By William Wolf

I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS  Send This Review to a Friend

What, If anything, have people in Romania learned from history? The disconcerting answer comes with an upsetting bang at the conclusion of Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s noble fictional effort to explore Romania’s role in the massacre of Jews and others in Odessa in 1941. The anti-Semitism depicted in the director’s aim at exposing the Romanian complicity, necessary to make the point, ultimately becomes in itself harrowingly difficult to endure even in this righteous cause.

Jude approaches the subject via the creation of the character Mariana, forthrightly played with solemnity and dedication by Ioana Jacob. Mariana is a theater director who thinks up the idea of staging a pageant in a public square that will portray the role of Romania in the slaughter that has been long-buried by the effort to avoid history. The mass killing has been attributed to the Nazi forces and the general fighting in World War II. Mariana aims to remind the Romanian public that the guilty party is Marshal Ion Antonescu, the fascist and anti-Semitic Romanian leader executed in 1946 for war crimes, with the complicity of the Romanian military. The title of the film is an arrogant statement that Antonescu made.

With government funding, Mariana wants to bring in tanks and has recruited actors to play soldiers needed. She encounters resistance from cast and crew as the project develops. Most of all, there is resistance from a government official who argues with her that it is unwise to dig up the past and that she would do better portraying Romanian heroism. He threatens to call of the project if she doesn’t tone everything down. A secret plan made with a leading actor is to agree to the official’s demands, and then go ahead as originally planned to vividly dramatize the slaughter of the enacted Jews by leading them into a building and burning it down.

What Mariana doesn’t count on is the possibility of the public gathered for the spectacle to cheer on the anti-Semitic shouting and killing instead of being aghast at what takes place and thus demonstrating that anti-Semitism still virulently exists.

The film is a mighty blast for historical accountability. Unfortunately it also contains diversionary scenes. In order to depict Mariana’s life, the director has her walking around nude at times, and there are nude scenes with her married lover and the depiction of problems in their relationship, relatively minor in the larger context. I could also do without Mariana picking at her toes while quoting passages from Hannah Arendt.

However, that said, what overrides such detractions is the film’s overall concept of attempting to set history straight and remind Romania and the world of what still must be addressed. That is where the film’s power lies. Reviewed July 19, 2019.

ROSIE  Send This Review to a Friend

A heartbreaker of a film, “Rosie” glows with a moving, realistic performance by Sarah Greene as a homeless Dublin mother of four who struggles valiantly in a daily effort to find shelter. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Roddy Doyle, “Rosie” chronicles a plight that can be taken as reflecting homeless situations everywhere.

The crisis springs from a landlord’s decision to sell the building in which Rosie, her four children and her partner, John Paul, impressively portrayed by Moe Dunford, live. John Paul is a devoted father who works hard to earn a living in a restaurant kitchen. But housing is scarce, and it falls to Rosie to search for a place to stay each night.

Yes, she has a credit card, and as she and her youngsters sit in their car, she pores over places listed in a city directory. Each phone call that Rosie makes in the face of rejections comes across as a desperate search for even just a room. The alternative is sleeping in the car.

What makes the film so consistently poignant, in addition to Greene’s heartfelt performance, is the realism achieved. Rosie’s search is relentlessly methodical, and the director depicts the environment in a manner that highlights the family being swallowed up in anonymity.

There is also a sympathetic portrait of the children of different ages, so that one feels especially sorry for the situation in which they have been placed. Through it all Rosie maintains her dignity. She tries to hide her desperation from the officials in the school that her children attend. Her pride makes her fight against revealing the pain that goes with not knowing where one will sleep on any given night.

After you see this film, you may look more sympathetically when you spot someone homeless on a city street. What keeps the film from becoming unbearably grim, is the humanity that permeates it through the power of the acting and the humanitarian outlook of the writer and director. A Blue Fox Entertainment release. Reviewed July 19, 2019.

A FAITHFUL MAN  Send This Review to a Friend

It takes a lot of patience to sit through the absurdities of this very French take on intricate relationships despite the fine casting and ambitious direction. “A Faithful Man” stars the appealing Louis Garrel, who also directs with an eye toward comedy.

At the outset Garrel as Abel is confronted by his girlfriend Marianne (appealing Laetitia Casta) telling him she has been having an affair with his friend Paul and is pregnant with Paul’s child. Abel takes it in wounded stride and leaves as ordered.

