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Except for unrelenting bulldogs like Seymour Hersh (who had to publish
his latest article outside of the U.S.), true investigative journalism
seems to have become as obsolete as the 8-Track Tape. Tom McCarthy's
("The Cobbler") Spotlight, however, reminds us of what it was and what
it still could be. Set in Boston, the film is named after the Pulitzer
Prize winning investigative unit of The Boston Globe which, in the
years following 9/11, investigated the abuse of children by parish
priests and the link of silence that existed between the Catholic
Church and the Boston political and business community. It was a
silence that allowed offending priests off the hook for their crimes,
being transferred from parish to parish where they often re-offended.
In the film which follows the journalistic procedural style of such classics as "All the President's Men," Michael Keaton ("Birdman") is Globe Unit Editor Walter "Robby" Robinson. When the story circulates about the church's kid gloves treatment of molester Father John Goeghan, the paper's editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, "Pawn Sacrifice"), newly arrived from The Miami Herald and not bound by local "traditions" or religious loyalties, assigns the Spotlight unit to dig into the story. Robby and his team that consists of reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher"), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams, "Southpaw") and Marty Campbell (Brian d'Arcy James, "Time Out of Mind"), overseen by deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, "Ant-Man") set about the nitty-gritty work of tracking down the offending clerics.
Baron, however, wants to expose the systemic corruption in the church, not just individual priests and guns for top church officials such as Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou, "Prisoners"). While the case is being built step-by-step, the film shows how some leads go nowhere while others uncover a wider net than imagined. Coming up against the church's stonewalling, documents that have been made unavailable or have strangely disappeared, and a sleazy attorney in the D.A's office (Billy Crudup, "The Stanford Prison Experiment"), the team reaches out to Phil Saviano (Neal Huff, "The Grand Budapest Hotel") who heads an organization dedicated to supporting abuse victims as well as attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1") who represents victims that are suing the church in a class-action lawsuit and is an important source of information.
It is the interviews with the victims arranged by Garabedian that constitute some of the film's most moving moments. Especially touching is the story of Joe, beautifully performed by Michael Cyril Creighton ("Sleeping With Other People"), an openly gay man who looked up to the priest as the representative of God and felt flattered by the cleric's attention and the realization that it was okay to be gay but only later realized the priest's culpable behavior.
One of the film's best lines is when Garabedian, speaking of the agreement within the church to maintain their silence, says, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one." Another impactful scene delves into the mindset of one of the offenders. In Pfeiffer's interview of ex-priest Father Ronald Paquin (Richard O'Rourke, "Ghost Town"), he admits to "fooling around" with the boys but says he never derived any pleasure from it.
Undoubtedly the boys did not derive much pleasure either. One psychologist claims the priests have remained emotional preadolescence, but this over-generalized speculation does not add much clarity to the debate. As the head of an outstanding ensemble cast, Michael Keaton performance has depth and sensitivity, Ruffalo brilliantly captures the almost obsessively focused dedication of Rezendes, and McAdams is able to astutely demonstrate empathy, allowing the subjects of her interviews to feel safe in expressing their feelings.
McCarthy delivers the story with restraint and a balanced approach, showing the indifference of Globe reporters who sat on pertinent information they had about the scandal many years ago. While Spotlight does not have much style and can drag, the strength of its performances and the clear presentation of its subject matter has a strong impact, allowing us to feel the pain of the children who still suffer the effects of abuse and reminds us that, as Kahlil Gibran put it, "Safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble and beautiful end of a human being."
Most recently used as the filming location for The Martian, the Wadi
Rum (pronounced Ramm) desert in Jordan was described by actor Matt
Damon as, "one of the most spectacular and beautiful places I have ever
seen, and like nothing I've ever seen anywhere else on Earth." It is
this awe-inspiring background shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler
("Paradise: Hope") that is the location for first-time director Naji
Abu Nowar's masterful coming-of-age film Theeb, one that has been
described as an "Arabic Western." Co-written by Nowar and Bassel
Gandhour, it is the story of a young Bedouin boy who must fight for
survival against unknown enemies in the stark, unforgiving desert where
"the strong eat the weak." Theeb is set in the Arabian Hejaz Province
during World War I just prior to the Arab Revolt for independence from
the Ottoman Empire. It is the time when British soldier and
archaeologist T.E. Lawrence fought for Britain against the Turks and
championed the cause of Arab independence. Theeb ("Wolf" in Arabic), an
expressive boy about ten remarkably performed by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat,
is the youngest son of the late chief of a Bedouin tribe somewhere on
the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia which
favored the cause of Arab nationalism, Theeb appears to support the
traditional cultures that have lasted for thousands of years.
