Lore (2013)

Lore, movie, NaziThe eponymous heroine of the movie Lore (trailer) is 14-year-old Hannalore. Her parents have been staunch National Socialists, and at the end of the war both have disappeared, and the only sure thing about their fates is that they are not coming back. Lore, her younger sister, twin brothers, and baby brother are alone in a cabin in the Black Forest with no food. The neighbors know whose children they are and want them out.

To find refuge, they must attempt to traverse the length of a ravaged Germany to their grandmother’s home in the north. Without papers, crossing from the American to the Russian to the British Zone is chancy and requires night travel. And the Russians hate them on sight. Along their laborious way, they encounter many unspeakable results of war, but little food, and Lore gradually depletes the cache of her mother’s jewelry for an egg or a little milk for the baby.

Gradually, Lore sees the consequences of her parents’ politics. In one town, she studies the photos posted of the death camps. Other people attempt to explain away how such pictures could come to be, but Lore sees something they do not—the SS officer managing the disposition of the prisoners is her father.

They meet a young Jewish man who turns out to be a useful guide, protector, and scavenger for food. But Lore cannot overcome the anti-Semitism drilled into her, and her relationship with him is both tense and confused, mixing repulsion and desire. The younger children recognize him for what he is: a friend.

Australian director Cate Shortland cast newcomer Saskia Rosendahl as Lore, and the young actress does a remarkable job, as do all the children (the baby was certainly an enthusiastic crier!). The film builds in power as the revelations of this difficult journey affect Lore, and she too faces moral choices and their consequences. “We know where this is going pretty early on,” says reviewer Steven Boone for Roger Ebert.com, “but that doesn’t prevent Lore from being riveting stuff, start to finish.”

In the Crosswind

In the Crosswind, Martti Heide, Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song

Laura Peterson & Tarmo Song, In the Crosswind

If ever a movie deserved to be called an art film, this 2014 Estonian film is it (trailer). Director Martti Heide’s full-length debut chronicles Stalin’s 1941 sudden overnight deportation of 40,000 citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to forced labor camps in Siberia. Families were separated, people worked in slave-labor conditions, food was minimal, and many starved. No food was provided for children.

The story, based on a real-life diary, follows the experiences of Erna, a young wife and mother (played by Laura Peterson) desperate to reunite with her husband Heldur (Tarmo Song) and return home. While the story is perhaps typical for people in such brutal circumstances, the way of filming it is not. Heide took months sometimes to set up his shots, which are filmed in long, unedited, silent takes (with a soundtrack of gunshots, trains, creaking cartwheels, and so on added later). But the people do not move. Nor is there dialog. Peterson narrates in voice-over the entries from Erna’s diary, as a series of letters to Heldur.

Instead of action, the camera weaves among the actors, as they stand frozen in position. In an early scene, it circles Erna and Heldur embracing among the passengers waiting to be herded aboard a train, then moves on through the crowd. Then it finds Erna again, leaning out of the cattle car door, looking for Heldur, who stands in the distance. Watching this movie is like examining a series of richly detailed still photographs. Remarkable.

The technique symbolically mimics the way life stood still for the refugees. While it results in a slowly unfolding story, for me, the film was very powerful. Only when Erna is at home, in the beginning scenes and in reverie, do people move in a conventional way. To paraphrase what one refugee said, the Soviet Union might have my body, but my heart (what animates me) is still in Estonia.

IMDb reviewers give it a 7.9 out of 10.0 rating. It was a selection of the Trenton International Film Festival.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Ronit Elkabetz, Gett, Israel

Ronit Elkabetz and cast in Gett.

The Israeli movie Gett (trailer) is the story of Viviane Amsalem and her five-year struggle to obtain a divorce (gett) through Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical courts. The only roadblock: her husband says “no,” and under Jewish religious law, a divorce cannot be granted unless the husband agrees. The entire movie takes place in the courtroom and just outside it, as witnesses come and go and the couple and their lawyers face off, in confrontations that rapidly switch between absurdity and tragedy.

This may sound as if there’s not much action, but there is plenty going on emotionally. Except for the lawyers’ confrontations, much of the power of the film comes from the way feelings simmer (mostly) below the surface, through the outstanding performances by the wife (played by Ronit Elkabetz) and husband (Simon Abkarian). He is torturing her in front of the three rabbis who serve as judges, who alternately don’t see it, don’t acknowledge it, and don’t act when they do. This also makes the film a cautionary tale about the difficulties of male-dominated religious courts, intent on shoring up a patriarchic system and oblivious to individual and women’s rights.

