Thursday, April 23, 2015

In BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER, Christophe Gognet tackles the Holocaust via its inmates' art

If you imagine that you've now seen The Holocaust from just about every possible angle, think again. Here's a new one -- from Christophe Gognet, the writer and director of BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER: ART THAT SURVIVED THE NAZI CAMPS -- that gives us the horror all over again via the art created by concentration camp victims, some of these survivors who are, or were until very recently, still with us. (The film was made a few years ago and was first viewed art the Rome Film Festival in 2013.)

M. Cognet, shown at right, begins his film on the site, I believe, of one of the concentration camps on which has been placed row after row of jagged stones. These appear to be gravestones, and this is clearly some kind of memorial. Then we hear an artist tell us that the beauty here comes from the pain-ter, not from the corpse. Next we view a painting of many corpses, as the artist explains, "We've all seen a dead person. Even children have seen this. But heaps of dead people? This fascinates you."

Not everyone would agree. Certainly the next artist featured -- Samuel Willenberg, who survived Treblinka -- does not. "What beauty?!" he practically shouts. "There is none. Devoid." The filmmaker allows us to have plenty of time to judge for ourselves, as we see the work of both survivors and of many of the artists who died but managed to leave behind a surprising amount of their work. And as no photos were ever taken of certain camps, such as Sobibor, the single drawing extant of women being gassed there gives us the only semi-eye-witness account that we have -- even if it could not have been viewed by the artist from the inside-the-gas-chamber POV that is shown in the drawing. (More likely this came from accounts given by a guard or a kapo.)

Later in the film, an artist talks about one of his works, a staggering painting of a single young and pregnant woman shown in various stages: just prior to learning she will be gassed and then coming to terms  -- visceral and horrifying -- with what this means to her and her unborn child. I doubt you will be able to erase this piece of "art," once seen, from your mind. This and much else that we see is fascinating, yes, but creepily so. Like so much real art, it takes hold of you in ways that even -- especially, perhaps -- Hollywood movies such as Schindler's List can't manage. (For perhaps the best "art" film about the Holocaust, try the Hungarian masterpiece Fateless, from Lajos Koltai.)

Cognet's film gives us artists who were inmates of the concentration camps talking about their experience -- and the "art" of it. In between, the slow-moving camera sweeps over all -- from landscapes and camps (today and in their former days) to paintings and drawings of the faces (both drawn and photographed) of inmates and the artists. Along the way, these artists talk about the old days. "On Sundays, when we didn't work," (who knew that concentration camp victims got Sunday off?), "we'd talk about art," one of them explains. "The smell of linseed oil -- it was just the same as at home!"

We learn of the late Dinah Gottliebova, who drew portraits for Doctor Mengele, and demanded, once these were unearthed post-war, that they be returned to her. Why were they not is explained quite interestingly and thoroughly. We learn too of Franciszek Jazwiecki, the artist who managed to paint Holocaust victims in four different camps -- and what portraits (shown below) these are!

Overall, this documentary, a kind of dirge with occasional shocking and/or joyous moments, provides a new way of looking at the horror we already know -- and just possibly rising even a step above it. I mentioned earlier the slow-moving camera, and you will have to accept this slow pace. If the experience is not quite like, in the words of the character portrayed by Gene Hackman in Night Moves, "watching paint dry," it is something like watching a painting come slowly into being. Clearly this snail pace was a directorial choice, and we must honor this, though I think M. Cognet could easily have excised a good ten or fifteen minutes of footage and not made his movie any the lesser for it. What remains is still quite something: an original, important and thought-and-feeling-provoking addition to Holocaust history.

Because I Was a Painter --from The Cinema Guild and running 105 minutes -- open this Friday in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and then expands next month to Santa Fe and Columbus. Click here and then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In Alexandre Arcady's taut, unsettling 24 DAYS, France begins to deal with crimes against Jews

The year was 2006, with the event the kidnaping (for money) and then the torture of a young Frenchman, Ilan Halimi, Jewish and of Moroccan descent, as police and family unite to try to find and save him. The film that has been made from this true story, 24 DAYS, is an extremely unsettling one -- not simply because it deals with the kind of seemingly random, hugely unfair and mostly stupid and senseless crime -- but because that crime deliberately targeted Jews, even if, in this particular case, it was less religious fervor driving the kidnappers than that old saw that equates Jews with money.