The film begins as Theeb's older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) teaches him to shoot a rifle and kill a goat. In the background, a voice-over delivers another type of lesson: "In questions of brotherhood never refuse a guest," the narrator tells us. "Be the right hand of the right when men make their stand. And if the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success. They will not stand beside you when you are facing death." When two travelers, British officer Edward (Jack Fox, "Blood Moon") and his Arabian guide Marji (Marji Audeh), come to their father's home, Hussein follows the teachings of hospitality to strangers and agrees to guide them on an undisclosed mission to the "Roman Well," located along the old pilgrimage route to Mecca.
Shot from the boy's perspective, the mischievous Theeb secretly follows them but tension erupts quickly when he receives a stern warning from the Englishmen after playing with the small mysterious wooden box he is carrying. When the travelers discover that the well is red with the blood of the men the English soldier was supposed to meet, they know they are being watched and must prepare for a shootout with deadly consequences. Left alone after he is separated from his companions, Theeb is at the mercy of a wounded Turk (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) known only as "The Stranger," and is uncertain whether the Turk is friend or enemy.
In an interview, the director described the moral dilemma and asks the question, "What would happen if you were stranded with your worst enemy but needed their help to stay alive? Surprising plot twists and deepening adventure lead us to the answer. Winner of the Venice Horizons Award for Best Director and Jordan's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, Theeb is not only a coming-of-age story but a film with a powerful message about a traditional society on the cusp of change and, for the Bedouin pilgrim guides, a lament for the loss of a way of life. The loss is palpable as the trains they call "The Iron Donkeys," invade the great silence of the desert and, with their thick black smoke, like a veil of tears, hide the ineffable beauty of the night sky.
For all the excitement, awe, and energy that are worked up in Ridley
Scott's The Martian, the story might just as well have taken place in
New York's Central Park with the hero stuck up in a tree. Instead of
the sense of mystery and wonder (and terror) that could be expected
from being stranded on a different world, what we have are buckets full
of the down-to-earth (or up-to-Mars), nitty-gritty practicalities of
science and a predictable plot that leaves no room for character
development or introspection. In the story, written by Drew Goddard and
based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, science is the redeemed and the
redeemer, the hero and the heroine, the beginning and the end.
Shot in 3-D, the film's fictional aspect is established almost immediately when we find out that NASA is actually engaged in space exploration rather than tallying up its budget deficit. Though we are not told the purpose of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, we know soon enough that the crew is forced to abandon their plans when they discover that a huge life-threatening sandstorm is fast approaching. Like Home Alone, the crew takes off for home but - wait a minute - they forgot Kevin. In this case, Kevin is fellow crew member Mark Watney, played with excruciating blandness by Matt Damon. Watney, presumed to be dead after the storm strikes, turns the tables on the departed crew and decides to stay alive, though according to his best judgment, his reprieve will only be temporary.
Watney must use his ingenuity and skills as a Botanist to solve his food problems to stay alive, but that is not his only concern. He has no way to communicate with Earth, knows that the next planned Mars mission will not be for four years, and that the landing spot on Mars is 3,200 kilometers away. As Watney explains in his video diaries, to survive he is going to have to "science the s..t out of this." He first makes changes to the Rover, his only vehicle, to allow for longer trips and then sets about growing potatoes in an artificial environment. Whether he likes potatoes or not, they are now his only source of nourishment and means of survival. The subject of embarrassingly phony eulogies back on Earth, NASA is shocked when satellite photos of Mars reveal that Watney has defied the odds and is still alive.