Not surprisingly, in real life, Israel’s rabbinic judges claim the movie misrepresents them, which, as Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz says, “misses the underlying point: that the rabbinical courts will not approve a divorce unless the man agrees to it,” citing a 2013 survey that one in three women seeking divorce in Israel is “subject to financial or other extortion by her husband.” The term for these truly “desperate housewives” is “chained women.”

Lest you think the problems of chained women are confined to the Jewish State, in 2013 in New York, criminal prosecutions resulted when rabbis kidnapped and tortured several estranged husbands to persuade them to approve their divorces. (Although the United States regulates marriage, divorce, and remarriage through the secular laws, for these proceedings to be religiously recognized, Orthodox Jews must also have them approved in rabbinical courts.)

Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi directed the film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards and won the Israeli Film Academy Ophir Award for Best Picture. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100% positive ratings (47 critics), and audience approval was 87%.

It’s Tso Good

Chinese food, General Tso's chicken

General Tso’s chicken (photo by Jason Lam, Creative Commons license)

The Search for General Tso (trailer) is an engaging chronicle of cultural assimilation told “with the verve of a good detective story” by writer-director Ian Cheney and producers Amanda Murray and Jennifer 8. Lee, based on a ubiquitous restaurant menu item adapted to Americans’ palate. (A recipe is included on the film website, above.)

Shown during the recent Sedona International Film Festival, at other film festivals around the country, and available for viewing through the link above, this popular, humor-laced documentary also traces the history of the real General Tso, a fearsome warrior from the late 19th Century.

The dish was inspired by President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 and was introduced at the venerable Shun Lee Palace, near Lincoln Center in New York City. But the dish’s history predates its American introduction. Its originator was a Hunan chef named Peng Chang-kuei, who fled Communist China and settled in Taipei, Taiwan. He created General Tso’s chicken in 1955 for Chiang Kai-shek.

Now 90 years old, Chef Peng frowns when shown a picture of the dish, noting he would never use scallions or decorate the plate with broccoli! To achieve a sweet-and-sour taste, the American version adds sugar—another touch unheard of in traditional Chinese cooking.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%.

By Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings. It made me hungry just to post this!

Get Ready for Oscar II – Live Action Shorts

5330266850_a1678cfde1_o_convertedIt’s great that these notable short films are finding more screens to be soon on in movie houses and at home via disc and streaming (via vimeo). Short films are a low-budget way for new directors to show their talent and occasionally lead to bigger and better deals. On Friday, I posted capsule reviews of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Short Documentary, and here’s my take on the five nominees for Best Live Action Shorts—“a diverse and satisfying two-hour program,” says Peter Debruge in Variety. Notably, none of the nominees are from the United States.

  • Aya (Israel and France, trailer) – the longest of the bunch, at 39 minutes, is the comic story of a chance encounter between a young woman waiting at the airport and an arriving passenger. Rotten Tomatoes provides this insightful sentence: “She, charmed Makraioto woven minute before it, is in no hurry to correct him their.” To decode this a bit, the man mistakes her for his assigned driver, and she is in no hurry to correct him there. Directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis.
  • Boogaloo and Graham (UK, trailer) – These are the names of the chickens lively Belfast children Jamesy and Malachy have raised, delighted in their pets and dreaming of running a chicken farm, until changes in the family threaten to shake up the chicken coop. Reportedly, the charming 14-minute movie has received requests from 80 film festivals around the world to show it. Directed by Ronan Blaney and Michael Lennox. My sentimental pick for the Oscar.
  • Butter Lamp (France and China, trailer) – Nomadic Tibetan families pose for an itinerant photographer and his assistant in front of absurd and symbolic backgrounds, with the true background to the scene not revealed until the end. In only 15 minutes, this unconventional and memorable film captures the impact of globalization on Tibetans and the erosion of their traditional culture. Directed by Hu Wei.
  • Parvaneh (Switzerland, trailer) – in this 25-minute film, an Afghan girl living in a Swiss refugee camp encounters bureaucratic difficulties when she tries to send money home to her ailing father. Only an unlikely friend can help. An award-winning student film, Swiss-Iranian Talkhon Hamzavi directed.
  • The Phone Call (UK, trailer) – a shy woman working in a help line call center receives a call from a mystery man that will “change her life forever,” the movie’s promotion says, a “gather ye rosebuds” outcome only modestly hinted at. Featuring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, who handle the telephone call beautifully and movingly, with Edward Hogg and Prunella Scales. “You’ll wonder how it can do in 20 minutes what some full length features can’t in two hours,” says Casey Cipriani for Indiewire. Directed by Mat Kirkby. Perhaps the more likely Oscar recipient. [And the winner!]
Sally Hawkins, live action short film,The Phone Call

