I, OLGA HEPNAROVA (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most youngsters have executed a perfect eye roll on at least one occasion after receiving a dose of parental advice that seemed irrelevant to them at the time. An early scene in this biopic finds teenage Olga listening as her mother says, “To commit suicide you need a strong will, my child. Something you certainly don’t have. Accept it.” This is a warning shot fired at the audience to be cautious when judging the actions of the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia.

Co-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinred seem to believe that most viewers will be familiar with Olga’s story, and presume the film’s austere look, lack of flow, and structure of seemingly unrelated scenes will provide a sense of the choppiness and isolation that might explain her otherwise inexplicable actions. Based on Olga’s true story and the book from Roman Cilek, the film will have you questioning whether her behavior was the result of horrible parenting, or more closely related to her psychological issues – perhaps even schizophrenia.

Michalina Olszamska (The Lure) delivers a committed performance as Olga, the 22 year old woman who in 1972 drove a truck into a group of people in Prague, killing 8 (all between the ages of 60 and 79). A year later she was hanged, becoming the last woman executed in Czechoslovachia.

The movie focuses on the various elements and key moments of her life – father’s abuse, mother’s iciness, attempted suicide, treatment in asylum, rejection by a lover – that led to her isolation and feelings of alienation. We sense her internal rage building over time, and her inability to cope or even connect with others; though at times we question whether her troubles are by choice or a result of her treatment … it’s kind of a twist on the nature vs. nurture debate.

There have been other fine movies that have dealt with a similar theme: There’s Something About Kevin, The Omen, The Bad Seed. Each of these deal with the whole good vs evil idea … are some kids born “bad” or are they pushed that way? Either way, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare. This black and white presentation allows us to keep our emotional distance from Olga, and the no frills approach provides a quite chilling reenactment of how Olga ended up sending a letter to the local newspaper announcing her intention to seek “revenge” for the hatred that society had heaped upon her for years.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017)

March 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1967 Cat Stevens wrote “The First Cut is the Deepest” and the song has since been recorded by many artists (including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crowe). The song’s title is also an apt description of director Ritesh Batra’s film version of the popular 2011 novel from Julian Barnes. It’s one man’s look back at the impact of his impulsive actions more than 50 years ago.

When we are young, we want emotions to be like what we read in books”. So says the narrator and lead character Tony Webster (as played by Jim Broadbent). Tony runs a tiny second hand camera store (specializing in Leica models) while leading a mostly benign life – rising daily at 7:00am, coffee with his ex-wife, and periodic errands for his pregnant daughter. One day a certified letter arrives notifying him that he has been named in the Last Will and Testament of the mother of a girl he dated while at University. And so begins the trek back through Tony’s history and memories.

Of course, a film version can never quite cut as deeply as a novel, but this preeminent cast works wonders in less than two hours. Curmudgeonly Tony is accessible and somewhat sympathetic thanks to the stellar work of Mr. Broadbent, who always seems to find the real person within his characters. Harriet Walther (“The Crown”) turns in a tremendous performance as Margaret, Tony’s most patient and quite wise ex-wife. Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) is their pregnant 36 year old daughter Susie, and just these three characters could have provided a most interesting story. The film’s best scenes feature the comfort and familiarity of a once-married couple, as Tony and Harriet talk through previously never mentioned topics. However, there is so much more to explore here as Tony’s thoughts bring the past splashing right smack dab into the present.

Billy Howle does a nice job as young Tony, an aspiring poet, who falls hard for the enigmatic Veronica (Freya Mavor). Complications arise when Tony spends a weekend with Veronica at her parents’ estate. It’s here that Emily Mortimer energizes things (and clouds thoughts) with minimal screen time as Veronica’s mother. It’s also around this time where new student Adrian Finn (played by Joe Alwyn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) captures Tony’s imagination and a friendship bond is formed … only to be later shattered in a most painful manner.

