Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

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Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

Der Bunker


Bad haircuts never go out of style.

Bad haircuts never go out of style.

(2015) Something Else (Arsploitation) Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller. Directed by Nikias Chryssos

 

We see the world through a lens of normality; we have expectations of what people’s lives should look like and then we figure they’ll conform to them. But that conformity is a lie; it’s not always the case. Sometimes what’s just below the surface is twisted enough to make us grow pale.

A young German student (Bukowski) – and that’s all the name he gets, folks – trudges through the snow in the woods to an underground bunker. There he is greeted by the owner who is known only as Father (Scheller), his comely wife Mother (Maydell) and their somewhat unusual son Klaus (Fripan) who is a 30 year old man with a bowl haircut who acts like an 8-year-old and is sure he’s going to be the President of the United States – even though he’s German.

The boy is being homeschooled but it turns out that he is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Father has been handling the teaching duties but he hasn’t made much of an impression despite his rather severe methods, so Student is enlisted to teach the boy. At first he doesn’t make much headway but when he discovers that Klaus seems to respond to pain things begin to get better.

Mother has been putting the moves on Student in the meantime, something he’s not altogether opposed to, but when he discovers that she is breastfeeding Klaus, alarm bells begin to go off. That and Father’s bizarre joke night where he tells jokes dressed as a mime, and then discusses them existentially. Father also seems to be a bit of a tyrant, counting every dumpling eaten and every napkin used and keeping a running tally.

But things really get odd when the Student discovers an open wound on Mother’s leg that has been infested by an alien named Heinrich who apparently is controlling Mother and the entire family. She is loathe to let Klaus grow up and leave; and now, it appears she has designs on keeping the Student around as well. Can he escape from this madhouse?

Chryssos directs and writes this and he’s drawing comparisons to John Waters and David Lynch and from the standpoint that this is a quirky cult film-type, the comparison isn’t wrong. Fans of those two worthies (and others along the same lines) will likely dig the very oddball world that Chryssos delivers here.

He uses color in a very unusual way, shooting through red filters as the story draws to a climax. Everything from Klaus’ bizarre wardrobe and Father’s tacky sweaters seems deliberately chosen for texture and color. Only Mother and Student are dressed rather blandly most of the time (and Mother is undressed quite a bit). The bunker itself is unremarkable although it seems a bit less spartan than the other onscreen bunker homes I’ve seen. Perhaps that is a European thing.

The performances are actually pretty good, and considering there are only four people in the film, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. Von Maydell has a thankless task playing a controlling woman yet making her sympathetic, while Fripan as the man-boy Klaus has the weirdest role of all and pulls it off without making it a caricature.

This is really not a movie for everybody. While some have marked it as a horror film (and several horror websites have given the film some coverage), it is more of a cult film. Yes there are aliens but they are never seen; for all we know they could manifest inside Mother’s head alone. However, the constant barrage of weirdness and the skewed point of view may be off-putting to those who are uncomfortable with the bizarre. For my taste, this is something you might have seen back in the days of the Weimar Republic only with a kind of Russ Meyers edge, along with the filmmakers I’ve already mentioned. This is a strange one, but if you like strange, you’re gonna like this.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s weird but in a good way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This might be a little more twisted and out there than mainstream audiences are comfortable with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and plenty of nudity as well as some violence and a fair amount of corporal punishment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made it’s debut in 2015 at Austin’s venerated Fantastic Fest.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wiener-Dog

Iraqi Odyssey


A family outing in the Iraq that was.

A family outing in the Iraq that was.

(2014) Documentary (Typecast) Jamal al Tahir, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Suhair Jamal Aldin, Samira Jamal Aldin, Tanya Uldin, Samir Jamal Aldin. Directed by Samir

documented

Generally, when people in the West think of Iraq, the impression isn’t very good. We find savage religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, an army that turned and ran at the first sign of ISIS, a democracy in chaos. Of course, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility on that score when we’re talking about that last item, but still most people have a very negative opinion about Iraq in general.

