Thursday, November 20, 2014

A very personal Holocaust documentary opens in L.A. -- the Kaufmans' SHADOWS FROM MY PAST

Among Holocaust documentaries -- and it seems of late that there are a dozen or more that appear during any given year -- SHADOWS FROM MY PAST, the very homemade movie directed and written by and starring Gita Kaufman (her husband Curt is also credited, but we never see nor hear from him) may be one of the most personal of all. Ms Kaufman, a Jew born in Austria, lost most of her family to the Holocaust, and this movie is both an exploration of the state of Austria today and a look back at many of the photographs of and letters by family members that give us a firsthand glimpse into what the experience was like.

To do this, Ms Kaufman, shown at left, gathers up an amazing group of archival photos, letters and documents, as well as visiting Austria for the first time (since leaving there as a child) to interview a number of important people about the country's history and current politics. For anyone with even marginal interest in the Holocaust and Europe today, her film should be seen. I call it homemade because it seems to be the product of a first-time filmmaker with a certain naivete who occasionally could give us a bit more information than she does. For instance, we hear about Austria's Freedom Party without having it identified very well.

Yet this very homemade quality is part of the reason that the film succeeds as well as it does. Ms Kaufman, rather than seeming any kind of professional, instead acts as a stand-in for us in many ways. She asks the kinds of questions we might ask, and when she explains all about her various family members and what happened to them, it's like hearing a new friend talk about her loved ones.

This is affecting and very specific, and it raises what might easily seem another generic Holocaust documentary to something of a much more personal encounter. Among her talking heads are everyone from the late Simon Wiesenthal and Kurt Waldheim (below) to various Holocaust survivors and even actor/performer Theodore Bikel. (From the date of the deaths of some of these men, it is clear that the Kaufmans have been working on their film for some time.)

As for the Austrians she encounters and interviews, their watchwords appear to be "We were victims, too." Which should provoke a loud and unpleasant shout of, "Tell me another!" A few of the Austrians do admit to bearing some responsibility for Nazism and World War II, but even then, hearing them attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for the destruction of most of Europe's Jewish population is pretty appalling.

As Mrs. Kaufman weaves together her interviews and reads us the letters from her relatives, as we see the many beautiful photographs unfold, along with various documents of the day, the effect provides the kind of entry into the Holocaust that I have not so far experienced. (The photo below shows Gita as a child back in Austria.)

Thankfully, the filmmaker has chosen not to use any "re-enactments" which -- given all that we're able to see and hear -- would be unnecessary in any case. No, Shadows from My Past is indeed a real and rather honorably old-fashioned documentary, the lack of professionalism of which is more than made up for by its history and heart.

After a short theatrical release here in New York City this past August, which garnered too little press (though it did manage good reviews from The New York Times and Village Voice), the film -- running 85 minutes -- opens this Friday in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Town Center 5. I hope it will eventually make its way onto DVD, as well.

SHADOWS FROM MY PAST co-director Gita Kaufman will participate 
in Q&A’s after the 8 PM screenings on Friday and Saturday 
and the 1 PM and 3:20 PM screenings on Sunday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

John Herzfeld is back with the ensemble piece REACH ME -- his best work in nearly 20 years

It was the fall of 1996 when a small ensemble film called Two Days in the Valley burst upon the world of us inveterate movie-lovers. This very-unusual-at-the-time movie conflated crime and love, work and play in smart, funny, sometimes shocking ways that proved sublimely entertaining. Within the movie's second-tier but hugely talented cast was a young woman named Charlize Theron, in her first credited film role, and she's a knock-out. (You can rent the movie, which finally came out on DVD a year or two back and will be available on Netflix streaming come December 1. If you've never seen it, do.) At the time of its release, I hadn't heard of its writer/director John Herzfeld, but after seeing this little gem of the we're-all-connected-but-in-pretty-bizarre-ways variety, I knew we'd be hearing from him again.