There is so much going on that director Batra’s (The Lunchbox, 2013) low-key approach is often misleading. Looking back on one’s life can lead to the twisted version that our mind has edited/revised in order to make things seem better or worse – definitely more colorful – than they likely were at the time. Tony’s distorted view of history crumbles when documented proof of his actions is presented at his first face to face meeting with Veronica (the great Charlotte Rampling) in five decades. It’s at this point that regret and guilt rise up, and the only question remaining is whether this elderly man can overcome his repressed emotions and self-centeredness in order to make the best of what time he has left. Each of us has a life journey, and though few of us ever actually tell the story, there are undoubtedly numerous lessons to be had with an honest look back.

watch the trailer:

 


THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT (2017)

March 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A story of romance smack dab in the middle of war is always a bit risky and sometimes difficult to sell. Make it a love triangle and toss in distinct religious differences, and if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here (a sentiment borrowed from the Coen Brothers).

This is director Joseph Ruben’s first feature since The Forgotten (2004), and he’s also known for Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), the breakout dramatic role for Julia Roberts after Pretty Woman. The film is written by Jeff Stockwell, who is best known for Bridge to Terabithia (2007), and the script leans heavily on melodrama while also sprinkling in some acts of war.

Hera Hilmar (who favors Abbie Cornish) stars as Lillie Rowe, a head-strong free-thinking nurse living a life of privilege in 1914 Philadelphia, but committed to an ideal of justice for all. She meets a handsome and equally idealistic Dr Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett) who is fundraising for his hospital located in the remote hills of Turkey. Circumstances are such that a Turkish officer is assigned to escort Lillie to Gresham’s hospital. As if enough sparks haven’t already flown between Jude and Lillie, it’s pretty clear that the attraction between her and Ismail (an excellent Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”) is even stronger. The fourth key character here is Jude’s partner, Dr. Woodruff (Sir Ben Kingsley), whose immediate dislike of Lillie is quickly dispensed once she exhibits her medical competency.

Lillie is warned … war is coming. It’s WWI and it’s the Muslim Ottoman Empire vs the Christian Armenians. To label this revisionist history is an understatement. The 1915 Armenian Genocide is only alluded to with passing mention that the Ottomans “took steps” to control the Armenians. Even in such a lightweight and hokey melodrama, an omission like that jumps out. Whether it’s selective memory or outright propaganda, it seems obvious that the Turkish financiers were hoping to make a political/historical statement hidden behind a romantic triangle wrapped in war. The sweeping score by Geoff Zanelli and the beautiful cinematography of Daniel Aranyo both emphasize the romance aspects, while minimizing the fighting and cultural clashes.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SALESMAN (Forushande, 2016, Iran)

February 25, 2017

salesman Greetings again from the darkness. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his 2011 A Separation, and with his latest (also Oscar nominated), he proves yet again that his unique approach to family/domestic dramas might best be described as simmering suspense artistry. He certainly knows how to tell a story and structure a film for maximum impact.

Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) and Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) star as Emad and Rana, a normal and seemingly happily married couple. One morning, some heavy equipment jeopardizes the stability of their apartment building and they escape to the streets. Husband and wife are both performing in a community theatre production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and at that evening’s rehearsal, one of their castmates, Babak (Babak Karimi) offers the couple the use of a rooftop apartment … he has recently evicted the tenant.

Of course, this bit of luck comes with some baggage … specifically, the baggage and belongings of the previous tenant who (unseen to viewers) keeps telling Babak she will return for her stuff. Meanwhile, the neighbors inform Emad and Rana that the previous tenant and her “many acquaintances” (paying clients, if you get my drift) will not be missed. This history comes into play when one evening a home invasion leaves Rana dazed, injured and being treated at a local hospital. This sets off the cultural commentary about the roles and power of Iranian men vs women, as well as a psychological study of wounded pride, a need for revenge, and a scarred psyche who wishes to be neither alone nor coddled.