As directed by Alexandre Arcady (shown at left and whose only other film I have seen is the pretty but so-so family crime drama, Comme les cinq doigts de la main, also know as Five Brothers and unreleased here in the USA), 24 Days is tension-filled and relatively fast-paced, tossing us into the lives of both the family (as it comes together to help retrieve its missing member) and the police force (who work around the clock to ferret out and apprehend the kidnappers). Known more for making pot-boilers than artistic, critically-approved movies, M. Arcady seems to have tamped down his penchant for mainstream excess and has delivered a surprisingly effective film that works on several levels.

24 Days taps into the fear and horror felt by Ilan's family, especially his mother, given a rich, layered performance from Zabou Breitman, above, right, with Syrus Shahidi, who plays her soon-to-be-missing son. (Ms Breitman, by the way, is also the director and co-writer of one of TrustMovies' favorite films: The Man of My Life.)

Pascal Elbé, left, uses his knack for strength, endurance and repressed emotion to make much of the character of Ilan's dad, whom the police use -- due to those very factors -- as the family member who must deal with the top-dog among the kidnappers.

Interestingly, Ilan's undoing was having gone on a date with a pretty young girl used as bait to entrap the boy, even though he already has a girlfriend/maybe-fiancee with whom he is heavily involved. Infidelity, however, is hardly an excuse for what happens to him.

For their part the police -- with Jacques Gamblin (above, left), Sylvie Testud and Éric Caravaca (above, right) in the major roles -- are shown as professional, caring folk, even if there appears, finally, disagreement among them as to what kind of crime this really is -- simple kidnapping-for-money or one inspired instead by race hatred. (The reason for the kidnapping can also effect how the police investigation is handled.)

The movie, to its credit, comes down on both sides, offering money as the main object of gain, but also showing how the treatment of Ilan -- casual torture, with the young man seen as something less than human by his kidnappers -- is most likely due to his being Jewish, and a helpless victim.

The film hones to a near-documentary style that shows us what is happening and how the rather large group of people involved in the kidnapping work together, under the thumb of its somewhat deranged leader (a frightening performance by Tony Harrisson, above). It also shows how easily the gang might have been tripped up had any of the locals -- who clearly knew that something nefarious was going on -- only come forward.

Unlike so many kidnap movies, this one offers none of the feel-good, nick-of-time resolution which we might expect or hope for. It seems to me that the film adheres as closely to the facts of the case as it can, and thus provides grueling object lessons in police procedure (good and bad), racism, family unity and the need for protection.

From Menemsha Films and running 108 minutes, 24 Days opens this Friday in New York at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and the Kew Gardens Cinema in Queens; in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall; and in another dozen cities across the country in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and (mostly) Florida. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

EMPTYING THE SKIES: The Kass brothers' doc of Jonathan Franzen's article for The New Yorker

It opens with some glorious shots of birds -- all kinds -- and then Jonathan Franzen speaks. Mr. Franzen, shown below, is the author of one of the great novels of our time The Corrections, but he may be by now better known to cineastes as a bird lover, having appeared in, first, the documen-tary Birders, and now this new one, EMPTYING THE SKIES. Franzen makes a pretty fair narrator, too, popping up now and again to lead us on our journey of discov-ery as to why so many of the world's songbirds are so endangered.

The documentary, in fact, pretty much shows us what Franzen saw and did and learned and whom he met and what they taught him during the time in which, a few years back, he traveled to and around Europe to research the widespread poaching of legally protected birds for an article he was writing for The New Yorker.

If you didn't read that article (and even if you did), and you have any interest in birds as beautiful and fascinating species -- many of which are, like so much else these days, disappearing from our damaged and dwindling natural world -- you'll want to view this lovely, sad, slightly hopeful documentary co-directed by brothers Douglas Kass (at left) and Roger Kass (below).