Then we didn't much -- except for a good cable movie, Don King: Only in America and the not-so-hot 15 Minutes. All of which goes toward delighting me no end that I can now report that Mr. Herzfeld, shown at right, is back again -- and, hallelujah! -- he's in the mode of his earlier 2 Days/Valley success. His new film, REACH ME, is all about the reclusive author (Tom Berenger) of a suddenly mega-popular self-help book and the search to find this man. Like his earlier ensemble piece, this one connects a bunch of disparate people in ways that are funny and entertaining. Although there is some crime involved here, what happens is not nearly as dark and shocking as some of the occurrences in 2 Days/Valley. Herzfeld keeps things on a lighter, more buoyant note this time around, and if his new one doesn't quite come up to the earlier level, it's a very enjoyable and beautifully acted romp nonetheless.

In the ensemble cast are a lot of "names," none perhaps quite as surprising as that of Sylvester Stallone, one of my least favorite actors, playing the role of a big-deal gossip blogger (think maybe a male version of Nikki Finke?). And damned if Stallone isn't first-rate. Who knew?

The rest of the estimable cast includes the likes of Thomas Jane (above), Ryan KwantenKyra Sedgwick (below),

Lauren Cohan (below), a terrific Kevin Connolly, (two photos below), Omari Hardwick, Danny Aiello, Tom Sizemore, Nelly (shown at bottom), Kelsey Grammer (in the penultimate photo) and a whole bunch more -- even the filmmaker himself does a cameo here.

Reach Me (the title of both the movie and the motivational book around which it circles) moves like a house afire and has incredible energy all the way along. Herzfeld's secret, considering how many characters are involved here and how fast the plot unfurls, would seem to be an ability, via his dialog and crack cast, to make every moment strong and true.

This carries us along beautifully, and the movie's subject -- something special and dynamic tossed into today's world of tweets and online immediacy -- makes what's happening seem important enough for us to tag along, and most of the characters are needy and sweet enough, if a bit deranged, to gain our sympathy.

There's a lot of funny dialog that initially adds to the mystery of who's who and what's what but that also seems believable and true. If we lingered longer over events, they might fall apart, but the filmmaker gives us little time for that.

In the end, we've spent 95 fast-paced minutes of crazy, joyous connection that leaves us a bit out of breath, but absolutely grinning with satisfaction.

Reach Me, from Millennium Entertainment and running a sleek 95 minutes, opens this Friday, November 21, in New York City at the AMC Village VII, and via On Demand and digital download.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ana Lily Amirpour's Amer-Iranian vampire film noir: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

If you want "specialized," you can't get much more so than the new American-Iranian film-noir vampire-flick with a western motif, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. It's got "arthouse" written all over it -- except that its subject matter would normally turn off the crowd that attends arthouse cinema. It's also got "feminist" written all over it, which should bring in the younger crowd, both women and some men. The film is also rather beautifully crafted -- shot in gorgeous black-and-white with some striking compositions and music that resounds.

The film's writer/director is a young woman named Ana Lily Amirpour (shown at left), and although I feel this particular film of hers has been rather wildly over-rated, still, the lady has talent and we're sure to be hearing from her again. What she does not have, at this point in her career, is the ability to provide enough content to fill out her film's 99-minute running time. She's got the look down pat, along with the various victims and their stories. But a sense of repetition sets in far too early, and there is not enough real content to fill the remaining minutes. There's about an hour of actual movie here. The rest is vamping. Lovely-to-look-at vamping, but vamping nonetheless.

To give credit where it is most due, I must praise the cinematographer, Lyle Vincent, for his really spectacular work here. The creamy grays, the elegant compositions, and all else that goes into crack black-and-white.

