Archive for August 2010

Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust

August 31, 2010

After watching the luke-warm rom-comThe Treatment during my “finish watching every film with Chris Eigeman” phase this summer I was reminded of that film’s director Oren Rudovsky. Rudovsky also directed the excellent A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, a wonderful and enlightening examination of a religious subculture that’s always seemed especially foreign to me as an outsider.

Reading more about Rudovsky was I directed to the 2004 documentary he co-directed, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust. Rudovsky’s filmmaking partner for this work was Menachem Daum. Daum, an Orthodox Jew whose beliefs have evolved a strongly humanistic bent, and his wife, both children of Holocaust survivors, endeavor to bring their two sons to Poland to discover the history of their parent’s WWII survival.

Daum’s sons, Tzivi and Akiva, are Yeshiva scholars living in Jerusalem. Menachem fears that his sons have isolated themselves from the non-Jewish world and have developed an unhealthy distrust of Gentiles (something he attributes to the influence of his own father.) Menachem hopes this trip will be a sort of hajj for his two sons – he hopes it will open their minds to the Gentile world. He hopes they will understand that, were it not for the bravery of the Polish gentiles (the Mucha family) who risked their lives by hiding their grandfather and his two brothers for more than two years, they would never have been born.

The film is shot in a very straight-forward journalistic/verite style, largely without accompanying music. Nonetheless the power of the experiences and the emotions that overwhelm them upon meeting and speaking to the suriviving members of the Polish gentile family who hid their grandfather is profound. The sons, who, early in the film are seen to scoff when their father stuffs a written prayer in the nook between a stone wall and a telephone poll at the location of a demolished synagogue, finally break down at the location of the Mucha’s barn that hid their grandfather from the Nazis more than 50 years ago. Crying they say a prayer with their mother – a prayer designated for places where miracles happen.

Centurion

August 30, 2010

Neil Marshall, the director of the best horror film of the 00’s (The Descent) plus Michael Fassbender, one of the best young actors working today plus Dominic West, Det. McNulty from The Wire. How could you go wrong?

Well, you go wrong when you remember that while Marshall hit one out of the park with his spelunking terror he also embraced his love of cartoonish gore in the fun but very throw-away Doomsday. And I keep having to remind myself that Fassbender and West starred in 300. The above equation equals Centurion an utterly forgettable swords and sandals genre piece set in Roman occupied Britain that wastes the talent of all three. The script is full of banal clichés, the cinematography, while quite beautiful most of the time, cribs heavily from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (there were at least five instances of helicopter shots of dudes running through the rocky wilderness.) The characters are all cardboard cut-outs – none are fleshed out enough for you to care a lick when they get sliced, beheaded, disemboweled or stabbed in the cock while pissing off the side of a garrison wall.

Never ever piss off of the side of a Roman garrison wall.

My theater experience was quite unusual. For some reason I still cannot fathom this film didn’t play at the muliplex but rather at our local art-house chain Landmark Theater, the Kendall Cinema. Centurion stuck out like a sore thumb next to the usual latte-liberal fare (also playing yesterday night: the lesbian family comedy The Kids are All Right, the ballet drama Mao’s Last Dancer…you get the picture.) So the straight-faced cut ‘em up ultra-violence, not surprisingly, attracted a bit of a different element than usual. This was demonstrated about half-way through the film when one cantankerous patron (the type of middle aged dude I usually saw at the Kendall seeing a revival of A bout de Souffle or the newest Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson film) approached a woman a few rows in front of me and asked her to (to echo this blog’s name) turn off her cell phone. However, sitting directly in front of where this man stood was an early 30s meathead dude in a wife-beater who, immediately after this man spoke, turned around and yelled at the middle aged dude for apparently “sneaking up behind him.” The meathead stood up and faced the middle aged dude who said he wasn’t talking to him but to the woman with the phone. The meathead responded by saying “You better step away or I’ll show you what this movie’s all about.” The middle aged dude pulled out his cell phone and threatened to call 911.

