Labyrinth of Lies

October 15, 2015

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Labyrinth of Lies, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, from a script by Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel, is a fictionalized depiction of the events leading up to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65. The story begins in Germany in the late 1950’s. Johan Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is a young prosecutor who gets involved in the case of a school teacher who is accused of having been an SS officer at Auschwitz. The case leads Radmann to discover that other former Auschwitz officers and guards are living free. He persuades the Attorney General, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss) to let him begin bringing criminal cases against these people. Radmann encounters resistance, both from the government and from his fellow lawyers against the prosecutions.

The German title of this film, Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, literally translates as “In the Labyrinth of Silence”, which is a more accurate title. It becomes clear that the problem is not so much lies as the fact that people simply refused to discuss what had happened. The film is implicitly critical of the Adenauer government, with its “time to move on” philosophy. (At one point the film suggests that some members of the West German government helped Josef Mengele to avoid capture.) The result of this is virtually a form of historical amnesia. In one scene, someone asks some young Germans if they have ever heard of Auschwitz, and they answer no. During his first interview with an Auschwitz survivor, Radmann is astonished to learn that hundreds of thousands of people died there. “What did you think it was, a summer camp next to a lake?” a survivor sarcastically asks him.

The main problem with Labyrinth of Lies is its heavy reliance on standard storytelling techniques. For example, it follows the time-honored Hollywood tradition of including a romantic subplot: Radmann has an affair with a free-spirited girl, Marlene (Friederike Becht). These scenes are in and of themselves not objectionable, but they seem somehow inappropriate within the context of the film’s disturbing subject matter. There are also some dream scenes in which Radmann is shown following Mengele through the latter’s laboratory. These are clearly meant to be emotionally powerful, but they seem merely trite: we’ve seen these sorts of dream scenes too many times in other films. This raises the question of whether standard storytelling techniques are adequate for dealing with such an enormity as Auschwitz.

Despite its flaws, Labyrinth of Lies is a revealing portrait of post-World War II Germany.

99 Homes

October 12, 2015

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I’m not proud of this, but I played a (small) role in the meltdown of the real estate market in 2008. I worked for a few months for the infamous Countrywide Home Loans. It was clerical work, but nonetheless I was a cog in the machine. I remember during one of the training sessions, one of the top executives of the company came to speak to the group of new hires I was in. She told us that the company’s income came entirely from late payment fees on mortgages. (I will never forget the expression of glee on this woman’s face as she told this to us.) Perhaps I was in a state of denial, but it wasn’t until after I left the company that I began to put two and two together. If all their income came from late payment fees, then they had to be luring people into getting mortgages they couldn’t really afford. Such a business model couldn’t be sustainable, and I suspect the top executives of the company knew this. However, when the collapse inevitably came, they all got golden parachutes, and everyone else got the shaft.

99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a script by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, is set shortly after the collapse of the real estate market. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker whose house is foreclosed upon by real estate agent, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Nash is forced to move into a motel room along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son (Noah Lomax). By chance, Nash, who is desperate for work, winds up doing a maintenance job for Carver. Carver takes a liking to him, and offers him a permanent job. Nash is hesitant at first, but the money that Carver offers him is irresistible. Carver soon has Nash carrying out evictions for him. When Nash’s family finds what he is doing, they become upset with him. Nash’s job also increasingly puts him in situations that are morally and legally tenuous.

99 Homes is a condemnation of the moral values of our society: its tendency to value money over people, its tendency to rationalize greed and parasitism. In the film’s most powerful scene, Carver justifies what he does to Nash. He tells Nash that after the collapse of the real estate market, he found that there was more money to be made doing evictions than in selling houses. Carver’s seemingly rational arguments expose the ruthless cynicism of our economic system, a cynicism that Carver has embraced in order to get ahead. In some ways, 99 Homes reminds one of last year’s Nightcrawler, but in a way 99 Homes is more subtly disturbing. Whereas the main character in Nightcrawler is depicted as a sociopath, one gets the feeling that Carver was at one time a decent person, but he has been corrupted by the system he works in.