The strained marital relationship has some interesting parallels with the scenes depicted in the Miller play, and there are also a few key moments in the build-up … moments of subtlety for the discerning viewer. Foreshadowing occurs in a seemingly humorous moment when one of Emad’s students asks during class, “How does a man become a cow?”, and Emad answers “Gradually.” A throwaway line is never really that in a Farhadi script.

Most of the film centers on how Emad and Rana react to the traumatic event, and for the first two-thirds, it’s Emad’s movements that we follow. However, during the extraordinary final act, Rana becomes the focus and there is a tremendous performance from Farid Sajjadi Hosseini as an older gent in a key role. So much raw human nature is on display here – pride, revenge, forgiveness, trust, weakness, etc. It’s the type of film that has much going on even during the parts that might seem slow on the surface. Farhadi is an exceptional filmmaker, and evidently, he will just continue to prove it so.

watch the trailer:

 


OSCAR NOMINATED DOC SHORTS (2016)

February 21, 2017

OSCAR NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS 

Greetings again from the darkness. When the feel-good movie of the bunch revolves around a Holocaust survivor, you know there aren’t many chuckles to be had for this block of Oscar nominated Documentary Short Films. However, if you can deal with being ultra-serious and devastated for 2 ½ hours, you will find high quality filmmaking focused on topics that are not just timely, but exceedingly important and vital. Below, in order of personal preference, are the nominated 2016 releases.

4-1-miles 4.1 MILES (USA/Greece, 26 min)

From 2015 through 2016 more than one million people were desperate enough to flee Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-ravaged areas by risking their lives in small boats launched from Turkey. The 4.1 miles to Greece, and hopefully freedom, is fraught with danger (more than one thousand have drowned). Director Daphne Matziaraki introduces us to a Greece Coast Guard Captain from the small island of Lesbos, as the captain and his crew remain diligent and dedicated to rescuing mothers, children and others so desperate for a new life. The camera work is a bit rough, but that’s to be expected given the harsh conditions of wind, waves, rain and frantic actions … when every minute counts.

 

joes-violin JOE’S VIOLIN (USA, 24 min)

If anyone deserves to be a little bit selfish, it’s a Holocaust survivor. Instead, 91 year old Joseph Feingold donated his beloved violin to Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation – an organization that distributes musical instruments to inner city schools. Mr. Feingold tells the story of “purchasing” the violin after the war in 1947. When 12 year old Brianna is selected to receive the gift, we learn her story and how the violin and Mr. Feingold’s history profoundly affects her. Director Kahane Cooperman ties together a Siberian labor camp, the dreams of a bright, enthusiastic young girl, and an appreciative elderly gentleman to remind us of the power of music and how it can transcend generations, race, economic status and culture. It’s an inspirational story from two quite different perspectives.

 

the-white-helmets THE WHITE HELMETS (UK, 41 min)

In what would be viewed as an inspirational story … if not for the tragically violent environment of Aleppo City … this film from director Orlando von Einsiedel takes us to the front line with the civilian volunteer group known as The White Helmets. Numbering 2900 strong, these brave folks run directly into the buildings that have been bombed mere minutes before. We get interviews and discussions with some of the volunteers, but the most awe-inspiring moments come during the rescue missions, as they comb through rubble looking for signs of life. One of the most amazing sequences you’ll ever see on screen occurs during the rescue of a one week old “miracle baby”. Up to 200 raids per day have resulted in more than 400,000 deaths over the past five years, yet the volunteers have sayings like “To save a life is to save all humanity”. They provide hope to a place that has little, and possess a human spirit dedicated to helping.

 

extremis EXTREMIS (USA, 24 min)

Highland Hospital in Oakland, California is the setting for a first-hand look at the emotional and ethical complexities involved in end of life decisions. We witness the perspective of dedicated ICU doctors, terminally ill and confused patients, and the emotional families often burdened with making the final call between hoping for a miracle and allowing their loved ones to die with dignity. Director Dan Krauss introduces Dr. Jessica Zitter who takes a compassionate yet direct approach in her discussions with patients and families. Her goal is to provide the information that helps them make the most difficult decisions they will ever be faced with.

