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Excellent performances as famed playwright ably highlights "ordinary everyman" novelist's idiosyncrasies, 10 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Having graduated college in the 1970s, I had never heard of David Foster Wallace until I saw End of the Tour, based on David Lipsky's best-selling memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone, interviewed Wallace over a four day period back in 1996. The movie chronicles Lipsky's interview as he speaks with Wallace at his home and on a book tour promoting his then recently released novel, Infinite Jest.

As I began watching the film, I immediately asked myself, "how is this going to work?" Will it simply be a regurgitation of Lipsky following Wallace around, asking the same questions he asked Wallace which ended up in his memoir? And what of Wallace himself? Was he really that remarkable a character that he deserved having an indie biopic made about him, let alone starring the eminent thespians, Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel? Was Infinite Jest the true masterpiece most of the critics said it was? It took James Joyce 40 years before he came out with the brilliant Ulysses—Wallace had comparatively scant time to churn out Infinite Jest. Nonetheless, I did not and still have not read the book and I realized it was incumbent upon me to keep an open mind regarding Wallace's legacy.

Fortunately, the performances and noted playwright David Marguiles' erudite screenplay, sucked me in. The film begins with Eisenberg as Lipsky hearing the news in 2008 of David Foster Wallace's suicide. We then flash back to Lipsky convincing his boss at Rolling Stone Magazine to allow him to interview Wallace—permission is granted and Lipsky travels to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, near where Wallace teaches at the state university.

Wallace permits Lipsky to tape record their conversations, with the proviso that he not use certain "quotes" deemed "off the record." We learn that Wallace used to be addicted to television and no longer has one and that he has a great love for his two dogs. Lipsky creates friction when he intrusively probes about Wallace briefly being institutionalized when he was younger due to depression.

The long-winded interview at the home might have been tiresome but fortunately the venue shifts to Wallace's book tour, where the interviewer and interviewee end up in a book store in Minneapolis. Marguiles--working from Lipsky's additional notes to his book about his interview Wallace-- adds in some conflict when Wallace believes Lipsky is flirting with one of two of Wallace's female friends they meet while on the tour. The friction in the air is quite palpable as Lipsky accuses Wallace of not owning his talent by adopting a "nice guy" act.

After returning to Wallace's home, the conflict between the two becomes more pronounced as Lipsky (at the behest of his editor) questions Wallace about his purported history of heroin abuse. Wallace takes umbrage and states those are just rumors put out by gossip mongers and columnists.

The two manage to patch things up and leave as friends. Lipsky speaks highly of Wallace after his death, during his own book tour.

Jason, Segel, mainly known for his comedy, is excellent as the philosophical Wallace. And Eisenberg, playing against type, presents Lipsky as a somewhat controlling, hard-edged, overly competitive journalist. Mr. Marguiles, adopting from both Lipsky's book and notes, manages to keep you interested despite the non- visual nature of the material.

Despite Wallace's desire to come off as an ordinary everyman, Mr. Marguiles manages to uncover enough idiosyncrasies to suggest that he was more than just an ordinary character. At times somewhat slow-moving, End of the Tour at the denouement, manages to end up fairly absorbing.

Ukrainian performance artist unable to prove connection between Chernobyl disaster and former Soviet Union's failed radio antenna, 8 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

From the title of his new documentary, you might come to believe that Chad Gracia is an undercover ornithologist skulking about in the former Soviet Union, attempting to discover a new species of woodpecker. Be assured that this is not exactly what his documentary is about— although he has found an "odd bird" in the guise of one Fedor Alexandrovich, a Ukrainian performance artist, who insists he has discovered the cause of the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986.

Alexandrovich was temporarily separated from his parents as a child after the Chernobyl disaster and placed in a state run orphanage. Back then it was discovered that he had been poisoned by Strontium-90 radiation and still suffers from health problems related to the Chernobyl explosion.

Alexandrovich's focus is on the Duga over-the-horizon radio antenna which was designed by the Soviets in 1976 to counter what was perceived as American encroachment in the surveillance sphere during the Cold War. The antenna emitted a chopping sound which was dubbed in the west as "The Russian Woodpecker." Some speculated that this was an attempt on the part of the Soviets at mind control but truth be told, the project was considered a failure (the signal was ineffective due to the effect of the Aurora Borealis and had no deleterious consequences in the U.S.).

