Disaster and Disinformation

Hillsborough was televised on ESPN in 2014, an entry in its documentary series, 30 for 30: Soccer Stories. At a soccer game in Yorkshire in April 1989, over ninety fans were crushed to death. The first half of the film carefully documents the factors leading up to the tragedy and the event itself, using interviews, archival footage, and a few dramatizations. The second half reviews the long, frustrating attempt to get the truth out to the public and to assign responsibility.

It’s a thoroughly gripping film, and I won’t go into the actual causes of the disaster. But immediately afterwards, a completely false cover story was circulated that blamed drunken, ticketless hooligans from Liverpool. This slander against the city was left in place by superficial inquiries initiated by both Conservative and Labour governments. But one brave reporter kept digging….

OK, I’m simplifying, but the documentary is quite an account, engrossing and infuriating–well worth seeking out.

Hillsborough (official site)
Directed by Daniel Gordon
Running time: 104 minutes

Judge, Jury, and …

From Chile comes the austere drama To Kill a Man. Jorge (Daniel Candia) shares a middle-class home with his wife, son, and daughter. One evening Jorge is robbed on the street by a gang of local thugs, led by Kalule (Daniel Antivilo). Besides Jorge’s wallet, the thieves take a blood-sugar measurement device used by Jorge to monitor his diabetes; he will have to prick himself twice a day for blood tests until he can get the device replaced. Jorge’s son goes to the thieves to get the device back and is shot, not fatally, for his trouble. The police arrest Kalule, but this does not offer lasting safety to Jorge’s family. He will have to come up with a permanent solution himself.

The film makes for a nice little dispassionate study of private justice and its aftermath. It doesn’t underline or glorify violence, but there are a few grisly moments. And there are a couple of surprising twists at the end that color the entire story, satisfactorily.

To Kill a Man (reviews)
Directed and written by Alejandro Fernández Almendras
Language: Spanish
Running time: 82 minutes
Awarded the 2014 World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic, at the Sundance Film Festival
DVD release date: December 2, 2014

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


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