If I go into much details about the "plot" of this movie, I am likely to give away just about everything there is to spoil. So let's just say that this is a noirish, feminist, vampire tale in which our vampire -- a good woman, of sorts anyway -- does away with much of the scum of society (all men, don'cha know?) to make the world a better place. That's she's wearing a chador just adds to the originality and fun. Supposedly set in Iran but filmed in California (some of the locations look like CA suburbia), for the most part Amirpour and Vincent capture what passes for the Middle East.

And once folk start dying, each for his own good reason -- nasty behavior toward women, drug addiction, being homeless (Huh? Well, a girl's gotta eat) -- while the movie picks up some speed, it also begins to grow a tad repetitious. In its most charming scene, a certain character of shorter stature is warned not to become like all these other (dead) men.

From the beginning, as we're gifted with that great cinematography, more of those Persian Cats, a mass grave, oil and even the Persian James Dean (above), it is almost too much of a good thing. With the addition of suspense, gore and a villain (below) about whom we're more than happy to see dispensed, it appears we're really going somewhere. But soon enough we note that Ms Amirpour is too locked into the look and atmosphere of her movie to turn out a genuine vampire film.

The best of this particular genre -- from Hammer's Horror of Dracula to Bigelow's Near Dark -- moves! This one, as it confronts everything from avenging angels and their diet to family trauma and romance, grows sleepier and more "artistic." Still, it's an interesting and relatively original start, so we'll look forward to Ms Amirpour's next venture.

Meanwhile, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night -- from Kino Lorber -- plays at the St. Louis International Film Festival (today, Nov 18) and opens theatrically this Friday, November 21, in New York City at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt. Over the weeks to come it will open in another 13 cities. View all the currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here and scrolling down.

Note: Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour will appear in person 
at NYC's IFC Center on Friday, November 21, at the 7:25 show, &
at the NuArt in L.A. on Saturday, November 22, for a Q&A 
after the 7:30pm show and to introduce the 9:50pm show. 
She will also appear at the NuArt on Sunday, November 23 for a 
Q&A after the 5:00pm show, and for an introduction to 
and a Q&A after the 7:30pm show. 

A Venezuelan head trip: Mariana Rondón's disturbing BAD HAIR opens at Film Forum

It's being sold as a "touching, charming, humorous" movie, and while BAD HAIR (Pelo Malo) -- the new Venezuelan film from writer/director Mariana Rondón -- at times exhibits all three of these adjectives, it is much more of an unsettling and disturbing experience than anything in the feel-good realm. It is also very believable and rich in the specifics of a Latin American culture we haven't seen much on film. The movie certainly does not seem like most of the Mexican, Argentine or Brazilian films we're viewed so far, and its story (of a barely-working-class mother of two, the elder child of which appears, even at age nine and much to his mother's consternation, to be a budding homosexual) is anything but the stuff of cutesy, feel-good fantasy.

Ms Rondón, shown near right (with her producer and very fine film editor, Marité Ugas), has given us a movie that is a near-constant and often hurtful, vicious tug-of-war between mother, Marta (Samantha Castilllo, below, right), and son, known simply as Junior (Samuel Lange, on poster above, and below, left), and the very-near incredible performan-ces she's wrenched from these two alone make the movie worth seeing. The family's life in the Caracas projects is captured with alternating sorrow and humor, as is the only other character of real importance to the film: the son's grandmother, who does not mind -- even seems to encourage -- the "gay" direction in which he is headed and keeps making noises about adopting him from mom, in return for which she'll give Marta some much needed money.

The assorted supporting characters -- from the good-looking fellow who runs a sundries stand nearby (and on whom Junior has a crush) to his classmate, whose mom does babysitting (when she's able to be paid, that is) -- help make the movie interesting and fast-paced, but the bulk of the plot and its tension is between mother and son.

The attitudes here, mom's to that of the physician she consults on behalf of her son, may be backward and a bit shocking, yet they do not seem anything but real and part of this particular Latino culture of poverty and lack of education that simply must be dealt with in some fashion. And though mom has all the power and may be abusing it, Junior often manages to give as good he gets. From mom's standpoint, after all, she is saving her sonny boy from a fate worse than death.

