Oh, My!

To Be Takei takes on the personality of its subject–optimistic and lighthearted. George Takei (named after the occupant of the British throne at the time of Takei’s birth) has enjoyed a life (so far) of zigzagging luck. As a California child in the early 1940’s, he was sent with his family to an internment camp in Arkansas, later relocated to a harsher camp in northern California when his father would not “confess” to any loyalty to the Japanese emperor. He pursued an acting career when most roles for Asian men were offensive stereotypes. (He took two such roles in Jerry Lewis movies, to his later regret.) But he also landed a progressive, sexy role on the three-season TV show Star Trek, which improbably made him a cultural icon years later. From adolescence (if not earlier) he recognized himself as gay–this in deeply homophobic times. To protect his career, he kept his orientation closeted until he came out in 2005, and that coming out gave him a second iconic status. He also found a life partner who didn’t seek the spotlight but gamely adapted to it when Takei became a lauded spokesman for gay (particularly, gay marriage) rights.

The documentary is as easy and heartwarming as you might expect. There is resentment–rightly so–for the Japanese-American internment, but no witches are hunted. The closest thing to a villain in this story is William Shatner, lead actor on Star Trek, who distances himself from Takei; but the film makes clear that even Shatner is beloved (if also a jerk)–he isn’t being a homophobe so much as he is just being Bill Shatner.

To Be Takei (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Jennifer M. Kroot
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: January 6, 2015

Close, So Far Away

Beyond the Hills shows the ill-fated reunion of two women who had grown up in the same Romanian orphanage. After leaving the orphanage, Alina (Cristina Flutur) made her way to Germany, where she found work at a bar. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) ended up in a remote Romanian convent.

The film opens with Alina stepping off a train and pushing her way through a crowd to find Voichita, who has come from the convent to meet her. Alina hopes to convince Voichita to return to Germany with her; jobs await them on a cruise ship. But it develops that while Alina has taken to the modern world, Voichina plans to make a permanent home in the primitive convent (it has no electricity). The priest in charge allows Alina to stay at the convent temporarily, but she becomes increasingly disruptive in her attempts to restore the bond she once had with Voichina. (It is broadly hinted that the two were lovers.) As Alina becomes more and more erratic, the priest and mother superior are increasingly hard-pressed to deal with her humanely while maintaining order in the convent.

This movie is not for the impatient; it takes its time establishing its setting and building up its clash of cultures. But for those of us in the art house crowd, the searing denouement is worth the wait.

Beyond the Hills (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Cristian Mungiu
Language: Romanian
Running time: 152 minutes

Puzzle, The Movie

I had mixed reactions to Corneliu Porumboiu’s first two features: 12:08 East of Bucharest was a delight, while Police, Adjective didn’t provoke much reaction. (Perhaps another viewing or two would help me appreciate the latter film.) His third feature, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, is a think piece, often flying over my head; but I liked what I understood.

Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), director of a film in production, announces to one of his actors, Alina (Diana Avramut), that tomorrow he will be filming a nude scene … involving her. The two of them work through a rehearsal of the scene (she emerges from a shower and overhears a disturbing conversation), breaking down its logic. They also discuss a number of other topics while riding in a car or eating in a restaurant. Plus, there is an endoscopy, possibly fabricated, whose cinematography is discussed. Many elements of the script and the conversation are swirled about and reappear as part of the director and actor’s activities. For instance, after much discussion of nudity, an actual moment of nudity occurs at an unexpected moment (spoiled somewhat by a poster for the film); a mini-lecture on the limited time-length of a roll of film is followed by a nine-minute single take in a restaurant. This is a cryptic crossword in the form of a movie, and like many such crosswords the film has topics but not much of a plot. If you can reconcile yourself to that, you might enjoy this.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (reviews)
Directed and written by Corneliu Porumboiu
Language: Romanian
Running time: 89 minutes
DVD release date: September 29, 2015

Collaborator, Hero

In the mid-1970s, Claude Lanzmann conducted extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only surviving Jewish Elder from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. These interviews didn’t make it into Lanzmann’s 9-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah; but Murmelstein’s story deserved telling, and so Lanzmann has recently combined them with a history of Theresienstadt in The Last of the Unjust.

Murmelstein, born in 1905, was the only rabbi who stayed in Vienna after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. He worked with Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of deporting and exterminating Jews and seizing their property; Murmelstein helped tens of thousands of Jews to flee the country. Later he was interned at Theresienstadt, where he rose to a high position which again necessitated working with the Nazis. After the war he was denounced as a collaborator, and he ended his years living as an exile in Rome.