Yes my screening of Centurion at the Kendall Cinema was inches away from being interrupted by a fist fight. At the end I’d almost have preferred that as I’m sure it would have proved significantly more entertaining than the film itself.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Highball

August 16, 2010

In the span of six days following the completion of filming his second quirky upper middle class urban American comedy Mr. Jealousy, Noah Baumbach and the cast and crew of that movie filmed Highball. This project, saddled as it was with shoestring production values, muddled editing and a hit or miss script, was a great disappointment to Baumbach. He insisted on having his name removed from the directing and writing credits (the film was written by Baumbach, his co-star and college friend Carlos Jacot and co-star Christopher Reed) and replaced with pseudonyms. (Most directors looking to do this ask for an Alan Smithee but, for reasons I cannot answer, he apparently didn’t go that route.) Anyhow, not a bad call on his part. Mercifully, Highball never received a theatrical release and died on the “direct to DVD” vine. This is a film, truly, only for Baumbach superfans like me.

While most of Baumbach’s early films resemble those of Whit Stillman, Highball is truly a pale imitation of Stillman’s Manhattan. It focuses on a group of post-collegiate late-20-something Brooklynites through the use of three singular settings: a birthday party dinner, a Halloween party and a New Years eve party. This ensemble negotiate their intertwined romances, figure out their sexuality, determine if whether or not they’re “starfuckers” (Ally Sheedy and Rae Dawn Chong appear as themselves as dates of Eric Stoltz’s character) and both express great affection as well as snipe at eachother.

Few performances stand out. Carlos Jacot is (as always) excellent in the role of douchey sort of friend Felix who, by the end, has made some serious, perhaps psychotic break related transition to a semi-catatonic nice guy (who belts out a bizarre Tiny Tim-esque karaoke version of “Beautiful Dreamer”). Perhaps my favorite actor of the 90s, Chris Eigemann is, unfortunately, wasted in a small role, only showing his one of a kind comedic acting skills during a scene when he argues with his co-worker who, despite Eigemann’s instructions, comes to the Halloween party dressed in the same full coverage, college mascot type lizard costume as he.

Of interest are two small roles: the brief appearance of Dean Wareham, veteran of the canonic 90s NYC indie rock bands Luna and Galaxie 500, as a New Year’s Date who flexes his delicate pipes on their karaoke machine and an appearance by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich as the strange older friend who’s always around and demonstrates quite good Jimmy Stewart, W.C. Fields and Marlon Brando impressions.

As I said, certainly a must see for big fans of Baumbach (and, of course, the sadly underappreciated Carlos Jacot) but stay away unless you’ve absolutely got to see everything the man has made. There are some legitimatley hilliarous Baumbachian moments but their much more sparse than usual.

Pontypool

August 11, 2010

One of the feature films I sadly missed from the 2009 IFFB was Pontypool – a really inventive and tense film that’s part reverse “War of the Worlds” meets Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio meets an innovative take on the “stuck in the basement during the zombie apocalypse” genre. Luckily, thanks to Greencine’s deep library of titles, I was able to catch it in the comfort of my living room last night.

Set almost entirely within the confines of a small radio station studio located in a church basement in Ontario, the film revolves around Grant Mazzy, the washed up morning shock jock, Sidney, the straight shooter producer and Laurel-Ann, the young station engineer. As the morning show unfolds unconfirmed and spotty reports begin coming in about a quite unusual event in Pontypool – a riot or perhaps a cult ritual or perhaps cannibals or is it francophone terrorists – it’s difficult to tell and there’s nothing solid being reported by any external news sources. Is it a hoax? Should they venture out into the blizzard to see what’s what? Is the very fact that they’re continuing to transmit their usual brand of talk radio exacerbating the problem?

The film uses the age old truism that what you don’t see is more frightening than any image you can imagine. The scenes focusing on Mazzy’s face as the “chopper” traffic reporter gives on-scene descriptions of the supposed carnage allows the mind to conjure up it’s own image of unbridaled violence and bloody carnage. This is a film not to be missed and the best stright up horror film I’ve seen since Neil Marshall’s The Descent.