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.”

New Janis Joplin doc captures a little piece of her heart

Music documentary

Written and Directed by Amy Berg

I’m giving Janis: Little Girl Blue an A, but I’m not sure if I’m praising filmmaker Amy Berg or the subject of her documentary, Janis Joplin. I think it’s a little of both. If nothing else, Berg should be praised for concentrating on a great artistic and cultural figure, and then doing her more than justice.

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. And she did, dying of a heroin overdose in 1970, at the age of 27.

Janis (I feel odd calling her Joplin) left behind a handful of albums and recorded concerts (some filmed) that electrify the soul. Her voice was a cry for help, a carnal wail, and a call for revolution. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, this film will help you understand her, and introduce you to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music.

As you would expect from a documentary about a performer who died in living memory, Berg’s film contains plenty of concert footage, letters home, and interviews with people who knew and loved her. But the filmmaker understands that we love Janis primarily for her music, and therefore keeps the songs front and center. The music constantly plays as a background to the movie, and it almost always seems to be just the right song.

The interviewed subjects include Clive Davis, Bob Weir, Country Joe Macdonald, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, Kris Kristofferson, and Janis’ two siblings. There’s some archival interview footage with Janis herself –including one very funny moment with Don Adams of Get Smart–but she really only reveals her heart in the letters she writes to her family. And, of course, in the songs. Even the ones she didn’t write tell her story. She owned every song she recorded.

Much of the old footage here has been seen before, especially in Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary, Janis. Berg has a better sense of character and story telling–as well as four decades of historical perspective. And she includes a disheartening clip of Janis’ messed-up performance at Woodstock that I’m pretty sure I never saw before.

I said earlier that we love Janis primarily for her music, but we also love her for what she represented. Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943, her plain looks and progressive views made her an outcast. So she came to San Francisco, embraced free love and a free life, and became a star just as the Summer of Love began. As much as anyone, she represented the sexually-charged, essentially humane, ecstatic joy of the hippie movement.

But in the end, she represented the negative side of that movement as well, dying alone in a motel room from one too many hits of smack.

What would have happened had she cleaned up and lived a long life? Would her voice have blown out before she was 35? Would she have matured as an artist and found new ways to use that voice? One interview near the end suggests that she might have done just that.

Those were the questions I asked myself as the movie came to its end. Janis Joplin was a bright comet that streaked across the sky. Amy Berg has captured the best record yet of that ball of fire.

After its theatrical release, Janis: Little Girl Blue will screen on the PBS series American Masters. I suspect it will be heavily censored.

Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

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.

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