Aferim!: Slavery Romania Style

B+ Period road movie

Written by Radu Jude & Florin Lăzărescu

Directed by Radu Jude

Racially-based slavery wasn’t limited to the Americas in the 1800s. As Radu Jude’s Aferim! shows, it was common in parts of Eastern Europe while it ravaged souls in Virginia. And the despised, enslaved people were not the decedents of sub-Sahara Africans, but Romas.

Set in Wallachia in 1835, Aferim follows a constable and his teenage son as they hunt down, capture, and bring back an escaped slave. These are clearly not protagonists we’re expected to warm up to. In one of the first scenes, the father questions a woman, insults her, and then becomes livid when she tells him she’s not feeling well (he’s scared of the plague).

Not that he and his son are all bad. They stop to help a priest with wagon trouble (sort of the medieval version of a flat tire). But the priest’s bigotry makes the constable’s seem mild. He explains that the “gypsies” are human, but inferior to Christians, while the Jews are not even human, but the decedents of horrible giants.

Much of the film consists of conversation between the father and son and the people they meet on the road–many of which they consider inferior. The constable talks a lot, often using a coarse and obscene vocabulary. The son is quiet and possibly retrospective. He occasionally expresses sympathy for those they meet–even the Roma.

The word Roma never comes up the film. Like African American, it didn’t exist in the 19th century, and most of the words available to define these people were pejoratives. In addition to gypsies, they’re called crows–a word that suggests that they are black.

You may have noticed that I used the word medieval a few paragraph up. It’s appropriate. Although set at a time when England and the USA were laying down train tracks and stringing up telegraph wire, Aferim shows a part of Eastern Europe that had yet to meet the enlightenment. The economic system was still very feudal, and the Church still controlled society with a violently racist doctrine.

The moral issues become more complicated after the constable and son capture their bounty. He ran away because he had an affair with his owner’s wife. The owner, a powerful aristocrat, found out and the punishment is expected to be horrific. Even the bigoted constable feels bad about what will happen when they return their prisoner.

Shot in widescreen black and white, Aferim uses few close-ups, as if trying to keep us from getting to close to the characters. Based on historical records, the film is studying a (thankfully) long-gone society, not the souls of a father and son. But it’s a fascinating look into that society and well-worth catching.

Sundance Film Festival 2015 Award-Winning Shorts

A- Selection of shorts

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all turn up in this selection of six short subjects that won awards at the 2015 Sundance film festival. I loved five out of the six.

World of Tomorrow, Short Film Jury Award

a little girl, scarcely more than a toddler, receives a visit from a full-grown, multi-generational clone of herself living centuries in the future. In the clone’s monologue, we learn of a world of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. The animation is extremely simplistic, as befits such a morality tale.

SMILF, Short Film Jury Prize: US Fiction

Few things are as funny as extremely awkward sex–as long as it’s only a movie. A single mother who hasn’t had any since her son was born (I’d guess two years) invites an old boyfriend over for a quick bonk while the toddler naps. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Beyond the laughs, it offers a real taste of one of the major frustrations of young parenthood.

Oh Lucy, Short Film Jury Prize: International Fiction

Touching, funny, sad, and totally unpredictable, this Japanese comic drama starts out almost as an anti-smoking commercial. An unhappy, chain-smoking middle-aged women coughs a lot. Then her niece talks her into taking English lessons. It’s best if you don’t know what happens after that, but it swings from hilarious absurdity to quiet sadness.

The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Short Film Jury Prize: Non-Fiction

Basically a collection of screen tests, where several young girls–all in identical outfits and makeup–audition for the part of a famous Ukrainian ice skater. For much of the film’s seven minutes, it’s little more than kids being cute. But every so often, the tragedy of today’s Ukraine breaks through, and you see the horrors of war on the young faces.

Storm Hits Jacket, Short Film Jury Prize: Animation

The weakest in the batch. This badly animated fable from France seems to be about something, but I’m not sure what. Two inept guys with some sort of invention get caught in a storm. A woman comes into the picture. There’s a bad guy, and some sexual innuendo. I think it was supposed to be funny.

Object, Short Film Special Jury Prize for Poetic Vision

In this wordless Polish short, a group of men walk to a spot on a frozen lake, and cut a hole in the ice. Then one man in scuba gear goes through the hole to look for something while his friends make sure he’s safe. We never find out who these men are or what “Object” they’re looking for. But it doesn’t really matter. Beautiful images, strong atmosphere, and a sense of dread (this work looks real dangerous) are enough to make this a powerful short.

Too much history in The Girl King

B Historical drama

Written by Michel Marc Bouchard

Directed by Mika Kaurismäki

Few screenwriters can effectively boil down a monarch’s career into 106 minutes. To do it right, you have to decide on what is important, create composite characters, and rearrange the order of events. In other words, you have to turn fact into fiction.

And that’s exactly what screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard failed to do in this biopic of Sweden’s 17th-century monarch, Queen Kristina (Malin Buska). In less than two hours, we get glimpses of her insane mother, her desire to uplift her subjects, her religious wavering, her diplomatic work to end the 30-Year War, her many suitors, her friendship with the great philosopher René Descartes, and her sexual and romantic relationship with one of her ladies in waiting.

That would have made a fantastic 12-hour television miniseries. But cramming all that into a movie you can watch in one sitting gets confusing. You can’t track all of the characters and plot threads. It becomes an incoherent collection of scenes.

Early on, Kristina announces that she wants to educate your subjects and eliminate illiteracy from the Swedish Empire. if she succeeds–or even tries–we don’t know about it. She sets out to bring peace to Europe (war between Catholics and Protestants has been raging for 30 years). How does she do it? By sending an ambassador to Germany, and an army to conquer Prague (seemingly to take books as war booty).

But here’s the dilemma: It’s an incoherent collection of really good scenes. If you screened any ten-minute section, you’d be left desperately wanting to watch the entire movie. So in some ways, it’s a really good film. And that makes picture’s weaknesses all the more frustrating.

Director Mika Kaurismäki rightly centers The Girl King around Malin Buska ‘s magnificent performance in the title role. The story takes her from adolescence to well into her late 20s, and puts her through several emotional wringers. She shows outer strength often mixed with inner fear. She’s resolved, confused, doubtful, lusty, and scared of her own lust. She takes off her clothes, wields a sword, and falls off a horse (not all at the same time). This is really Buska’s film, and she carries it well on her young shoulders.

If anything carried me through the mess of story lines, it was Buska’s performance and the sympathy she generates with the audience. You want her to succeed–and not only because she wants to bring education and peace to Scandinavia. You want her to succeed because she’s a very young woman in an impossible situation.

The film’s best scenes deal with her forbidden relationship with her maiden in waiting, Ebba (Sarah Gadon). We’re never told how far they actually go with each other, but it’s very clear that even their thoughts are crimes in 17th century Europe. When this part of the story ends, the film feels that it should be over. It isn’t.

There’s a lot of good in The Girl King. But considering that the filmmakers were contracted to make a feature film of moderate length, they should have thought harder about the story they wanted to tell.

When I saw this film at the 2015 Mill Valley Film Festival, Kaurismäki and Buska gave a Q&A after the screening. The director proudly told us that the film was very accurate historically. I think that was the problem. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “God never wrote a good play in His life.”

A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

Truth tells the story of a disastrous hoax

B Recent historical drama

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence turned out to be fake, turning it into a scandal about the press attacking the president, giving Bush the boost he needed for re-election. It also destroyed several careers, including that of the biggest and most respected news anchor of the time, Dan Rather.

Writer/director James Vanderbilt uses this story to give us a slick, entertaining, and educational movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. The picture is well-made, but unexceptional. It has one very big casting flaw. But it tells a story that we should all know and remember.

That story is told through the eyes of Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett. And as we’ve come to expect, Blanchett is wonderful. Whether she’s struggling, enjoying her very satisfying work, or throwing biting sarcasm, she hits every note perfectly. I don’t know what the real Mary Mapes looks like, and I don’t care. Cate Blanchett looks and acts absolutely right for the Mary Mapes of this movie.

