“HAGAZUSSA”— The Humanization of Evil

 

“Hagazussa”

The Humanization of Evil

Amos Lassen

 In 15th Century Austria, a woman takes cares of her young daughter, Albrun, in a cabin in the Alps. The two suffer regular harassment from nearby villagers, but generally seem to have a safe and happy life together. One winter day, the mother collapses in the snow and some doctors are called. They discover that she has the plague and quickly disperse, leaving Albrun to care for her mother alone until the inevitable horrible death. Years later, Albrun has her own cabin alone in the woods, and cares for a newborn. She again suffers harassment from some nearby villagers, but one kind woman and the spooky local priest reach out to her. To say any more wouldn’t be fair to the movie as a narrative or concept but the plot only matters insomuch as it drives gorgeous and methodical exploration of character.

“Hagazussa” is an atmospheric tone poem and though horrifying in its own way, director Lukas Feigelfeld aims first to give us a portrait of a woman. Filmed with loving artistry and sadistic commitment, this is a vivid fable with clear disinterest in popular acceptance. It touches explicitly on every dark implication of Witchery in Medieval Europe, yet it remains steadfastly sympathetic to its  heathen. Feigelfeld turned this thing in as a graduation film.

Sound is vital to this picture, and though dialogue is limited, Feigelfeld uses meticulous sound mixing to pull the audience into his characters’ world. W ordless interaction is more revealing than pages of dialogue.

We see long, lingering shots of dead or eviscerated animals, human suffering, bodily decay, and there are disturbing. This is the story of a 15th Century goat herder and her mother, who live alone in the woods, isolated from the local villagers. At once, we can tell that something’s not right with the mother, who doesn’t cast spells, but does fall prey to fits.

Time goes on, and the mother dies from disease, but the daughter still hears her name being called. As she grows up, she bares a child as well, another girl doomed to be taunted and cast aside by the villagers, who don’t seem to understand much outside their own lives. The daughter believes she has made a friend and so are we tricked into believing that things might be okay. A series of events pulls out the worst in the woman we follow, and she begins a furious but quiet vengeance that takes out her tormentors.

“Hagazussa” is hard to review since it has little dialogue and little  plot structure. We remain in an abstract void as visceral and unforgiving terrors happen. It’s a hard watch that is photographed beautifully. There is beauty to behold in these little deaths.

“Working Woman”— A #MeToo Film from Israel

“Working Woman”

A #MeToo Film from Israel

Amos Lassen

“Working Woman”, a new Israeli film explores the problems surrounding a grey area of sexual harassment at work. Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) recently started working in the real estate business.  The work place seems to be good at first.  Unfortunately there’s more than meets the eye with her married realtor boss, Benny (Menashe Noy).  Instead of being a respectful person, Benny soon starts pressuring Orna into having sex. Like so many other men, he can’t see to keep his hands to himself.

As for Orna, her husband, (Ofer), has been working hard to start a restaurant business.  They have three children so they badly need the money if they want to live comfortably.  The restaurant struggles over the course of several months so Orna feels pressure to continue working for Benny.  It is because of the struggles, it’s Orna who must bring home the check.  All the while, she continues to pay the unwanted price in emotional

We see the film through Orna’s eyes and we see that director Michal  Aviad is not afraid to take a risk in telling this story.

There’s a few things going on for “Working Woman”.  One of which is the aforementioned issue of sexual harassment in the work place.  The other of which are these young families who are struggling to live financially.  If one does not have the money to afford a family, should they wait?  This seems to be another understated angle that director seeks to explore in the film.  It’s surely an issue affecting religious families more so than secular.

It was only a matter of time before we started to see the serious effects of the #MeToo movement be reflected on the big screen.  Female filmmakers are no longer afraid of having to keep their voices silent.  It’s in the best interest of the filmmaking industry, both Hollywood and foreign alike, to have this stories be told.  We are reminded that sexual harassment happens in the workplace, too.

