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Diana: The Mourning After (1998)
"The word fan derives from fanatic" Hitchslap for the tabloid-culture
There is a saying that people who have been around during the JFK-assassination distinctly remember what they did or where they were when President Kennedy was shot.
I distinctly recall that mourning of the 01. September 1997: Visiting my parents, I was awoken by my mother and told to turn the TV on. What on earth had happened, I wondered, that was so important that I would have to turn on the TV 7 o'clock in the morning? Did somebody accidentally launch a nuclear mission? Had a tsunami struck somewhere? Had aliens finally made the first contact? Well, if you were around that time, you'll surely remember the date. Diana Spencer, former Princess of Whales had died in a car accident in Paris the day before.
My first reaction was that I felt sorry for her sons (as I'd feel sorry for any son who looses his mother). The second reaction: Why on earth would I care? I don't read tabloids. I don't watch the Academy Awards ©. I don't care whether Justin Bieber (note, in case you're reading this in 2016: he was a popular YouTube-singer) has been caught DUI or is pregnant. And I'm not even British. Yet, I couldn't help watching the "Breaking News" on TV nor did I have much of a choice, since nothing else was broad-casted that week. What else happened between 31st August and the 7th of September? I'm sure: a lot I'm sure; a military junta could have taken over the White House and we would never have heard about it. There was just too much live footage of a mob of grieving house-wives parading in front of Buckingham palace and laying down an ocean of flowers, slowly spiraling down into hysteria. Then everybody who had ever seen a camera gave their 2-cents on the matter on CNN and BBC (I believe, Tom Cruise, Madonna and Steven Spielberg, amongst others); Queen Elisabeth II. was virtually forced by public pressure to give a statement and then, of course, the funeral; re-broadcast over and over again (I can still sing along to "Goodbye, Norma Jean", pardon, "Candle in the Wind" to this day, despite neither being a fan of Elton John nor liking the song very much).
In "Diana: The Mourning After" Christopher Hitchens tries to investigate how the media created a "national experience" a Woodstock-of-Mourning, if you want. And how opportunistic politicians like Tony Blair and hanger-ons used that event for their own points and purposes. Hitchens wonders what warranted this experience. The answer is typically Hitchens, precise, logic and down to the point: not much. The essential answer was much more trivial, if not vulgar: People mourning, not because they have lost somebody near and dear or because the world lost somebody who had a great impact on world-history (we all knew AIDS and land-mines existed long before Diana), but that the tabloids would be a little emptier after Diana's passing.
Years later the news broad-casted that Kim-Jong-Il, president of North-Korea, had passed away and showed footage of "mourners" in Pyongyang - pardon me, I cannot recall the exact date, but I distinctly remember what I thought during that time: "It is as if Diana Spencer had died all over again".
One of the interviewees pointed out, that the world would grief very much about a person who has "actually made a huge difference in the world" and points out Nelson Mandela. 16 years have gone by since then and Nelson Mandela has passed away a few months ago. Compare the amount of media-coverage and decide for yourself.
8/10 (for the documentary, that is)
Jesus Camp (2006)
Proof that evolution isn't a straight line some get left behind and some even go backwards
This made me recall watching "Bells in the Deep", a documentary by Werner Herzog with an American friend of mine. The documentary is about the beliefs and superstitions of northern Russia (Siberia, to be precise). My friend commented on how outlandish the orthodox priests looked, how the Russian form of baptism bordered on child-abuse and the absurdity of people worshiping the so-called "wandering Jesuses" (there's virtually a whole army of them in Russia). Upon discussing the film, I asked him what he thought about "Jesus Camp", to which he replied: "Oh, these. These are evangelicals. They're all around one get's used to them." I think he made a good point without realizing it.
In my mind there are three "protagonists" in "Jesus Camp": For one there is preacher Ted Haggard. This brings to mind the Academy Award winning documentary "Marjoe", in which a (former) child-preacher shows all the tricks of the trade. This was filmed in 1972 and if this were the age of reason, tricksters and film-flam-men like Haggard would already have died out (or in prison).