However, people tend to forget that once Iraq was one of the most modern of Middle East countries, one in which the middle class was strong and education was valued. Once having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, the monarchy in Iraq was actually relatively progressive compared to other countries in the region. Women in Baghdad dressed as they did in Los Angeles and the universities in Iraq produced some of the finest doctors and engineers in the world.

That’s all changed now, and with all the upheaval that has been suffered by that country, from Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party’s brutal repression through the unnecessary Iran-Iraq war to the bombing of the Gulf War and it’s sequel to the American occupation, many of the finest citizens of Iraq have spread to the four winds.

This documentary is the story of one family, well-to-do and middle class and progressive (the daughters, for example, were allowed to marry for love rather than by parental arrangement) who can trace back their lineage back to the prophet Mohammed (but are mainly secular now) and whose own family mirrors the chaos in Iraq. The family for various reasons has scattered across the globe and while director Samir mentions a good many of them, he focuses on Jamal who now lives in Moscow, Sabah who now lives in New Zealand, Suhair who lives in Buffalo, Samira who lives in London and Samir himself in Switzerland.

In doing so we get a fairly detailed crash course on Iraqi history of the 20th century. We see the communist party in postwar Iraq ready to assume leadership but abandoned by Moscow after the Cuban Missile crisis, leading the way for the Baathists – who were founded as an outgrowth of the Nazi party – to take over.

Through home video and archival footage we get a sense of the closeness of the clan, the activities they took part in and the anguish that has overtaken them all, scattered across the globe as they are. To put it in perspective, think of your own family and imagine that every last one of them lived in a different corner of the globe. How would that affect your own happiness?

The film is amazingly informative and gives us a good deal of insight into the issues of the Middle East from a perspective most of us haven’t really been exposed to. The major problem here however is that the film is nearly three hours long and after awhile it’s like a university lecture that has gone on much too long. The interviews with the family members tend to take place against black backgrounds and are often in English, although they are also in German and Arabic and I believe, Kurdish as well, which doesn’t help audiences with attention span issues, i.e. Americans.

The use of graphics is nicely integrated into the film, with charts and graphs indicating the relationships between the various family members (very much appreciated) and the distance between family members geographically (not so much). The music, mainly comprised of traditional instruments of the region, from time to time playfully uses regional music of the region where the interviews are taking place (the Marseilles in France or the Star-Spangled Banner in the United States) and one gets a sense of the humor that these extraordinary people have had to have in order to stay relatively sane. We also get a sense of the loneliness and isolation many of them feel.

In many ways this may end up being the definitive work of the Iraqi Diaspora and academics may well want to study it. However for the casual viewer, this is quite a momentous undertaking and while chock full of admirable material, may be a little bit much for those who are easily bored. However, those who don’t mind binge watching 13 hours of their favorite Netflix show might benefit from putting that kind of discipline to work here.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely informative. Clever use of graphics and music.
REASONS TO STAY: Way, way, way too long. Very much like watching home movies.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over four million Iraqis live in Diaspora as of this writing..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outside the Law (2010)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Stink!

Please Help


While this is a movie review site, I’d like to take the time to ask all of my readers a favor.

I’d like to introduce you to Kellyn Nabozny, a student in Michigan. She’s the pretty gal in the picture above. She is an amazing young woman, someone who has been dealt a few lousy cards by life. Most of the details are on the site I’ll be directing you too and it’s explained much more concisely there than I ever could here but here’s the skinny; she needs a service dog.

She has some serious neurological issues that leave her barely able to walk (with the aid of a walker) as well as back issues that leave her in chronic pain, unable to bend at all which means she needs assistance to do even the simplest of tasks. She is a beautiful 23 year old woman who has been going to school and running her own business – a bakery and catering business – until a combination of mounting medical bills and her pain and neurological issues rendering her unable to do the physical work needed.

Her website will enable people to donate money to help her get her dog. Service dogs are expensive propositions and Kellyn needs the dog to help her get around and lead a normal life. I’m asking all of you who stop by to read my reviews to take a gander at her site and if you can, donate whatever you think is appropriate. Even a $5 donation, the cost of a cup of coffee, can help change this young lady’s life for the better.

Come on down and meet Kellyn at this site. Please give if you can. Thanks.