This film benefits from strong performances. Michael Shannon is brilliant as Carver. 99 Homes is one of the best films of the year.

Black Mass

September 22, 2015

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Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, based on a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth , is a somewhat fictionalized depiction of the criminal career of James “Whitey” Bulger,a gangster who controlled much of the crime in Boston during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Bulger (Johnny Depp) is approached by an FBI agent, John Connally (Joel Edgerton), who tries to get Bulger to become an informant. Bulger refuses at first, but Connally persuades Bulger that he should view this as an “alliance” to destroy a criminal mob that Bulger has been feuding with, and which the FBI wants to break up. Bulger gets his lieutenant, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) to reluctantly go along with this. As time goes by, Connally becomes increasingly involved with Bulger’s criminal activities.

This film benefits from strong performances, particularly from Depp and Edgerton. And it has a gritty feel that captures the flavor of Boston. However, it was a lot like other gangster films I have seen. There were moments in it that reminded me of Good Fellas. This may be due to a failure of imagination on the part of the film’s makers, or maybe there is really only so much that can be said about organized crime.

Black Mass also takes a many liberties with the facts. Flemmi, for example, is made out to be a nicer person than he was in real life. In the film, Flemmi is repulsed by the murder of his stepdaughter, but in real life he willingly took part in it. (It was also Flemmi who persuaded Bulger to become an informant, the opposite of what is depicted in the film.) I can only guess that the that film’s makers wanted to make Bulger the center of evil in the story. The truth is that he was surrounded by people who were as bad as he was.

The definitive film about Whitey Bulger remains to be made.

Best of Enemies

September 14, 2015

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Best of Enemies is a documentary about the series of “debates” that took place between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It’s an odd film, since it typifies the very phenomenon that it seeks to criticize. The film alleges that these debates were the beginning of the “talking heads” approach to news programming, and it alleges that political discourse is the poorer in this country because of this. Yet in its own narrow focus on the personalities of the two men, the film merely becomes an example of this same approach. There is little discussion of the issues that the two men debated – quite important issues the included the Vietnam War, poverty, and the right to protest.

This film is more-or-less even-handed in its depiction of the two men, with interviews with friends and admirers of both of them. It probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of either one of them. There are some amusing moments, but because of its shallowness, it never really rises above the level of fluff.

The Rise of Donald Trump

August 24, 2015

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I had hoped that Trump’s support consisted entirely of old white people. However, looking at photos of his recent rally in Mobile, Alabama; I was dismayed to see a lot of young people, although they were all white. (I did see one black guy in one of the photos, although he may have been doing security. Either way, he didn’t look terribly enthusiastic.) Trump’s message seems to resonate with people from all walks of (white) life.

I recently watched the documentary, Trump: What’s the Dearl?, which was made in the early 1990’s. It was never realease at the time, because Trump sued the filmmakers. (Trump has a thing for suing people. He once sued an architecture critic who panned one of his buildings.) It has recently been made available online. The film only follows Trump’s career up until the early 1990’s, after he filed for bankruptcy due to the failure of one of his Atlantic City casinos. It is nevertheless a revealing account of Trump’s early career.

Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a wealthy Brooklyn real estate developer. When Trump set out to break into the real estate business in the 1970’s, the then mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, happened to be a childhood friend of Fred Trump. Beame used his influence to arrange Trump’s first big real estate purchase. Later, when Trump bought the Commodore Hotel, Beame arranged to give him a huge tax break. Trump’s whole career was made possible by the fact that he happened to have a wealthy father who was politically well-connected.

His business model apparently consists of borrowing a lot of money while doing things on the cheap. When he tore down the old Bonwit Teller building, to make way for his Trump Tower, he hired an inexperienced firm that used undocumented Polish immigrants as workers.(I guess Trump only objects to immigrants when they happen to be Mexican.) They were not given protective equipment, even though they had to remove asbestos. This approach usually works well for Trump, but it sometimes gets him into trouble. During the 1980’s, he borrowed so much money to buy up real estate in Atlantic City that the revenues from his casinos were not enough to keep with his debt payments. With his characteristic crassness, Trump tried to blame three managers of his casino, who had recently died in a helicopter crash, for its failure.

I have to admit that the appeal of Trump escapes me. He lacks charm, and he actually strikes me as being a dull person. Yet so many people in the media seem to want to regard him as an interesting person. Trump is an invention of the media, and they must take responsibility for the harm he is currently doing.

The Gift

August 20, 2015

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The heat wave this past weekend here in LA made the idea of sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater more than usually appealing to me, so I ended up watching three thrillers. Thrillers are basically my favorite genre. I would sooner watch a mediocre thriller than sit through a critically acclaimed “feel good” movie like St. Vincent. That’s just the way I roll.

The first one I saw was a French-Canadian film titled Tom at the Farm. It’s basically about a sado-masochistic relationship that often seems to be on the verge of becoming lethal. It’s OK. A big problem I had with this film is that I found the main character unsympathetic, since he seemed to like being bullied. I enjoyed Cop Car a lot more. It’s fun watching Kevin Bacon playing a thoroughly corrupt and cynical small-town sheriff. The director, Jon Watts, shows a real knack for building suspense. However, I found the up-in-the-air ending disappointing. I have to admit that I’m not big on up-in-the-air endings. A film, like a symphony, should have an ending that brings things to completion.

The best film I saw, though, was The Gift, written and directed by Joel Edgerton. It tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who have just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills. While shopping one day, they bump into Gordon (Joel Edgerton), an old schoolmate of Simon’s. They have him over for dinner one day, and afterwards Gordon begins to drop by their house, leaving gifts and offering to help out with things. His behavior begins to seem intrusive and a bit unnerving. Robyn starts to suspect that Simon is not telling her the whole truth about his past relationship with Gordon.

First-time director Edgerton does a good job of creating a sense of foreboding. The film benefits from strong performances, particularly from Hall, who does a good job of conveying Robyn’s conflicting emotions: she is simultaneously sympathetic towards Gordon and a bit creeped out by him.

SPOILER ALERT: I AM ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY THE ENDING

Although I mostly liked this film, I found the ending unsatisfying. We see Gordon gloating over a defeated Simon. Although Simon is truly a terrible person, Gordon’s own actions were sordid. He stalked Robyn and invaded her privacy; he basically used her to get even with Simon. I would have preferred an ending that did a better job of acknowledging the moral ambiguities of the situation.

Listen to Me Marlon

August 13, 2015

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Marlon Brando was, arguably, the greatest American actor of the twentieth century. Stevan Riley’s new film, Listen to Me Marlon is a deeply moving examination of Brando’s tragic life and work. Based on taped musings that Brando left behind after his death, it is actually more of a film essay than a documentary. Brando’s tapings are combined with clips from his films, excerpts from TV news broadcasts and interviews, and even messages from Brando’s telephone answering machine, to create a tapestry of ideas, opinions, reflections, and emotions that is deeply haunting and even somewhat disturbing.

We learn about Brando’s childhood in Omaha, Nebraska. He talks about his abusive father and alcoholic mother. His father sent him to a military academy, an experience that left him with a deep dislike for the military, whose purpose he saw was to make men into machines. After he dropped out of the academy, he went to New York, where he studied acting under Stella Adler. He immediately showed a strong talent for it, and Adler encouraged him to pursue a career in theater. He achieved success early on when he was cast as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. However, he found the role emotionally demanding. (He says the character reminded him of his father.) Performing this play night after night left him feeling drained. He decided then he would only do film acting. He achieved enormous success doing this during the 1950’s. However, he found the experience of filming the 1962 film, Mutiny on the Bounty unpleasant, and he was hurt by the fact that the studio blamed him for the film’s delays and cost overruns. Embittered by this experience, Brando began to view acting as nothing more than a way to make a living. Making The Godfather reawakened his enthusiasm for acting. However, after Last Tango in Paris, he came to feel that the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, had invaded his privacy. Apocalypse Now was something of a repeat of Bounty for Brando. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, blamed him for the film’s cost overruns. After that, Brando says little on the topic of acting or the films he appeared in.