 

watani WATANI: MY HOMELAND (UK, 39 min)

Is there anything more frighteningly surreal than watching kids playing with guns as actual bombs are going off in their neighborhood, tanks are rumbling down their streets, and the constant sound of gunfire is present? Welcome again to Aleppo City. Directed by Marcel Mattelsiefen, we meet the father of four kids who is working hard to protect his city. We then flash forward one year and learn that the father has been taken by ISIS and the family is headed to Germany, seeking a safer life … new home, new friends, and a new school. Though they long to return to their original home, it’s a reminder that home is really where you are, not where you are from.


OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS (2016)

February 17, 2017

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS (Animated and Live Action)

Shorts HD now sponsors the annual theatrical run for the block of Oscar nominated Short Films. For those of us who love movies, it’s a much appreciated opportunity to see what once were the most difficult categories of nominated films to watch prior to the awards ceremony. I would encourage everyone to make this an annual event, and experience a variety of stories and styles from filmmakers around the globe.

Below are my comments for this year’s nominees (released in 2016), and they are listed in order of personal preference for each category, Animated and Live Action.

ANIMATED

blind-vaysha BLIND VAYSHA (Canada) – Far from light-hearted and feel good, this one not only has the most substantial story, it also features the most original look and style of any in the category. It’s directed by Theodore Ushev and adapted from a short story by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov. The story centers on “the blind girl”, who remarkably sees only the past through her brown left eye, and only the future through her red right eye. Through her eyes, no present exists. It’s a remarkable fable about how we look at the world, and one of the few short films that lends itself to a good debate.

piper PIPER (USA) – Pixar, through co-directors Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer, delivers what may be the most realistic CGI we’ve seen to date. Easily the most seen of all short films since it played in theatres with Finding Dory, it tells the story of a mother Sandpiper teaching her baby how to scavenge and feed itself. The baby is reluctant to give up being spoon-fed, but soon overcomes his fear of water and embraces life … thanks to the lessons of some local sand crabs.

borrowed-time BORROWED TIME (USA) – An old, weathered sheriff revisits the spot on the cliff where a tragic mistake changed the course of his life. The event has obviously haunted him ever since he was a kid. The animated pocket watch looks real at times, and ends up playing a vital role not once, but twice for the man. It’s a side project from Pixar animators Co-dir Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, with a score from two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla, and a reminder that living with regret is no way to live.

pearl PEARL (USA) – Playing like little more than an animated music video or commercial, this one nonetheless taps into the emotions of a father-daughter relationship over the years … and the role a car and tape recorder might play as they come full circle. “There’s no wrong way home” is a simple little song that works fine in this short from director Patrick Osborne (Feast).

 

pear PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES (Canada and UK) – By far the longest entry at 35 minutes, this one has the feel of an animated documentary or at least an animated diary. The narrator reminisces about his thrill-seeking friend Techno, and the difficult road travelled by the once care-free and talented youngster. Alcoholism, drug addiction, bad luck, poor health and poor decisions all play a role here, but it’s mostly about non-conditional friendship. Directed by Robert Valley, it’s quite a sad story, though not dissimilar to one many friends have experienced in real life.

