To some extent, popular movements and agitators rely on their martyrs to keep the juices flowing. History is littered with examples of causes that languished in apathy and obscurity until blood was spilled, whether in a public square during a demonstration or inside the stone walls of an execution chamber. So it is with the notorious 1927 execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two most likely innocent men who appeared to have been framed by an establishment fearful of both immigrants of the “wrong” kind and any sort of popular social justice movement. Seemingly good men both, probably guilty of nothing more than political activism, they would serve as standard-bearers for much of what was wrong about America during its period of greatest upheaval, when the promise of the world’s most powerful democracy quite often corrupted and left for dead. Peter Miller’s solid new documentary Sacco and Vanzetti is the story of that corruption.
My full review ran on filmcritic.com. Link
In case you didn’t get the bulletin, Oprah’s book club is throwing another curveball, this time by choosing Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, devastating novel of the end of humanity The Road. It’s hard to say how the audience will react, but in any case, it’s great news to see this masterful book get the attention of a mass audience. A return to McCarthy’s dark and gothic roots, The Road is a stark depiction of a father and son’s journey across a wasteland of a world destroyed by nuclear winter. The prose is pared to the bone and of such unrelenting bleakness that one almost doesn’t dare go on. Harsh and beautiful, it’s McCarthy’s best in years. Available in paperback, now with cool Oprah Book Club logo!
My review ran last year on PopMatters. Link.
Ken Loach’s newest, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is a companion piece of sorts to Land and Freedom, his great 1995 epic on the crushed idealism of the Spanish Civil War. Wind is another film about a people struggling to free themselves from oppression and how the struggle is ultimately undermined by internecine strife from within. It’s a passionate and pitiless piece of work that fails only near the end when its internal political dogmatism outstrips and undercuts the story itself. The first part of the film is one of the most dour and hard-hitting fictional depictions of guerrilla warfare to hit the screen. Loach has always had a doggedly anti-romantic streak and it’s a style that serves him very well here. He has a tendency to dive right into a muddle of characters speaking in overlapping dialogue, and with the thick strains of Gaelic layered throughout, much of the film is relayed in a dense, naturalistic fog of accents from deepest County Cork.
The full review is at CultureDose.net. Link
Having apparently decided that he needed a vacation, Jonathan Lethem has torn himself away from essays, moody and semi-autobiographical Brooklyn novels, and knotty sci-fi surreality, delivering You Don’t Love Me Yet, an easygoing romantic comedy that’s set in California. That’s right, Romantic Comedy. California, and Southern California, to boot, about as far as one can get from Brooklyn without leaving the country. But it’s a good thing for some authors to stretch themselves or just take a break from the old themes and settings, and Lethem is definitely in that camp. It’s a quickly devoured and quickly forgotten fiction with little resonance, which may be exactly what Lethem needed to deliver.
You can read my full review at PopMatters. Link.
The enormity of what is depicted in Beyond the Gates (aka Shooting Dogs) is hard to even comprehend, but unlike many works of art about atrocity, the film makes a good faith effort to bring it across with a minimum of false drama. In the spring of 1994 in Rwanda, there are murmurings of trouble, but at the Ecole Technique Officielle, a European-run secondary school in Kigali where a number of UN peacekeepers are temporarily based, all seems peaceful. The kids go through their routines and lessons while the white staff remains mostly ignorant of the storm brewing outside, the school’s oasis providing a mostly untrue sense of safety to those residing within. The warning signs are there of course, for audiences with the benefit of historical hindsight; the meaningful glares from a Hutu worker at the school, a Hutu politician who comes by to scope out the school and to ask leading questions about exactly how many UN soldiers are quartered there. Then the massacres begin.
The full review for Beyond the Gates is at filmcritic.com. Link
Right around the time that the star actress of the Dutch WWII film Black Book — in which she plays a Jewish woman cozying up to the Nazis as a pretend gentile in order to help the resistance — takes a careful moment to put blonde hair dye on certain more private parts of her body, one suddenly remembers: ah yes, Paul “Basic Instinct” Verhoeven is directing this one, isn’t he? It’s a pity that as a director, Verhoeven’s instincts trend so adamantly toward the punishingly crass, because he had in his hands the root of quite a good film here, a thoughtful thriller that can ultimately be seen only in occasional glimpses.
The full review for Black Book is at filmcritic.com. Link
An act of nearly overwhelming self-congratulation, Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels takes a premise more suited for a simple straight-to-DVD exploitationer and tries to ramp it up into an examination of the intersections of transgressive desire and artistic integrity. Oh, and there are angels, too–meddling, attractive, female angels who like to hang about invisibly and whisper dark suggestions into people’s ears. It’s likely Brisseau thought the angels added a layer of mystical power to his story, helping to explain the primal urges exhibited by some of the characters. But given the grandiosely silly direction this film takes, the result is more like Wings of Desire directed by Zalman King.
My full review ran in Film Journal International. Link.
The story goes that in 1984 German filmmaker Philip Gröning contacted the Order of the Carthusians–reportedly, the strictest order of monks in the Catholic Church–about making a film on them. They said they’d get back to him. Then, 16 years later, they made their decision to let him in. As a result, Gröning moved into the order’s Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps for six months, working and living alongside the monks, shooting where and whenever he had the time to do so. The result is Into Great Silence, an almost entirely dialogue-free (but hardly silent) film that already easily ranks as one of the great cinematic documents of our time. It opened this week at Film Forum in New York and should hopefully expand elsewhere soon.
My full review ran in Film Journal International. Link.