We have Beck Fisher, perhaps the most spiteful person I've seen in a documentary in the last few years. Even a second semester psychology-student could diagnose serious mental issues and a personality border lining on psychopath. Those watching from the outside might find her antics, talking "in tongues" and rants about Harry Potter hilarious, but that would be like pointing out that Hitler had a funny mustache. I dare say, had Ms. Fisher been born in my country and a century earlier, she would have had a great career in the camps (today she would merely be in prison).
And then we have the victims.
In his book "god is not Great" Christopher Hitchens dedicated a chapter to the question "Is religion child-abuse". That depends on your definition of abuse. If abuse is only physical and/or sexual, probably not. If you consider psycho-terror and brainwashing abuse, a definite yes in the case of "Jesus Camp". Seeing those helpless tots wailing, weeping and mimicking the schizophrenic behavior of their elders, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be touched, saddened or angered. In the IMDb-storyline I read: "Jesus Camp seems to pose a clear question: are these children being brainwashed?" pardon my flippancy, but that is like making a documentary about the pope which "seems to pose a clear question: is the pope a catholic?" The second saddest thing about this documentary: It doesn't offer a straight answer on how to stop this madness. A wise man once said on the topic of how to deal with a village idiot: "A) Don't argue with the village-idiot but rather walk past him and B) don't shape your society according to the need and wishes of the village-idiot, than your society will be alright. Thinking of this scene were the "Jesus Camp"-kids are forced to worship that "golden calf", a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, I would like to add to that, "and C) don't make him your president".
In this day and age, I frequently hear the question: "Why have atheists become so militant? Why do they argue so vehemently against religion and can't they just leave believers alone?" The answer: Watch "Jesus Camp".
As a documentary I'd give "Jesus Camp" 8/10 and can honestly say: I'd dread to see a potential sequel.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
An enjoyable romp but when the end justifies the means, one shouldn't call it a documentary
I had just written a review for a documentary by Werner Herzog, where I stated that, although Herzog will at times "spice" scenes up a little to fit his vision, he generally doesn't push points, opinions or believes on his viewers. After all, that's what documentaries should do: Show what is and not what you think or believe there is. Then I thought of the complete opposite to Herzogs style and the first thing that came to mind was Michael Moore and his "Bowling for Columbine".
Don't get me wrong: I did enjoy the documentary, it was very entertaining and (for a non-American) at times even educational to watch. It gives the outsider a deeper look into the American psyche, but I think, if I was an American hence having to choose whether I'm "pro" or "contra", which the film virtually forces the viewer I would have enjoyed it much less. For one, I don't like to be manipulated. If a documentary like this one tries so very hard to get a point or opinion across, that it no longer shies away from bending facts or manipulating through style, it ceases to be a documentary and becomes propaganda (or, in the slightly milder form, a mondo-documentary like "Mondo Carne").
I also get a little nervous when the rhetoric is so geared and pointed, despite often being very entertaining. That may well have to do with my background: I'm German and we had some bad experiences with rhetoric some 80 years ago. However, more than 10 years after it's release, "Bowling for Columbine" seems to have sparked a whole wave of this form of documentaries (for the lack of a better term), being used by both sides. To mind come films like "Supersize Me" (where a vegetarian tries to convince the viewer that eating at McDonalds every day is unhealthy) or "Expelled No Intelligence Allowed" (where a religious fanatic try to convince the viewers that school-kids should be taught science according to his holy book), etc. Not a good sign when how you say something becomes more convincing than what you say.
An American friend of mine, who seems to be slightly more neutral on political subjects, once pointed out that the so-called "Left" a la Michael Moore and the "Right" like Rush Limbaugh are just two sides of the same coin. If that is true, I would suggest a new currency.
So, how to grade such a film? As a "real" documentary I'd give it 2/10, as an entertaining piece of polemic 7/10 and to stay on the neutral side 5/10.
