This Sniper’s Life

Many Americans still remember the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002. Ten DC-area people were killed and a number injured before the shooters, an adult and a teenager, were caught. Since then, the story has been told in books, TV specials, and documentaries, and adapted in movie dramatizations.

Blue Caprice is the latest in this last category, but instead of centering on the attacks, it imagines the circumstances that caused the pair to become killers. It’s sort of a prequel.

In the film’s telling, Lee (Tequan Richmond) is abandoned by his mother in Antigua and rescued by John (Isaiah Washington), an American tourist. John takes the boy home to Tacoma. They live a seedy, transient life. Lee is found to have a natural affinity for the Bushmaster rifle.

As Houston Chronicle writer Jeff Millar would have said, John has eels in the brain. He sees conspiracies, and he decides to bring down the system with random violence. He trains Lee to be an assassin.

Critics have complained that the sequence of events and motives are unclear in the film. I’m not particularly bothered. Washington does a fine job portraying a disturbed, angry man; I don’t think I’d care to go any further inside John’s head than the film takes me. Richmond is also effective as the cryptic 17-year-old. Some people are just opaque.

Late in the movie, we get a bit of suspense in one scene, where one potential victim after another is fixed in the rifle’s crosshairs. And there are smaller tense moments earlier in the film. But this is no gore-fest; the interest is in exploring the characters, not exploiting the mayhem.

Blue Caprice (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Alexandre Moors
Written by R.F.I. Porto
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: January 14, 2014

The Revolution, Televised

What a glorious, anxious slice of history is captured in The Square! This gripping documentary follows a handful of participants in the people’s protest that brought down Hosni Mubarak.

After years of heavy-handed dictatorship, demonstrators made camp in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was a joyous,determined, very public rally, recorded by hand-held cameras and posted on the Internet. Muslim, Christian, and secular Egyptians called for an end to tyranny. And after months of protests, the strongman stepped down.

This was only the beginning. Half the job of a revolution is pulling down a bad system; the other half is setting up something better in its place.

Eventually there was an election, but the choice was a dire one. The main candidates to lead the country were a Mubarak crony and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. That group, one of the major victims of Mubarak’s oppression, was prepared to impose its own iron rule if it came to power.

Throughout this whole period, Tahrir Square was a gathering point for groups to express their opinions and demonstrate their strength. There were inspiring speeches and horrifying violence, all captured on film. I have no idea how much of what we see was filmed specifically for this documentary–perhaps not a lot more than the interviews with the key participants, which give context to the events on the square. But the film is expertly woven together; the story is brilliantly told. This is where moviemaking itself becomes part of the history it records.

The Square (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Jehane Noujaim
Languages: Arabic, English
Running time: 104 minutes
DVD release date: none yet, but currently streaming on Netflix

Bohemian Butterfly

Early in the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, we see 80-year old Ushio Shinohara don boxing gloves fitted with foam pads. Periodically dipping the foam into paint, he punches a large canvas for two or three minutes, creating a pattern of dripping splats that constitute his latest work of art. We (I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one) roll our eyes; this feels like more the art of the con than the art of the museum. But later in the film an agent from the Guggenheim comes around, looking to acquire one of the boxed canvases; so I (we) would seem to deserve a dunce cap labeled “Aesthetic Dullard.”

Happily, Shinohara also fashions metal-and-cardboard sculptures that are much more interesting; they depict motorcycle-borne characters that look a bit like the old Rat Fink caricatures of the ’50s and ’60s. Our (my) artistic taste is validated.

Shinohara lives in New York and is married to Noriko, a much younger Japanese woman who came to New York almost four decades ago and quickly met and married Ushio, up-and-coming outsider artist. As it happens, Noriko is also an artist, though for long stretches she set aside her creative side to attend to her alcoholic genius husband. The couple’s fame in the art community does not produce much wealth, but despite constant near-poverty they stay together and even stay in love, more or less.

Noriko’s latest set of drawings depict the story of Cutie and Bullie, inspired by (but ultimately diverging from) the course of her own marriage. These drawings, animated in the documentary, charmingly sketch the troubled history of the bohemian pair and their son. Indeed, throughout the film Noriko is the point-of-view character, and she makes for a sympathetic protagonist. Both the Shinoharas turn out to be fascinating people, and we (I) (no; we, definitely) are pleased to have met them.

Cutie and the Boxer (reviews)
Directed and written by Zachary Heinzerling
Language: English and Japanese
Running time: 81 minutes
DVD release date: February 4, 2014

This Bomb for Hire

Carlos was the pseudonym of the most notorious international terrorist of the 1970s. In service to the cause of Palestinian liberation, he led a series of attacks across Europe, the most famous being the 1975 raid on OPEC’s headquarters in Vienna. After that operation, he became a freelance mercenary, sponsored by various governments in the Middle East and Soviet-bloc Europe. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he was abandoned by his benefactors, one after another. Eventually, in 1994, he was captured in Sudan, brought to trial in France, convicted, and imprisoned.

Olivier Assayas’s brilliant three-part mini-series is a fictional account of Carlos’s career. It’s efficiently made; there’s no slack in its 5½-hour running time (although Assayas also managed to edit the mini-series down to a 3-hour theatrical film). Édgar Ramírez plays a charismatic, determined Carlos, a Marxist true believer whose career lasts long enough for him to develop a fondness for creature comforts. It’s a fascinating, suspenseful story, a chance to eavesdrop on terrorist cells and the security services (such as the East German Stasi) they collaborate with.

