Picks: Recommended Films
Amen, dir. Costa-Gavras (France, 2002). I was impressed with many aspects of this film, and yet I thought the film fell short of greatness at the same time. The story is compelling. The film has an epic sweep—covering the broad sweep of the WW II years in Germany. One strange point: the film was in English. Hearing it in German would have made more sense. A naïve German SS officer (a doctor) becomes involved in the details of gassing the Jews in the early years of the war. Ulrich Tukur does a wonderful job as Kurt Gerstein, the officer, who is a devoted family man and Christian and yet finds himself drawn into the web of deceit and betrayal practiced by the Nazi regime. Early in the film it becomes apparent that Gerstein also suffers from the sin of pride. At one point he cries, "I shall be the eyes of God!" Later in the film, he declares, "I must testify about all of this!" He observes firsthand the gassing of Jews in an early version of a gas chamber. The scene is about the ultimate peephole experience: put a quarter in the slot and look through the window at the families clambering over others and trying to find some air to breathe and clinging together to the very end of their lives until each person becomes part of an interlinked mass of humanity. Then Gerstein, moved by his conscience, becomes one of the few Germans who try to tell others what the Nazis are up to. He tells a diplomat at the Swedish embassy in Berlin; he tells the pastor who married him; and he even tries to tell a Cardinal to inform the Vatican. But for a variety of reasons, no one will act on the information he possesses.
Mathieu Kassovitz plays Ricardo Fontana, a Jesuit priest attached to the Cardinal's office. The young priest believes Gerstein and becomes his ally. In the meantime Gerstein continues to provide crucial information of how to use the poison gas most effectively in order to eliminate unwanted units (Jews). Of course, these elements of plot introduce serious moral dilemmas. How can one contribute to the holocaust and yet try to stop it? How can one be a man of God and yet ignore the suffering of the people of God? I understand the film was based on a play, and my major reservation about the film is that Costa-Gavras does not transform the play sufficiently into cinema. Too many scenes consist of characters arguing about these moral dilemmas. They make fine speeches, but in cinema one needs to see actions, interactions, and characters grieving their moral confusion in isolation. A significant motif in the film was shots of freight trains (cars either empty—returning from the concentration camps; or cars full—heading toward the concentration camps). On stage this motif could be created with an emphasis on sound effects—the sound of the whistle blaring, the clickety-clack of the railcars, even still images of boxcars. In the film the motif flounders because the hard-driving music supporting the images fails to capture the haunting nature of the images. No one stops the transports; no one bombs the concentration camps. Nothing is done to save the Jews. The sense of helplessness as well as hopelessness need to conveyed via this motif—and they were not. We needed to hear an elegy—something that would capture the haunting nature of the actions.
The climax of the film is the Christmas Day broadcast from the Vatican. The two heroes believe the Pope Pius XII will condemn the Nazis; of course, he does no such thing. He has chosen political expediency. The Jews will have to suffer; the first priority is winning the war against the Nazis (and the more communists the Nazis kill, the better). What do we learn in a film like this? Those in power do everything to stay in power. If rights can be wronged along the way, so much the better. If not, then that's the way it goes. The Jesuit priest tries one final gambit: get Gerstein to Rome so that he can meet with the Cardinal. At that point in the war three million Jews have perished in the Holocaust. Ironically, upon Gerstein's arrival in Rome, the Vatican is busy trying to help Jewish refugees in Rome who are to be deported by the Nazis. Now that the problem is in their backyard, the Vatican acts—but only on that limited territoriality. Fontana learns 1000 Jews will be deported that night. Fontana confronts the Pope a second time—and when his entreaties are refused, he places a yellow star on his black alb in order to identify his suffering with the suffering of the Jews. That night, the Jesuit priest is placed on the train with the other deportees, and he is sent to a concentration camp. We assume he will be gassed with the Jews; but he is held back by an SS commander (and close associate of Gerstein). That man, the epitome of brutality and moral compromise, believes the perfect punishment for the priest is to work with the other capos and shove the dead bodies into the crematorium. In a final plot twist, Gerstein—failing everywhere to get people to listen to him—hatches a bizarre rescue plan to extricate Fontana from the concentration camp. At the end of the film, the good die young, and they die amidst the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis. Meanwhile, the SS commander who participated happily in the destruction of a people is given an option to flee to Argentina after the war. Life goes on. A film like this has many moments of powerful emotion where we can empathize with the characters and their dilemmas. But it never rises above the stage version of the material. Costa-Gavras' direction is uninspired. His camera work, shot selection, montages, transitions, and pacing never attain greatness. The two main actors do a wonderful job in their roles, especially Tukor (who plays Gerstein). But plot dominated over character for the most part.
