My Wonderful Wanda (Wanda, mein Wunder)


Not your typical family gathering.

(2020) Dramedy (Zeitgeist) Agnieszka Grochowska, Marthe Keller, André Jung, Jacob Matschenz, Birgit Minichmayr, Bruno Rajski, Iwo Rajski, Anatole Taubman, Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewki, Gottfried Breitfuss. Directed by Bettina Oberli

 

In recent years, women from Eastern Europe have flocked to wealthier countries in Western Europe to act as in-home caregivers for wealthy families. Often, these women are the sole breadwinners for their families and are away from their children often for months at a time.

Wanda (Grochowska) is one such, a Polish woman who travels by bus to Switzerland where she works for the industrialist Wegmeister-Gloor family who have a gorgeous home on the shores of Lake Zurich. Patriarch Josef (Jung) has been laid up by a stroke and needs Wanda to stretch his atrophied limbs, help him go to the bathroom, bring meals and whatever else needs doing. She does so with quiet competence and compassion. Josef is fond of her, but perhaps not so fond as his 28-year-old son Gregi (Matschenz) is, although Gregi lacks the intestinal fortitude to act on his desires. Daughter Sophie (Minichmayr), a redheaded hurricane who is petulant and paranoid, and says all the wrong things, arrives with her lawyer husband Manfred (Taubman), while regal Elsa (Keller) presides over all with elegance and warmth.

Wanda also has a less savory side deal going on with Josef that yields unforeseen consequences and throws the delicate family dynamic into chaos. Sophie, already convinced that Wanda is out to screw the family over, is livid and while a compromise is worked out that will theoretically make everyone happy, nobody consults those most affected by the situation.

While there are elements of a class war farce going on here, the movie is really about family dynamics and although there is a good deal of eccentricity in this particular family, there is something realistic about them as well. Oberli, who co-wrote the film along with Cooky Ziesche, takes great pains to give the family members distinctive personalities and backgrounds. Oddly enough, that is not the case for the title character whose motivations and feelings are rarely expressed in the movie, and while some of her backstory is given through Zoom conversations with her kids back in Warsaw, Wanda remains the most enigmatic character in the movie.

The acting is strong here, but none stronger than Keller, who like Charlotte Rampling, was a big star in Europe who was imported to Hollywood in the 1970s and then after a brief run as a leading lady, returned back to European movies. She remains an engaging screen presence and is the emotional center of this particular film, and for those like me who got to know her in films like Bobby Deerfield and Marathon Man, it is wonderful seeing her again, particularly in a role that utilizes her talents nicely.

The movie tends to be at its weakest when it goes for farce, particularly in the third act. It does run a little bit long for American audiences and some of the action tends to be a little bit soap opera-esque in places, but overall this is a strong film with some terrific performances that while not particularly illuminating, is at least a bit different than what we’re used to.

REASONS TO SEE: Keller is a regal presence, and it’s wonderful to see her onscreen again.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the soapy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keller trained as a ballet dancer before a skiing accident at age 16 forced her to change her emphasis to acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being There
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Fiona

Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky

Sorry We Missed You


It’s a grim prognosis for the working class.

(2019) Drama (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberKris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Irons, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Collard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg, Darren Jones, Nikki Marshall. Directed by Ken Loach

 

It has likely never been harder to be a working man now than since the Middle Ages. Making ends meet is nearly impossible; wages have dropped sharply while the cost of living continues to rise. Jobs are not plentiful, certainly not of the kind that pay well enough to live decently. Cutting corners has become a way of life as people traverse the gig economy with tentative steps, knowing that they are much like people walking in a minefield with steel-toed boots.

Ricky Turner (Hitchen) has just lost his job in the construction industry and frankly, he’s sick and tired of working jobs that can be taken away from him at a moment’s notice. He wants to be his own boss and make a wage that will allow his family to have the things they need. However, jobs are particularly scarce in Newcastle, where he and his sweet wife Abbie (Honeywood) live with their teenage son Sebastian, or “Seb” as they call him (Stone) and their brilliant tween daughter Liza Jae (Proctor).