A look on how traditions shape religions, not on how religions shape traditions
I had once borrowed Herzogs Rad der Zeit" (Wheel of Time"), which contained Bells in the Deep" as a bonus. With the main film I was a little disappointed, mainly because I wasn't very interested in the subject. But, upon realizing that the video-store was already closed, I pushed the DVD back into the player and figured that I might well watch the bonus as well. Now I'm very glad that I did.
I never cared much for religions but rather was interested in the mythology behind the various forms of belief. Don't expect any deep insight from this documentary. There are no revelations or "ultimate truth" albeit the conclusions that the viewers draw themselves. Herzog was never a director who wanted to push a point on the audience but rather films what is and what he sees and leaves the rest to the viewers own devices.
Primarily Herzog gives us some astonishing, beautiful images and scenes: people crawling across a frozen lake in order to catch a glimpse of a supposedly lost city (which may or may not have been staged by Herzog, but so what?), a pair of Mongolian musicians and a particularly "harsh" baptism in the orthodox tradition (which, as I fondly remember, made my wife wince). But my personal favorite scene is a bell-player of a local church, a seemingly fragile person, who talks about having been adopted and the pain of not knowing your own origins. Once he starts to manipulate his bells with a series of strings and levers, one can only stare and listen in awe.
So why did Herzog film all this and what did he want to achieve? Personally, I believe it has to do with Herzogs own background, him being Bavarian, where the people are as arch-catholic as they get, yet where traditions are still deeply rooted in the older pagan-believes and mysticisms (as anybody, who has ever watched a "Perchtnacht", a night where villagers dress up in demonic masks, can attest). If you have visited rural Bavaria, you may also have noticed how the place is virtually littered with carved, wooden figures of Jesus, each seemingly trying to outdo the next in terms of the figure looking bloodied and battered. I've overheard tourists you considered it slightly "obscene" to have so many corpses all over the place, but perhaps it has something to do with the old Germanic god Wotan, who crucified himself on an oak in order to receive wisdom.
Having watched the documentary again with an American friend, I also found it rather amusing that he considered those Russian believes and superstitions rather outlandish, even calling "Bells in the Deep" a "freak-show". It never occurred to him to look at the many strange paths that various sects and cults in the USA had taken, be it Mormons, Baptists, reborn Christians, Creationists, etc., and traditions like handling snakes and speaking in tongues. None of this would look less outlandish than the Russian practices to an outsider.
If there is any message behind "Bells in the Deep" it is that religion doesn't shape traditions and cultures as much as traditions and cultures shape religions. If you feel the need to take a message from this documentary, that is. If not, you might as well just lean back and enjoy the marvelous images.
Ein Münchner im Himmel (1962)
A portrait of Munich in ten minutes
Alois Hingerl, service-worker #172 in the main station of Munich, performs a job with such haste that a sudden stroke transports him straight to heaven. Once there, St. Peter gives him his new name ("Angel Aloisius"), his harp and private cloud. However, Aloisius isn't altogether happy with the afterlife: First of all, there is no beer in heaven, no sneezing tobacco ("Schmaizla"; sometimes called Bavarian cocaine) and to rejoice and singing praise all day long isn't much to his taste either. His praise-singing soon deteriorates to a rant, which causes disharmony in heaven. Upon realizing that Aloisius is a native of Munich and hence not heaven-compatible, God decides to give Aloisius a new job: He is ordered to convey the "divine advice" to the government of Munich but upon feeling the capitals floor under his feet, his way takes him straight to the "Hofbräuhaus" (Munich's most prominent beer hall), where he orders one beer after another hence the government awaits the "divine advice" to this day.
That ending cost Ludwig Thoma (one of the few prominent authors from Bavaria) a hefty fine when he published his satire in 1911. But the figure of Aloisius struck a cord with the Bavarian, turning him into somewhat of a mascot. Aloisius is generally how Bavarians (and especially the residents of the capital, Munich) like to view themselves: laid back, easy-going (no, they don't like the term "lazy"), ever defiant (no, they don't like the term "stubborn"), feisty (not "bellicose") and despite being generally arch-catholic, primarily concerned with fleshly pleasures.