The crew returning home on the Hermes spacecraft are not informed, however, to avoid distracting them from their flight - a decision made by NASA director Terry Sanders, played by a miscast Jeff Daniels. When Sanders, marketing chief Annie (Kristen Wiig) and NASA mission director Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) find out that Mark is alive, they must find a way to "Bring Him Home" or else the film's promotional department will get very upset. Eventually, Watney finds a way to talk to NASA by using communications devices from the Pathfinder probe, dormant since 1997, but the film provides little insight into Watney's character and he seems to be emotionally unaffected by his plight, telling lame jokes as if he was planting potatoes in his back yard.
The more interesting story takes place at Houston's Johnson Space Center where plans are underway to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet, then return to the spacecraft carrying colleagues Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). After the launch ends up in disaster, help arrives via the Chinese space program and the Ares III crew itself must now make a crucial decision that has life or death consequences. The Martian has some fine technical achievements including breathtaking vistas of the Martian landscape by cinematographer Dariusz Wolsky and it is an entertaining film, yet all its achievements are subsumed in an atmosphere as exciting as a how-to-manual.
Disco music left behind by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) such as songs by David Bowie and Gloria Gaynor, attempt to enhance the film's entertainment quotient and appeal to younger viewers but they only serve to distract viewers from whatever reality the story has. To its credit, The Martian has a humane message empowered by the enormity of the cooperation required to attempt to save the life of one man and it reminds us of the days when we all had a common purpose, yet the film lacks conviction and never moves past banal dialogue such as "YES", "let's do it," and all the standard clichés of triumphalism. While Damon may have scienced the s..t out of his predicament, the film has also succeeded in sciencing the beauty out of it.
Lenny Abrahamson's Room opens in a 10 x 10 room that has no windows, a
locked door, and no light other than that provided by an overhead
skylight. Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a slight five-year old boy with hair
down to his shoulders wakes up each morning as he has all his life,
saying hello to his world. He says hello, not to the sun or the grass
outside his front door where he can run and laugh and play but only to
the objects which is all his world consists of: the lamp, the sink, the
plant, the refrigerator. His only friend is a mouse that he feeds with
Not that he lacks for companionship. Ma (Brie Larson) is with him and their endless days consist of cooking, reading, and watching TV where Jack is told that what he sees on the screen is not real, only pretend. All he knows of the world is what he sees in front of his eyes. Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) brings food and other household items but when he comes, Jack has to hide in his wardrobe, out of sight. Ma, we find out, has been kept prisoner and used for sex by the hulking man who comes every night and we know that Jack is a result of his mother's rape. Jack is the focus of the film and we see everything from his point of view, with the help of his sometime narration but we can also get into his mother's mind and feel her pain and live her dreams.
There is never any doubt of his mother's love though the obvious strain of keeping herself from crying out every minute is painfully obvious. To Jack, she is the center of his world and his reason for being. When the second half of the film takes a surprising turn and shifts 180 degrees, Jack and Ma are not prepared for what awaits them. Even when an alternative is suggested as possible, he doesn't want to hear anything about a different world with blue sky and rivers and trees. Room is a tense and compelling film in which Brie Larson more than fulfills the brilliance that she showed in Short Term 12 and should make her an Oscar contender. Tremblay is also superb.
He lives his character and makes him come alive, even though he is only nine years old. Supporting roles by Joan Allen and William H. Macy also contribute to the film's second half but it is always Larson and Tremblay that carry the day. The film is not mawkish or sentimental even though the soaring score by Stephen Rennicks comes close. While there are has some plot implausibilities, the film is a tribute to the resiliency and the dedicated love of a parent for their child. It is also a teaching experience. Like many who are walled off from each other and think the box they are in is all there is, the film can give us the combination to open the locked door, if we take the risk to turn the key.
The "War on Drugs," first proclaimed by President Richard Nixon in
1971, escalated in the 1980s to the extent that by 1997 over 400,000
people were imprisoned for misdemeanor, nonviolent drugrelated
offenses. In an ideal world it would be easy to distinguish between the
"good guys" and the "bad guys" working in the drug war, but in the
world of intelligence agencies, drug kingpins, and local police, the
distinction is murky and the end justifies the means, whether legal or
In Dennis Villeneuve's sizzling Sicario (Spanish for hit-man), written by Taylor Sheridan, the naive and humane often find themselves only as pawns in the game. Such is the case with, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent (is that an oxymoron?) who wants to play by the rules. She is asked to join an inter-agency task force but has no clear idea of why she was selected, who the people really are that she is working with, or what the ultimate goal of the mission is.