Time passes. Paul has died, and Abel thinks there is a new chance for him to take up where he left off with Marianne. Joseph, Marianne’s precocious and resentful young son (Joseph Engel), loves mysteries and tries to instill the idea in Abel that Marianne murdered Paul.

The situation is further complicated by Paul’s sister Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), who has long been hot for Abel and now makes her move. Thus Abel is in the middle, and there are developments to come in the screenplay written by the renowned and clever Jean-Claude Carrière and Garrel.

The problem is that after a while the interplay becomes tiresome, and the characters are not as interesting as the cast members who play them. They are a shallow lot, and it is difficult to care about them or their respective desires and complications. One can sigh and say “Ah, the French” and at least appreciate the acting and some of the winking comedy. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed July 19, 2019.

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM  Send This Review to a Friend

The new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” has one all-important ingredient going for it—Toni Morrison herself. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the impressive film features literary great Morrison talking about her life and work in great detail.

The Nobel prize-winning African- American author and editor, now 88, is illuminating, appealing and informative as she discusses an array of subjects and expresses her opinions about literature, society, racism and the need for social justice without flinching. What comes through splendidly is a portrait of a feisty woman who is remarkable in so many ways.

In the process we get the story of her life that began in Lorain, Ohio, and how she became a writer despite not being taken seriously at first. The film brings her novels to the fore, including “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” and importantly, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved,” which became a film starring Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced it. (See Search for my film review). Clips from the film are included in the documentary.

The film includes controversy involving writers who banded together to protest her not getting the recognition she deserved, and some of the backlash when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Greenfield-Sanders has enriched the film with insightful comments about Morrison, including by Winfrey, Robert Gottlieb, Fran Lebowitz, Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Farah Griffin and Hilton Als.

But is is mainly getting to know Morrison more intimately via her own comments and recollections that makes this an outstanding documentary of special importance to the world of literature as well as to the world of film. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed June 21, 2019.

ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE  Send This Review to a Friend

Bob Dylan, past and present, has been remarkably captured, performing and reminiscing in a treasure-trove of a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Combining old footage with contemporary interviews, Scorsese has masterfully assembled a film that is a close-up of Dylan’s performances on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour and of those who accompanied him. He has blended that with an intimate contemporary talk with Dylan, and he also interviewed others who share memories of those exciting days.

The tour, which began in 1975, came about when Dylan decided he wanted to perform for crowds of about 3000 instead of huge audiences. He organized such a tour of group of cities and, fortunately for posterity, he arranged for it to be filmed. A finished film never emerged, but the footage was there for Scorsese to use.

There are terrific close-ups of Dylan singing and his musicians performing with him. We get an array of Dylan songs delivered in his style and with his intensity and belief in what he sings. Joan Baez went along on the tour, and there are wonderful clips of them singing together. Joni Mitchell also joined the tour, and Sharon Stone signed on as an assistant. Scarlet Rivera is quite a sight and sound playing the violin.

Scorsese places the tour footage in the cultural and political context of the times, as, for example, with the footage of Allen Ginsberg on the tour reciting his poetry. Sam Shepard was also with Dylan, and Scorsese works in footage of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter talking about his friendship with Dylan, and Dylan, who passionately sings the song he composed about Carter, the boxer who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for murder. There are film clip references to Nixon’s resignation and the Vietnam War.

I enjoyed the recollections of Stone about those days, as she can be amusing in telling anecdotes. And there is a particularly poignant moment with Dylan and Baez. They talk about the paths their lives took, Dylan saying he found a woman he loves, and Baez saying she found a man she thought she loved. There is poignancy in the exchange, given that the two were known to have been romantically involved.

Others also look back, but the main interview is the fascinating chat with Dylan. While he comes across as the most fascinating, he is an enigmatic man of few words, but Scorsese has managed to get him to provide terse but revealing responses.

Importantly, the film is a dynamic record of the rebellious spirit that infused Dylan and other performers of that generation at the time. At the end, after listing the cities that the Rolling Thunder Revue visited, there is a huge added list of cities, domestic and international, where Dylan has performed over the years.

Scorsese has done a great service for the music world by making this documentary, which is both informative and entertaining as it shows Dylan and his singing with special intiimacy. A Netflix release. Reviewed June 28, 2019.