And so "Ein Münchner im Himmel" not only one of the earliest cartoons produced in Munich but at the same time one of the only ones. The animation is rather shoddy, makes the average Ralph-Bakshi-cartoons look like something produced in the Gibli-studios but that doesn't concerns the average fan much. There really isn't any dialog as the soundtrack has been adopted from an audio-track by comedian Adolf Gondrell (who had died eight years before the cartoon was produced), who narrates the story and gives Aloisius is voice. But despite the poor "technical" quality, it's considered a national treasure in the free-state and can only be recommended as "anthropological study" of Bavarian mentality.
Among Bavarian cartoons it's certainly a 10/10.
Robin Hood (2010)
"I am Robin Longstride. And I'll have my vengeance", etc.
To discuss "Robin Hood" as a movie would be pointless. Newspaper-hacks compose 20 line reviews; give it a B- on account of the ticket sales and pass on to the next summer-flick. But I tend to see Robin Hood more as a symptom than a film: a symptom for lazy, hackneyed film-making. A symptom for an apathetic, uncaring audience; a symptom for a fat, lazy and essentially burned-out industry, that's hiding its cracks and wrinkles behind lots of make-up and CGI.
Who is this film catering to? Certainly it's neither for fans of the Robin Hood lore, nor people who expect an accurate historic epic, short, those who generally tend to (at the latest by now) refuse to go see this type of blockbusters altogether.
But those people are the minority. The majority doesn't think much about shelving out their seven Dollars for remakes like "Clash of the Titans", "A Nightmare on Elmstreet" or "Robin Hood". Generalizing, this audience tends to call their favorite film of all times the film which they saw in cinema last weekend, while probably already having forgotten which film they saw the week before that. "Robin Hood" is the cinematic equivalent of your average McDonald's product: The cheeseburger you're eating right now doesn't taste one iota different from the one you had in the past; or will the ones you'll eat in the future.
And as I browse through my own, rather extensive DVD-library, I ask myself: Who's next?" The ranks of classics that didn't get a more-or-less miserable remake are getting thinner. Looming their ugly heads on the horizon are remakes like 'Escape from New York', 'Logans Run' or 'Barbarella' nothing official of course, but I'd put my money that it will happen eventually. Why bother coming up with something fresh if the audience don't seem to care anyhow? And even if "Robin Hood" (technically being a prequel) would have been the first adaptation of the matter ever one could summarize it with one word: "Yawn".
Something of Value (1957)
Not a bad film but the novel would definitely deserve a remake
Having spent a good part of my childhood in East-Africa, I read Robert Ruarks novel Something of Value" (and the semi-follow-up Uhuru") numerous times while living in Tanzania and for a while it was among my favorite novels. It had elements of Hemingway, Mitchell, being adventurous at times, historically interesting and during many parts extremely violent and shocking. The movie I saw only a few years later and was not too impressed.
The story is relatively straight-forward and simple: two African boys, Peter (son of a white settler) and Kimani, a native Kikuyu have grown up together almost like brothers. As time goes back, the friends drift apart. Peter becomes a safari-guide and Kimani, disillusioned by the white rule of Kenya and still bearing a grudge against Peters brother-in-law Jeff joins the Mau-Mau movement, who seek to take control over the country and eject / butcher the Whites. Soon the former best friends become each others mortal enemies and will have to face off in a fight to the death.
Some people claimed, that the book is oversimplified and much of the cruelty (generally committed by the Mau-Mau, which are portrayed as a form of terrorist guerrillas, who soon didn't distinguish any longer between butchering their enemies, the Whites, or Kikuyu who opposed to disagreed with their methods. Be that as it may, there has been enough violence and brutalities in more recent years, in Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda etc, should be telling that the Mau-Mau uprising was probably by no means a gentle affair. Quiet the opposite.