One of Ricky’s mates links him up with PBF, a parcel delivery service who is run by the bullet-headed bulldog-like Maloney (Brewster) who runs his business like a drill sergeant. In the parlance of PBF, they don’t hire employees, they onboard independent drivers. Drivers must supply their own vans, or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate. However, if Ricky works hard and delivers his parcels on time, he will be making more than he ever did in construction, maybe enough so after two years they can save enough to put a down payment on a house, the dream of many renters.

isn’t quite so enthusiastic. In order to buy a van, they’ll have to sell the car that she uses to get to her job which is as an in-home caregiver to the elderly. She goes to their homes, cooks their meals, bathes them and tucks them into bed. She’s ideally suited for the job, but her clients are all over the map and getting to her appointments on time required a car. Taking the bus will cause her to be late more often. However, in the interest of family harmony, she gives in.

At first, things are sunshine and roses. Ricky does well on his route and becomes Maloney’s fair-haired boy, but there are some troubling signs. For one thing, the constant murderous pace of delivering parcels means drivers never get breaks and must learn to pee in a bottle rather than stopping anywhere for a bathroom break. For another, missing delivery windows and deadlines can lead to a system of demerits, which cost the drivers fines which put them in debt to PBF, forcing them to work more.

To make matters worse, Seb is indulging in some hooligan-ish behavior, skipping school, spray-painting graffiti along the roadsides and eventually getting into more serious trouble, forcing his parents to miss work in order to attend meetings with school headmasters and eventually police officers. Ricky is often so exhausted that he can barely see straight when he drives his van and taking the bus has forced Abbie to work longer hours as well. And despite the promise of better pay, the family is barely holding their heads above water as it is – it will take only the slightest of bumps to drown the lot of them.

Loach is one of the finest English directors of the past four decades and when I say that this is one of his best ever, keep in mind that he has films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake on his filmography. Like many of his films, this is a taut, no-frills productions – there’s no score, and few special effects. The brisk pace keeps the story moving and whereas lesser directors might get bogged down in subplots, Loach and his longtime collaborator writer Paul Laverty keep their focus throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets fantastic performances from the entire cast, some of whom are non-professionals and Hitchen and Honeywood exhibit some marvelous chemistry and screen presence. The dynamic for the entire Turner family feels organic and realistic; this could be the family living in the flat (or apartment) three doors down from yours, Ricky the guy down at the pub (or bar) rooting for his favorite team (in Ricky’s case, Manchester United).

The accents are very thick here, as they are in that part of England and so subtitles are necessary; some of the phrases may not be familiar to American audiences, so it might be frustrating to those who aren’t familiar with English idioms. Still, this is a marvelous film that is a triumph for the 83-year-old director who shows no signs of slowing down. This is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing the working class, so much so that it may cut a little too close to home for some. Even so, it should be required viewing for economics and business students who should see what the human toll of the current profits-at-any-cost mindset of business worldwide really is.

REASONS TO SEE: A grim portrayal of the working class circa 2019. The family dynamic feels very realistic. Hitchen and Honeywood do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: The heavily-accented English requires subtitles and some of the idioms used may be difficult to follow for the layman.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The license plate number for Ricky’s van is AK65 JFX.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: DriverX
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project


Worshiping at the video altar.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberMelvin Metelits, Richard Stevens, Frank Heilman, Anna Lofton, Michael Metelits, Maurice Borger, Mizzy Stokes, Anthony Massimini, Anne Stokes-Hochberg, Roger McDonald, Marion Stokes. Directed by Matt Wolf

 

There is a very fine line between obsession and compulsion. We can take a hobby or something that we enjoy doing and allow it to take over our lives to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes, good things may come of it. Most often, however, it takes a toll on our relationships and the state of our own minds.

Marion Stokes was by all accounts a brilliant woman, an African-American Philadelphia librarian who leaned towards socialism, but after marrying Michael Metelits, became involved with the Communist Party of America, which she eventually grew to disdain for its lack of action. She and Metelits at one time wished to emigrate to Cuba but was denied an entry visa by the Cuban government.

Disillusioned, she returned home to Philadelphia where her marriage quickly crumbled. She eventually became involved with a television show on a CBS affiliate in Philly called Input, a Sunday morning talk show hosted by John Stokes, who as a contractor had become well-to-do and eventually, she and Stokes fell in love and were married.

The Iran hostage crisis fascinated Marion. She intuited that the way news was being presented to the masses was changing. Wanting to document that change with a librarian’s zeal for preservation and organization, she started recording news broadcasts. With the advent of CNN a year later, the project became much more of a life.