Carlos (reviews)
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Written by Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck, and Daniel Leconte
Languages: English, French, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, Arabic, German, Russian, Dutch, and Japanese!
Running time: 339 minutes (mini-series)
DVD release date: September 27, 2011

When We Were Nerds

Computer Chess is a relaxed little comedy set at a weekend computer chess tournament, circa 1980. Programmers meet in a small hotel conference room, set up their boxy computers on tables, and tap out instructions on clunky keyboards for five rounds.

There’s a bit of plot involving odd behavior by one of the programs, but mostly the film is about the look and feel of such an event. Photographed on what could be scratchy film stock from the era (mostly black-and-white), the movie shows the young participants as earnest, awkward, and dressed a little uncomfortably. For comic relief the chess players cross paths with other people at the hotel–a cat, a therapy group, and a couple of swingers–but the humor never gets too broad. This is an affectionate look back.

Computer Chess (reviews) (official site)
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
Running time: 91 minutes
DVD release date: November 5, 2013

Going There

Wagner & Me follows actor Stephen Fry as he makes his first visit to Bayreuth, Germany, where Richard Wagner’s music is celebrated every year. Touring the Festival Hall where Wagner’s operas are performed, Fry is giddy and goggle-eyed. This is a shrine to some of the most moving music ever written!

But, um … there’s the Nazi problem. Adolf Hitler adored Wagner, and he made Wagner’s music the sound of Nazi Germany. And Fry himself is related to some Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Further, Wagner himself expressed antisemitism on occasion, which after his death was amplified by one of his descendants.

Fry talks thoughtfully about the problem. In the end, he can’t give up inspirational music because evil has laid a stain on it. On balance, it’s better to honor art, even if its origins and history are not 100% pure.

Wagner & Me (reviews) (official site)

Directed by Patrick McGrady
Running time: 89 minutes
DVD release date: April 30, 2013

* * *

Some documentarians have all the luck. They focus on six participants in a competition, and four of them make the finals. They follow a murder trial, and there are sensational revelations.

Not so the people behind Cropsey.

They get a great setting: Staten Island, home of the world’s biggest landfill (and home district of a Congressman who threatened to throw a reporter off the fucking balcony). They get a great topic: child abduction and murder. They get some great visuals: a Geraldo Rivera investigation from 1972 (!!) into a home for children with disabilities.

But the trial they are covering comes to an unsatisfactory ending. A drifter, previously convicted on flimsy evidence of kidnapping and murder, is hauled out of prison years later and brought to trial for a second similar crime. There is no body or other physical evidence, but after decades a witness’s memory has suddenly clarified. The defendant has served nearly all of his original sentence; if acquitted in the second trial, he will go free soon. Will a lack of evidence prevent the jury from keeping this man away from society?

Hmm, I think I’ve made this film sound more interesting than I found it to be. It never quite comes together; it’s a fallen soufflé.

The film is shaped around the urban legend of Cropsey, an escaped mental patient hiding in the woods who kidnaps and murders children. The filmmakers heard various versions of the Cropsey story at summer camp while they were growing up, and they spend a lot of time looking for signs of a real-life Cropsey in the Staten Island woods. Look! In this abandoned building, there’s a cleared-out area; homeless people have lived here!!! Let’s walk around in the dark, and … yikes! There’s someone out there!!! It’s … it’s … a group of kids, exploring the dark woods just like we are!!! (Am I the only one who finds this sort of nonsense off-putting?)

How We Wept When We Remembered Zion

Call Me Kuchu is a documentary about gay rights activists in Uganda and some of their defenders and persecutors. (“Kuchu” is a Ugandan term for homosexual.) The central character is David Kato, a man in his forties who claims to be the first openly gay man in Uganda. Kato and other gay and lesbian activists are interviewed. In private they can relax and enjoy one another’s company. But in public they are like the exiles of the 137th Psalm, subject to jeers and threats.

Uganda has become a focal point of the religious war against homosexuality. While one bishop in the film defends Kato and his friends, other religious leaders proclaim that homosexuality is unnatural, and that homosexuals seek to molest children. A newspaper editor says that gays and lesbians should not be murdered on the street; rather, they should be arrested, tried, and hanged. Others claim that Uganda will be blessed with prosperity as soon as it is cleansed of every trace of homosexuality.

In 2009 a law is proposed to make homosexuality a capital crime in Uganda. The film spends some time on the campaign for the bill and the international opposition to its passage. The parliament adjourns without passing the bill, but it can always be brought up again later. (Subsequently: In December 2013 the Ugandan parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill after the punishment was changed from execution to life imprisonment. The following month the Ugandan president refused to sign the bill, so it did not become law. Update: The president reversed position and signed the bill into law in late February 2014.)

It’s a stirring film. (I have omitted one spoiler, an event that energizes the debate.) Perhaps the fever of intolerance will subside, but I am not entirely hopeful. One anti-gay clergyman uses the term “cockroaches,” a favorite of the Rwandan genocidaires. Not a good sign.

Call Me Kuchu (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: September 24, 2013

* * *

Room 237 presents the obsessions that several people have with the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining. These people have pored over the film looking for subtext–or perhaps looking for confirmation of the subtext they want to find. They find Native American massacres, the Holocaust, and sex jokes. As each obsessive narrates his or her insights, the documentary shows clips from The Shining, along with a great many other films (including, I suspect, the entire Kubrick catalogue). It’s a feature-length pastiche, probably wearying to all but the compulsive analyzers for whom a cigar is never just a cigar.