Not so with Robert Redford as Dan Rather. If you grew up watching broadcast TV news, you know what Dan Rather looks like. And he doesn’t look at all like Robert Redford–even today’s elderly Robert Redford. I did not believe for a moment that Redford was Dan Rather.

The film indulges in some very heavy sentimentality on the evening of Rather’s last broadcast. After he signs out and the broadcast is over, the movie actually switches to slow motion as his loyal staff cheers him on and the music swells.

Despite such silly touches, the film sticks reasonably close to the original facts–at least as I remember them. Mapes led a team to research rumors that Bush had shirked his Vietnam-era military duty. Using family connections, the future president got into the Texas National Guard to avoid going into actual combat–all the while publically supporting the war. But a lot of evidence, arguably incidental, suggested that Bush shirked even that light responsibility; he even went AWOL for months and was never punished for it. Keep in mind that Republicans were building Bush up as a war hero, while attacking the military record of his opponent, John Kerry, who had actually served in combat and was awarded several medals.

While researching these allegations, Mape found what appeared to be the smoking gun: two memos from Bush’s superior, complaining about his behavior. Almost immediately after the report was aired, evidence turned up proving that the memos were forged. Bush’s behavior ceased being the story and everyone was attacking CBS. To this day, we don’t know who forged those memos.

The last section of the film has Mape trying to justify her work to a panel of lawyers that behave like a kangaroo court. She has to make a choice between justifying her actions and holding onto her job. The movie clearly wants us to hope that she’ll succeed in both.

But here’s the problem: Although I am in complete agreement with Mape’s politics, and I believe that Bush’s behavior should have been an issue, I can’t help feeling that both Mapes and Rather should have been fired for this error. They put out a big story based on very faulty evidence. They didn’t know where their source got the memos. They only had copies, which made it impossible to test their age. The text was in a proportional font–possible but very unlikely for a typed memo before the computer age.

The film catches the look of 2004 very well, and it’s amazing how much things have changed in the last 11 years. The computers in this film all have CRT monitors, and most of the TVs are 4×3 standard definition. A few people have wide-screen TVs, and they’re all set wrong–cropping or spreading the old-shaped image to fit the new-shaped TV. Most people with widescreen TVs back then didn’t know how to set them up properly.

Truth reminds us of an important part of recent history, shows how network TV worked in the recent past, and does it all entertainingly. Despite some serious flaws, it’s well worth catching.

Searching for the root of all evil: My review of Experimenter

A- Biopic

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda

Why do so many people do what they’re told, even when the orders given to them are manifestly immoral? That’s what social phycologist Stanley Milgram set out to discover in the early 1960s. His testing methods were controversial, but his results could not be ignored. Michael Almereyda’s engaging biopic uses realism and whimsical expressionism to bring us into these tests, show us how they were done, and reveal how their resulting notoriety effected the rest of his life.

Even if you don’t recognize Milgram’s name, you’ve probably heard about his experiments. Under the ruse of testing how punishment effects learning, Milgram and his assistants would have one person “punish” another with increasingly greater electric shocks. The “victim” was in on the ruse, and would scream in agony while remaining perfectly comfortable. The real idea was to see how many people would continue to torture a fellow human because an authority figure insisted on it.

Most people continued to torture.

The test results became controversial as soon as they were published. Many objected to what Milgram put his subjects through, making them believe that they were hurting someone. Milgram wrote a book on the subject and continued as a college professor, but his academic career was hurt by the controversy.

I don’t know enough about Milgram to have an opinion on the debate, but Almereyda unquestionably takes Milgram’s side. He tells us cinematically that no one was hurt, and that the people who thought they were torturers were let down as easily as possible.

Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the movie) was an American Jew, working under the shadow of the then-recent Holocaust. The big question–why did so many people follow such horrible orders–was a big one at the time. The Holocaust, and Milgram’s ethnicity (there’s no hint that he’s in any way religious) come up again and again in the story.

While the film concentrates on his career, it spends time on his private life. Winona Ryder plays the love of his life, and it’s wonderful to see her again after all these years. She plays the conventional loving and supporting wife, but with an intelligence that suggests that she understands her husband’s work and easily becomes part of it.

Almereyda takes some unusual directions in telling Milgram’s story. Sarsgaard narrates the story as Milgram, addressing the camera directly ala Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Twice, he narrates while walking through a college hallway, with an elephant inexplicitly following him. (Why? Your guess is as good as mine.) A few scenes are set against obviously, and I have to assume intentionally, fake backdrops.

Almost all of the characters in the film are actual people, and they seldom looked like the men and women they were playing. This was only a problem in a couple of scenes involving famous celebrities. Tom Bateman does not look like Dick Cavett, and Kellan Lutz most definitely does not match William Shatner. The short scenes with them felt jarring.

Which is too bad, because the scene with Shatner (and Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis) was the funniest in the film. Here Milgram, working as a paid but powerless consultant, has to watch the creation of a very bad TV movie loosely based on his work.

I’m so glad we now have a good movie on the subject.

Pride, decency, nationalism, and the Bridge of Spies (also the Mill Valley Film Festival screening in Corte Madera)

A- Espionage drama

Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Two superpowers, each hating and fearing the other as a military and ideological enemy, face each other off. Neither wants to back down. Neither wants to give an inch. But both know full well that if their cold war ever got hot, it would be the end of both of them–and probably the end of civilization.

Such is the setting of Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama, Bridge of Spies. Note that I said drama, not thriller. There’s very little conventional suspense or action in this picture. The film concentrates on court rooms and international negotiations. Some minor characters face imprisonment or execution, but the protagonist is only briefly in danger.

That protagonist is a New York lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). As the film begins in 1957, he’s asked to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s not particularly happy about defending a “commie,” but he realizes that everyone deserves a fair trial. In fact, he seems to be the only person in America who realizes that.

Rylance, Spielberg, and his screenwriters (who include the Coen Brothers) turn this spy into a very nice, and even admirable guy. Quiet, self-effacing, and resigned, he spends his time painting cityscapes and self-portraits. When arrested, he refuses to become a turncoat and help the American government–the exact response we’d hope to get from an American spy. Donovan respects Abel’s courage and the two begin an uneasy friendship.

But the film isn’t really about Abel’s trial, or even about the way that trial turns Donovan into one of the most hated men in America. The bulk of the story concerns Donovan’s trip to Berlin in the early 1960s to arrange a spy swap: Abel for Gary Powers–an American spy-plane pilot whose plane was shot down by the Russians.

Meanwhile, the East Germans are holding an American student, and Donovan decides to free him, as well. The East Germans have their own agenda–they want to be seen in the West as a real country, not a Russian puppet.

A handful of scenes are in German. Unfortunately, those scenes lack subtitles. I don’t know why. I’m hoping it was a problem with the pre-release DCP.

A title card at the very beginning tells us that the picture is “inspired by a true story.” I don’t know how much of it is truth, and how much is inspiration, but I like that word inspired. Too many narrative films based on actual events claim that they stick close to the facts. Sometimes they even do what they claim, which usually results in a bad movie.

Bridge of Spies takes you into the early Mad Men era, but without the glamourous clothes. It captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. much of it is dark and unsettling, especially in Berlin.

Tom Hanks plays his patented decent American guy (yeah, I know, James Steward actually owns the patent). His Donovan appears to be a reasonably good lawyer who turns, through experience, into a great negotiator. But he has little faith in his own abilities. In his own eyes, he’s a lost American with no overcoat and a bad cold, stumbling in the dark as he faces more skilled adversaries. Hanks doesn’t give us a great performance, but he gives us everything we need, including a star that we’re used to rooting for.

For most of the film, Spielberg avoids the smooth camera movements, the Spielberg Face, and the other tricks that tend to drown many of his films in sentimentality. But when Donovan comes home to his loving family, the sentimentality is laid on thick. There’s even an absurdly convenient TV news broadcast. The movie would have ended much better if it had ended ten minutes sooner. (Maybe five minutes sooner, but it felt like ten.)

I saw the film Tuesday at a Mill Valley Film Festival screening at the Corte Madera Century Cinema. None of the filmmakers were in attendance, and there was no Q&A.

The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Amongst the films I saw there in first run were The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home–all in 70mm. (Bridge of Spies isn’t particularly immersive, and didn’t really need that screen.)

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