YESTERDAY  Send This Review to a Friend

It takes a willingness to stretch your imagination to roll with the fantasy plot of “Yesterday,” directed by Danny Boyle. You Iare asked to believe that there is a world in which nobody has ever heard of the Beatles. The one exception is Jack Malik, portrayed by Himesh Patel, who fraudulently appropriates the Beatles hits as his own and becomes famous singing these iconic numbers newly recognized as great and presumably composed by Malik.

In the screenplay by Richard Curtis, based on a story by Jack Barth, Malik is at first an unsuccessful singer-guitarist who has a traffic accident and wakes up in this new world. But, as directed by Boyle and as scripted, apart from the Beatles as non-existent, everything else is the same. Malik has the same friends, same parents, same gal on whom he is sweet. But when he inquires about the Beatles on his computer, he gets insects.

The upside of the film is that in Malik’s duplicitous rise to fame we get to hear so many Beatle songs. At points Boyle makes the film visually lavish. The downside includes the long-time unrequited romantic feelings between Malik and his early manager, Ellie Appleton, played cutely by Lily James. I felt like shouting “Hop into bed already,” as the unrealistically chaste relationship goes on and on until finally, or course, all gets resolved. The downside also includes a plot cliché—Malik’s confession of wrongdoing before an entire crowd.

The film does have some clever touches, including the appearance of singer-composer-star Ed Sheeran as himself. But “Yesterday” is basically such a far-fetched fantasy that it is easy to become skeptical and bored. Patel, of Indian descent, has his appeal, and James has her appeal too, but the extenuated failure of Ellie and Jack to become a couple through most of the film is irritating. I suppose one can view “Yesterday” as a back-handed salute to the Beatles. But it takes a lot of willingness to go with the flow of the absurd concept. A Universal Pictures release. Reviewed June 28, 2019.

THREE PEAKS  Send This Review to a Friend

The story in “Three Peaks,” written and directed by Jan Zabeil, starts calmly, but be prepared for the tension to mount as events commence to the point of grave danger.

Excellent actress Bérénice Bejo plays Léa, a French woman in a new relationship with a German, Aaron (Alexander Fehling). But she has a seven-year-old son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery), with an American father. As one might expect, the boy is upset and would like to see his parents reunited.

When Léa, Aaron and Tristan vacation together in the Italian Dolomites, Aaron makes a strong effort to be nice to Tristan and win him over. As he learns, this is not an easy task.

Aaron takes Tristan for a hike in the mountains one morning. Filmmaker Zabeil does an effective job in capturing the snowy mountain atmosphere. The lad, whose emotions are torn, clearly resists the overtures even though there is somewhat of a personal rapport. There comes a point when Tristan rebels and decides to leave Aaron and sneak off on his own.

Aaron desperately tries to find Tristan. The mountains are dangerous for a boy alone, as well as for an adult, and ultimately, when Aaron and Tristan don’t return, a search party sets out to find them.

The crisis is posed: Will Tristan and Aaron be saved? If so, what will happen to the relationship between Léa, Aaron, and Tristan? And what about the boy’s father?

Zabeil has concocted and made a film that escalates a vacation into a matter of life and death, and the drama commands our attention, especially with the strong cast and the scenic ambiance. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Reviewed June 28, 2019.

PAVAROTTI  Send This Review to a Friend

No matter how much we hear about the personal life of the late Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti, he will go down in history for his great tenor voice and be remembered for his magnificent performances. Fortunately there are film and audio records of his triumphs for future generations. Now director Ron Howard has given us a terrific documentary that captures Pavarotti’s skill and also explores his life.

There is sheer pleasure in listening to Pavarotti’s wonderful voice in his various stage appearances highlighted by his commanding high C’s. Howard has done a tremendous job collecting film footage, and he has also interviewed key people in Pavarotti’s life. The overwhelming upside is emphasized rather than searching for downsides.

What emerges is a portrait of a larger-than-life man who took joy in singing as an expression of himself, and a man who wanted to help so many others through performances dedicated to charity. Doing that gave him much satisfaction, as one can see in so many of the scenes captured.

Opera purists tend to resent when a star performs more broadly, and there was such resentment against Pavarotti. But he enjoyed expanding and popularizing his skill. The film shows how he teamed with Bono, for example, and also used their performing together for charitable purposes. There were also his famous ‘Three Tenors” performances (with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras), and their singing together resulted in vast recording sales. In one especially touching moment during a concert Pavarotti gave, he directs his singing to Princess Diana, who, all smiles, is sitting in the audience.

