REVIEW: “First They Killed My Father” (2017)

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Throughout her 15 year career Angelina Jolie has been called many things – actress, sex symbol, humanitarian, one-half of the ridiculously over-publicized, paparazzi darling “Brangelina”. But not enough people have considered her prowess behind the camera. Through four directed films she has shown a sharp awareness of technique but never quite hit her stride. That changes with her fifth film, “First They Killed My Father”.

This piercing historical thriller is an adaptation of human rights activist Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name. In her book Ung, a childhood survivor of the brutal Pol Pot dictatorship, tells the heart-wrenching story of growing up during the Khmer Rouge reign. For the film she collaborated with Jolie in writing the screenplay.

A brief but pointed newsreel introduction lays the foundation for Cambodia’s vulnerability and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. From there we move to  April, 1975. We meet Loung as a fun, precocious 7 year-old (played with such vivacity and emotion by Sreymoch Sareum). As the daughter of a government official she lives a privileged life with her loving parents and six siblings in Phnom Penh. But her world is forever turned upside down when the Khmer Rouge take control and forcibly evacuate the entire city.

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Loung and her family leave with nothing but necessities. They join floods of people, now refugees in their own country, on what some journalists and historians have described as a death march. For Loung’s family it’s particularly stressful. Her father (played with such warmth by Kompheak Phoeungas) is an instant target due to his government ties. This makes every checkpoint or encounter with a Khmer Rouge soldier a harrowing experience.

In a bit of ominous foreshadowing the film’s title looms over a good portion of the story and is an indicator that the road ahead of this family will be a difficult one. Much like the memoir it’s based on, the movie puts us behind the eyes of young Loung. Many films have told their story from a child’s perspective, but not many have done it as well as Jolie does here. You genuinely feel Loung trying to make sense of all she is witnessing and experiencing. You also feel Loung’s love for her family by the way they are often filmed from her perspective. It’s especially evident with her father who Jolie often frames with a childlike adoration. Loung’s love for her family is a fundamental ingredient to the story.

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Visually Jolie intentionally understates the brutality and violence choosing to allow it to burn just outside of our sight. It keeps our focus on the characters but also leads to some of the film’s most stunning photography – breathtaking overhead shots that briefly pull us out of Luong’s head to give us a broader picture of the horror. Later in the film the violence comes more into focus as it becomes more of a reality for Loung. Jolie shoots it careful and with great effect. And even beyond the violence, there are so many powerful images captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (know most for his collaborations with Danny Boyle).

Jolie should also be commended for her deep desire for authenticity. It led her to film on location in Cambodia. She also used Cambodian actors and actresses as well as the native language of Khmer. All great decisions which puts us the viewers in the proper mindset to take in this story as we should. The film comes across as truly Cambodian in its respect and passion. In fact the film is Cambodia’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

In new Cambodia they’ll be no banking, no trading, no private property. No Rich, no poor. No class. We are all the same now.” This one of many lines of propaganda we hear shouted out by Khmer Rouge soldiers. We know it’s a lie. So do Loung’s parents. Yet they are powerless to do anything. That may be the greatest tragedy. As a kid it wasnt a history class that first educated me on the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities committed by their hand. It was a movie – 1984’s powerful “The Killing Fields”. Now I feel another movie is reopening my eyes. Jolie’s film has been simmering in the back of my mind for days. I want to see it again. Sure it’s a difficult watch, but some stories need to be etched into our brains. I would argue this is one of them.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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REVIEW: “Finding Oscar” (2017)

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Some of my favorite documentaries are ones that dispel ignorance, most notably my own. I’m not talking about the minutia of any given subject. I’m referring to an ignorance of significant events, subjects or people who I should know about. I love the ones that educate, enlighten and expose. Sure, like any film, some docs have trouble melding movie with message. But the good ones find all sorts of ways to inform minds and provoke a response.

“Finding Oscar” is one of those good ones. The film documents the search for justice for the Dos Erres massacre which took place during the decades-long Guatemalan civil war. Director Ryan Suffern explores the dynamics of the bloody war which raged between the government and leftist guerillas. He then puts his focus on the 1982 massacre that took place in the small village of Dos Erres. From there the film highlights the work of a small but determined group of people set on uncovering the truth behind Dos Erres and bringing to justice those responsible. And the secret to doing it may lie in tracing one of only two known survivors – a missing boy named Oscar.

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The story of Dos Erres is potent and distressing on its own. It was a poor isolated village with no means of outside communication, yet we learn from a former villager that life there was “good”. A guerilla attack in the region left 21 government soldiers dead and guns and ammunition were stolen. President José Efraín Ríos Mont deployed the elite special forces commandos known as Kaibiles to Dos Erres which he believed to be guerilla sympathizers.

On December 6, 1982 the Kaibiles entered the village dressed as guerillas and slaughtered every man, woman, and child. The lone exceptions were four children – two boys and two girls. The scope of the barbarism was appalling and included brutal killings and rape. The four surviving children were taken by the Kaibiles. The two girls were raped and strangled to death a few miles from the village.

The lone exceptions were four children – two boys and two girls who the soldiers took with them. Both girls were raped and strangled to death a few miles outside of their village. The two boys were separated and raised by two of the same soldiers who took part in the massacre. One of those boys was named Oscar.

“Finding Oscar” doesn’t shirk on the details of what happened in Dos Erres. It leans on multiple sources to paint a bloody unsettling mental portrait of what took place. It’s not easy to watch, but it is necessary. The film also examines the political climate which led to Ríos Mont staying in power. It was during the height of Cold War paranoia and United States foreign policy often went through that prism. The film doesn’t shy away from America’s culpibilty in keeping the Guatemalan military regime in power.

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Then you have the group of dedicated individuals resolute in their quest to bring the Dos Erres truth to light. Included is a determined family advocate, a forensic anthropologist, and a young Guatemalan prosecutor. Through years of devotion and through drastically different avenues their search leads to the two young boys who survived the atrocity in particularly to Oscar. Can they find them, the only true witnesses to the horrors that took place.

Dos Erres wasn’t the only massacre of the Guatemalan civil war, but it is certainly one deserving to be brought to light. And as it is, hopefully it draw attention to what happened there, they lives that were forever effected, and those responsible. That is what “Finding Oscar” wants to accomplish and it succeeds. It skillfully balances its many efforts to cover this a multi-faceted subject. The results are powerful and gut-wrenching. Yet even among such grim savagery, we do see exercises in courage by those fighting for justice and closure. Such welcomed inspirations from this tough but beautifully made picture.

VERDICT 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Frantz”

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François Ozon’s quiet but stylish drama “Frantz” is an exquisitely made film that dares you to try and define it only to end in a place far more intimate and straightforward than I expected. It cracks open the doors to our imagination and invites us to peep in, get a glimpse and overthink. But ultimately it’s the film’s simplicity that makes it such a touching melodrama.

The story begins in Quedlinburg, Germany, 1919. World War I has just ended. The wounds are still fresh and the effects still reverberate through the town. A young woman named Anna (Paula Beer in a breakout performance) takes flowers to the grave of her fiancé Frantz, a German soldier killed in the war. At the cemetery she witnesses an unknown man leaving flowers on her husband’s grave. His name is Adrien (Pierre Niney) a Frenchman from Paris.

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The next day Adrien shows up at the home where Anna lives with Frantz’s parents Hans and Magda Hoffmeister. A grief-stricken and bitter Hans (Ernst Stötzner) kicks him out upon hearing he is French. Anna convinces the Hoffmeister’s to invite Adrien back since he seems to have a connection with Frantz. When Adrien returns he tells them of his close friendship with Frantz. He talks about the time they spent together and the places they went. For Anna and the Hoffmeisters it’s therapeutic and they befriend Adrien much to the dismay of the townsfolk.

But it becomes clear that Adrien isn’t telling them everything. In fact he’s harboring a burdensome secret which is at the heart of why he came to Quedlinburg. Ozon gets in no hurry to reveal it which is one of the film’s strengths. It gives the director room to explore other ideas. Like its inspiration, Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby”, the story has a well handled anti-war subtext as seen in the anti-French sentiment that still permeated much of Town, some of it rooted in xenophobia and some in unbridled grief. But later Ozon holds the same mirror up to the French.

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The film eloquently veers back-and-forth between being a suspenseful mystery and an aching love story. Themes of truth, grief, forgiveness, reconciliation, and independence are significant to the plot and given a lot of attention. But then you have Ozon’s subtle riddles and red herrings that would have brought a smile to Hitchcock’s face. It all gives “Frantz” some intriguing and unexpected layers.

Visually “Frantz” is a delight. The use of black-and-white and the occasional shift to color are more than gimmicks. They relay tone and mood from the director but more importantly perspective from the characters. It’s a tricky yet perfect fit for this moving period story. Some may be encouraged to offer more speculation than interpretation. The story opens itself up for that. But for me the best interpretation of “Frantz” is the simplest and most straightforward. It puts Anna in the spotlight which for me made the film more poignant and emotionally satisfying.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Fitzcarraldo”

fitzposterI’m not sure you can look at “Fitzcarraldo” without comparing the film’s obsessively tenacious lead character with its equally mulish and unyielding director. In fact the entire production testifies to a specific type of incomprehendible creative madness. Yet without that very madness “Fitzcarraldo”  would have been a lesser movie.

“Fitzcarraldo” was written and directed by Werner Herzog and the making of his film is a legendary story in itself. Herzog was determined to bring as much realism as possible to his picture by steering free of any special effects. This meant shooting in the jungle next to an ongoing border war between Peru and Ecuador. It meant facing natural hardships brought on by shooting on location.But those obstacles would shy in comparison to the human hurdles. Jason Robards was originally cast as the lead character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald but almost halfway through shooting he contracted dysentery and was flown back to the States. Doctors refused to let him return meaning Herzog had to recast the role and restart shooting from the beginning. Herzog regular Klaus Kinski was given the role which brought a slew of new problems.

Kinski was known for his volatile run-ins with his directors and crew. It was no different here. He repeatedly fought with Herzog and even angered the natives serving as extras (It’s said one of the local chiefs offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). This obviously complicated production in a number of ways, but Kinski’s flirtation with madness is also what made him perfect for the role. His wild, eccentric nature was an ideal fit for a character possessed with realizing his dream of bringing opera to the Amazon.

Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo by locales who can’t pronounce his name) comes across as delusional but he is driven by the best intentions. He’s not a bad guy. He believes in a transcendent quality to opera which could have magnificent effects in the heart of the Amazon. But time and again his optimism and determination crashes into walls of ridicule and disparagement.His one light comes from Claudia Cardinale. She plays Molly, his girlfriend who upholds Fitz with her faith and her money. Kinski and Cardinale couldn’t be more different either in character or real-life personalities yet the two work well together. Molly is a constant encouragement even when Fitz’s dream seems all but squashed.

Herzog’s film makes a dramatic change of direction at the midway mark. Fitz realizes his ice-making contraption won’t fund his opera house so he dives into the region’s one lucrative business – rubber. He purchases a steamboat with a loan from Molly, puts together a ragtag crew, and heads down the Amazon River towards his isolated patch of land rich with rubber trees. There’s a reason the land was previously unclaimed. It’s inhabited by a threatening indigenous people and the path to it is blocked by the dangerous Pongo das Mortes (which tellingly means Rapids of Death). But Fitz has a plan as improbable as his opera dream itself – take his 350 ton steamboat down a branch of the river, literally pull the ship over a hillside and into another river branch that bypasses the deadly rapids.The attempt to haul the massive steamboat over a steep, muddy hill became the film’s signature sequence. Herzog’s insistence on actually doing it instead of relying on special effects became a legendary tale that mirrored the fanaticism of the movie’s lead character. Herzog was convinced his audience would never buy it unless they saw it with their own eyes. The difficulty and frustration it brought often threatened to kill the production, but the end product is a shining example of true movie magic.

“Fitzcarraldo” and the story of its filming (much of it chronicled in the documentary “Burden of Dreams”) are like inseparable companion pieces. Each reveals unique sides to this fascinating picture yet together they feel undeniably one. And we are the true beneficiaries. Much like the frazzled Fitz himself playing Caruso on his beaten up Victrola record player, we sense there is something special in the art we are consuming. And for that reason Herzog’s intense creative labor and all of the accompanying hardships were worth it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Fate of the Furious”

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It remains the most unlikely and surprising movie mega-franchise, yet that’s exactly what the “Fast and Furious” films have become. Now we are eight movies in (yes, EIGHT) and it has done nothing to lessen its position as a box office juggernaut. “Furious 8” had a worldwide debut of $532.5 million, shattering the global record for an opening weekend. And after three weeks it has already cleared $1 billion. Not bad for a series once about street racing in Los Angeles.

I heard it speculated that the previous film got a box office boost from being the last installment featuring Paul Walker following his sad, untimely death. That may be selling the franchise short. Since it’s identity shift in 2011’s “Fast Five” the series has steadily grown in budget and gross. “Fate” sports a whopping $250 million budget which helps it follow its successful formula – bigger, louder, and more over-the-top that its predecessor.