Marion and John became virtual recluses and Marion, whose personality had a strident tone to it, became very possessive of her husband’s time. Their children were virtually shut out from their lives (although they never had children together, they each had children from previous marriages) and Marion took complete control of John’s life. Meanwhile the taping went on, several VCRs taping anywhere from three to eight channels at any given time, with assistants changing tapes (on those rare occasions when Marion went out for any length of time, her limo driver Richard Stevens would be sent home just to change the tapes on the VCR.

Time passed, and so did John. Marion lived in virtual seclusion, with a nurse and an assistant providing companionship, as well as assistance with her project. The momentous events of the end of the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st) were captured on Marion’s videotapes; the fall of the Berlin Wall, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana and her death years later, 9/11, the election of Barack Obama (which had special resonance for Marion) and also the minutiae – a local woman who decided to be buried in her Cadillac – and was, for example. Stories that captivated for a time and were quickly forgotten, all preserved.

When she died in 2012, she left behind more than 70,000 videotapes even though towards the end finding blank videotapes to record on had become increasingly difficult. Many of them were identified only with Post-It notes and all of them were on a type of medium that wasn’t meant to last forever. As we speak, her collection is being digitized and cataloged, something the librarian in her would no doubt approve of. One day, her incredible project will be available for everyone to peruse.

The big elephant in the room (or on the film) was Marion’s mental state. There was no doubt a bit of a hoarding mentality to her; at her death she had collected not only the videotapes but more than 50,000 books (she was a voracious reader), furniture she never used and an uncountable number of newspapers. She had gone from a single apartment in the swanky Barclay building in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to seven, all full of her collections. Although her personality was generally prickly – she didn’t take to being disagreed with at all – one gets the sense that beneath that disagreeable facade there was a genuinely caring heart. We see that mostly through her son, who was estranged from his mother for a good number of years but managed to reconcile with her shortly before she passed.

While I wouldn’t say this is an essential documentary, it is a fascinating one and it’s told in simple fashion without a whole lot of bells and whistles. Fans of docs in general are going to like this; it’s the kind of film you find at your local film festival and leave deciding that if you’re going to find films like this there, you’ll have to come back the following year for more.

REASONS TO SEE: Stokes is not always likable but one has to admire her intelligence. The dizzying array of news stories she recorded is mind-boggling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score gets a little bit annoying in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stokes was a lifelong admirer of Steve Jobs and to support him bought a massive amount of Apple stock at $7 per share. Already moderately wealthy at the time, this elevated her to a different level of rich.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mission: Impossible – Fallout

A Space Program


A tea service on Mars.

A tea service on Mars.

(2015) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Tom Sachs, Hailey Gates (voice), Pat Manocchia (narrator), Mary Eannarino, Sam Ratanarat, Chris Beeston, Evan Ross Murphy, Patrick McCarthy, Nick Doyle, Van Neistat, Kevin Hand, Jeff Lurie, Jared Vandeusen, Gordon Milsaps, Sarah Hoover, Bill Powers, Sarah Vasil, Greg Vane, Sarah Sachs, Arthur Sachs, Max Ellenbogen, Aunt Irma, Lila Ellenbogen. Directed by Van Neistat

 

There is art and then there is Art. The difference between the two is that art is reflective, stimulating, inspiring and Art is pretentious and arrogant. Art talks down to people; art brings them into the conversation. Art is made for the artist; art is made for the people.

Tom Sachs follows the dictates of bricolage, in which the artist uses mainly found materials and a fairly strict list of other materials to create. In this case, at a large space (normally used for things like basketball games) in New York City, he decided to do something about the space program and NASA. Using mainly plywood, steel and other mediums, he and his team crafted an environment of Mission Control, a lunar landing and a faux Mars to merge performance art and bricolage into a kind of art environment. Not being the sort of person who pays much attention to art (other than the cinematic kind), I’m not certain if this is innovative or not but something tells me it’s been done.

Probably not in this manner and on this scale, to be fair. The storyline posits a manned mission to Mars in which two female astronauts (Eannarino, Ratanarat) are sent on a mission to the Red Planet to research whether life exists there. While they are there they perform a traditional Japanese tea service and plant poppy seeds (off of a hamburger bun) in order to grow poppies so that heroin can be distilled, helping NASA defray the costs of sending an expedition to Mars. You have to give them points for out-of-the-box thinking.