As for the movie: for the time it must have been slightly more violent than most pictures, but doesn't even get close to the horrors of the book (and reality). Compare to contemporary films, for example, "Blood Diamond", "Something of Value" still feels like it has been produced in a Hollywood studio, despite having been filmed in Africa. Furthermore I was not at all comfortable with the actors, despite me appreciating both Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. Especially Hudson is way too squeaky clean for the role, the American accent is atrocious (again, it point to "Blood Diamond" and the excellent job Leonardo DiCaprio did with imitating a Rhodesian accent), not for one moment could one imagine Hudson being anything but an American actor put into a safari-suit. Sure, Poitier does a far more convincing job (especially the accent) but again, looks nothing like an African from this part of the continent.
It would also be unfair to say that the rest of a crew did a bad job, but one would really wish for a remake (this coming from somebody who has a general dislike for the concept of remakes, reboots, etc), something grittier, more realistic and it's not that there is a shortage of capable African actors of all colors these days. After all, it's not that the novel has lost anything of value and isn't as contemporary as when it was written.
It doesn't get much more archetypal Bavarian than this
This is an entirely local affair and it is as doubtful that you'll ever find this outside the Bavarian TV-program as it is doubtful that a non-Bavarian would comprehend much, and be it only because of the "language-barrier" (the entire show is performed in Bavarian dialect). However, if you wish to gain an insight into the Bavarian culture and mentality, "Königlich Bayerisches Amtsgericht" is as archetypal Bavarian as White Sausage, drinking beer from bucket-sized glasses ("a Mass") or (his royal highness and sovereign) King Ludwig II.
The show takes place in "the good times before 1914"; the land is ruled by Prince regent Luitpold (because King Otto was suffering from "heavy moods", as the narration assures us; it's a euphemism for stark-raving mad). All episodes take place in the same rural court-room and each trial concerns rather mundane or petty crimes. Such as an atheist trying to convince others that man has descended from apes ("Der Atheist"), a parasitic "prayer-brother" (who illegally does your prayers for you in exchange for cash) who sneezes on other peoples food in order to get a free meal ("Der Parasit") or somebody accusing the local pharmacist of being a poisoner because he got sick from a medicine that was meant for somebody else ("Die Vergiftung"). None of these trials are meant to be taken serious, although one could imagine that most of them are based on real cases from this time.
The average Bavarian prides himself, among other "virtues", of being descendant from farmers and hence consider themselves "Bauernschlau" ("clever like a farmer") and being "down-to-earth" (witty, stubborn, having a good humor, laid back yet having an easily excitable temperament, etc); in other words: if you want to know how the average Bavarian would like to see himself, you need only watch an episode of "Königlich Bayerisches Amtsgericht". If you should ever visit a rural part of this country (since Bavaria considers itself independent despite better knowledge), you might find characters that are not very far removed from those depicted in the show and yes: many will still wear the same traditional cloth ("Tracht").
Speaking about the actors: regulars like Fritz Straßner, Gustl Bayrhammer, Erni Singerl, Max Grießer, Veronika Fitz or Karl Obermayr (to name but a handful), all belong to the crème de la crème of (South)-German film and TV, many of whom have since sadly passed away and are considered irreplaceable.
As for the goofs: it is of course true that for an instant there is a modern car visible in the background of the opening. However, during a conversation I have been assured by a fan of the show that this is impossible, because "there were no modern cars in 1912". This too is part of Bavarian mentality.
Modern car or not: 10/10 for what it is.
Abgestürzt" or crashed" how else could it have ended?
Abgestürzt", literally crashed", and the perfect title for the final episode of the Mini-Series Monaco Franze". Franz has decided against moving with his wife to the Caribbean, rather staying with his buddy Manni (brilliant as always, the unforgotten Karl Obermeyr) in Munich. As Franz has stated in the prior episode, Munich is the city he was born in, grew up, lived and hopes to die, but his decision comes with a price: missing his wife, his "Spatz'l" ("Sparrow"), Franz spirals downward into alcoholism, culminating in him accidentally burning Mannis apartment down and ending on the street, a derelict, drunk or, as they say in Munich, a "sandler" ("a bum with dignity"). Hearing about her husbands' plight, Annette returns from her sunny refuge in the Caribbean herself driven to hitting the bottle because she's sick and tired of the incessant good weather, lack of seasons, pretentious people and artificial environment to search for Franz in the darker end of the backyard-bars in Munich (ironically behind the "Viktualienmarkt", where Franz himself had gone luxury-shopping not too long ago). Reunited, Franz and Annette await the dawn. Annette reminds her husband that this is their 20th anniversary and Franz assures her that from now on all will be "wunderbar" (wonderful).