All she is told is that she and her colleague, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) will be assisting in hunting a dangerous drug lord, and that she will work with Matt (Josh Brolin), a disheveled looking man who wears flip-flops and a stout, enigmatic man named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), both alleged government contractors working for the Department of Defense. On their first meeting, Matt tells Kate, "Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do." When the truth eventually does come out, it does not in fact make sense and the results are not pretty.
The film opens with a raid by the FBI and an Arizona SWAT team on a house owned by a drug lord near the Mexican border. To a pounding soundtrack by Johann Johannsson that ratchets up the intensity, the agents discover the gruesome sight of twenty-five dead bodies covered in plastic bags sealed into the walls of the house and a subsequent explosion that leaves several agents dead. It is a high-octane opening that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Though Kate is told she will be going to El Paso, she finds herself in Ciudad Juarez, a seedy border town that looks like you just skipped purgatory for the real thing.
In Juarez, the convoy of intelligence agents is accompanied by a police escort but Kate is told never to trust the police and to have her gun ready at all times. Along the way they come across one of the city's main tourist attractions, rows of dismembered bodies, presumably of illegal immigrants, hanging on a highway overpass. The treats are just beginning, however.
Soon we will witness a fierce shootout at a border crossing as a convoy of intelligence agents is attempting to bring captured drug boss Guillermo Diaz (Edgar Arreloa) to the US, and a tunnel crossing project that is designed as a diversion to allow Alejandro to come back to Mexico to complete his murderous revenge mission. After Kate learns the truth about Alex and realizes that the purpose of the mission was not to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. but to see who can control them to maximum profit, she is told by Alejandro, "You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. This is the land of wolves now."
Sicario is a tense and involving thriller with brilliantly conceived set pieces and outstanding performances by the three leads. It is Blunt, however, who is the standout, the moral center of the film whose choice to play the game or face death is a choice none of us should ever have to make. If the message of the film is just to tell us that moral compromise is the way the world works, it would not justify the screen being littered with dead bodies. It may, however, have a deeper message, one that suggests that legalization and regulation of the drug trade may be the only thing that could end this tragic standoff.
Sioux Holy Man, Black Elk said, "The first peace, which is the most
important, is that which comes from within the souls of men when they
realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe
its center is within each of us." Lydia Smith's documentary Walking the
Camino: Six Ways to Santiago follows six pilgrims from different parts
of the world in their attempt to discover that center. The 500-mile
trek to Santiago de Compostela Camino in Spain has been undertaken in
the past by St. Francis of Assisi, Charlemagne, Ferdinand and Isabella,
Dante, and Chaucer (and Shirley MacLaine), and has become a big part of
Europe's tourist industry with thousands of travelers from every
religion and walk of life completing the walk each year.
Beginning in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, the path, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Pedro Valenzuela, crosses cities, small villages where cows meander in the center of the road, highways, mountains, and fields en route to Santiago. Wayne is an Episcopal priest from Canada who is undertaking the journey with his friend Jack to pay tribute to his wife who died four years ago. Sam has battled with clinical depression and looks to the trek to discover a renewed sense of self. Annie is an American who develops tendinitis and is forced to slow down, a welcome opportunity for reflection. Tatiana from France has brought along her three year old son Cyrian "to learn many things that he couldn't at home."
The boy's presence strains an existing family relationship with her brother Alexis, however. During the walk, a tentative friendship blossoms into a relationship between Misa and William. "I'm just trying not to figure out why. I'm just supposed to enjoy it," she says. Tomás, from Portugal, like many others, has to deal with foot blisters, a painful knee injury, and changes in the weather that slow the trek. With everything stripped away, they rediscover their ability to transform their life. "The mask disappears, and you transform into yourself," one man says. All struggle to some degree with physical and emotional difficulties along the way but discover that the profound connection which exists in community becomes stronger when you are hungry or hurt and tired but are determined to keep going together.