There are certainly elements of whimsy here and some of the constructions are quite clever. I’m never quite certain whether the artist is poking fun at man’s pretensions of space conquest, or honoring human ingenuity through ingenuity of his own. As with all art – or even Art – it is open to the interpretation of the viewer and there is no wrong interpretation.

One of the problems I have with the film is that it almost has an obsessive-compulsive disorder in certain ways, endlessly discussing the materials used by the bricoliers in constructing the installation (do we really need to know why plywood was an ideal medium?) which does little to enhance our appreciation of the artwork and quite frankly feels like it’s being used to pad out the film, which clocks in at a short 72 minute running time, but feels much longer – also thanks to assigning each character a code name using military call signs based on their first and last names (Evan Murphy becomes Echo Mike, Tom Sachs becomes Tango Sierra and so on). They also flash to a faux ID badge for each cast member. It gets monotonous.

I will admit freely I’m not the intended audience for this; I am neither a hipster nor an art geek. People who are into art, are into trends or are into more intellectual pursuits might well find this fascinating. There is certainly some reflection on the process, although it is mainly in the execution rather than of the conception; the film doesn’t go into at all why Sachs chose this subject, or how he got the idea of creating Mission Control and Mars in a performance space. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more from that angle.

So not my cup of tea really, but as a document of an important work of modern art, it can be said that this is vital work. From the aspect of the layman however, there is an air of self-important smirking that didn’t really go down well with me. Maybe because I’m a bit of a space buff, I found it a little more irreverent than I was comfortable with. Then again, good art does make you reconsider your position while skewering the icons of culture. In that sense, this is a successful film.

REASONS TO GO: A record of an important piece of modern art.
REASONS TO STAY: The obsessive discussion of the materials used is pretentious. Not sure if this is hipster art snobbery or an attempt at sacred cow tipping. Despite a 72 minute running time still overstays its welcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a recording of Sachs’ 2012 installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: High Strung

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden


A family portrait of the Wittmers.

A family portrait of the Wittmers.

(2010) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Cate Blanchett (voice), Sebastian Koch (voice), Thomas Kretschmann (voice), Diane Kruger (voice), Connie Nielsen (voice), Josh Radnor (voice), Gustaf Skarsgärd,  Octavio Latorre, Fritz Hieber, Steve Divine, Teppy Angermeyer, Jacqueline De Roy, Gil De Roy, Jacob Lundh, Carmen Angermeyer, Daniel Fitter, Rolf Wittmer. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Late in the film, one of the interview subjects proclaims “Paradise is not a place; it’s a condition.” However, in the 1930s, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America must have seemed a paradise to Europeans who were already feeling the winds of war blowing. Full of tropical beauty and lush vegetation, it must have seemed an ideal place to get away from civilization and lead productive lives.

=Friedrich Ritter (Kretschmann) was a devoted follower of Nietzsche who had a devoted follower of his own in Dore Strauch (Blanchett). Scandalous even in Wiemar Germany, she left her husband and took up with Ritter; the two left Germany to make a life for themselves in the Galapagos, where Friedrich would be freed of the troubles and cares of civilization so he could write the philosophical treatise that he had been longing to (but had been unable to make time to) write. Of the islands, they settle on one called Floreana.

However, things don’t go the way he envisioned them. Strauch, who had multiple sclerosis, is unable to meet the physical demands of living on their own on a tropical island and Ritter, rather than being the understanding lover, seems to embrace the misogyny of his mentor and berates her constantly about her shortcomings.

Things don’t get any better when another German couple, Heinz Wittmer (Koch) and his pregnant wife Margret (Kruger) arrive having heard of Dr. Ritter’s experiment and decide to make their own homestead. The two families are somewhat antagonistic towards each other, Ritter and Strauch viewing them as interlopers while the Wittmers see the other couple as standoffish and arrogant.

However things go from bad to worse to terrible with the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner (Nielsen) from Austria who is loud, brash and sexually forward for her time. She is accompanied by Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorentz whom she identifies as her architect and partner but are in fact her lovers. She has plans to build a luxury hotel on the island but seems somewhat cash-poor. She immediately locks horns with both families who are united in their distaste of her.

The tension on the island reaches a boiling point and real fear begins to grip some of the people on the island. Then, when someone disappears off of the face of the earth, suspicion points in every direction. Who done it? And who was it done to? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This isn’t an episode of Murder, She Wrote; these events actually happened and it was something of an international scandal back in 1933. What sets this documentary apart from a recreation of events is that the filmmakers use home movies taken by the actual participants, and the words you hear spoken in the voiceovers are from the letters and journals of those who were there and witnessed it – including the victims.