Alexandrovich goes about interviewing various scientists and aging former Soviet officials (sometimes with a hidden camera) to find out if there was a connection between the Woodpecker and Chernobyl. Of course his interviewees emphatically deny the connection but Alexandrovich, in the spirit of any grand conspiracy theorist here in the U.S., determines that one particular Soviet official (his name escapes me), who was in charge of the Duga radar system, was principally responsible for the Chernobyl disaster. Alexandrovich's accusation comes without a shred of proof and one wonders whether the Soviets would be that stupid to intentionally cause the Chernobyl disaster which would not only eliminate their adversaries but possibly contaminate their own territory due to something as simple as a conglomeration of shifting winds.

The Russian Woodpecker contains some fascinating footage of Chernobyl before and after as well as shots of the monstrous Duga. Alexandrovich doesn't really serve his cause well by prancing around in the deserted Chernobyl ghost town dressed like a pixieish Peter Pan.

Alexandrovich, a self-styled Ukrainian "patriot", is thankfully no nationalist. His critique of both the former Soviet Union and its current incarnation hit the mark especially when we see how he's forced (at the behest of I believe a former KGB operative) to put in a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, indicating he holds no grudge against Russia (Alexandrovich is accused of "selling out" by a colleague who is unable to sympathize despite Alexandrovich's genuine fear that the KGB or other sinister Russian force might do harm to his young son).

Nonetheless, Alexandrovich fails to inject any critiques of his own country Ukraine, notably famous for its long history of anti- semitism (the former president of the Ukrainian Republic, Simon Petlura, is still hailed as a hero in some quarters in the country, despite his links to the atrocious pogroms against the Jews right after World War I).

The documentary ends highlighting the Ukrainian rebellion against the pro-Russian president in 2014. The filmmakers make their point about the dangerous resurgence of Russian nationalism. Nonetheless, there are two sides to a story, and the Ukrainians have their share of nationalists who are just as bad as their Russian counterparts. Chad Gracia is best when he chronicles the past utilizing some neat archival footage. Alexandrovich's conspiracy theory remains unproven and this tends to detract from the overall power of the filmmaker's vision.

Impressive first feature about Liberian rubber tapper emigrant to America despite abrupt denouement, 7 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Director Takeshi Fukunaga spent time in Liberia researching his new, impressive film, Out of My Hand. He auditioned various local actors and cast neophyte Bishop Blay to play the role of Cisco, a disaffected rubber tapper toiling long hours on a plantation.

Fukunaga's research pays off as Cisco's tale smacks of a heady verisimilitude. The plot at first proceeds slowly as Cisco becomes embroiled in a labor action against his employer. He's convinced by his co-workers to join in a strike protesting long hours and low wages. His wife mocks him, believing that the company will simply replace him but he continues to persist until the strike fails and his co-workers end up going back to work.

At this point, Cisco decides to find work in New York City. He has a cousin who works as a cabdriver there and it's the cousin who sets him up in an apartment in one of the outer boroughs and gets him a job as a cabdriver. As this was Blay's first time in the US, the actor convincingly displays what it's like adjusting to life in a new country.

A notable scene includes Cisco being helped by a community worker when he first arrives. Later, Cisco's pride prevents him from accepting a large tip from one of his passengers.

The main plot involves the sudden intrusion of the menacing Jacob into Cisco's rather staid and routine life. Jacob claims that Cisco was in a position of power over him during the Liberian Civil War. We never really learn what Cisco actually did and he continually insists he doesn't know Jacob. But Jacob doesn't appear to be any angel himself. He sets Cisco up with a prostitute without his permission and then demands payment.

Fukunaga unsatisfactorily ends his story much too abruptly with Jacob being killed in a random fashion which I will not describe here. Somehow I wanted to know more about Cisco's back story and also wanted to learn of his ultimate fate.

Fukunaga was assisted with some excellent camera work by cinematographer Ryo Murakami, who sadly passed away from malaria right after the film was completed. This is an impressive first feature despite the abrupt denouement.

99 Homes (2014)
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Forcelosure victim's Faustian bargain with "devil" realtor proves educational and entertaining despite melodramatic ending, 6 February 2016

Director Rahmin Bahrini along with veteran director/screenwriter Amir Naderi have obviously done a great deal of research in crafting this gripping meditation on the foreclosure crisis which continues to affect thousands of beleaguered homeowners in America today.

Michael Shannon steals the show as the Machiavellian realtor, Rick Carver, who found it more profitable to get involved with flipping foreclosed properties than selling ordinary real estate at the height of financial crisis in 2007. Set in Orlando around 2010, we first met Carver standing outside of a foreclosed property with sheriffs about to evict a homeowner unable to keep up with his mortgage payments. When it's discovered that the homeowner has killed himself, Carver callously expresses no sympathy for the man who just committed suicide.

The plot breaks into Act 2 when Carver evicts our protagonist, Dennis Nash, a laid-off construction worker who lives in his modest home with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son. The entire scene (variations of which repeat time and again) appears to be based on true events. Nash begs that he needs more time and that his lawyer is in the process of resolving all the problems. Carver and the sheriffs will only give them a few minutes to get a hold of their most valuable possessions and put the rest of the home's contents on the front lawn.

Nash and his family are forced to move into a seedy motel and it's there that he discovers some of his construction tools are missing. He gets into a confrontation with Carver's work crew at Carver's office, accusing them of stealing the tools. Carver is impressed by Nash standing his ground and hires him as his new assistant. Nash's "Faustian bargain" with Carver is the vehicle which allows us to view the tragedy of foreclosure victims and the shady practices of people like Carver.

Carver allows Nash to strip houses of fixtures and appliances and install them in houses that he's gained possession of, making a big profit. Carver buys additional appliances from a hedge fund manager who's soon to be evicted, and re-sells them to the government at an exorbitant rate.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film are the glimpses we get of foreclosure victims, all with slightly different situations which prove fascinating. One heartbreaking victim appears to be almost senile and is completely unaware that eviction proceedings have been instituted. Another man threatens Nash with a firearm and tells him to gets off his property immediately. Others take Carver's "Cash for Keys" offer where the homeowner accepts $3,500 cash in exchange for keeping the house in good order until turning it over on eviction day (in an early scene, Nash must clean up a house that the homeowner intentionally sabotaged by allowing the toilet to back up).

After Carver agrees to sell Nash's old house back to him, Nash feels pressure to get out of the motel as soon as possible, since he's being threatened by a man he was responsible for evicting earlier. Nash sells his old home, much to the chagrin of his mother and son, who leave him after he shows them a much more luxurious place he's purchased.

The climax proves a tad bit melodramatic as a foreclosure victim's court case threatens to sabotage one of Carver's multi-million dollar real estate deals. Carver forces Nash to deliver a forged document to the court where Nash's former acquaintance, with whom he used to be on good terms with, loses his home.

The man subsequently shoots off his rifle as Nash and the sheriffs appear at his home, attempting to evict him. I'm not exactly sure that Nash's sudden change of heart due to his guilt feelings over his deal with the devil--and his mother and son's negative reaction to selling the old family--is completely believable, but I suppose the film's scenarists felt that Nash needed some kind of punishment for the Faustian bargain he made with Carver.

Carver's outright illegal move at film's end, along with his overall shady activities, don't necessarily undermine some of the earlier arguments we hear from him, legitimating his machinations. After all, the homeowners ultimately are responsible for keeping up with payments on their homes. The bigger picture of course is that many of these foreclosure victims bore the brunt of the financial crisis and were unable to get themselves back on their feet. Bahrini must be commended not only for educating the public about what the foreclosure crisis is all about, but also for keeping us thoroughly entertained.

Tangerine (2015)
Neat iPhone5s smartphone cinematography chronicles pretty much one-note journey of trans-gender prostitutes, 6 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Director Sean Baker is back with one of his low budget wonders, this time shot entirely on an iPhone5s smartphone. The setting is Hollywood and his protagonists are trans-gender prostitutes (or should I say sex-workers?) Sin-dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor).

The opening scene (shot in a donut shop) grabs you right away as just out of jail Sin-dee threatens to find her pimp/boyfriend Chester, who has been cheating on her with a non-transgender woman, Dinah, another prostitute. Alexandra attempts to calm her friend down but Sin-dee is determined to locate the offending parties and mete out her own brand of "justice."

Although it has its moments, the Tangerine plot gets bogged down with Sin-dee's for the most part one note performance. She grabs Dinah's arm (and unconvincingly drags Dinah without any real resistance from her) to a near empty bar where Alexandra is scheduled to perform as a singer. In the bathroom, Sin-dee and Dinah do meth together and then Sin-dee finally softens up and helps Dinah with her hair.

There's a subplot involving an Armenian cabdriver, Razmik, whose preference for trans-gender prostitutes is thwarted when he discovers to his chagrin that he's just invited a non-transgender woman of the night into his cab. Later we discover Razmik is married and his mother-in- law suspects that he's not been working late at night as he's been claiming.

Things come to a head back at the donut shop where Razmik's mother- in- law calls her daughter and she shows up just in time to hear her mother exposing Razmik as having (in her own words) an interest in "gay prostitutes." But the wife doesn't want to hear her mother's concerns and they all return home to sort the rest of the shenanigans out.

Meanwhile, Chester confesses to Sin-dee that he had a one-time affair with Alexandra. Sin-dee stalks off and attempts to hail some cars with johns passing by, but is doused with a noxious liquid. In a touching moment, Alexandra helps Sin-dee clean off and then lets her wear her wig. Dinah is rebuffed at the brothel where Sin-dee first encountered her, as the madam there informs that someone has taken her place.

If all this sounds a bit silly, it is. Score points for the irreverent tone but Sin-dee's quest for "revenge" grows tiresome. Taylor gives the more sensitive performance of the two principals, with Rodriguez displaying less subtlety as a woman with a bad case of anger management. Ultimately, Tangerine, with its message of friendship triumphant, has its heart in the right place, but there's little here that will appeal to the intellect.

Slow moving but compelling glimpse of Pine Ridge reservation world still in need of a more well developed plot, 3 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

First-time writer-director Choe Zhao is now making the rounds on the indie circuit (garnering a couple of Spirit Award Nominations along the way), with the intriguing Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Somehow she was able to befriend denizens of the insular Pine Ridge Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota and fashioned a coming of age story with members of the local population taking on most of the acting roles.

One is struck immediately by the urban influence on the reservation, particularly rap music, which most of the kids and teenagers appear to enjoy profusely. There is of course the sad influence of alcohol which contributes to the overall depressing atmosphere on the reservation--but at the same time, the people there have not given up the Native American customs, which constantly remind them of their ancestors and what was once an intimate connection to the land.

John Reddy plays Johnny Winters, a high school senior, who plans on leaving the reservation and seeking his fortune in Los Angeles after he graduates. He lives in a small house with his mother and sister Jashaun. Johnny's father, a man who fathered 25 children from nine women, is not close with Johnny and Jashaun—and early on he's killed in a fire at his home. Community members pay tribute to their fallen neighbor but Johnny doesn't appear to get overly emotional about his father's death.

Johnny works for Bill, illegally selling alcohol on the reservation so that he can save enough money to follow his girlfriend, Aurelia, who plans to attend college in California. Bill has a non-native Caucasian girlfriend who expresses a sexual interest in Johnny at one point, but nothing comes of it. Meanwhile, Jashaun is perhaps looking for a father figure and finds one in distant relative Travis, a tattoo and clothing designer who she bonds with. I also shouldn't forget that Johnny's older brother is incarcerated in state prison and both the mother and kids periodically visit him.

Zhao's narrative is extremely slow-moving and the characters are virtually all low-key. One has to wonder whether this film could have been better as a documentary. The exciting moments here are really few and far between. Things do perk up a bit when we see Johnny's dream of becoming a boxer shattered when he's pummeled mercilessly during a sparring session with a far superior pugilist. And then there's a moment of violence when tribal gang members beat Johnny up and set his truck on fire in retaliation for an earlier confrontation in which they felt he had "dissed" them.

The film closes, suggesting (I think) that Johnny wasn't ready quite yet to leave the reservation. There's a great contrast with Johnny furiously riding a horse with his friends to the next scene where he's talking on his cellphone. In his final narration we see scenes of rodeo and boxing juxtaposed with a traditional Native American ceremony. Johnny notes that his sister has more of an affinity for the traditional culture than he does. Ms. Zhao has done well allowing us a glimpse of this insular world—I just wish there was more of a well developed plot to go along with it.

Feminist dystopia featuring tale of mother-daughter bonding, might have been better as a one hour Twilight Zone-like episode, 2 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Advantageous is the second feature by Jennifer Phang based on the screenwriter/director's award-winning short film of the same name. Set in an unspecified future, Advantageous' setting was described by one critic as a "feminist dystopia."

The protagonist Gwen (played with great intensity by Jacqueline Kim) is a spokesperson for a biotech company, Center for Advanced Health and Living. When her superiors deem her too old to continue working in a job that demands a younger look, she's unceremoniously given the proverbial pink slip.

The problem is that in the future not only are there virtually no jobs for older, middle-aged woman, but an economic recession has led men to be given preference in the marketplace (sound like someplace you know?)

Gwen is faced with the crisis of not having enough funds to ensure that her teenage daughter, Jules (played by sensitive newcomer Samantha Kim) gets into an elite private school which will guarantee her upward mobility (the consequences of what happens to those who fail to move up in the world is hardly touched upon).

Gwen is so desperate that she tries to hit up her estranged sister for money. That's a no go after the sister gets wind of a family secret involving her husband, with whom Kim had an affair with long ago.

Of course that sounds more like melodrama--where the sci-fi comes in involves Kim contacting her ex-boss at the Center and agreeing to get involved in their untested soul transfer procedure. There's a Twilight Zone episode from long ago much like this: an "ordinary" woman is pressured into trading her body in for a new one with "model looks." Here, Gwen asks for the trade-in and ends up in the body of a much younger, supposedly more attractive woman, Gwen 2.0 (played by Freya Adams).

There are few surprises after Gwen becomes Gwen 2.0. Jules rather predictably can hardly stomach her "new mother" until there's some measure of acceptance at film's end. The female companion I was with at the film screening found Jules' dissonance and eventual coming to terms with the new situation to be an emotionally cathartic experience. For me the turn of events (that truly smacked of melodrama) suggested a lack of imagination.

Advantageous' central conceit, basically a body swap, has been used in countless other sci-fi potboilers. This might have been better as a one -hour episode in a Twilight Zone-like series. But here, the pacing is so slow, that only an extremely clever twist ending could have saved the floundering narrative.

Given its low budget, Ms. Phang did well with the limited resources she had to work with. Utilizing CGI effects, drone-like saucers are seen flying across a future urban landscape. Holograms are also made use of to suggest the future dystopia. The bulk of Advantageous was filmed in Brooklyn—thus, along with the special effects, one feels firmly ensconced in both the present day and a fanciful future-scape.

Most of Advantageous' drama revolves around the bonding between mother and daughter. Social issues are reduced to mysterious bombings in high-rises that are never truly explained. And the world Gwen inhabits is basically limited to immediate family and her employers. We really never do get a sense of what the world is like in the future beyond Gwen's narrow universe.

Advantageous' strong suit is the compelling performances of its principal actors. The rather derivative sci-fi plot however, is merely a vehicle to highlight the melodramatic interconnection between Gwen, Gwen 2.0 and Jules. I suspect that many more women can relate to a film such as this than men. The mere trappings of a futuristic society are not enough to truly engage a demanding, critical viewer. Again, this is a film that simply needed to be far more imaginative than the final product proffered up here.

(T)ERROR (2015)
FBI informant's story is interesting but civil liberties vs. homeland security issues need deeper exploration, 31 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe directed this documentary focusing on former Black Panther Saeed Torres who became a paid FBI informant. Torres travels to Pittsburgh in an attempt to gather intelligence on one Khalifah al-Akili, a Protestant who converted to Islam a decade before, and was posting pro-Taliban statements on social media.

Torres meets with al-Akili a number of times but finally informs his handlers at the FBI that al-Akili is not dangerous. The FBI won't take no for an answer and orders Torres to keep contacting al-Akili for additional information. At a certain point, al-Akili is able to conclude that indeed Torres has been working for the FBI and blows his cover by posting his name online.

The FBI eventually arrests al-Akili on non-terrorism related charges (he's charged with weapons possession and sentenced to eight years in a federal lockup). Meanwhile Torres feels that the government has left him twisting in the wind after his cover is blown and is deserted by most of his friends.

The filmmakers manage to interview both Torres and al-Akili. However, no surveillance video or wiretapped recordings are available for them to utilize. Instead, inter-titles appear on the screen, reproducing emails sent by Torres to the FBI (and visa-versa). Without any video footage or audio clips, the documentary becomes a pedestrian affair—there is no rising tension as the story unfolds. Torres' story remains mildly interesting (supplemented by some archival footage of the Black Panthers in the late 60s and early 70s) but the case itself is hardly the stuff of great drama.

It's the film-makers conviction that many of these cases where paid informants are used by the FBI involve entrapment of innocent victims. The case of jazz musician Tarik Shah is also briefly touched on as an example of someone who was entrapped. Shah's mother appears and defends him but we learn virtually nothing of the details of Shah's case (how he was entrapped) nor do we hear from anyone representing the FBI or their point of view.

I have no doubt there have been improprieties in a fair number of these FBI counterterrorism efforts, but shouldn't each one be judged on a case by case basis? The film-makers are most concerned with the violation of civil liberties but there may also be some actual lone wolves out there who could do this country harm. Unfortunately for the film-makers here, Mr. al-Akili hardly seems like the poster boy for a violation of first amendment rights.

(T)error doesn't do enough to explore both sides of the difficult issues of civil liberties vs. homeland security. Torres' history is interesting and this is a film that will keep your interest despite its limitations.

Highly effective, true-to-life chronicle of Colombian drug runner kin, 31 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Manos Sucias (or "Dirty Hands" in English) is a neat, little crime drama produced mainly by Spike Lee. It's the debut feature of Josef Kubota Wladyka whose protagonists are Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) and Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez), drug runners from the Colombian town of Buenaventura.

Jacobo is in his 30s, the older brother of Delio, 19, but the two have not seen each other in quite a long time, even though they live in the same town. When we're first introduced to Delio, it's a little confusing, since he's with a friend who disappears for the rest of the narrative. Delio is chosen to accompany Jacobo in a motorboat equipped with an old, rusty torpedo shell containing kilos of cocaine. They travel up the Pacific west coast accompanied by Miguel, a surly, racist, light-skinned drug gang member who disparages Jacobo and Delio for their admiration of Pele, the famed soccer player, simply because he's black.

The contrast between the personalities of Jacobo and Delio is etched in high relief. Jacobo is sullen and haunted by the death of his young son at the hands of paramilitaries—and now after his wife has left him, seeks to move to Bogota, the Colombian capital, to make a new life. Delio, on the other hand, is boisterous and hopes to bring his girlfriend and new son, a measure of material comforts, from their share of the drug sales.

The plot really picks up first when Jacobo is forced to kill Miguel after Miguel shoots an innocent child unknowingly playing on top of the drug torpedo. Things become even more exciting when the brothers' drug stash is stolen by a young vendor who earlier had sold Delio some coconuts during a lull in their trip up the Pacific. Jacobo and Delio, knowing that if they don't recover the drugs they will be killed, proceed inland and hitch a ride in a motorcycle sidecar powered by engines running on an abandoned train track. Using a GPS tracker, they finally find the "torpedo" but the drugs are missing. Somehow (and it seems a bit unbelievable), the brothers are able to locate the thief at a nearby house where he's taking care of his ailing grandmother.

Jacobo threatens to kill the grandmother so the vendor agrees to show them where he hid the drugs. Again they travel down the tracks in the sidecar and almost are discovered by paramilitary soldiers who are proceeding in the other direction. After eluding the soldiers, the vendor escapes but is shot by Delio on the beach. This is the point where the "dirty hands" come in. Out of bullets, Delio is forced to strangle the young drug thief with his bare hands.

The tragedy of course is that the two brothers are decent guys who get involved in nefarious activities in order to escape their impoverished economic situation. Both neophyte actors give excellent performances as the beleaguered drug runners. Jarlin Javier Martinez as Jacobo is particularly impressive, especially in the scene where he breaks down recounting the death of his young son. Cristian James Abvincula as Delio also adroitly conveys his deep anguish when he reluctantly must commit murder.

During "down time" while on the boat, Jacobo and Delio's conversations give us an additional peak into their lives outside of their dark "profession." Often there's talk about the racial disparities of their social milieu (we become aware that it's extremely difficult for black Colombians to become successful in the "white man's world"). The film's soundtrack, featuring punchy local pop songs, adds to the overall flavor of the brothers' peripatetic world.

Manos Sucias is filmed occasionally in a cinema verité style particularly during the action scenes. This is where less of the use of a shaky, hand-held camera, would have been more effective.

While I often feel Spike Lee's own films are a hit or miss affair, he seems to have a real talent for picking winners as a producer. Manos Sucias is an example of one of them—impressive in its on the mark verisimilitude.

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First-time Hungarian director's effort ably captures atmosphere of Nazi genocide, but lacks dramatic conflict, 31 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

First-time Hungarian director László Nemes has been quoted as saying that he didn't want to make a film like Spielberg's Schindler's List, which he dubbed too "conventional." Nemes insisted on creating a different kind of Holocaust drama, where the emphasis was not on the survivors but on those who perished—pointing out that surviving the Holocaust was an anomalous affair.