LIVE ACTION

sing MINDENKI (“Sing”, Hungary) The new girl in school can barely control her excitement at joining the renowned school choir. Poof! Her joy is gone in a scene that proves just how quickly a teacher can destroy a child’s spirit. Directed by Kristof Deak, we see how misplaced priorities of those in charge, can drive the student to become the teacher. The philosophical aspect here is quite interesting … in order to remain part of the group, one must surrender the thing that motivated them to join the group in the first place.

la-femme LE FEMME ET LE TGV (“The Woman and the TGV”, Sweden) Jane Birkin adds stardom to an otherwise earthy story of a small town woman who, for 32 years, has been waving her flag at the high-speed train that blows past her window twice each day. A letter of appreciation from the train’s engineer arrives one day, and it inspires the woman to re-join life and stop living in the past. Ms. Birkin gives a nice performance in this commentary on growing old in a fast-changing world. Timo von Gunten directs this story inspired by true events (he actually interviewed the real flag-waving woman).

timecode TIMECODE (Spain) – In what is easily the best use of security cameras and dancing parking lot guards, director Juanjo Gimenez Pena delivers a very entertaining 15 minute film. With minimal dialogue, the day and night guards barely cross paths, but share a secret talent that’s exposed in a most humorous way with a killer punchline.

 

silent-nights SILENT NIGHTS (Denmark) – A good-hearted Salvation Army volunteer makes friends with a man from Ghana who has immigrated to Denmark, seeking a better life. She is kind to the man and a romantic attraction develops leading to a look at racism, desperation, and the ramifications of deceit. Directed by Aske Bang and produced by two-time Oscar winner Kim Magnusson, the film teases us with optimism, only to frustrate us before giving way to an unexpected life lesson.

ennemis ENNEMIS INTERIEURS (“Enemies Within”) – The most blatantly political of all entries, it’s also the most relevant. A man from Algeria is interrogated by a government official in hope of obtaining his French citizenship. Questioned on his religion and neighbors, we see how any situation can be twisted to seem suspicious … especially in this age of fear of terrorists. Directed by Selim Azzazzi, it seems to tell us that if we try to find something wrong, we likely will.

watch the Oscar shorts trailer:

 


THE BRIDE (2016, La Novia, Spain)

February 16, 2017

the-bride Greetings again from the darkness. The pitch for this movie might have come across as blending a Greek tragedy with a romance novel, and then adding a dash of revenge. Fortunately director Paula Ortiz’s vision for the Federico Garcia Lorca play “Bodas de sangre” is more poetic and lyrical than such an overview would suggest.

Love triangles are the core of many stories and movies, but it’s the opening sequence here that clues us in that the trouble has already occurred, and though it removes some of the suspense of “what”, it certainly sets the stage for an interesting “how” and “why”.

Inma Cuesta plays Novia (billed only as the titular bride) who is engaged to Asier Etxeandia (billed only as Novio, the groom). The abundance of family stress (on both sides) has little to do with the wedding plans, and more to do with Leonardo (Alex Garcia). Leonardo is more than the local hunk who is always lurking about on horseback; he’s also the third wheel who can’t let go of his desire for Novia … in spite of his young child and pregnant wife. To make things messier, Novia seems to answer his heightened desire for her with her own uncontrollable passion for him.

It’s Yin and Yang. Safe and Dangerous. The bride’s conflicted choice leads the groom’s mother (Goya winner Luisa Gavasa) to be a foreboding presence throughout, and keeps most of the village on edge. Additionally, there is an element of mysticism as Maria Alfonsa Rossa appears periodically as the figure of death – and we are never quite sure of the motivations behind her advice.

Goya winner Miguel Amoedo provides beautiful cinematography that balances between fantasy, harsh realities, and the romance of the moment. There are many intimate close-ups, as well as some stunning desert wide shots of Leonardo riding the horse. The score and soundtrack are terrific, including Soledad Velez with a haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Waltz”.

The concept of destiny vs. choice hovers over most scenes, and the twisted family and childhood histories give the film a Shakespearian feel. Last year, the film received numerous Goya nominations (including Ms. Cuesta, Ms. Ortiz, Mr. Garcia) are resulted in the wins for Ms. Gavasa and Mr. Amoedo. It may not make the best Valentine’s Day date movie, but it is an interesting watch from the romance-tragedy-revenge-horseback genre.

watch the trailer: