The Family


Introducing the children of the corn.

(2016) Documentary (Starz) Sung Yun Cho, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Bill Hamilton-Byrne, Roland Whitaker, Elizabeth Jean Whitaker, Anouree, Nick, Rebecca, Anthony John Lee, Peter Spence, Marie Mohr, Leeanne, Michael Stevenson-Helmer, Fran Parker, Barbara Kibby, Dave Whitaker, Lex de Man, Philippe de Montignie, Raynor Johnson, John MacKay, Margaret Brown. Directed by Rosie Jones

 

The rise of quasi-religious cults in the 1960s and 1970s was a worldwide phenomenon. In Australia, one of the most notorious of these was a Melbourne-based cult known as The Family. Founded by psychologist Raynor Johnson as a means to a healthier lifestyle, he soon fell under the spell of former yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful and charismatic blonde who had a way of charming everyone around her.

Her idea of family was a literal one; dozens of children were adopted through dodgy means and born to existing members. Hamilton-Byrne preached that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that there was a holocaust coming; the kids would rise as the leaders of a post-apocalyptic civilization. She was obviously a wack job but as cults go that doesn’t seem to be too terribly different.

In 1987 the cult’s Ferny Creek compound was raided and six of the children were removed and placed in protective custody and soon the horrifying truth began to emerge. The children had been physically abused, manipulated, and lived in a state of constant fear. Forced to dress alike and have their hair dyed blonde (as Hamilton-Byrne’s was) they were robbed of their individual identities. They were given LSD often without their knowledge or consent and they were often starved as a means of punishment.

One of the officers who was on the raid, Detective Sgt. Lex de Man, was clearly haunted by what he saw and observed. He acts somewhat as a narrative guide but also was a consultant on the documentary. Some of the stories told by the now-adult former cultists are heartbreaking and/or hair-raising. Many of the kids required therapy once removed from the clutches of the cult.

Jones is something of an Errol Morris disciple in terms of her style. There are plenty of interviews buttressed with home movies (which are chilling) and recreations of certain events. Rather than as a typical documentary, she gives it a kind of a 48 Hours spin, presenting the events as an unfolding mystery. For American audiences, it truly is – although the story was huge in Oz back in the late 80s and early 90s, it scarcely made a ripple on various American news sources. The film is slickly made with a brilliant atmospheric score and while the ending doesn’t have the smooth pacing of the rest of the film, there is at least a satisfactory wrapping up although to be fair the issues that the survivors have is ongoing. Believe it or not, the cult still exists today and Jones does speak with a current member for perspective.

The documentary has won awards at Australian film festivals and received a limited theatrical release there last year. Here in the States, it’s available on Starz and on their companion streaming app although for how long is anyone’s guess. It is certainly worth looking into, particularly if you’re into true crime documentaries.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling story of the horrors perpetrated on children within a notorious cult.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult content including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Amanda Brown, a former member of the wonderful Australian band The Go-Betweens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prophet’s Prey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Winchester

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God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?

Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

In the Heart of the Sea


Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moby Dick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Youth

The 33


Chippendale's goes underground.

Chippendale’s goes underground.

(2015) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers/Alcon) Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuňez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviňo, Adriana Barraza, Kate del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, Elizabeth De Razzo, Naomi Scott, Gustavo Agarita, Bob Gunton, Gabriel Byrne, Paulina Garcia. Directed by Patricia Riggen

One of the problems with bringing a real life event to the big screen, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the destruction of the Hindenburg is that everyone knows what’s about to transpire pretty much. For the mine collapse of the San Jose copper mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert on August 5, 2010 that trapped 33 miners miles below the surface for 69 days, most people are aware of how that turned out.

For most of the miners of the San Jose copper mine, August 5, 2010 was just another working day. After a retirement party for Mario Gomez (Agarita) who has just a few days to retire, Mario Sepulveda (Banderas), engineer Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Phillips), Elvis impersonator Edison Pena (Vargas), Dario Segovia (Raba), a homeless alcoholic and the devout Jose Henriquez (Treviňo) are among those who go down to earn their living, even though there are signs that something catastrophic was about to occur (and in real life, several miners had died and the mine owners repeatedly fined for poor safety conditions in the century-old mine).

Then a rock twice the size of the Empire State Building shifts and falls, burying the miners miles below the surface. When the 33 miners in the bowels of the earth reach their refuge, they discover that the medical supply cabinet is empty, the emergency food rations nearly so, and the telephone to the surface unconnected. The ladders in the ventilation shaft are also discovered to have never been completed. At first the miners take out their frustrations on foreman Urzua but Sepulveda’s level head prevails. They go about rationing the little food and water they have access to.

On the surface, the families of the miners, led by Maria Segovia (Binoche), the estranged sister of Dario, demand to be informed as to what is being done. The mining company, without the wherewithal to mount an expensive rescue operation, has decided to assume the men are dead and are making only token attempts to see if the miners are alive. The arrival of Chile’s Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne (Santoro) changes that; as he quickly discovers the lack of interest on the mining company’s part of getting their employees home alive, he takes charge of the rescue operation, with the blessing of Chilean President Piňera (Gunton) and with the assistance of mining engineer Andre Sougarret (Byrne).

In the meantime, things are looking dire in the mines as the first boreholes sent to the shelter miss their targets. However, once the miners are discovered alive and well, the gaze of the world turns to this compelling story in a small Chilean town.

Part of the problem with The 33 lies in its own title; there are 33 miners trapped underground and the movie can’t really spend a whole lot of time developing any of their characters. Throw in the families, political and media figures, the rescue teams including the one led by American Jeff Hart (Brolin) and it’s nearly impossible for director Riggen to give us a figure for the audience to latch onto, with the exception of the larger-than-life “Super Mario” who became a media darling in Chile during the actual event.

So a solid cast led by Banderas and Binoche, one of the most gifted actresses in the world, is left with frustratingly little to do other than occasionally mouthing a cliche meant to project their character’s role in the movie as comic relief, antagonist, love interest and so forth. Riggen has been criticized for this somewhat but to be fair I don’t think any director could have wrangled all of these characters and made them three dimensional unless she had a mini-series to do it with. Going back to Super Mario, during the movie there’s an incident when the miners turn on him because of his perceived favored status. One wonders if the actors in the film felt the same about Banderas who is really the only one of them who gets to make any sort of impression.

The rugged Chilean desert nicely contrasts with the mine scenes which were filmed in working mines in Columbia. They do capture nicely the flavor of being deep underground, although the sense of just how deep they were gets a little lost – in reality it would take the miners about an hour to reach the level they were trapped on from the surface, and of course an hour to return.

The movie glosses over some of the more disturbing aspects of the story, such as the mining company’s negligence or the absolutely disgraceful dismissal of their lawsuit three years after the disaster, or of the Chilean government’s opportunistic use of the miners to prop up their own sagging popularity. However, to be fair, the movie makes it clear that this was a defining moment in the history of Chile and that cannot be overlooked.

All in all, it’s an uplifting story that is a tribute to human endurance, the unmistakable power of hope, and the undeniable lure of bare masculine chests. I don’t know that the movie captured the true nature of what the miners endured – the second half of the movie there is almost zero tension because by that time supplies were making regular appearances down a tube from the surface, they had video communication with the surface and they made it seem less of a life-threatening situation than an endurance race. In the actual situation, there were serious doubts that the miners would survive – the unstable geological situation and the unknown performance of the rescue capsule were certainly question marks. Unfortunately, Riggen doesn’t really capture that adequately and maybe no director could have. After all, it’s no secret (and therefore not a spoiler) that all of the miners were rescued. That’s certainly the outcome we all wanted, but as dramatic cinema goes it doesn’t really stack up well.

REASONS TO GO: Inspiring. Plenty of beefcake.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks character development. Little tension since we know how it ended.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor profanity and a disaster sequence that might be a bit scary for young ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final film to be scored by the late James Horner, who died in a plane crash two months before the movie’s release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Sky
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spotlight

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)


Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

Offshoring

The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd