The Sweltering Sky

The reissued Australian drama Wake in Fright tells the story of an Australian outback schoolteacher who starts toward Sydney for summer (Christmas) break … and never makes it there. John Grant (Gary Bond) teaches in a small schoolhouse baking in the desert in the middle of nowhere. He takes the train to a larger town, Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney; but the hospitable locals in “the Yabba” quickly draw him into their routine of drinking, gambling, and other rough activity. Within a few days Grant is stripped of his self-regard as an educated man, not to mention his money, his clothes, and his sobriety. He is in hell.

And yet most of his fellow damned seem content, even pleased, with their dissolute lives; the Yabba is an oasis of lotus-eaters. The closest Grant has to a sympathizer is the puckish Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a medico whose alcoholism unsuits him for more civilized places.

This film is a masterful portrait of a civilized man’s degradation in the heat and madness of the Australian desert. A warning: It includes a disturbing sequence involving kangaroos; at the end of the movie is a disclaimer radically different than, “No animals were harmed.”

Wake in Fright (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Written by Evan Jones, based on a novel by Kenneth Cook
Running time: 109 minutes
DVD release date: January 15, 2013

The Good

In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court provided an ounce of balm to those accused of crime in state courts. Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, under the Sixth Amendment, and those who cannot afford one must have counsel provided; and the Court ruled 9–0 that under the Fourteenth Amendment this provision applies to the states as well as the federal government.

Gideon’s Army follows the efforts of three public defenders in the South as they try to make good on Gideon‘s promise. They are young, smart, overworked (over 100 open cases for one defender counts as overworked, doesn’t it?), burdened with student loan debt, and poorly paid. Many of their clients are terrible people. And they work in a system designed to coerce needy defendants into guilty pleas. But these attorneys continue to care; they try to give the defendants the best legal representation possible.

The film follows the defenders at their jobs and provides a glimpse at their private lives (which naturally suffer because of the demands of work). We even see a few court appearances (which appear to be real and not reconstructions), and the film concludes with a tense jury trial.

Needless to say, not all public defenders are as noble as the subjects of this documentary. (One defendant is distrustful because of a previous bad experience with her counsel.) But these three inspire.

Gideon’s Army (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Dawn Porter
Running time: 96 minutes
Not yet released on DVD, but currently streaming on Netflix and elsewhere

Worthwhile Cambodian Initiative

Bad news first: In the English-language version of The Missing Picture, the voice of the narrator (Jean-Baptiste Phou) is soft and steady, and most of the time the soundtrack is layered with a low drone. If you aren’t fully engaged with the movie, you will be off to dreamland.

The good news is, the film will probably hold your attention. Filmmaker Rithy Panh is sharing his childhood memories of Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, in particular the emptying of Phnom Penh and the ruralization, indoctrination, and massacre of the populace. He uses two methods, on occasion combining them: narration over archival footage, and narration over dioramas of painted clay figurines. Since this is a memoir, the main characters are family, acquaintances, and others caught up in the machinery of ideological madness.

The story of Pol Pot and his lieutenants has already been told. This is a story of the victims.

The Missing Picture (reviews)
Directed and written by Rithy Panh
Language: English (the French-narrated version was nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar this year)
Running time: 96 minutes
DVD release date: June 10, 2014


Omar, a thriller set in the occupied West Bank, was Palestine’s nominee for best foreign-language film at this year’s Oscars. It deserves the recognition. It has political points to make, but it doesn’t triple-underline them.

Omar, Tarek, and Amjad (played by first-time actors Adam Bakri, Iyad Hoorani, and Samer Bisharat, respectively) are secretly working in the resistance to the Israeli occupation. They go on a raid which results in the death of an Israeli soldier. Later, Omar is captured by the Israelis and must decide whether he will betray his friends. And it appears someone in their circle has already fed information to the enemy.

There are revelations and surprises, but the movie is not out to dazzle us with mind-bending twists. Mainly, it’s about how the occupation plays with the minds of everyone involved; it’s an environment in which everyone is trapped and suspicious.

Omar is the point-of-view character throughout the film, and Bakri is up to his role, as are the other cast members. Leem Lubany, another first-timer, plays Tarek’s sister Nadia, the center of a love triangle that complicates matters. And veteran actor Waleed Zuaiter plays a sympathetic Israeli agent who is usually one or two steps ahead of the Palestinians.

Omar (reviews)
Directed and written by Hany Abu-Assad
Languages: Arabic and Hebrew
Running time: 98 minutes
DVD release date: June 10, 2014

What the Devil?

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust starts in the clouds–perhaps we are meant to imagine God and the devil discussing God’s favorite, Doctor Faust–and descends to a 19th-century German village. Then the screen is filled with an image, a close-up of something we may not recognize at first. But as the camera pans back, we realize we are looking at the cock and balls of a corpse. The body lies on an examining table, and Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is digging through it, looking for the soul. His search is unsuccessful.

Thus begins this strange, mystical film. Soon Faust meets with an oddball moneylender (Anton Adasinsky, channeling Klaus Kinski), and much of the film consists of them strolling about and talking. Eventually we see Margarete, and Faust signs that contract in blood, selling his soul. But does Goethe’s play have a scene where Mephistopheles looks through a telescope and sees a monkey on the moon?

The movie uses a narrow 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Some shots, seemingly at random, are tilted and distorted, as if filmed in wider screen and then squeezed into the boxy format.

All of this sounds off-putting, but it held my interest. It reminded me a bit of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s peculiar, trance-like films–Parsifal, in particular. Either you fall under the movie’s spell, or you run screaming from the theater.

Faust (reviews)
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by Aleksandr Sokurov and Marina Koreneva, based on Goethe’s play
Language: German
Running time: 139 minutes
DVD release date: June 24, 2014

Star Trouper

I wouldn’t call Elaine Stritch a Broadway diva. She’s dramatic and demanding, but diva connotes a measure of affectation. Stritch is genuine.

That’s what we see in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a documentary built around her recent one-woman Sondheim tour. Much is made of her age–she’s 86, going on 87, and in rehearsal she is sometimes forgetful and uncertain. But put her in front of an audience, and she smiles her big smile and takes command of the room.

The film has interviews with people Stritch has worked with: Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey (Stritch played a recurring character on 30 Rock), James Gandolfini, George C. Wolfe, and several others. Her career on Broadway is sketched lightly. But the documentary mostly relies on the pleasure of her company. That’s just fine.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Chiemi Karasawa
Running time: 81 minutes
DVD release date: June 24, 2014

Buried Children

The Selfish Giant, set in West Yorkshire, begins with 13-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) lying under a bed, where he shortly starts banging at the slats above him like someone trapped in a coffin. His friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) shows up to calm him down and talk him out from under the bed, and then the two are off to school.

Arbor, beset by hyperactivity and poverty, is a poor fit for regimented classwork; after a run-in with a teacher and a fracas with some students, he is expelled. Swifty, caught in the middle of the fracas, is suspended. Unfettered by school, Arbor enlists Swifty in various schemes to appropriate scrap for a shady local dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder).

There’s more, but basically this is the story of children left to fend for themselves in a harsh environment. (The title comes from an Oscar Wilde fable about a garden that withers when children are shut out of it.) This is a brilliant, uncompromising film, not to be missed. The boys’ performances–both are non-professionals–are thoroughly convincing. One can’t help but be reminded of other masterpieces: Ken Loach’s Kes, revolving around a bullied Yorkshire boy a few decades earlier; and The Son by the Dardenne brothers, with its intense hand-held camera work.

The Selfish Giant (reviews)
Directed and written by Clio Barnard
Running time: 91 minutes
DVD release date: April 29, 2014