Nemes' protagonist is Saul Ausländer, a native Hungarian, who worked as an Auschwitz Sonderkommando (a group of prisoners given special privileges by the Nazis in exchange for assisting them in the extermination procedures and clean-up duties at the camp). Despite being housed away from the crematoriums and given a few extra meager rations, the Sonderkommandos were marked for death when it was deemed they had completed all the work required of them by the Nazis. After the war, some Sonderkommandos were treated as war criminals and shunned by the survivors.

Ausländer discovers that one Hungarian boy has survived inside a gas chamber. His life is brief after a Nazi doctor suffocates him and orders an autopsy (to determine why this particular boy had survived). Ausländer insists this boy is his son and arranges to gain possession of the body so he can find a Rabbi to perform a proper burial. Was the boy really his son? At one point, Ausländer states that this was his son from a woman he never married. That kind of statement makes one believe that Ausländer could have been telling the truth. But he could have said that to justify his actions with his fellow inmates—they of course regarded his belief as a delusion and that he was "more interested in the dead than the living." An alternative way of looking at this is that this is how Ausländer could find some measure of redemption inside such a horrific environment—by arranging for the boy to be properly buried, he would be thwarting the Nazis' aim to desecrate the body as well as giving his life some purpose amidst the horror.

Nemes' technique is to shoot the entire movie close-up from Ausländer's point of view. The camera never pulls back so we can see the "bigger picture." Since everything is shot close-up, we can only catch glimpses of what's happening all around the beleaguered Sonderkommando. We never see the Jewish victims being gassed inside the crematorium. But we can hear their screams and terrifying pounding on the steel door as Ausländer stands right in front of it. Glimpses of the bodies (called "pieces" by the Sonderkommandos) are briefly seen being pulled out of the gas chamber and Ausländer and his associates must clean the blood on the floor so none of the new victims get any wind of what is about to happen to them.

Nemes' decision to shoot "close-up" has the effect of distancing the audience from the horrors that are not seen directly. In one respect, this distancing effectively makes the horror more palpable—if the audience takes in too many horrifying images, they may become numb to it all. On the other hand it defeats Nemes' purpose which is to emphasize the emotional connection with the audience—we're supposed to be shocked by the inhumanity (not sheltered due to not seeing the "whole picture"). The 1985 Russian film, Come and See, had a similar "distancing" problem— the subject matter concerned the massacre of civilians in Belarus by the Nazis and their collaborators. Unlike Son of Saul, Come and See was shot from a distance, not close-up. But the result was the same: the horror was not horrifying enough.

The value of films such as Come and See and Son of Saul is that they convey the "atmosphere" of genocide. From a distance, one might perceive the Nazis' actions as a macabre carnival where the perpetrators continually enjoy themselves as they commit repulsive, sadistic acts.

Nemes also fulfills his promise not to give the wrong impression that the Holocaust was a story of survival. The final, gripping scenes in Son of Saul make it clear that there were virtually no survivors. Ausländer may have found some peace that he was able to save his "son" from desecration, but those whom we were rooting for throughout the narrative, are mowed down by Nazi bullets, the sound of which occur effectively off screen.

Son of Saul is less effective as a drama due to lack of a singular antagonist. We rarely get to see what the personalities of the perpetrators are like. There is one really telling scene where a Nazi officer mocks Ausländer, dancing around him and speaking in pidgin Yiddish. But for the most part, the Nazis here are faceless entities. It might have been more interesting if their genocidal actions were seen from their point of view.

Finally, Ausländer's journey is too one-note and repetitious to be effective. We get the idea of what he is trying to do early on—it may be noble but his plan is aimless and ineffectual. Paul Ranier writing in the Christian Science Monitor echoes my sentiments: "Nemes's Saul- centric stylistics grow wearisome after a while, because Saul, blank- faced throughout, never really comes to life as much more than a symbolic martyr."

Son of Saul is certainly up there with other Holocaust films that depict the horrors from a sensory and auditory perspective. This may be the only way to effectively convey what occurred in the extermination camps. Nonetheless, somehow the human element is missing here—which of course would involve fleshed-out multi-dimensional protagonists and antagonists, and the conflicts cogently enumerated between them.

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