That lends a distinct air of poignancy and a little bit of creepiness; we’re literally hearing voices from beyond the grave and seeing apparitions of those long dead. Particularly chilling is a short silent film made on the island starring the Baroness as a kind of pirate queen. John Garth (Radnor), a scientist on board a vessel that made regular mail stops at Floreana, helped film the one-reel film and his observations of the effect the Baroness had on the tranquility of the island is quite telling.

What doesn’t work is the plethora of modern day interviews – some of the descendents of those on Floreana including the son born to Margret Wittmer on the island who was in his 70s when interviewed as well as other residents of neighboring islands. Few of them give much more than analysis of the environment and observations of island life and quite frankly, their contributions are neither illuminating nor entertaining. The movie could have done without them.

But there are some interesting points. The ruins of the Hacienda and of the Baroness’ compound are chilling. The presence of the famous tortoises of the Galapagos not only ground the movie in location but make a nice allegory for the passing of time – some of the tortoises on the island were there when these events happened. That certainly gives one pause.

This really had a dynamite premise and all the ingredients to make a great documentary but that’s not what we got. Instead we got a movie that is a bit frustrating for we have this amazing footage, a great voice cast reading the words of the actual participants and then we break off to hear some inane commentary from someone who once had coffee with the son of someone who knew someone who was related to someone else. I would much rather this have been a much shorter film than padded out with unnecessary analysis.

WHY RENT THIS: What a fascinating subject!  Archival footage is priceless.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Modern-day talking head interviews offer more analysis than exposition and are of little value. .
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the survivors of the events on the island wrote books on the subject which were contradictory but all were consulted by the filmmakers.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage of the filmmakers during their Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $247,159 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ten Little Indians
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: They Will Have to Kill Us First

My Country, My Country


Dr. Riyadh works both sides of the fence.

Dr. Riyadh works both sides of the fence.

(2006) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, David Brancaccio, Carlos Valenzuela, Aaron Castle, Kristopher Scarcliff, Maria Hinojosa, Andre Remmers, Richard Armitage, Edward Wong, Scott Farren-Price, Peter Towndrow, Edward Robertson, Renato Gonclaves. Directed by Laura Poitras

There are many reasons to be against having our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in the United States, we tend to look at it from the standpoint of the safety of our soldiers and that is certainly valid. We want the brave men and women of our armed forces home safe. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to be in harm’s way.

We don’t, however, generally look at it from the viewpoint of the occupied territory. One award-winning filmmaker, Laura Poitras (whose Flag Wars won a Peabody Award in 2003) spent nine months on her own in Iraq during the height of our presence there in 2005. She followed Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, a physician who runs a free clinic in Baghdad, a father of six and an activist in the Iraqi Muslim party and a devout Sunni.

He is running for public office during Iraq’s first democratic elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein but has an uphill climb on that score – many of his fellow Sunnis are boycotting the election, believing them to be a sham and an American manipulation. While Dr. Riyadh is an outspoken critic of the American occupation (we see him visit the notorious Abu Gharib prison and interview some of the inmates through the barbed wire fence), he believes in democracy for the Iraqi people as being the best outcome possible for them.

Poitras also spent time with a team of Australian security contractors whose job turned out to be a lot more than insuring the delivery of ballots to and from the polling systems – at one point they make a weapon buying run to northern Iraq. She was also allowed to attend American military briefings, getting the point of view of the occupiers who were fully aware that the elections would provide the perfect opportunity for dissidents to kill lots of people and wanted to insure the safety of those wishing to vote.

We get a sense of the deep division within the Islamic community of Iraq, as moderates and extremists vie for control of the country. We also get a sense of the utter chaos that this great country has descended to, at least as of 2005. I certainly hope that things have improved there since then although I have to be honest – my gut feeling is that they haven’t, at least more than negligibly.

I wound up truly admiring Dr. Riyadh; he is a man committed to the betterment of his community and his country. He was fully aware that his positions which he was unafraid to make public put a target squarely on his back and on that of his family (they joke about it near the end of the film). Poitras also had a target on her back but surprisingly it was from her own government; she was observed filming from a rooftop during an ambush sequence (which she denied at the time and later admitted to); detractors claimed she had prior knowledge of the attack and since the filming she has been put on a Homeland Security watchlist as a terrorist sympathizer, which is absolute bollocks in my opinion but then, it’s not backed on anything concrete other than my belief that her status is more of a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the HSA. I would assume if they had any concrete evidence that she was supporting anti-American behavior that she’d have been arrested by now.

