hard work it is for women to look beautiful, models or no so perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance. However one screening of this documentary is enough to shock my system into understanding that there is exploitation of children going on in this industry – and it needs to be stopped.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling and heartbreaking. Eye-opening look on a shadowy world.

REASONS TO STAY: Pounds its point a little bit too relentlessly. May have benefitted from some follow-up.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some profanity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the making of the film, Arbaugh got a job with Elite Models in New York scouting American girls.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Picture Me

JAPAN LOVERS: Some aspects of the Japanese culture are explored here.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Monsieur Lazhar

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