Sally Hawkins in The Phone Call

The Last Sentence

The Last Sentence, Jesper Christensen, Torgny Segerstedt It was troubling to view Swedish director Jan Troell’s 2012 film (trailer) based on the experience of crusading journalist Torgny Segerstedt, so soon after the recent tragic events in Paris. Segerstedt was editor-in-chief of one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, and between 1933 when Hitler came to power and his own death in 1945, Segerstedt was a fierce opponent of Naziism, even though much of Sweden’s leadership, including the king, was determined to remain neutral and out of the war. The struggle for journalists’ right—some would say duty—to speak out despite risks to themselves and others has not ended.

Beautifully played by Jesper Christensen, Segerstedt left himself open to criticism and to the devaluing of his motivations by his long affair with a Jewish woman, wife of his publisher. Hollywood’s crusading journalists are noble and flawless (think All the President’s Men), their presumed moral authority overshadowing any rough spots in their personalities, whereas Segerstedt’s uncompromising character is pompous at times and unpleasant at others, he basks in his celebrity, and he’s downright cruel to his wife. “Easy to admire, but very hard to like,” said RogerEbert.com reviewer Glenn Kenny. Truth told, he loves his dogs best.

Producing this film in black and white may have symbolic significance or may be just the preferred Scandinavian style—the film is Swedish, after all. In another Bergman-like touch, Segerstedt sees and converses with the black-clad ghosts of his mother and other women. Slow-moving, like the clear stream (of words?) against which the opening and closing credits appear, there is only a fleeting soundtrack to support the action.

The film left me with a lot of unanswered questions. What happened with his writing? When the authorities demanded that a particular edition not be distributed because of its anti-Nazi editorial (which suggests they had imposed some censorship regime), Segerstedt printed it with a big white space where the editorial would have been. Nice. But we never learn whether he was allowed to continue writing after that (or how he was stopped) until a scene that takes place years later. How did the war affect the Swedish people? There’s little hint of that, beyond putting up blackout curtains. It seems they had electricity, they had food, petrol, champagne at New Year’s. It’s primarily the awareness of Nazi behavior that the viewer brings to the film that explains and justifies both Segerstedt’s simmering outrage and his country’s policy of appeasement. He and his mistress both have suicide plans, if it came to that, but in the absence of any tangible, on-screen threat, their preparations seem self-dramatizing and almost childish.

Segerstedt in a sense provides his own epitaph, which is also the Swedish title of the movie—“Judgment on the Dead”— based on a line from a famous Old Norse poem, which says the judgment on the dead is everlasting. History’s judgment on Segerstedt would be that he was of course right about the Nazis. And if, as the King believed, it would have been his fault if the Germans invaded the country, he would have been among the first to die. NPR’s Ella Taylor called the film “A richly detailed portrait of a great man riddled with flaws and undone by adulation.” Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 76%, audience score 44%.


Museum Hours

Pieter Bruegel, Museum Hours, Jem Cohen

“The Peasant Wedding” by Pieter Bruegel (photo: wikimedia.com)

Quick Netflix queue check: Is Museum Hours on your list? (trailer) If you put it there because you’re looking for an alternative to the deafening noise and frantic pace of action movies, you have succeeded. This 2012 drama was directed by Jem Cohen, the award-winning creator of numerous films about punk rock musicians, including Patti Smith. I haven’t seen those documentaries, but I’m guessing the quiet and snail’s pace of Museum Hours is a significant departure that takes the meaning of “art house film” literally.