In any case, I found the film to be an objective look at the occupation from the viewpoint of the occupied, one which we should be considering. I got the sense that Dr. Riyadh and other Iraqis are not so much anti-American but anti-occupation; they want their country back and who could blame them? It’s sad however that Poitras has been regarded with suspicion and harassment for presenting these views; perhaps while we are so concerned with attacks on the Second Amendment, we might also take a look at attacks on the First as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at occupied Iraq in as an objective a fashion as you’re likely to ever see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I found it hard to follow in places and at times wasn’t sure what was going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: First aired as a part of the prestigious PBS P.O.V. documentary series, this was an Oscar nominee for best documentary feature in 2007 although it didn’t win.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is 15 minutes of additional footage shot at Abu Gharib.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,620 on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing the movie probably broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghosts of Abu Gharib

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Accidents Happen

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)


A Town Called Panic

Cowboy and Indians, Cats and Dogs…it’s all the same.

(2009) Animated Feature (Zeitgeist) Starring the voices of Stephane Aubier, Jeanne Balibar, Veronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Christelle Mahy, Vincent Patar, Franco Piscopo, Benoit Poelvoorde, Eric Muller. Directed by Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar

 

When you were a kid (at least if you’re my age or so), you probably spent hours, as I did, in your room playing with your plastic toys, assigning to them personalities and creating entire worlds for them to explore. You would move them around, create dialogue for them and sometimes build sets for them out of other toys, cardboard, shoeboxes, whatever you can find. Some of those playtimes were far more imaginative than anything you’d see on the Saturday morning cartoons.

The Belgian creators of A Town Called Panic realized this and decided to create a Saturday morning cartoon with the same imagination and low budget that they had as kids. Using only plastic toy figures and stop motion animation, they created a television series that was actually a series of five-minute vignettes strung out into half hour television shows. Now, they’re trying their hand at a feature film and it’s alternately charming and strange.

Cowboy (Aubier), Indian (Ellison) and Horse (Patar) live together in the small town where Panic is not just the name, it’s the attitude. Their neighbors are Steven (Poelvoorde) the Farmer and his wife Janine (Dumont) who makes her husband gigantic pieces of toast for breakfast. Horse has a thing for Madame Longree (Balibar), the equine music teacher in town.

With Horse’s birthday around the corner, Cowboy and Indian decide to build him a barbecue. They order 50 bricks over the Internet but due to a computer snafu, that order of 50 bricks becomes 50 million. Cowboy and Indian try to hide their error but the bricks eventually wind up destroying their house. Fortunately, they have enough bricks to rebuild.

But someone keeps stealing their bricks; pointy-headed creatures from the bottom of the sea who arrive through a hole in the ground. Horse, Indian and Cowboy head after them and wind up on a wacky trek to the North Pole (where they are attacked by mad scientists in a mechanical giant Penguin). In the meantime, the shy Horse has to keep giving excuses to Madam Longree why he has missed yet another music lesson.

Even the description here doesn’t do the movie justice; it’s like Gumby on acid. You’d think that a movie as zany as the one I’ve described would move at light speed but that’s not it at all; in fact, one of the main knocks against the movie that I’ve seen is that the pacing is too slow, even for a movie that is only 75 minutes long. Still, there is that out there humor that seems to appeal to Europeans more than all but a select American audience; it’s a bit sad that Americans can’t find the charm and humor as easily in a stop motion film of toys being manipulated as they do in a CGI film of toys being manipulated (i.e. Toy Story).

WHY RENT THIS: Wacky and surreal, will most likely appeal to adults more than children.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes over the top with it’s out of left field.

FAMILY VALUES: Very surreal which might be a bit much for kids but certainly acceptable in terms of violence, sexuality, language and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Town Called Panic was the first stop-motion animated feature to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is the winning entry of a fan video competition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196,176 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski

The Salt of Life (Gianni e la donne)


The Salt of Life

Gianni di Gregorio points at what he wants most in life.

(2011) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

 

When a certain age is reached, people tend to become invisible to the opposite sex – transparent, as one character ruefully comments in this Italian comedy. The tendency is for us to fight against this marginalization and assert our own sexual potency, particularly in the male of the species.