Pavarotti’s personal life was fodder for scandal in the press. He was married, but it took many years before there could be a divorce, given the Catholic Church’s rules. He could not marry again in church, so he had to pick another venue.

In addition to interviews with his former wife, Adua Veroni, there is an interview with soprano Madelyn Renee, who had a long affair with him, but ended it because he remained married at the time. There is an interview with Nicolette Mantovani, the woman with whom he finally found marital happiness. There is also an interview with a daughter who had become became estranged from Pavarotti but finally reconciled with a show of emotion that emerges in Howard’s film.

The brilliance of this documentary is that it manages to depict the fullness of the star’s life, from the most wonderful displays of his talent to the days when he was becoming ill and singing with a voice no longer what it was. After Pavarotti died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 71, the film shows his cortege moving through crowds of onlookers paying tribute to the great artist whose operatic success echoed that of the famous Enrico Caruso. Howard’s documentary is certainly among the best and most important films of the year thus far. A CBS films release. Reviewed June 7, 2019.

ROCKETMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Dexter FLetcher’s “Rocketman,” in which Taron Egerton stars as Elton John, is built in Lee Hall’s screenplay around John’s group therapy sessions in rehab for his drug an alcohol abuse. By the end of the film a note says that John has been clean for 28 years, that he is in a gay marriage and that he and his husband have two children. But in the course of the exploration of John’s life we see him going through addiction hell along with his climb to phenomenal artistic and financial success.

Egerton’s performance realistically captures the depth of both John’s talent and his emotional wreckage. His high-octane singing and the flamboyant aura John could create are impressively on display in this visually arresting film. The film’s style is a mix of realism and the movie musical genre. We get day-to-day John mingled with imaginative flights into John’s psyche as he breaks into song off the performing stage.

Essential biographic elements are there, including his long-time friendship and collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (played with credibility by Jamie Bell) and tensions that erupt between them. Importantly, there is John’s straining to come to terms with being gay at a time when that was still something to conceal in England. At one point John enters into a heterosexual marriage, but the effort fails, as we quickly see.

The film also covers the cold relation with his father and the turbulent interaction with his mother, as well as the professional associations along the way.

Best of all in the film is the recreation of John’s intense, supersized, energetic and wildly colorful rock singing that catapulted him into his vast popularity with recording sales in the millions and all the money that flowed from that, giving him the wherewithal to indulge in hard drugs and alcohol until the point of a breakdown and the need for rehab.

The personality and talent of Sir Elton is depicted in larger-than-life fashion. The mix of reality and the imagined doesn’t always work smoothly, but the overall splash and the depth of Egerton’s very credible acting as John is there, along with some of his best known numbers that he wrote and performed.

“Rocketman” is prime viewing for John fans and an entertaining introduction for those unfamiliar with what Sir Elton brought to the music world. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed June 16, 2019.

BACK TO THE FATHERLAND  Send This Review to a Friend

An interesting concept is frittered away in a rather lifeless documentary in which young Israelis explain why want to move to Germany and Austria despite the persecution of Jews in those countries during the Nazi era. Their desires, contrasting sharply with elders who survived the horrors, are expressed in low-key conversations.

The problem of the film, directed and produced by Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon, is that the young people are not especially interesting and the filmmakers don’t do enough to make them more so. The discussions have an academic quality rather than emotional depth, although special interest arises from some of the misgivings cited about life in Israel with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The directors, who became friends while college students in New York a decade ago, approach the subject from personal as well as historical angles. Rohrer is from Austria, Levanon is from Israel. Rohrer’s grandfather was a Nazi officer. Levanon is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.

They thus have an interest in pursuing reasons why some Israelis want to emigrate to the crime scenes under new post-Holocaust environments. They also are aware of why survivors would look askance at a new generation finding appeal in moving to Germany and Austria.

The co-directors focus on three families involved in the issue, and the interviews included are intelligent in the reasoning and reactions. Unfortunately the overall effect of the film is on the bland side and it is tough to get excited over the younger generation mulling over the direction to take in their privileged lives. A First Run Features release. Reviewed June 14, 2019.

  

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