Gay viewers and their close friends will watch in horror, as Junior is forced into making choices that go against everything he feels and cares for (except his mom, whom he loves above all). And mom herself cannot be seen as a villain, even though she makes all the wrong choices for her son. The scene in which she coerces him to watch her copulating with the man who may give her back the job she so desperately needs (clearly in hopes that something heterosexual will rub off on the kid) is only one of the god-awful things that Marta does.

The major mother/son struggle involves Junior's hair, beautiful and curly, which he hates and wants to straighten out (his grandmother -- Nelly Ramos, below, right -- has managed to make about half of it that way in the scene above). Most viewers will agree that Junior is gorgeous with his own curly hair, and that his self-image could use some improvement. In the film's finale, that hair comes at last into its own, though perhaps not in quite the way we or Junior might expect.

So, sure, there is some humor and charm here, along the way. But Bad Hair did not win its many festival awards by being just another cute early-coming-of-age movie with a gay theme. Marketing may decree that the film be pitched as something lighter than it is, but I can't believe that Ms Rondón does not see her movie as a serious, as well as entertaining, look at a backward cultural practice. It's a memorable look, too. In  the history of cinema, you're unlikely to find many child performances as deep and desperate as that of young Master Lange's.

The movie, from Cinema Tropical and FIGa Films, opens this Wednes-day in New York City at Film Forum. Elsewhere? Yes: The film opens Dec. 5 in Miami, Chicago, and Boston; Dec. 10 in Santa Barbara; Dec. 12 in Houston. It will hit Vancouver in January. Maybe, once word-of-mouth begins, the film will garner even more openings around the country. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Narrative & documentary join as one in Stefan Haupt's entrancing history lesson, THE CIRCLE

Of late we're seeing more and more "re-creations" used in documentaries -- acted-out narrative moments, often entire scenes -- that goose the story along. Sometimes these are done well enough to almost pass by unnoticed (as in some of James Marsh's films such as Project Nim); at other times -- as in Holocaust-themed docs like Orchestra of Exiles or No Place on Earth -- these can seem more than a bit ham-handed and distracting. The new Swiss movie THE CIRCLE (Der Kreis) manages to bypass this problem entirely by embracing it completely: Stefan Haupt's new film is half documentary and half narrative, with the two beautifully woven together to make something that seems original and exactly correct for the subject it tackles.

That subject is the tale of two men living in Switzerland during and after WWII who become lovers, and the relatively small group of homosexuals of that time, dedicated to educating the general public, around and in which the two gravitate. As directed and co-written by Herr Haupt (shown at left), the film is helped enormously by the presence of the two men, still alive and kicking, who inspired the story: Ernst Ostertag and Robi Rapp  These two, lovers still, are shown as they are today (two photos below), while two attractive and talented actors -- Matthias Hungerbühler (at left, on the poster above and in the still below) and newcomer Sven Schelker (at right, above and below) -- play their younger selves in the narrative portion, which takes up more than half of this 102-minute movie.

These clear divisions, which turn out to meld quite richly and beautifully, actually give the movie more of a sense of "reality" than we sometime get from documentaries that pretend to be "truth" but then fudge things in various, sometimes less obvious, ways. The Circle is a hybrid doc that wears its manipulation proudly, and its great big heart on its sleeve.

The cultural state of Switzerland in the 1950s is articulately and genuinely rendered here -- it seems to me, at least, who was certainly not present at the time -- as not much better nor worse than most of the rest of the Western world at this time. Though homosexuality per se was not a crime in Switzerland, homosexuals themselves were pursued as though it was. And because the attitude of the general populace was negative, all this was accepted as perfectly fine.