In it we meet some members of a fine and necessary organization called CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter), three of whom -- Andrea,
Sergio and Piero -- make charming and smart guides to what CABS is doing and why. These guys, particu-larly Andrea (below), so love our avian friends that they risk life and limb to free the birds from the horrible traps devised by the poachers who would kill and sell them.

Some of these include the lime sticks, the bow traps, the stone crush traps and even some simple netting that seems to do the trick, especially at nighttime. Seeing the fragile and lovely birds who've fallen prey to all this is more than a bit distressing. Some viewers may find the documentary a kind of horror film for birders.

And yet our CAB boys and their stories more than make up for the pain and suffering on view, so dedicated are they to helping stop the slaughter -- which is partly a by-product of tradition (many of the birds have long provided tasty meals for European gourmets). One section, offering up a chef and his acolytes cooking and then feasting on birds they know to be endangered, is simply obscene

For his part, Piero (above) -- who left the big city to live on a country farm -- is shown feeding his pigs and other animals and cooking up a meal that will make your mouth water. Sergio, who combines a high-end job in finance and with his craving to recycle, proves great fun, as well. Along the way, we travel from Italy to France to Cypress and back. In the latter location, we learn that the same mob men who poach the birds are also involved in drugs, human trafficking and more.

But as Mr; Franzen reminds us, "There is something to be said for a habit of service: You've done a mitzvah." Indeed. And when, in the final scene, we see a number of these "saved" birds released into the wild, your tear ducts are likely to release, as well. From Music Box Films and running a mere 77 minutes, Emptying the Skies opens tomorrow, April 22 (yes, that's Earth Day), in theaters in New York (the Cinema Village) and Chicago (the Music Box) and on various VOD platforms.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Holocaust-lite: Roberto Faenza and Edith Bruck scamper down memory lane in ANITA B.

Its poster heralds this new film as coming from "the producers of Life Is Beautiful." That alone could send many of us running for the hills, as it brings back memories of a truly appalling movie, as well as of one of the most embarrassing acceptance speeches/performances in the history of the Oscars. I might not have bothered watching nor covering this new film, except that I am an admirer of its director, Roberto Faenza, who earlier gave us Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, and his still-unreleased-in-the-USA, The Soul Keeper.

I have interviewed Signore Faenza (shown at right) and heard him speak quite intelligently and well about various matters concerning filmmaking here and abroad, and so -- even though the man is credited as both directing and helping to write ANITA B. (along with others, including Edith Bruck, the woman upon whose supposedly autobiographical novel the film is based) -- I cannot help but think that this may have been simply a for-hire project for the talented filmmaker.

Whatever. The end result is something bizarre in the extreme: a kind of fairy-tale, post-Holocaust film in which its mis-cast leading lady, playing a young Holocaust survivor, keeps a smile on her face through thick, thin and otherwise, while insisting that everyone around her -- including a two-year-old child -- learn and/or remember what happened during those terrible times.

That actress, a young woman named Eline Powell (above, who was much better in a smaller role in last year's Private Peaceful), tries her best to get a handle on her character, but as composited by the various writers, she seems more like a girl who stumbled in from some Disney-level fairy-tale and has decided to act as a therapeutic cheerleader in getting her surviving friends and family to face up to things.

The movie is not uninteresting, so far as it offers up a rather wide range of incidents in the lives of Jewish Holocaust survivors in the immediate post-war years. Yet almost all of these incidents come across as overly sanitized and thus not very believable.

Further, the screenplay manages to over-explain and over-do just about everything we see and hear. This might be serviceable for younger viewers who have little knowledge of history and World War II, but for those of us who do, the film quickly grows tiresome.

Certain lines stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs: "What wrong with being Jewish?!" asks Holocaust-surviving Anita, when her aunt suggests not parading this fact before the new Russian conquerors. Since our girl has been warned about this previously, you begin to wonder if the character has a death wish or has maybe come out of the concentration camp with a few marbles missing.