With the current climate surrounding the #MeToo movement and women bravely telling their stories of harassment and assault, this fictionalized account (which feels all too real) is more than topical.  In fact, it could easily have been headlines.

Lead actor Shlush is well cast in her role as Orna and she is able to easily portray her character’s clear discomfort in her body language or even just a tense facial expression.  In contrast, Noy is introduced as a charismatic individual, likeable and charming until he begins to abuse his power.  Together this dynamic helps to bring this story to realistic life, and the seriousness of Orna’s emotional journey is well handled.

Orna becomes so traumatized and falls apart leaving her job,  eventually confessing to her husband why she is so distraught. The only weak part of this very compelling story comes now as  Orna fails to explain the circumstances properly to her husband and he therefore directs his anger at her and not Benny.

“NAZI JUNKIES”—  Was Hitler a Junkie?

 

“NAZI JUNKIES” 

Was Hitler a Junkie?

Amos Lassen

“Nazi Junkies” came into being as a result of Norman Ohler’s revelatory book, “Blitzed: Drugs In The Third Reich” and it reveals how both Hitler and Nazi Germany were heavily addicted to drugs. The recently unearthed journals of Hitler’s personal doctor, Théodore Morell, suggest that the Führer was a full-fledged addict, using an assortment of drugs including cocaine, opiates, steroids. At the same time, the entire nation of Germany was binging on speed. This was especially prevalent on the battlefield, where the drug was systematically distributed to soldiers in order to transform the military ranks into seemingly unstoppable fighting machines. 

The film features testimonies from historians Norman Ohler, Antony Beever, Richard Evans, Roman Toppel, and others and never-before-seen archival footage. The film gives us quite a different look at history than what we were previously taught. It also makes an important case for the “importance of the exploration of this subject toward a more complete historical understanding of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.” and effectively captures Hitler’s pathetic dependence on his doctor. “

“Nazi Junkies” unveils the depths of German addiction in surprising fashion. It is divided into two episodes:

EPISODE 1: HITLER THE JUNKIE

Cocaine, opiates, steroids… Hitler consumed an assortment of drugs as he ruled over Nazi Germany. The secret journals of Dr. Théodore Morell, Hitler’s personal physician, have suggested that the Führer was a full-fledged addict. Archival documents and testimonies from historians, scientists and World War II specialists reveal new evidence showing the true extent of his addiction. But will an examination of Hitler’s skull uncover the ultimate proof of his drug habits?

EPISODE 2: NAZI JUNKIES

The year is 1939. Hitler plunges Europe into war. In a few weeks the Wehrmacht brings Poland to its knees and crushes the French Army. Nothing seems to be able to stop the Reich, and yet only two years later, their armed forces are destroyed in Russia. How can such a collapse be explained? Nazi Germany was an entire nation binging on speed, and on the battlefield the drug was systematically used to keep soldiers awake and to maximize their endurance and stamina.

“THE LONG GOODBYE”— Death, Grace and Dignity

“The Long Goodbye”

Death, Grace and Dignity

Amos Lassen

Kara Tippetts is a wife and young mother who is dealing with terminal breast cancer. She explores dying with dignity and grace. She struggles through each new breast cancer diagnosis, ending with her untimely and hard to understand death. Her honesty and courage have inspired hundreds of thousands of fellow moms to follow along with Kara through her suffering and eventual death. All one has to do is watch Kara for 30 seconds to realize she was an amazing person with a God-given purpose. Anyone who has experienced loss, pain, or disappointment will relate to Kara, and she will uplift and encourage anyone who dares to watch. No one will be the same after watching this film and hearing her story.

Kara lived fully by giving fully of herself. The film looks at how we live, how we prioritize, how we give and how we withhold who we are. As Kara challenges herself, she challenge others to see past what we hold up as important and find the core of human dignity in living out love. Kara’s courage and authenticity allow her to face her fears.