Brando talks a great deal about his love for Tahiti, both for its landscape and for its people. Brando tells us he only ever felt at peace among Tahitians. He also talks about his involvement in the civil rights movement, as well as for his support for the struggles of Native Americans. The final section of the film largely deals with the tragic events that culminated in the suicide of his daughter, Cheyenne.

Listen to Me Marlon is a stunning depiction of the life of an extraordinary man.

A Thought on Black Lives Matter

August 10, 2015

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As we all know by now, two members of Black Lives Matter recently prevented Bernie Sanders from speaking at a rally in Seattle in support of Social Security and Medicare. A number of Facebook friends of mine have tried to defend what they with the following argument: they forced Sanders to take more substantive positions on race issues. I can’t agree with this argument for two reasons. First, this tactic has clearly alienated many people who would otherwise be sympathetic towards Black Lives Matter. Was it really worth doing that just to get Sanders to take slightly better positions? Second, if you say that Sanders takes good positions just because two people forced him off the stage, that makes him look weak, doesn’t it? What good does that do?

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

July 29, 2015

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One rarely hears Sophie Tucker’s name mentioned any more. Which is odd, considering that for most of the twentieth century she was one of the most popular entertainers in the US. She was known for her powerful voice and bawdy sense of humor. She projected an image of a strong, independent woman; long before it became fashionable to do so. She influenced such singers as Judy Garland and Bette Midler. Her friends included Al Capone and J.Edgar Hoover. (Members of Tucker’s family claim that Hoover would ask to borrow her dresses.)

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is directed by William Gazecki, and produced by Lloyd and Susan Ecker. It is a documentary about Tucker that draws heavily on Tucker’s private scrapbooks and letters, supplemented by interviews with people who knew her. The producers, however, find various ways to insert themselves into the story, in such a way that the film ends up being partly about them. This might have been unobjectionable if it were not for their self-important attitudes. For example, Lloyd Ecker tells a story about US GI’s playing a recording of Tucker’s “My Yiddische Mama” on the streets of Berlin at the end of World War II. This could have been an interesting side-note to Tucker’s life, but Ecker’s telling of the story is so long-winded and bombastic that you can’t wait for him to move on to something else. Even worse, Ecker later pretends to get choked up when he tells the story of Tucker’s last public appearance. This sort of thing is just insulting to people’s intelligence, and it actually does a disservice to Tucker’s memory.

On the bright side, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker will perhaps lead to a renewed interest in Tucker’s music and life. I just wish it could have been a better film.

What Donald Trump Tells Us About Ourselves

July 23, 2015

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I normally don’t watch CNN, but they show it on the TV at the food court at my local Gelson’s, so I couldn’t help watching it while I was waiting to use the men’s room. Donald Trump had given a speech at a retirement community somewhere, and he had gotten a good reception. However, one woman who was interviewed said, “He frightens me.” When asked why she gone had to see his speech anyway, she said, “He’s a celebrity.” Trumps’ candidacy shows the triumph of celebrity in our society. Trump is a celebrity, so he must be listened to. Fame trumps all other considerations.

Trump first came to national attention during the 1980’s. The eighties were a decade of make-believe. President Reagan presided over a humiliating military retreat from Lebanon, nevertheless we were told that he had made America “great again”; he had shown the world that we were not to be trifled with! Trump was another fantasy. A man who filed for bankruptcy three times, he was touted as a financial wizard, a man who had mastered “the art of the deal”. Does the re-emergence of Trump suggest that we are heading into another period of make-believe? Perhaps we don’t want to deal with the disappointments we’ve had. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a bust. Obama’s promised “hope and change” have merely been a weak economic recovery and a deeply flawed health care bill. Trump offers us a fantasy world in which one only has to proclaim oneself great, and – hey presto! – one is automatically great.

The election of Ronald Reagan was seen as a symbol of how movies have come to dominate our culture. Trump promises to do the same thing for tacky reality TV shows.