Loosely based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography with a
screenplay by Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network, Danny Boyle's
("Trance") Steve Jobs is not a conventional biopic of the famous
co-founder of Apple Computers but is more like an impressionist
painting - short strokes of paint that capture the essence of the
subject rather than its details. While the film may not always contain
the "literal" truth, it does show, in Roland Emmerich's phrase, the
"emotional" truth, succeeding in conveying over a period of fourteen
years the ambiguity of Jobs' character. both his humanity and his
cruelty. Any conclusion over whether his genius ultimately outweighs
his ruthlessness, however, is left for the viewer to decide.
The film is structured in the form of a three part play (shot in three different formats) that covers key periods in Jobs' life. Each part shows the public unveiling of a new product and the backstage jousting with three people who were present during all of the launchings: Systems Developers Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, "Pawn Sacrifice") and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, "The Interview"), and CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels. "The Martian"), people he was always close to professionally but not emotionally. Steadfastly by his side throughout these years is his assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, "The Insurgent"), one of the few people who has learned to deal with his eccentricities, though it never becomes easier.
The first part begins in 1984 in Northern California where Jobs (Michael Fassbender, "Macbeth") is ready to introduce the Macintosh to an eager public excited by a recent Super Bowl commercial. It is here that we first see Jobs' arrogant, controlling personality when he demands that Hertzfeld get the machine to say "Hello" even though there is not enough time and Andy does not have the specialized information that would allow him to open the Mac prototype. The gutsy Joanna asks Jobs, "Do you want to try being reasonable, just to see what it feels like?" adding, "If you keep alienating people for no reason, there won't be anyone left for it to say hello to."
In one of the film's sharpest verbal exchanges, When Hertzfeld tells Jobs that "We're not a pit crew at Daytona," Jobs retorts, "You've had three weeks, the universe was created in a third of that time," and Hertzfeld counters: "Someday you're going to have to tell us how you did it." The first part also sets the stage for Jobs' relationship with his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, "Inherent Vice") and his young 5-year-old daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, "Do You Believe?"), whose paternity he has publicly denied, a relationship that grows during the course of the film. Here, Chrisann confronts Steve about his cruelty in denying paternity of Lisa in a Time Magazine article, and reminds him that he is a millionaire while his daughter is on welfare.
In another reflection on his character of lack thereof, Wozniak asks Jobs to publicly point out the accomplishments of the team that produced the highly successful Apple II computer, but he refuses time and again since it is one of the products he wants to kill. The Macintosh fails to meet expectations, however, and Jobs is fired in 1985 by the Board of Directors at the urging of CEO John Scully who was later made a scapegoat for their action. Jumping to 1988, Jobs is now running a company called NeXT and is preparing to introduce another new product, a computer with an innovative black cube design designed for educational use.
A slight drawback is that it costs $6,500, a hefty sum that does not seem to faze Jobs in the least. Backstage at the San Francisco Opera House before the unveiling, Jobs finds himself once more in heated conversations with Hertzfeld, Wozniak, and Scully. At one point, Wozniak tells him, "You can be decent and gifted at the same time--it isn't binary." Chrisann and Lisa (now played by Ripley Sobo, "Ricki and the Flash") are also there and there are hints that a positive relationship is forming. When the final sequence rolls around, it is 1998, Jobs is back at Apple, and the Internet is now the focus of attention.
Sensing that, Jobs introduces the iMac, this time with a sensible price that forecasts a huge success. Lisa (now played by Perla Haney-Jardine, "Future Weather") is now 19 and a freshman at Harvard where she is writing for the Harvard Crimson and there is a deeply moving scene when Jobs confronts Hertzfeld who has paid Lisa's first-year tuition. Even if the film's characterization of Jobs may be more superficial than revealing, Fassbender's performance is always convincing while the ensemble cast provides exceptional support, especially Kate Winslet and Seth Rogan, though it is Fassbender's show all the way.
In spite of the film's non-stop walking and talking where people are constantly interrupting each other, Steve Jobs is an exhilarating high one that is fast-paced with enough kinetic energy to mimic Jobs' dying words, "Oh Wow!, Oh Wow!, Oh Wow!"
Un Certain Regard prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival, Rams
(Hrútar) is a comedy/drama where communication is a luxury until it
becomes a matter of survival. Directed by Grímur Hákonarson
("Summerland") and set in a remote village in Iceland, it is the story
of two unmarried brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson, "Brave Men's
Blood") and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson, "Volcano"), both heavily bearded
sheep farmers who live one hundred yards from each other but have not
talked in forty years. They are part of a country where according to
Hákonarson, there are 200,000 people and 800,000 sheep.