Gianni di Gregorio, who co-wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, has reached that age. He is a pleasant, willing sort who was forced, unwilling, into retirement years ago (although for what reason it is never said). His laid-back, low-key and giving nature are constantly taken advantage of by the women in his life, particularly his nonagenarian mother (Bendoni) who fritters away her life savings while her son scrapes by. She constantly calls her son to come visit her to basically wait on her hand and foot, while her caregiver Kristina (Cepraga) is given designer dresses and jewelry to wear.

Gianni’s wife (Piccolomini) is cordial towards him, although she does belittle him for having nothing to do. Her earnings and Gianni’s pension are barely enough to make ends meet. Still, they have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, although the two of them sleep in separate bedrooms and essentially lead separate lives. With them lives their daughter (Teresa de Gregorio), who is stressed with university exams, and her slacker boyfriend Michi (Ciminale) who seems to spend more time with Gianni than with his girlfriend.

Rome has always been filled with attractive women and Gianni is surrounded by them – besides Kristina there’s Gianni’s ex-girlfriend Valeria (Cavalli) who is newly available and seems to adore him, his neighbor Aylin (Prandi) who professes to be madly in love with him but that seems to be mainly because he is willing to walk her St. Bernard for her and run errands for her while she sleeps off a hangover from yet another night of partying. None of them seem to have much more than a playful flirtation in mind for him and he wonders if he missed out on the romance in life. This spirals him into a mild depression.

Gianni’s best friend and lawyer (Santagata) notices Gianni’s melancholy and advises him to take on a mistress. Gianni warms to the idea – even some of the most decrepit men in his neighborhood have one – and seems to fear the idea of becoming the lonely old man who walks his dog in a Trastevere park every day. But how to go about it?

This is not really a sequel to di Gregorio’s last film, Mid-August Lunch (which I saw at the 2010 Florida Film Festival and it wound up on my list of Ten Best Films that year) so much as it is a continuation. There are several of the same characters in that movie including Santagata and Gianni’s mom. It carries with it the same inner charm and sweetness that the first movie carried.

As in that movie, Gianni is something of a pushover, blandly murmuring “certainly, certainly” when asked to do something by the various women in the movie. Yet when he decides to do something it become woefully obvious he doesn’t have game by modern standards. He is courtly and charming but lacks passion and confidence, something most women look for. He is a hand kisser in an age of ass grabbers. He is so inept at wooing the women around him that one wonders how he got married and managed to sire a daughter.

Gianni has that woeful hangdog look, and his melancholy is palpable throughout the film. He  is aware of the bags under his eyes and although not an un-handsome man, he is no Giancarlo Giannini. In many ways, he is the man most women like to affectionately complain about – somewhat befuddled, a little inept and lost without the women in his life.

The sun-dappled streets of Trastevere are charming and alluring in their own way. Even though Gianni isn’t in the best of financial shape, he still leads an enviable lifestyle; eating well, drinking often and not having to go to work every day. Still, there’s something missing for him, something that leads him to stray onto trails he doesn’t know and isn’t sure where they’re going to lead him.

It seems odd to root for someone to cheat on their wives but it is important to remember that mistresses occupy a different place in Italian culture than in our own. Not that it’s accepted so much as politely ignored. Here, it’s a major no-no so American audiences might have trouble getting behind Gianni’s quest.

Still, this is delightful, laid-back, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. Di Gregorio makes the difficult art of comedy seem effortless, and that’s the mark of a real master. In a landscape littered by raunchy comedies by Judd Apatow and his wanna-bes, this is a refreshing change. Not that I don’t enjoy Apatow’s films or raunchy comedies in general but it’s nice to have variety and isn’t that the salt of life?

REASONS TO GO: Gentle and charming.  Has a sweet sexiness that American films rarely capture.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni lacks inertia. Hard to root for a guy trying to cheat on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo and a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actress playing Gianni’s daughter is in fact his real life daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

ROME LOVERS: This movie is set in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and is the Rome not of tourists but the city where Romans actually live. One gets a real sense of the lifestyle of those who live there.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Raid: Redemption

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Sophie Scholl's trial was stacked slightly against her.