BONUS FEATURES

  Ann Voskamp Interview

  Joni Eareckson Tada Interview

“GOLDEN YOUTH”— Youth Without Youth

“GOLDEN YOUTH”

Youth Without Youth

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Eva Ionesco uses her own life as [art of her inspiration for “Golden Youth” (“Une jeunesse dorée”). Set in the late 70s, during the fading days of the famed Parisian nightclub Le Palace which was a mecca of the period’s varied iniquities, where a young couple in love find themselves sucked up into the bizarre sexual decadence of a much older couple who prey on the young creatures they rope in at the club. Rose (Galatea Bellugi) and Michel (Lukas Ionesco) are in the midst of a passionate, all-consuming romance. The only trouble is, Rose is seventeen. Taking responsibility for her, Michel is granted permission to take Rose via social services as long as Rose agrees to attend school, learning her trade as a pastry chef. Naturally, this isn’t their plan— the young lovers are obsessed with partying at the decadent nightclub Le Palace. Desperate to become a renowned painter, Michel has fallen under the spell of the decadent bourgeois couple Lucile (Huppert) and Hubert (Melvil Poupaud). Lucile commissions a series of paintings from Michel, which she makes obvious is merely a ploy to bed him, aggravating Rose. However, it’s not long before the two couples become further intertwined in more ways than one, forcing Rose to explore her own passions.

The Palace nightclub was synonymous with stylish couture from Karl Lagerfeld, St Laurent and Missoni. It was the time of Human League, Grace Jones and Brian Ferry, It was also the place where Rose comes to dance with her artist boyfriend. Both are looking to find their places in the world.

Ionesco deftly captures the Seventies zeitgeist and the acting all around is excellent even though the plot has no great surprises.  but narrative-wise the drama plays out with no surprises. And while Huppert holds court with her sterling support, Poupard also holds sway with his graceful nonchalance, the young two providing alluring eye candy as the doomed and clingy lovers, caught between a desire to succeed and a need to be loved. 

Golden Youth takes us back to the late 1970’s when Americans were desperately squeezing into Studio 54, and we Europeans were flocking to the more accessible but equally debauched Le Palace night club in Paris.  It was home to extravagant theme parties and performances, that literally threw together rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white.

I remember the excessive debauchery of the time and for a movie that has so much to dhow us, it becomes exhausting. Huppert looks wonderful in the gorgeous collection of costumes she gets too wear, but beyond that she seems uncomfortable and awkward in a role that so doesn’t suit her and gives her lines such as “Hubert has a really lovely, penis and he knows how to use it“. 

“VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY”— Manipulating the Law

“Vengeance: A Love Story”

Manipulating the Law

Amos Lassen

On the Fourth of July, Teena, a single mother is brutally assaulted by a local gang in front of her 12-year-old daughter Bethie. Despite Bethie’s ability to identify the attackers, the defense hires a local hot-shot attorney who manipulates the law to their advantage. When the criminals are set free, Gulf War veteran and detective John Dromoor (Nicolas Cage) is dismayed at the lack of justice and plots revenge against the men on Teena’s behalf.

 “Vengeance” is a vigilante thriller that’s straight to the point.  John  is a cop in the Niagara Falls area and he has watched the area’s decline. After his partner is killed, John, also a widower, is left an empty shell, only to find purpose with the case of Teena (Anna Hutchison), a young mother to Bethie (Talitha Bateman), who was gang raped by a pack of local brutes while walking home through the woods late one night with her child. Bethie is the only witness and the burden of identification is put on the young terrified girl. As Teena emerges from the hospital, she’s promptly put on legal display, with her lawyer, Dixon (Kara Flowers), looking to put the perpetrators behind bars. However, one of the perpetrators’ mothers, Irma (Charlene Tilton), hires slick legal ace Jay (Don Johnson), who proceeds to tear Dixon apart in court, changing the course of the case. John, frustrated with the unfairness of the justice system, elects to be proactive about punishment, becoming judge, jury, and executioner. 