When the elder brother Kiddi takes first prize in a competition for the most highly-prized ram and Gummi comes in second, Kiddi lauds it over him, getting drunk and shooting holes in his brother's window. The victory turns out to be pyrrhic, however, as it is soon confirmed that the winning ram has a life threatening disease known as "scrapie," an illness that attacks the sheep's brain and spinal cord and is highly contagious and incurable. The result is devastating. The shepherds in the village find out that they must slaughter their entire herds, a blow that hurts deeply, both economically and emotionally.
Very attached to his flock, Gummi refuses to let the authorities kill his sheep, insisting on doing it himself, yet, without thinking things through, he decides to hide a few of his prized sheep in the basement, a risk that brings danger. Kiddi also does not handle it well. When he learns that there will be a prohibition against sheep farming for two years and there is a possibility that even after that, the disease may return, he begins to drink heavily and once has to be rescued from the snow with a tractor's front loader and taken to a hospital.
Rams has some notable comic moments. For example, Gummi is always being interrupted while sitting naked in his bathtub trimming his toenails. There is also an adorable sheep dog that carries notes between the brothers as a means of avoiding actual conversation. Like a swift current, however, the film moves from being an eccentric comedy to that of a life or death drama. When Gummi's hidden sheep are discovered, the brothers must come together. Their choices are not easy, nor are they without risk to their own safety as the two prideful men must put aside their own egos and take extraordinary measures to save the remaining sheep. Breaking their 40-year-silence, one brother says to the other, "No sheep - just the two of us." Rams is a small film without big pretensions, but succeeds in capturing the spirit of a deeply rooted culture now threatened with extinction and two brothers who may be separated by their intransigence but whose longing for connection is as strong as ever. With the help of a haunting score by Atli Ovarsson ("Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters") and the striking photography of Sturla Brandth Grovlen ("Victoria"), Rams paints a picture of remoteness and solitude, but it is one with warmth at its center.
While no movie can fully capture the madness of what life in a
concentration camp must have been like, Làszlò Nemes' Cannes Grand
Prize Award winning Son of Saul, his first feature film, may come close
to recreating the experience. Written by the director and Clara Royer
and shot in 35mm with a 4:3 aspect by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély
("Miss Bala"), Son of Saul explores the moral dilemma of a group of
Hungarian Jews known as the Sonderkommandos who were forced to
collaborate with the Germans at Birkenau in exchange for preferential
treatment in the way of food and living arrangements, even though the
bargain extended their lives for only a few months.
Set in 1944 only months away from liberation, Géza Röhrig is Saul Auslander, a Sonderkommando, inducted on his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau under the threat of death and given the task of emptying train loads of new prisoners, telling them lies about fresh coffee and an offer of employment after their shower, then, under the supervision of the SS, shutting the doors and standing to one side, listening to the screaming and crying. Saul's job does not end there, however. He is charged with removing the bodies, referred to as "pieces," from the gas chambers, confiscating any valuables they may have, and incinerating them in outdoor pits.
With the camera always focused on Saul, breathing down his neck like the Dardenne Brothers' camera in "The Son", he moves around swiftly going from one job to the next showing little outward emotion among the confusion. He stops long enough, however, to witness the body of a young boy still breathing after having survived the gas chamber. He will not remain alive for long, however, as he is quickly smothered by the camp doctor and his body removed for an autopsy. Apparently recognizing the boy and claiming him to be his son, Saul's seeks a Rabbi who will say the prayer for the dead (Kaddish) and give the boy the required burial according to Jewish law and tradition.
When he is not performing business as usual, Saul's desperate attempt to find a Rabbi takes up much of his time and he is accused by a fellow prisoner of being more concerned with the dead than with the living. Though there is no narration and a minimum of dialogue (spoken in a mix of Hungarian, German, and Yiddish), Saul's expressive face reveals a cauldron of intense emotion, more than any language could hope to reveal. We never learn anything about Saul's background, whether he was married or even had a son, but, in his desire to provide Kaddish for the boy, he is asserting his humanity in the face of barbarism.