Not overloaded with plot, the film includes lots of footage of paintings and sculpture and people looking at paintings and sculpture, a 15?-minute art appreciation monologue on the work of Pieter Bruegel, the point of which was that, in the panoply of people he scatters across his canvases, he doesn’t direct the eye to any single place. You can pick your own center. Each person portrayed is potentially equally important, regardless of the putative “subject” of the work.

That seems to be the Cohen’s point, too. That the two characters—a woman visiting Vienna to attend her comatose cousin—and a museum guard she meets by happenstance, are two random people and subjects as worthy of exploration as anyone else. That’s my guess, anyway.

Only three real speaking parts, all performed superbly: the guard, the out-of-towner, the museum lecturer. Not the comatose cousin. Much of the movie was filmed in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott gave it 5 stars and called it “quietly amazing, sneakily sublime.” Rotten Tomatoes called it “a mesmerizing tale.” Mesmerized, I fell asleep (briefly). Critics rating 94% — Audience: 59%. Like visiting an art museum without leaving home.

A Most Wanted Man

Hamburg, port

Hamburg, Germany (photo: wikimedia)

Ambiguity, betrayal, characterization, desire—The ABC’s of John le Carré are all in place and working hard in this new film (trailer here). The setting is the gritty port city of Hamburg, from whence much violence rained down on America—and the dirty water of the first scene is the proper element for the dirty business to come—and the real world of espionage. I won’t say more about the plot. Acting throughout is exemplary. Perfect music.

(Must contrast this with the over-long, deeply implausible, and fundamentally boring Poirot mystery on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery last night. What happened there? I get it that it’s just supposed to be fun. Wasn’t.)

A Most Wanted Man is both movie title and epitaph. John le Carré’s encomium is a must-read. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%

“The Gatekeepers” Redux

Gaza, Israel, Palestinians, Middle East conflict

(photo: c2.staticflickr.com)

Fred Kaplan’s important Slate article this week about Israeli leaders’ apparent inability to think strategically about its worsening situation—at home and in the world—included a reference to the superb documentary of 2013, The Gatekeepers, originally reviewed here 3-18-13. That review is, alas, increasingly relevant, and here it is.

Saw the amazing documentary, The Gatekeepers, yesterday. It reviews the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict through the eyes and words of all six surviving directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. Old footage of the Six-Day War in 1968—after which Israel annexed the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Gaza—and subsequent events—the bus bombings, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the intifadas, pinpoint bombings of Palestinian targets, meetings brokered by President Clinton—all roll on hopelessly toward the present stalemate.

To a man, these former spy chiefs, who have studied the Israeli security situation closer than anyone else, believe the hardline strategy has been a mistake, that fighting when Israel should have been working for peace has made the country less safe, not more. Continued saber-rattling takes its toll on every one of them, and their childhood dreams of a peaceful Israel have turned into a nightmare for everyone, Israeli and Palestinian alike. As one said, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This line from the New York Times review is especially apt. “It is hard to imagine a movie about the Middle East that could be more timely, more painfully urgent, more challenging to conventional wisdom on all sides of the conflict.”

The Orchard

The Cherry Orchard, The Orchard, Chekhov, movie

(photo: pixabay.com)

Interesting experience recently, seeing The Orchard (trailer) at the Trenton Film Festival. In the story, filmed in real time, six actor friends get together for a weekend to prepare an improvisational performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—the world’s most performed play. Excellent score by Towering Inferno.

The movie script is something of a mashup of Chekhov and Pirandellos’ Six Characters in Search of an Author, but with its own absurdist excesses. (I’ve seen Six Characters and have forgotten it in its entirety.) With the heavy regional English accents and scenes where everyone talks at once, I missed a lot, but that seems the intent.

The private arguments over which actor should play which part suggest viewers are glimpsing intimate scenes that expose jealousies, rivalries, and personal histories. But, really, they’re scripted. After a while, the story moves seamlessly into Chekhov. And out again. Some of the non-AC scenes could be 20 percent shorter, but the cast is terrific in their actor and Chekhovian personae. As the synopsis says, after this weekend, “Will they ever be friends again?” Good question.

Personally, I think Wallace Shawn’s Vanya on 42d Street (1994) was easier to watch—another movie about trying to mount a Chekhov play, but The Orchard is a worthy effort suitable for specialty audiences with a taste for fine ensemble acting.