The history of these two men, as well as the little group that they join -- The Circle of the title-- is captured in smart, lean strokes that tell us much while moving the plot along. Ernst, above, center, is a teacher who's up for "approval" and so must keep his sexuality hidden, while Robi, below, is a female impersonator (and a good one -- as is young performer Schelker), whom Ernst sees one special evening and is immediately smitten.

We meet the co-workers, friends and relatives of both men and learn how prejudice -- their own and others -- has affected them all. What a pleasure it is to see again German actress Marianne Sägebrecht (below, right, of Bagdad Cafe), here playing Robi's wonderfully caring mother.

The rest of the large cast, mostly unknown to me (we don't get that many Swiss films over here) are all on point and up to snuff. Their "unknown" quality, in fact, gives the movie just that much more of a documentary feel. The sub-plots -- Ernst's boss at his school is perhaps the most closeted gay of all, and this plays out in ways both expected and not -- are both germane and well-handled, avoiding the overly melodramatic at every step, while still maintaining our interest and good will.

The Circle -- Switzerland's probably very canny selection for Best Foreign Language FIlm in this years Oscar race -- is indeed a feel-good film, but it is also one that earns its status. Considering all that has happened to this pair over more than half a century, not to mention their deserved renown in Switzerland today, these men have every right to feel good -- grand, even -- and so will you, once you've seen their film. (The pairs, real folk, together with their actor counterparts, are shown below.)

The movie, via Wolfe Releasing, opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema; it will hit L.A. a month later on Friday, December 18, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On the heels of its U.S. theatrical debut, a hi-def DVD release of Eric Rohmer's A SUMMER'S TALE

What a joy for Eric Rohmer fans here in the USA to finally be able to see one of the loveliest of his several "tales," some 18 years after its original release throughout the rest of the world. Why A SUMMER'S TALE never made it here in any kind of theatrical release is a mystery to me, as his films have proven perennially popular on the U.S. arthouse circuit. No matter, since Big World Pictures, a relatively new distributor, has seen to it that the film had its belated theatrical release this past summer and now arrives on DVD.

Another surprise: the movie stars the popular French actor Mevil Poupaud as a young man named Gaspard who begins the film semi-love-sick over one girl and eventually finds himself saddled -- due to his own hesitation, naivete, hypocrisy and sheer fear -- with two more. As usual, with Rohmer (the late filmmaker is shown at right), character is all, and I mean this is both senses of the word. Rohmer's movies are always character, rather than plot, driven. And it is the character of those characters that is most important. What kind of people are these, and how does this reflect on their actions and the consequences of same?

What a treat it is to see the handsome M. Poupaud (above, left, and below, right) at such a young age, as well as meeting the three attractive, intelligent and spunky young women with whom his character becomes involved. The first is a waitress (Amanda Langlet, above, right, whom many of us may have originally met as the youngster in Rohmer's earlier Pauline at the Beach). The scenes of dialog these two characters share are memorable indeed: witty, off-the-cuff, quite real and yet like little we've seen or heard elsewhere (except maybe in another Rohmer film).

The second young woman, Solene -- a knockout job by the beautiful Gwenaëlle Simon, above, left -- is immediately attracted to our boy, though he insists that girls this hot never are. They make a fine couple, never more so than when she is singing one of the songs he has recently composed (a rather nice one, too).

Ah, but then his supposed true lady love shows up (Aurelia Nolin, above, left) and proves to be... ah, but little surprises like this are part of what make Rohmer's films such fun. Again, character is all. And what interesting, well differentiated and thoroughly frustrating/captivating people this foursome proves to be.

As usual, morality -- not so much in terms of what the common populous might judge it, but how our ideas and behavior impact on those closest to us -- comes into question, and the filmmaker, via his terrific dialog and situations, lets us make our own judgments on characters and outcome.

The DVD of A Summer's Tale -- running 114 minutes -- hits the street this coming Tuesday, November 18, and is of course a don't-miss for Rohmer fans and probably an excellent place to begin for those who've yet to know his work.