It is a daunting task given the circumstances of the arrival of more victims daily, and the clandestine plans being made for a prisoner rebellion, an extraordinary example of physical resistance but it is Saul's singular act of rebellion that adds a dimension to the suffering that transcends its apparent meaninglessness. Unlike Tim Blake Nelson's 2001 film, "The Grey Zone" which covered similar territory but succumbed to standard Hollywood treatment, Nemes keeps graphic content to a minimum and relies on the viewer's imagination, wisely letting the horrors to be assimilated through suggestion and an intentionally raucous soundtrack. Son of Saul is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important and even a necessary one and, in its own way, both a horrifying and strangely beautiful one. It is a film that should not be missed.
A poignant love story, Arnaud Desplechin's ("Jimmy P.") My Golden Days
(Trois souvenirs de ma Jeunesse) is filled with warmth and humor and
delivered with a lively and playful touch in the Desplechin style: the
use of voice-overs, split screens, the iris-effect, and characters
looking and speaking directly into the camera. Challenging us with
numerous classical allusions including references to 18th Century
French painting and Greek mythology, the film's dialogue is witty and
literate and can be regarded as the modern equivalent of Proust's "In
Search of Lost Time," a nostalgic look at the haunting depths of past
The film is separated into three sections depicting fifty year-old Paul Daedalus (Mathieu Amalric, "Bird People") reflecting on his unhappy childhood, talking about his adventures in Russia as a teenager, and dissecting the intricacies of his off-again, on-again relationship with his first love Esther. In the first part, anthropologist professor Paul Daedalus (Amalric), returning to Paris after many years of working in Tajikstan, is detained by a customs official (Andre Dussollier, "High Society") and questioned about the authenticity of his passport. Shown in flashback, he talks about his childhood and the time when, at age eleven, he threatens his seriously disturbed mother Jeanne (Cécile Garcia-Fogel, "Regular Lovers") with a knife if she will not leave him alone.
After running away from home and parting with his sister Delphine (Lily Taeib, "Quantum Love") and brother Ivan (Raphael Cohen), he moves in with his loving great-aunt (Francoise Lebrun while we discover that his mother took her own life, leaving Paul's father Abel (Olivier Rabourdin, "Taken 2") depressed and unable to take care of his children. Under further questioning to explain why there is another Paul Daedulus living in Australia who was born on the same day and year, Paul relates the story of his high school trip to Minsk when he was an idealistic 16-year-old.
At that time, he and his friend Marc (Elyot Milshtein) agree to smuggle money and passports to Russian Jews denied permission to emigrate by Soviet authorities. Events are presented as an amateur spy thriller and a well-planned dash from the tour group leads the boys to a surreptitious meeting with the "Refuseniks." After offering his passport to one of the men, Paul gives himself a black eye to provide an alibi to the authorities that he was mugged and his passport stolen, an explanation the Customs official seems to accept.
In the final section, Paul, now 19, develops a relationship with his sister's friend, the 17-year-old Esther (Roy-Lecollinet), a coquettish and attractive blond who has the kind of presence that can dominate a room. She is mature beyond her years and very aware of the effect she has on men (and does not care what others may think of her). Even though she shows her independence by keeping Paul at arms length with other boyfriends, they have a very special chemistry that keeps them together. Paul divides his time between Paris and his family home in Roubaix, putting a strain on his relationship with Esther.
In Paris, he pursues a career in anthropology, developing close ties to Professor Behanzin (Eve Doe-Bruce), an older woman whom he looks to as a mentor and substitute parent. Forced to live in hostels and dependent on the hospitality of others, he falls for Gilberte (Melodie Richard, "Metamorphosis"), the girlfriend of the young man who puts him up when he can't find a room at the hostel. As ties loosen, his relationship with Esther becomes more open one and she claims that during the time he was away, she had fifteen lovers while he remembers only seven.
As My Golden Days moves back to present time, Paul is bitter about his past failures in love, and takes out his frustration on his long-time friend Kovalki (Pierre Andreu, "My Friend Victoria") who dated Esther. For Paul, as William Faulkner said "The past is not dead. It's not even past," and he can relate to the Zen saying that, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." It is a frustration that Paul may just have to live with.
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