Big Fish, dir. Tim Burton. This film is beautifully photographed. Albert Finney was wonderful in the role of the main character's father. Billy Crudrup continues to inspire me with his gentle acting style. And that, my friends, about sums up what was positive to me in this film. When it comes to the actor Ewan McGregor, I have just about had it with his Southern accent. His accent was terrible when he played an imitation Cary Grant in Down with Love, and in this film-where he plays a half-baked version of Forrest Gump, I could not care less about his character. Oh, don't forget the production design-it was incredible, stupendous, inspiring. The creation of the mysterious town called Specter was an act of genius. But as an aside, let me remind you that great cinematography, great acting, and great production design does not a great film make. Now I'm being hard on this film-I know-so let me backtrack and say some positives. I like a great storyteller as much as anyone, and certainly Albert Finney played a great storyteller. The problem, however, was that when his stories began, and McGregor (the younger version of Albert Finney) showed up to play his part, I lost interest in the story. The storyteller-even more than the story-is the key for the listener. Hearing Finney's booming voice was enough for me to go anywhere with him in his imagination. But leaving him behind and having to follow his younger self bored me. I did not see the power of Finney's ego in this younger version. The conceit of the film is that Finney-as a young man-saw how he would die when he looked into a witch's eye. Here's a turn of events! Who would want to know how he died? I missed understanding why this man-who knew that information-could live his life with such abandon and improvisation. And if he did so, we need to still understand why he did so-and then we can embrace him despite all of his faults and grieve for him when he dies. I suppose that was the idea that Burton wanted to express. After the film ended, I turned to my wife and asked, "I wonder how long it has been since Tim Burton's father died?" I wonder if this film was a kind of celebration of his father's gifts of imagination-passed on to the son, the filmmaker? Then there is this thing about film as a visual medium. Burton shows us life from the storyteller's point of view. Everything he sees is larger than life-and film simply replicates that largeness. But when we listen to a story, we imagine that largeness in our mind's eye. We never really see it as a literal fact-as we do in this film. It is the very nature of the visual-that what we see in a film is literal rather than figurative, that undermines the power of a film about storytelling. It just occurs to me that the film would have been more impressive if it had incorporated animations rather than putting out all the production design of magical towns and magical forests, etc. In the world of animation, anything is possible-nothing is literal. As good as this film looked, and as great as some of the tall tales were, I just could not relate to the character and to his problems. I never grasped the exact nature of the son's difficulties with his father. Recently I saw the film The Barbarian Invasions. Now in that film I understood the nature of the estrangement between father and son. In this case, it was narrated to me-not revealed through the interactions. And then there were the thankless roles, played by Danny DeVito and Jessica Lange. Nothing they did was believable or helped propel the film's plot. I also got nothing out of the relationship between the main character and the lovely young woman from the mysterious town. In the climactic scene, I did not understand why the estranged son would begin to tell the story he told. What would make him tell the story in the way he told the story? I know why the screenplay wants me to understand it; but I am talking here about what seemed to be missing to me-the heart's truth of that scene. I suspect the point of the film is to prove to the son that he was "his father's son"-but I felt as if something was missing in the conceptualization of this relationship, and that the storytelling at the end was a "forced" plot twist that was required to get us to the final scene. Certainly the ending scene of the film, with all characters gathered at the river for a baptism/last rites scene, was a tour de force of filmmaking. I was moved by the scene, and by the perfect transformation of the master of the fish story. It was beautiful, but it did not match the emotions of the rest of the film in my estimation. I'm glad I saw the film, but I wish it had been more rigorous in its depiction of human relationships. In the real world, anything does not go.
Bus 174, dir. Jose Padilha (Brazil). A young man hijacks a bus on a Rio de Janeiro street in 2000 and the hostage-taking of the passengers ends badly. This documentary tries to tell the story of Sandro, a young man, from multiple points of view—but eventually only the direct cinema scenes of the hostage (taken by Brazilian television stations) rings true. Too many questions are left unanswered: Why did Sandro decide to hijack that bus on that day? Why did Sandro’s aunt fail to raise the boy of 10 after his mother was brutally murdered in her small store? Why did an old woman take Sandro in and treat him like her son a few years before the hostage crisis? Many other “why” questions are answered satisfactorily—and rather predictably, based on an understanding of how social inequality breeds deviant behaviors. Insights are forthcoming regarding the hopelessness of many young Brazilian men and women, the way society wants to render them as invisible—so as not to have to deal with them, the corruptness and ineptness of the police, the criminal justice system, and the squalid and mean-spirited state of jails and prisons (no more than holding pens for the incarcerated).
The documentary begins with a long series of scenes that are shot as birds-eye point of view shots (flyovers from a helicopter) of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Several times throughout the film the director returns to this shot selection—almost as if to suggest a distancing from the reality of what occurs on the streets. We look down on the world as if we were God or an angel flying overhead, saddened by the mess that life has become below us. In some respects, this visual technique reveals beautiful patterns (in the streets, the tops of buildings, the way slums are just over the top of a hill or just down the hill from the upper-class dwellings). There is a geometry to these types of shots; the city is one large grid—everything makes sense and fits together. Only at street level does the disparateness of life take over. At street level crimes occur—sometimes violent crimes perpetrated by civilians, sometimes violent crimes perpetrated by the authorities. The filmmaker gives a quick background check on Sandro’s life. “These boys are hungry for social existence,” a professor says. Another section of the film clearly blames the media for contributing to Sandro’s acts. He realizes that now that the camera is trained on him, perhaps people will listen to him. Unfortunately, Sandro has no real demands to make upon the authorities—except to say, “Now you listen to me! For once, take account of me!” He constantly reminds people that this is not a movie—and yet he plays the part of the hostage taker the way every movie script has established that role through the history of motion pictures. He has to threaten to kill someone and give a time limit—in this case, 6:00 p.m. He has to make a demand. His demand makes no sense: he asks for a rifle and a grenade, but cannot explain why. If he has a rifle and a grenade, will people listen to him then?
Soon the scene around the bus becomes a madhouse. The police do not widen the perimeter of their zone and thus immediately lose control of the conflict. They are poorly prepared, poorly armed, lack basic two-way radios for communication, and have little understanding of how to work hostage negotiations. In other words, the police seem to be good for nothing. Their ineptness only fuels the fire of this crisis. Sandro often makes himself an easy target for a sniper’s shot—but the police never use their snipers. We are led to believe that the police receive a call from the Governor’s Palace and are forbidden to use a sniper. Was there the fear that shooting a man on national television would lead to “bad press” against the government? And why would the government—and not the police—make that call? Then more background on Sandro; he was one of the Candaleria boys—homeless kids who slept in an old church in the center of town. One night the police drove by and murdered about seven of the kids. Sandro escaped. We are given a blow-by-blow account of his arrests and his comings and goings over the last six years of his life.
I kept thinking to myself, “Amazing how much information can be discovered about a single human life?” And yet at the same time, I was frustrated that the information raised more questions than it answered. Perhaps that was the purpose of that approach. The more we learn about Sandro’s upbringing, the more we come back to the way his individual choices do not match the call for understanding him as an individual. Why can’t he overcome being a cokehead? Why can’t he stop sniffing glue? Why does he continue to engage in robberies? To what extent is his malfeasance the consequence of the ills of society vs. the consequence of his egocentricity and poor choices?
Finally the film moves to its climax. We don’t know how this is going to end; but we know it has to end badly. There will be no last-minute heroics. The scenes showing him marching one or another young woman on the bus back and forth—holding a gun at her head—was too much for me. I could not forgive him for acting out his emotional crisis this way. Certainly he had been terrorized and abused and belittled as a young boy and a young man by various figures of authority; but I could not see past the horror he inflicted on these young women on that bus. Other plot twists imply that Sandro was never going to kill any of the women on the bus; that killing another person was not part of his modus operandi. True or not, I could not get past seeing him terrorize. To be terrorized the way he was terrorized was horrific and unforgivable; but so was his own terrorizing of others. Two wrongs. What does it mean? And then the climax—and everything that could go wrong goes wrong. This film was strongest when it focused on the scenes televised across Brazil. It could have been shortened by 10-15 minutes; if so I would have reduced the number of scenes that tried to explain what in the end feels inexpicable.
The House of Sand and Fog, dir. Vadim Perelman. I love Ben Kingsley's work and admire his talent as an actor. I would place him in the first rank of actors, and the highest compliment I could pay him is to say that there is no other Ben Kingsley. What skill he brings to this craft-his ability to be still on camera, to capture a look and hold it as if his soul were made of steel, and his uncanny ability to capture the voice of his characters, all the nuances of pitch and rhythm. He steals this film. Like the other December film, Cold Mountain, this is an exercise in the parallel editing. The two main stories are told in alternating scenes. On the one side is Kingsley's Iranian colonel, now living in the U.S. after escaping Iran. On the other side is a drug-using young woman, played by Jennifer Connelly, who is trying to put her life back together-but still lacks the skills to manage her life independently. When the lives of these two characters collide, Kingsley prevails, of course-his will is strong, and he makes sure he has the means to recapture his dream of having a fine home for his wife and son. The problem I had with the film was simple: when parallel editing turned to Kingsley's story, I was captivated by everything he did and said. He created that character wholly and perfectly. When the parallel editing turned to Connelly's story, I was uninterested and frustrated. She was a collection of behaviors and emotions-doe-eyed, sensuous, confused, distracted, vulnerable-and then there is that earnest little girl's voice, as if to suggest that she is simply a package of innocent womanhood: and how can we not identify with her and empathize with her every emotion. Of course, that response is set against the unethical and illegal acts she becomes involved with throughout the film-as a result of an untimely sexual relationship with a local cop. So as the film progressed toward its inevitable clash of ideals (a house like the one we had on the Caspian Sea-all for you, my darling, vs. "That's my house!"-"it was father's house and now it's my house and you can't have it!), I was not emotionally involved in the plot. (As an aside, I wonder why the young woman went everywhere, it seemed, with no shoes on? I know she had to step on a nail (a plot twist, you know), but a good long nail goes right through sandals, too.) The film is beautifully photographed, and too often the cinematographer gets his way with lingering shots of the fog and the landscape and the sunsets-mood after mood. A little restraint would have been helpful. A film like this strives for the epic-grand emotions, fateful encounters, tragic dimensions. I wish filmmakers had the courage to trust characters more than the conventional wisdom of plot point; I believe the emotions would burst forth with much more credibility and overwhelming impact if that were the case. I kept thinking about the aimlessness of this young woman, and wondering why that aimlessness seems appealing to audiences. And then there was her anger as well. What really did she have to be angry about? Did she not "screw it up" herself with regard to her defaulting on the house? Why didn't she take responsibility for her actions-or at least admit some culpability in this affair? I never really grasped who she was and how she got to be that way. So I had nothing to go on when I saw her move forward with such recklessness. The more I watched, the more I empathized with Kingsley, and the more I appreciated how immigrants work hard to capture some part of the American Dream-while in the meantime those like Connelly's character, who are given much, fritter it away and blame others for their "bad luck." At a key point in the film, I wondered why the young cop, having seen the holster of his gun, as well as several empty bottles of whiskey, cannot believe Kingsley's story-that the young woman showed up at the house, was drunk, and the family took care of her. But then, if the young man had acted that way, there would be no fateful encounter and tragic loss. Even so, when that predictable climax occurred, I leaned forward and was quite simply amazed at how good Ben Kingsley was-acting out the grief of a father in such a basic image: a father standing over his dead son and mourning in public. Then there is the resolution after this horrible moment, and it was brilliantly conceived and beautifully acted by Kingsley. I was moved by the ending-but only because it was the story that moved me in the beginning. The Connelly character was an annoyance; the Kingsley character was for the ages.
Recommended Films M-Z