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The gang’s all back plus a few (or should I say the family is back since that is the one thin but central running theme). Big names have steadily been added including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kurt Russell, and Jason Statham to name a few. But this is still Vin Diesel’s show and he returns as Dominic Toretto. Dom is enjoying his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in Havana, Cuba. That is until he is confronted by a shadowy cyberterrorist ominously named Cipher (Charlize Theron).

Cipher has a big secret and uses it to force Dom to do her bidding. Doing so requires him to turn on his family and go rogue. Hobbs (Johnson), Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) are approached by the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Russell) and tasked with stopping Dom before he enables Cipher to carry out her nefarious master plan.

F. Gary Gray takes the directing baton from James Wan and crafts a FF installment that hits on every cylinder particularly for fans of the series (interesting fact – “Fate” has already become the highest grossing film for an African-American director). Writer Chris Morgan returns and has now written six of the franchise’s eight movies. It can’t be easy for Morgan to meet the ‘bigger, crazier’ expectations nor can it be a breeze for Gray to capture it with such mammoth studio demands. For the most part they pull it off.

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Now don’t get me wrong, “Fate” still requires you to turn off an entire portion of your brain. It’s absurdities can’t be calculated by the human mind. But it works because it maintains a keen sense of self-awareness. It knows it’s nuts and doesn’t shy away from it. In fact it has fun with the craziness of its scenarios. It consistently flashes its vital sense of humor which is absolutely essential. And one thing about it, you can sense everyone on screen is having a blast (I say that despite the much publicized real-life heat between Diesel and Johnson. But don’t worry, all it well now between the two stars meaning a ninth installment is all but assured).

Like most of its predecessors “The Fate of the Furious” is true to its ambitions. Fans of the series are sure to be pleased; detractors will be able to use their same arguments. I tend to enjoy these things. They’re goofy, action-packed, escapist entertainment. That’s why I had a good time with “Fate”. The characters are still fun, the action is a hoot, and the story had enough interesting turns to keep me engaged. Still, let’s be honest, these will never be considered ‘great movies’, but there seems to be enough under the the hood to keep it going. How long it can continue, well, that’s the real question.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Florence Foster Jenkins”

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When it comes to Meryl Streep one thing is for sure – you can expect her to put out a new movie each year. And if you’re a betting man or woman you can consider it a sure thing that she will get some type of awards attention. Her 2016 effort, “Florence Foster Jenkins” has once again led her to a Best Actress Oscar nomination despite it feeling like an incredibly familiar Meryl Streep performance. 

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a weird one – a bit off-balance yet entertaining. It’s an offbeat biopic about a New York City socialite and music lover and I bet you can guess her name. It’s 1944 and Florence (a quirky character custom-made for Streep) spends her time and fortune promoting opera and who aspires to be a singer. The problem is she hasn’t an ounce of talent. Her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant in his best role in years), a failed Shakespearean actor, knows she can’t sing but he doesn’t dare reveal that truth to her.

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That becomes a bit tricky after Florence decides to invest more time into her singing ‘career’. St. Clair goes out of his way to protect her from the truth including paying off her voice coach and secretly screening those who attend her small performances. At first it seems a bit nutty, but we quickly learn Florence has a terrible disease. So is St. Clair looking out for her or is he looking out for himself? It’s never that clear thanks to another layer of the story regarding St. Clair’s secret mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

As this stranger-than-fiction story unfolds it’s hard to gauge exactly how we are to approach it. Much of Florence’s flamboyance and caterwauling is framed as comedy and effectively so. But later the film wants to scold us for laughing even though it basically does the same thing. It’s a strange and confusing moral high ground to take.

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Something the film nails is the casting. Streep excels with these eccentric characters that she constantly falls back on at this stage of her career. Hugh Grant is very good as is Rebecca Ferguson in a much smaller role. But it’s Simon Helberg who steals the show. He is a hoot playing the skittish yet ambitious pianist Cosmé McMoon. He’s hired to be Florence’s personal piano player but is dumbfounded by her horrible singing. Helberg can be wildly expressive which adds to the humor.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is an impossible movie to nail down. It’s a veritable stew of comedy, drama, and commentary. Yet despite being uneven and a bit stodgy, it’s hard not to be sucked in by its quirkiness. It can be laugh-out-loud hilarious but also tender and heart-breaking. At the same time it does little to stand out and its uneven story is a problem despite being entertaining.

VERDICT – 3 STARS