In addition. the movie tackles everything from the Holocaust to teenage sex, pregnancy and abortion in an utterly simplistic, storybook manner. If this is really how Ms Bruck (née Steinschreiber, who now lives and works in Italy) recalls her history, there is something drastically wrong.

Perhaps the resulting film is more due to its producers' insisting on a Hollywood-ification of Bruck's story. Once you've seen the movie (if you do), click here to read a bit about what really happened -- without the feel-good, fairy-tale overlay. Unlike Life Is Beautiful, which -- for all its glossy, big-budget look -- proved a poor attempt at turning the Holocaust into a feel-good film, Anita B. seems less offensive than just plain silly.

The movie -- via DigiNext and Four-of-a-Kind Productions and running just 88 minutes -- opens this Friday, April 24, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on April 30 at the Pelham Picture House.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

DAREDEVIL addendum

Having now watched into episode six of this new Netflix series, I better understand its huge pull on audiences (it's currently rated 9.2 on the IMDB by more than 38,000 viewers).

Episode five deals in part with the problems of wretched, venal, corrupt, big-city landlords and their tactics in removing unwanted tenants. Having been involved in the activities of one such a group back in the 1970s on a particular block of West 77th Street in Manhattan, and then reading an article in New York Magazine only a bit more than year ago about how this family is still at it, I found myself grabbed all over again by the subject via this particular Daredevil episode.

The series' concern with the downtrodden is not only commendable but handled in such a way that we're made to learn of the despicable tactics of these landlords and what this does to their working-poor tenants, and thus we root all the more strongly for the success of the little group led by lawyer/vigilante Murdock (shown above in the latter guise; below, left, in the former). And if you wonder why some of us look to our entertainment to offer an understanding of what is going on across our country policed by too many cops who are dirty in too many ways, it's because we can find little hope in the reality around us. (For yet another devastating example, read today's report on the TruthOut site about police accountability in Chicago.)

The introduction, at the end of episode three, of Wilson Fisk, in the larger-than-life persona of Vincent D'Onofrio (shown from the rear, below), is inspired -- offering up the major villain of the piece as a lost little boy, suddenly falling in love with both a piece of modern art and the woman from whom he is purchasing that art. Soon enough we see Fisk in another kind of action, as a murderous thug dispensing with an underling in one of the more grotesque killing scenes we've witnessed (yes, this series is way too violent for children).

But for adults ready to be entertained and provoked by the subject of how the increasing combination of money, power, corporations and criminals (you might even think of them as Republicans and/or Libertarians) are taking control of our country, Daredevil is a sure bet. (Ayn Rand would have loathed a show like this.) One of the best individual reasons to subscribe to Netflix, it can be found by clicking here

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Streaming: Netflix's version of Marvel's DAREDEVIL proves noirish, nifty stuff

After the big-nothing that comprised the earlier version of twelve years ago, the new DAREDEVIL that debuted last week via the Netflix streaming service provides just about everything that the former dud lacked -- from the noirish and dank cityscape, in which bad things keep happening to good people, to the dark, monochromatic outfit our hero wears to hide his identity, to the wonderfully indeterminate time frame in which this story seems to exist.  (Is all this taking place it now, in the recent past, or maybe the near future? We can't really tell nor does it much matter. The place exists as a kind of ever-current depiction of the "big, scary, hugely corrupted city.")

TrustMovies is only now into the fourth episode of the thirteen that incorporate Daredevil's first season, each one coming in between 48 and 59 minutes. The tale -- of a boy, blinded in an accident in which he saved the life of an old man, now grown into a young man who has honed his other senses to their keenest levels so that he has become a lawyer by day (above, left, with his partner, played by Elden Henson) and vigilante by night, working out of Hell's Kitchen in the kind of uber-corrupt city that New York is always threatening to become -- seems a fine one for the episodic-yet-connected sort of series that Daredevil appears to be, at least at this point in its unfurling.