The interviews Lanzmann conducts are fascinating. Murmelstein provides insights on Eichmann, such as his involvement in Kristallnacht, and a purported plan to deport Jews to Madagascar. He also makes a strong case for his own role, trying to accomplish good in a very bad situation.

The interwoven material on Theresienstadt is also solid, with a clip from a Nazi propaganda film, falsely depicting the camp as an ideal community; and there’s something a bit haunting in the contemporary footage of Lanzmann, by himself, touring the empty fortress.

An endearing image from the film: Lanzmann standing on a railway platform, reading to the camera from typewritten pages. This is a man who eschews even the minor deception of a teleprompter.

The Last of the Unjust (reviews)
Directed and written by Claude Lanzmann
Languages: English, French, and German
Running time: 219 minutes
DVD release date: September 23, 2014

Aries

Rams, a deadpan comedy/drama from Iceland, has won a barrel of film festival awards, and it displays the quirky charm (and art-house languor) one might expect. Two brothers have adjoining sheep ranches in a treeless, hilly landscape. Due to a longstanding feud, they don’t speak to one another; but when necessary, they find a way to communicate. (Their silent interactions provide much of the film’s dry humor.) The brothers’ prize rams compete for the top spot in a local livestock show. And then a crisis arises that threatens their livelihood, rattling the comfort of their mutual taciturnity.

Although the film focuses almost exclusively on the brothers, it takes time to depict much of the culture of sheep ranchers on the geographic and economic margin of Iceland. The matter-of-fact details of such lives, planted in an unforgiving natural setting, give weight to this little story.

Rams (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Grímur Hákonarson
Language: Icelandic
Awarded Un Certain Regard Prize, 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: June 28, 2016

Multi-Count Indictment

The documentary 13th examines the alternative to slavery provided for by the Thirteenth Amendment, which was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. That amendment abolished slavery or involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime….” Since ratification, blackness has been criminalized in an astonishing number of ways. It’s exhausting.

The history is told in the standard way: talking heads, supported by archival material and the occasional chart or graph. After emancipation, freed slaves were taken into custody for a variety of newly-concocted offenses. Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation; it became criminal to be black in a white universe. D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation, depicted blacks as brutish and criminal by nature; it was greatly admired by President Wilson and inspired all sorts of terrorism against blacks. Following the civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, Republicans adopted a “southern strategy” of appealing to white bigotry and imprisoning disproportionate numbers of blacks via carefully tailored anti-drug laws. Democrats later joined the “tough on crime” choir, with Bill Clinton sponsoring draconian crime laws and Hillary Clinton warning of a wave of “superpredators” among black youth.

On it goes. The film is dense with material, almost fractal: You could take any fifteen-minute segment and expand the topics covered to a robust, full-length film.

13th (reviews)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Ava DuVernay and Spencer Averick
Running time: 100 minutes

Breadbasket Case

Two recent documentaries cover Ukraine’s strife during the winter of 2013–14 in different ways. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom gives the broader perspective, giving a bit of Ukrainian history since its independence in 1990. A rigged presidential election in 2004, installing autocrat Viktor Yanukovych, inspired protesters to gather in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev, eventually resulting in the nullification of the election. Yanukovych was elected in a fair election in 2010. Under his leadership, Ukraine backed away from proposed ties to the European Union and sought closer ties to Russia. This led to the occupation of Maidan by student protesters in late 2013, who were set upon by armed police in multiple skirmishes over the next three months. In February 2014 Yanukovych fled Ukraine, and an EU-friendly regime was installed. Since then, notes an epilogue, Russia has annexed the Crimea and is pressing eastern portions of Ukraine to secede and ally with Russia.

There is plenty of footage of the protests, often narrated by the protesters and their allies. Diagrams also map out events outside the square, such as a protest march to parliament, several blocks away. Gripping stuff, for the most part.

For those wanting to feel even more a part of the action, there is the documentary Maidan, which offers only a few title cards to explain what’s going on. Mostly there are long takes by stationary cameras showing the mundane (such as preparation of food to serve to the square’s occupiers), the festive (including a stage for performers backed up with a giant screen), and the horrific (the clashes with police and other forces). This one is for patient viewers only.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (reviews)
Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky
Written by Den Tolmor
Language: Ukrainian
Running time: 98 minutes

Maidan (reviews)
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
Language: Ukrainian
Running time: 128 minutes
DVD release date: April 14, 2015