(2005) Historical Drama (Zeitgeist) Julia Jentsch, Gerald Alexander Held, Fabian Hinrichs, Johanna Gastdorf, Andre Hennicke, Florian Stetter, Johannes Suhm, Maximillian Bruckner, Jorg Hube, Petra Kelling, Franz Staber, Lilli Jung. Directed by Marc Rothemund

When confronted by absolute evil, people of good conscience are required to act. In reality, we know that’s seldom the case and when it does happen it rarely ends well for the person who acted.

It is Nazi Germany, February 1943. In Munich, a young woman named Sophie Scholl (Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Hinrichs) are distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University there. They are members of an underground group called The White Rose who stood against the government and were hoping to urge the students to rise up against the Nazis.

The two are just finishing up their task when Sophie accidentally knocks a pile of the leaflets off a balcony where a janitor sees her. He turns them in to the authorities – not so much because he’s a Nazi toady but because he was irritated at having to clean up the mess.

The two are brought to the police station, where Sophie is interrogated by Robert Mohr (Held), a police inspector who while a member of the Nazi party is also a somewhat compassionate man who views Sophie as more of a misguided youth rather than as a dangerous dissenter. Most of the interrogation is a foregone conclusion; the police know that Sophie and Hans did it.

Justice, or what passes for it, works swiftly in Nazi Germany and their trial takes place within a few days. There an outspoken and shrill judge (Hennicke) tries the two Scholls as well as Christoph Probst (Stetter).Sophie is repeatedly offered chances at clemency if she gives names to the tribunal; she refuses, protecting the other members of The White Rose. The trial soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and Sophie, her brother and Probst would pay the ultimate price for their dissention.

Sophie Scholl is a national heroine in Germany, particularly in Bavaria where she lived and died. The filmmakers used actual transcripts of her interrogation and trial, recently unearthed from the former East Germany, to supply the dialogue. Survivors of the period, including members of The White Rose (few as they are; most of the organization was wiped out by the Nazis) who knew Scholl well, contributed to creating the character of Scholl for the movie.

There is an authenticity to the movie that rings true. Sophie’s interrogation contains few grand gestures, few political statements; for the most part, it’s all police procedural – where were you, why were you carrying a suitcase, are you a member of a subversive organization and so on. The very mundane nature of the interrogation makes it all the more sinister and tragic. Mohr, by all accounts a decent man who was horrified by what happened to Scholl and her co-conspirators, is persistent and certain in the justness of his cause. He can’t understand why Scholl, whom he considers privileged and spoiled, would speak out against a system that was responsible for getting him to a position he might never have obtained otherwise. Held gives a note perfect performance of the role.

Jentsch is astonishing and makes Scholl very human. She is no martyr, no Joan of Arc looking heavenward with soulful eyes (although Scholl, a devout Catholic, prayed regularly) but certain of her beliefs. She is terrified of what is to come but refuses to endanger others no matter what the cost. There is a scene near the end where she is allowed to meet with her parents one final time that is absolutely sparkling. The parents are heartbroken that their children are about to die, but justifiably proud at the same time.

Hinrichs didn’t get the acclaim that Jentsch and Held got but in his own right does a terrific job. Hans Scholl has taken a backseat in the hearts of Germans in many ways but he was as brave and suffered the same fate as his sister. He doesn’t get the kind of screen time that Jentsch gets (we see none of his interrogation) but he makes the most of his.

In an era when young people in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin are rising up to say “no” to tyranny, the movie is particularly poignant. While perhaps the protesters in Madison face mere jail time for their demonstration, the students elsewhere are confronted by the very real possibility that they may get shot and killed.

This isn’t a movie that’s flashy or histrionic. We do not see Scholl’s execution; we only hear it against a black screen. The movie proceeds at a slow, inexorable pace that some may find off-putting but the effect is powerful nonetheless. The movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Oscars and while it didn’t win, it certainly was good enough to. The movie hasn’t received a good deal of attention over here but if you’re looking for a compelling drama and you’re willing to look outside the box a little, this is a perfect choice for your DVD viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known element of the war (for Americans). Outstanding performances by Jentsch, Held and Hinrichs. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie proceeds at a somewhat slow pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in chronological order to help the actors feel what Sophie and Hans Scholl felt in their ordeal.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature that contains interviews with people who knew Sophie Scholl and members of the White Rose and captures their commentary on how accurate the movie was in depicting her. It offers some amazing insights.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.2M on an unreported production budget; the film almost certainly was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Adjustment Bureau