Niagara Falls is seen as a cesspool of drug addicts and violence in “Vengeance,” adding an intriguing geographical perspective to the tradition of injustice and revenge. “Vengeance” becomes a legal drama that highlighting a corrupt system with a biased judge who’s openly hostile to anything Dixon attempts, clearly favoring Jay and his smooth, practiced ways. The severity of the crime isn’t respected in “Vengeance,” and it’s clear scenes have been cut to streamline the story.

John becomes a dark angel of sorts, using his police skills to deliver righteous justice for Teena, a woman he saved and also enjoyed a flirtatious interaction with in a bar. This is a dark look at human behavior and our fractured legal system. The movie takes a deliberate, fairly realistic approach and while the vigilante element is of course somewhat of a reach, some explanation is offered there.

The movie has an intense rape scene but it is more violent than sexual in nature. The camera sees the assault from a distance and breaks from the attack often, to reinforce that the victim’s daughter is a witness.

Cage is intense as well and he is counterbalanced by an equally as good Johnson. Director Johnny Martin pulls no punches and the film offers an interesting ambiguity to nearly all of the characters involved. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s a thought provoking piece with some great performances. It hits us hard.

“Death and Other Happy Endings” by Melanie Cantor— Three Months to Live

Cantor, Melanie. Death and Other Happy Endings: A Novel”,   Pamela Dorman Books, 2019

Three Months to Live

Amos Lassen

Jennifer Cole has just learned that she has a terminal blood disorder and has just three months to live. During the coming 90 days, Jennifer has to say goodbye to friends and family, and to put her affairs in order. She focuses on the positives about her impending death and has only has one regret: the relationships she’s lost.

Jennifer decides to stay put and write a letter to the three most significant people in her life, to say the things she wished she’d said before but never dared: her sister, Harry, her ex-husband and Andy, her ex-boyfriend–and finally tell them the truth. 

The news of her death acts as a cleansing and cathartic agent and she gains a sense of liberation. After sending out letters, her ex-boyfriend comes to her and she begins to find a way to speak with her sister who agrees to see her only after knowing that Jennifer is not contagious. Jennifer quickly sees that once you starts telling the truth, it’s hard to stop and soon discovers, the truth isn’t always as straightforward as it seems, and death has a way of surprising you.

The title leads us to think that this is going to be quite a depressing read but it is the opposite and as we can imagine, it is not easy to write a comedy about death. Actually, this is a light read that is entertaining while making us think what we would do in the same situation.

By writing the letters and being part of what follows, Jennifer gets closure in this story of love, loss, friendship and facing the end of your life. I found Jennifer’s story to be empowering. This is certainly a book that book clubs can have a lot of fun and stimulating discussions with. The prose is sweet and the style is simple and I mean that as a compliment.

“Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?: And Other Essays” by Adam Kirsch— A Focus on Jewish Literature

Kirsch, Adam. “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?: And Other Essays”, Yale University Press,  2019.

A Focus on Jewish Literature

Amos Lassen

In his preface to “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer”, noted literary critic Adam Kirsch says  that being a Jewish writer involves a consciousness that religion and poetry have “inescapable social, historical and political dimensions” and is these themes that he looks for when he write about Jewish literature partly because of the nature of Jewish literature wrestling with belief and practice. It is no secret that today in America, many Jews are out of the mainstream  both politically and intellectually.

Most of Kirsch’s writings over the last decade look to understanding what a Jew is and what it means to be a Jewish writer. This collection brings together Kirsch’s essays on poetry, religion, and the intersections between them, with a particular focus on Jewish literature. He explores the definition of Jewish literature, the relationship between poetry and politics, and the future of literary reputation in the age of the internet. Several of the essays here look at the way Jewish writers such as Stefan Zweig and Isaac Deutscher, who coined the phrase “the non‑Jewish Jew,” have dealt with politics. Kirsch also explores questions of spirituality and morality in the writings of contemporary poets, (including Christian Wiman, Kay Ryan, and Seamus Heaney). He closes by asking why do we think  so many American Jewish writers have resisted the category of Jewish literature and asks us to think about if there is such a thing as Jewish literature?”

