108 minutes, 2020
The truth at our convenience
Utopia (noun) - an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.
How extraordinary to have just finished Piero Gleijeses’ essay Cuba and the Cold War, 1959-1980 (from The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 2) and being three quarters of the way through Thomas Mann’s epic, The Miracle Mountain, just as Sauper’s marvellously crafted documentary about Cuba was up next in my viewing list. All three have much to say about universal “peace on earth”.
Bookending this production is a grizzled Cuban islander enjoying—what else?—a cigar, while the pounding surf behind threatens to drown one and all.
With the invention of cinematography in the 1890s, we are reminded, the world is able to view up-close-and-personal events from anywhere that there is a camera rolling. Trouble is, like any other form of journalistic media, the “truth” can be manipulated to tell the story wanted by the “authors”.
To make this point, grainy footage of the USS Maine is shown: was it shot in a bathtub (using cigars for the smoke is a wonderful link), or, in actuality, did the explosion come from within the ship, rather than sent to the bottom by the Spanish? No worries, either result gave visual impetus to “light” the U.S.-Spanish War:
In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not by a Spanish mine or act of sabotage.
This brings new meaning to the expression, “smoke and mirrors.”
None other than Teddy Roosevelt led the charge against the Spaniards on Cuba with a volunteer group known as the Rough Riders; there is still a hotel with his placard in Havana.
The greatest strength of Sauper’s film is employing a covey of children to make his points in their own understanding of the island’s history and uneasy relationship with the U.S. From “Nobody loves me” to “Trump, he’s mean…Trump cares about nobody,” it is clear that the rank-and-file populace understand their fate. Tourists are decried as “devouring the future.”
A few bits of tango and ukulele songs from Oona Castilla Chaplin (yes, Charlie’s granddaughter—and also an actor) are welcome contrast to the representation of Western imperialism (sadly works from Scarlatti and Mozart who were not known to be racists). Precocious daughter and wannabe actor, Leoneli, gives a bravado scene in a tumultuous fight with her mom. Like fake news everywhere, Sauper captures the action in a way that will make most viewers thinks the slaps and punches are real. The notion that lies make good stories and if told often enough can become reality, underscores the filmmaker’s intent with aplomb.
More than ever, these days, it seems that finding utopia on Earth is as unlikely as conducting free and fair elections. JWR
A Hidden Life
174 minutes, 2019
What do you believe in?
Last seen in these pages in 2011 (The Tree of Life, cross-reference below), writer-director Malick has, once again, fashioned a thoughtful, emotionally rich (and carefully understated to add weight to the narrative) portrait of a man who chooses to live his conscience rather than other people’s expectations.
Playing conscientious objector to fighting for the Nazis, Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, sticks to his moral compass, even as his fellow countrymen go off to the frontlines; even taking on the job of a medic as a way to avoid saving rather killing his fellow human beings is rejected. Defiant to the end, he was executed in 1943. What a victory for the Third Reich!
August Diehl is nothing short of superb in the principal role.
Not far behind is Jägerstätter’s wife, Fani, who has to endure the ostracism from the community—friends and colleagues whose menfolk opt to become unwitting sheep rather principled men.
None better than Valerie Pachner to bring the stoic wife to gritty life.
Much of the narrative is told via the correspondence between the couple, even as their children wonder when Pappa will walk through the door again.
The third-best performance comes from Jörg Widmer’s stellar cinematography, capturing the Austrian countryside in a manner that deftly contrasts natural beauty with the ugliness of war. Editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones artfully weave everything together (including archival clips of the “life-loving” Führer).
Mallick’s achievement should have a wide audience, but probably won’t. Like Oscar, it’s purposely deliberate pace and unflinching truths are not welcome in a world that routinely makes fun of—or eliminates—its critics. JWR
End of Sentence
96 minutes, 2019
Ashes to ashes/Peas in a pod
Michael Armbruster’s inventive script has been done up proud by director Aldasteins, his principal cast and production team. It’s a familial tale featuring a road trip to Ireland where recently released from an Alabama prison (auto theft at the tender age of 15), Sean (played with conviction and just the right amount of anger by Logan Lerman), along with his largely estranged dad, Frank (John Hawkes starts deliberately low key before letting his character take stage and purposely, steals the ending), in order to send their wife’s/mother’s ashes into a loch for evermore.
Sean balks totally at the idea of fulfilling his mom’s last wish (preferring to head to California where a certain job means he won’t be back behind bars anytime soon), only to come under the beautiful, enthralling clutches of the comely Jewel (Sara Bolger readily oozing charm to both men as required—thank goodness she truly knows how unresponsive cars work under the hood—a fine metaphor on many planes…).
An undercurrent of parental/grandparental abuse is also thrown into the mix with a wonderful payoff when the skin is laid unexpectedly bare.
As Jewel’s true colours—inevitably or the story would collapse—emerge, along with a not unpleasant singing voice to add artistic spice—the predictable role reversal takes hold and makes abundant sense.
By journey’s end—swimming with Mom—two dramatically seeded questions remain. I have my answers, viewers are invited to come to their own conclusions. JWR
70 minutes, 2020
They all deserve each other
Director-writer Hoxha’s first feature suffers from a very poor script (imagine “forgetting” to remember a 6-month transfer to NYC the day it was agreed to with an apparent girlfriend), ho-hum acting (none of the principals—Kendall Chappell, Grant Gunderson, Austin Lauer—can make any sense of the incredible lines they are asked to deliver), a decidedly unerotic sex moment, and production values that are mediocre at best.