Indeed, how else could and should it have ended? The final episode of "Monaco Franze", though it still has its humorous moments, is easily the most touching of the entire show. Not only is the sense of commitment that this couple has, despite all flaws and differences in character, very emotional but it's also the chemistry between the actors Ruth-Maria Kubitschek and Helmut Fischer that made them the ultimate screen-couple of their time.
The last line of the film, the promises of everything being different from now on and a "better" future is pure genius. Like Annette we, the viewer, know fully well that Franz will never change and that is one of the aspects that makes him such a lovable character like they say in this part of the world, an "original".
Director Helmut Dietl was wise keep his series to a minimum of ten episodes. Unlike many contemporary series, who will try to milk a successful formula until the last (bored) viewer turns the light off, Dietl didn't outstay his welcome and knew when to quit and the best time to quit is when everything is said. Sad that many modern producers seem to have forgotten that.
Sure, many viewers would have wished for a little more, having grown accustomed to Franze, Annette and the rest of the characters, but would a continuation have brought? As said, Franz will continue as ever, go through the highs and the lows, the good times and the bad times and if there would have been any major change, well he wouldn't be Monaco Franze. Of course Dietl and Süskind could have come up with other, more outrageous story lines, which in the end-effect would only have cheated the viewer and eventually demolished the (deserved) cult-status of the series. Instead we have ten episodes that today are as enjoyable as they were more than 30 years ago. Not an easy feat but that is what divides directors and writers like Dielt and Süskind from the hacks.
A sentimental 10 from 10.
The Wicker Tree (2011)
An utter but not entirely unexpected disappointment
This Film has been sitting on my shelf for almost two years, and I have been reluctant to watch it until a few days ago. The reason: The original "The Wicker Man" counts among my favorite films. Sure, occasionally I give the tepid Remake with Nicolas Cage a gander, just out of glee or what in German is called "Schadenfreude". But "The Wicker Tree" was the real deal, a sequel in spirit, filmed by the original director Robin Hardy and claiming a cameo appearance by Sir Christopher Lee.
Even the hardened Fans must admit that "The Wicker Man" was a great film not because of Hardys skill as a director, but despite of them. "The Wicker Tree" was bad not as in "so bad it is good", like the remake, but bad as in pointless. It is a virtual retelling of the original story without any of the elements that made the original great. The amazing music, the quirky characters, the foreboding atmosphere, last but not least the eroticism none of it has made it into this film. Let's start off with the protagonists: where Officer Howie had a naivety about him that made his character amiable, we get two bible-thumbing trailer-trash bumpkins that are about as uncharismatic and non-likable as they come. Anybody who has ever travelled south of St. Louis will probably know that kind of people and will agree: these people are more annoying that Jehovah Witnesses on a field-trip. But director Hardy paints them so unsympathetic, it's almost embarrassing. One almost couldn't wait until they would cart them off to the Wicker Man (in this case a Wicker Tree) and here comes the major letdown and spoiler: the "heroine" actually survives the movie.
The second reason for watching "The Wicker Tree" despite low expectations and better knowledge was that I'm a devoted Sir Christopher Lee fan and a completist in that regard. Supposedly Sir Christopher's guest-role should have been a little longer but apparently ill health prevented that. The cameo lasts by my estimation a little less than a minute (I didn't time it though) and adds absolutely nothing to the story. To mind sprang Oliver Reeds cameo appearance in Ken Russells "Lisztomania" (Reed walks in through one door and Reed exits through another door).
To summon up the review in two words: utter disappointment. A fellow reviewer has ended his report such: "Fans may be tempted to watch this based on their admiration for the original. Please don't." I can only add that I've watched "The Wicker Tree" based on my admiration for the original and can do nothing but pass on the warning.