 

“DADDY”— Looking for Love

“Daddy”

Looking for Love

Amos Lassen

Jonah Greenstein’s “Daddy” is the story of Joseph (Alexander Horner), a young homeless man uses online hookups to find places to stay. He becomes a hustler and falls in love with one of his clients. A closeted politician looms in the background of this seedy and poetic slice of gay New York that is a torch song for the digital age and looks at poverty, sex as currency, users and abusers.

Joseph learns how to survive in New York by hooking up with older men for sex and then hustles them for money, food and a place to stay overnight.  He always makes sure that each encounter is met with enthusiasm and a real sense of passion and that has so many of his ‘johns’ wanting to come back.   There is no shortage of offers from different men and most of them are wealthy and often closeted. They show him the possibilities of a better life. Joseph appears to desire some kind of intimacy but because the arrangements that he takes part in have limits and he is unable to find what he wants.

When he does ultimately fall in love with a client (Thomas Jay Roberts), he is shocked when he is rejected and with force and a nasty situation follows. What we really see here is surviving by using sex brings about loneliness and desperation and these are the realities of living in that way.

We see sexual activity appearing as authentic and almost wholesome as compared to the hooker/john situations that have characterized the lifestyle for so long.  It’s all about detached intimacy. Here is a film that will provoke you have you perhaps see husting differently.

“THE VAULT”— Saving a Brother

“The Vault”

Saving a Brother

Amos Lassen

Two estranged sisters are forced to rob a bank in order to save their brother. The heist begins smoothly, but when the bank manager sends them to the vault in the basement, things go awry and this is the latest film from genre writer-director Dan Bush who says that his vision for this film was to make a movie where ‘Heist meets horror’. He couches this ambition in a story dealing with sibling loyalty and conflict.

When Michael Dillon (Scott Haze) gets into trouble with a vicious gangster, he has to come up with a great deal of money very quickly in order to save his life. His two estranged sisters, Leah (Francesca Eastwood), an ex-con, and Vee (Taryn Manning), who has spent time in the military, come up with a plan to recruit some heavies who will help them rob a nearby bank. Everything begins according to plan until the robbers discover that the bank holds only a small amount of cash and the defiant bank manager refuses to help them any further.

The day had begun like any other for the weary assistant bank manager Ed Maas (James Franco),  he had his coffee and felt despondent about his job  but he certainly did not expect to be staring down the barrel of a gun and dealing with two volatile sisters, their nervous brother, and their heavies who were frustrated by the small amount of cash at his bank.

The plan descends into chaos. The bank manager is knocked unconscious and staff hostages are injured. Maas, the assistant manager of the bank who has been held in a separate room, declares that he can give them information that will get them a lot more money, and that he is willing to bargain with this for the lives of the hostages.

Members of the gang are disgruntled and panicking, the clock is ticking and the authorities are onto their crime. Leah decides to take Maas up on his offer. He tells them that there is a forgotten, old vault under the bank, dating back from the 1980s. Rumor has it that it still contains takings that may number into the millions. He is extraordinarily helpful, informing them how to override the security systems which will give them passage down into the dark, lower levels.

However, he doesn’t tell them that down there they will find more than they bargained for – something else is down there too. The tables are turned when the criminals unlock the true secret of the vault. Soon the robbers are faced with a choice  as to whether to confront the heavily armed police and FBI who arrive outside, headed up by the tenacious Detective Iger (Clifton Collins Jr) or go down and face whatever resides with the money in the vault below. This is a movie that starts off in one genre and then takes off into another. It takes family loyalty as its premise for the heist, placing the siblings in a situation in which long-felt animosities and conflicts heighten the tension of a situation already fraught with danger and promising further impending horrors.

Nevertheless, The Vault is an entertaining horror offering, gory enough for those that like that kind of thing. It gets itself a little tangled in its ambition yet there are many very good things about the film and while it is not great, it is interesting (and that is a  compliment).