Bingers will probably do the entire first season in a day or weekend. It will most likely take me at least one week, given my episode-or-two-per-day approach. But I'm already hooked -- especially by the casting of Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, a great "everyman" hero whose open, welcoming face and more-than-fit body makes him seem surprisingly real, but just a little more handsome and sexy (and a lot more alert) than your everyday "everyman." This is a the kind of character, coupled to a performance by the actor, that audiences will root for -- big-time.

Created by Drew Goddard (shown at right), the series makes clear from the outset that we will be fed Matt's backstory, in which his father figures most prominently, in bits and pieces, as is appropriate. The action scenes, of which there are plenty, are done extremely well -- cleverly straddling the line between real and just a little more than that -- while the casting of the female leads, Deborah Ann Wohl (below, right) and Rosario Dawson (at bottom, right) in the initial episodes, provides strength, smarts and pulchritude.

Best of all, perhaps, there are almost none of the increasingly leaden and over-used "special effects" that have rendered the Iron Man and Captain America franchises, for any vaguely intelligent audience, more and more difficult to sit through. Dardevil instead counts on smart plot mechanics, great action, and a top cast of professionals to hold us fast.

The writing (those first two episodes are by Mr. Goddard) is fine for this kind of show -- sharp and intelligent but in a quiet, economical, almost underhanded manner. And the direction of the first two episodes by Phil Abraham (Mad Men and The Sopranos) provides everything we need to become immediately involved and very well entertained.

There is simply so much of what they now call "content" available to view these days, that having the opportunity to see yet another series from yet another provider may not seem like anything special. If Daredevil adheres to the interest, pace and style of these first few episodes, I'd call it a keeper, for sure.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Streaming tip: The French bourgeoisie again in Eric Lavaine's smart and gorgeous BARBECUE

What a pleasure it is to view -- in high definition, too -- the eye-poppingly gorgeous location that plays a large part in BARBECUE, another welcome addition to that ever-growing genre of modern ensemble comedies about the travails of the always-ripe-for-a-little-satire French bourgeoisie. Now available to stream via Netflix, this 2014 film tracks four couples (one of them recently split) and their single, shy-unto-near-silence friend who always tags along, as they bond, argue, spill out secrets and help each other over some tumultuous times. Not too tumul-tuous, however; this sub-genre is a spin-off of the rom-com, after all.

As co-written (with Héctor Cabello Reyes) and directed by Eric Lavaine (pictured at right), the movie sprints delightfully along as it tells the tale of one fellow in the group -- that gorgeous and talented hunk, Lambert Wilson, shown below and at bottom, who seems to grows even more so with age -- who suffers a sudden heart attack while jogging, and in the aftermath decides to change his life.

M. Wilson leads a very capable cast through its paces, which involves the stress and strain of marriage, (in)fidelity, health, economics, employment and dating -- among other travails.

The delight to be found in films such as this generally comes from the characterizations and the acting on view, as well as via the often beautiful setting in which these members of the haute bourgeoisie find themselves. Barbecue is no exception to the rule, and in fact proves one of the better recent examples of this sub-genre (certainly better than the overblown and over-long Little White Lies of a couple of years previous).

The film's look at infidelity among both men and women is done more evenhandedly than usual here, with plenty of blame and understanding to go around, and not so much of the typical patriarchal influence we often see in cinema.

The ensemble cast is excellent, with each member contributing humor and feeling in pretty much equal doses. But the film's ace-in-the-hole has got to be its amazing locations, whether it's that vacation spot high in the hills at which our troupe assembles, where the light and colors -- viewed in hi-def -- are simply exquisite, or the fine and fancy restaurant in which their final celebration takes place.

Almost no middle-class person I know can any longer afford to live like this, but the movies -- bless 'em! -- still enable us to enjoy this kind of beauty and pleasure, at least from afar. Give Barbecue a shot and bask, if only temporarily,  in its atmosphere and charm.

You'll find the film -- in French with English subtitles and running a pleasant 98 minutes -- on Netflix, and maybe elsewhere, too (though Amazon does not seem to have procured it).