Category Archives: Film

“MOSS”— From Adolescence to Adulthood

“MOSS”

From Adolescence to Adulthood

Amos Lassen

In “Moss” director Daniel Peddle looks at the transition from adolescence to adulthood and the awkwardness that goes along with it. While the physical transformation has occurred, the emotional side of things tends to lag behind. We often think that we are men before actually becoming so. Maturity is a non-linear path with many detours and regressions.

On his 18th birthday, Moss (Mitchell Slaggert) is ready to leave home and start a new life. He hopes to escape from what his father (Billy Ray Suggs) who he sees as oppressive. He lives in an isolated southern community where there are more alligators than Life in no way appears to be easy for Moss but he sees and adds an inherent beauty and simplicity to his existence. Moss and his friends don’t have much in the way of worldly possessions but they do have a generosity and sense of calm unlike suburban America. In many ways the inhabitants of this rustic riverside community are far richer they realize. Moss’s father is an outsider artist who collects driftwood to make his pieces.

The film has a natural tone and an other worldly quality that explodes with color. Director Peddle immerses us in the country world of the South and a day in the life of 18-year old Moss, complete with the river, the woods, the quiet and the isolation, while exploring the ideas of self-discovery, identity, love, and loss.

Mitchell Slaggert delivers an unforgettable performance steeped in quiet reflection. Joining Slaggert as Moss’ best friend, Blaze (Dorian Cobb), outgoing yin to Moss’s introspective yang. Expanding the world of young Moss is the mysterious Mary (Christine Marzano).

This is a lush, lyrical look at the “gothic” South, with its breathtaking blue skies, silken waters and green grasses of the region, all laced with the shadows and weight of life.

At first, it’s difficult to follow since the film is quiet, filled with restraint and compelling but unfocused in narrating a fateful day for Moss. The story takes place on Moss’ 18th birthday. His mother died giving birth to him, triggering a rift between the young guy and his father. Moss’ birthday only reminds his father to the grief he’s been denying all the time. The film deals with the boy’s new responsibility as a young adult to deliver meds to his grandmother; but, he’s drifted between temptation of immaturity, the search for adulthood.

All the conflicts are episodically presented in a single day, as the film introduces battles inside Moss. First, Moss battles over his immaturity upon visiting Blaze who lives on a raft. Then, the film introduces Mary, a much older woman which triggers something inside Moss­—between sexual awakening and forever longing for motherly love. Practically, it should be a film about Moss, but, Moss often strays from its main focuses to follow some other characters with apparently no definite motive.

Peddle knows what he wants to convey in this bitter coming-of-age drama, but he simply cannot resist his desire to project his visions without considering the missing links.

“PARTITIONED HEART”— Dealing with Grief

“PARTITIONED HEART “

Dealing with Grief

Amos Lassen

I must admit that I have never thought much about the emotion of grief but this nine minute short film caused me to spend time thinking about it. I realized that grief is such a strong emotion because it deals with love, or rather the loss of a love that will never be experienced again. We have all gone through it and we will again and again and probably the only thing that makes us feel better is time but that is also relative. In fact, I am not sure that we ever get over it—we simply live with it by pushing to a place in the mind where it rests forever. I can’t imagine anything more grievous than a parent’s loss of a child.

Rob (Travis Mitchell), is a father who while grieving over the loss of his son, Daniel (the voice of Malik Uhuru), is revisited by him via a mysterious computer program. This program allows Rob to converse with his son’s soul. At first it is comforting for Rob to be able to maintain some kind of relationship with Daniel who sees it differently. Daniel wants his father to show a sign of love and this is devastating for Rob. Of course, I will not share here what that is but I will tell you that the amazing performance of takes us on an emotional journey of just nine minutes but during which he experiences happiness, horror and denial almost at the same time.

The pain that we see here is so real that we feel it ourselves and that is a credit to the director, Matt Morris. Grief is a difficult emotion to show much less in such a short time. I must also mention that Uhuru’s performance is also stunning especially since we only hear him. We never know the cause of Daniel’s death but we sense that the father/son relationship was sincere and close even though they did not always agree. We definitely feel the love that shared and the pain that comes after loss. As I write this now, it is right after I saw the film and I feel a lump in my chest and tears in my eyes. Not many films affect me so deeply especially one as short as this.

 

 

“SAVING BRINTON”— Man With a Mission

“Saving Brinton”

Man With a Mission

Amos Lassen

“Saving Brinton” is a tribute to a dedicated cinema fan and historian, and to the work he has done to save an essential piece of the past and cultivate its story for the future. Thirty years ago, former history schoolteacher Michael Zahs, of Washington, Iowa, was gifted a collection of old film memorabilia from the estate of Frank and Indiana Brinton, a husband-and-wife team of entertainment impresarios who were responsible for bringing fun, news, and views of distant lands to audiences across the heartland of America in the days before radio, TV, and easy international travel.

The Brintons didn’t just show the short films that Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès and others were making in the late 19th century: they created entire evenings around those films by using music as well as “magic lanterns” (which created the illusion of movement from still pictures). Somehow, the collection that landed with Zahs didn’t only include old films but also documents with the details of the business and posters and advertisements for their shows, and much, much more. The collection is an look into early pop culture.

All of this sat in a barn on Zahs’ homestead for decades because no one was interested in it until just a few years ago, when the University of Iowa was happy to add this to its libraries. (It’s still in the process of being digitized but you can already watch some of the films online.)

Then documentarians Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne come into the picture and, introduce us to the Brintons and the Zahs. “Saving Brinton” is so much more than about rediscovering a nearly lost piece of history; it’s about what it takes to make certain that history doesn’t get lost in the first place. Zahs is a hero, a man who rescues what needs rescuing (dogs, kittens, church steeples about to be demolished).

We see him as he travels the nation and the world with a Méliès short that had previously been thought gone forever. ( Since the collection has barely begun to be catalogued, there may be many more “lost” films in it.)

He presents evenings of Brinton-style entertainment in an opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa, where the Brintons themselves once put on shows and at the State theater back in Washington (Iowa), the oldest operating cinema anywhere on the planet. Zahs is bringing the Brintons back to the world.

THE GREAT SILENCE”— A First-Class Spaghetti Western

“The Great Silence” (“Il grande silenzio”)

A First-Class Spaghetti Western

Amos Lassen

Quite basically, “The Great Silence” is the story of a mute gunfighter defends a young widow and a group of outlaws against a gang of bounty killers in the winter of 1898, as a grim, tense struggle unfolds. But it is much more that just that. Director Sergio Corbucci made this film in 1998 and it is one of the most critically acclaimed spaghetti westerns.. Set in the Utah Territory during a bitter cold winter at the turn of the last century (1899), the film follows a mute gunslinger appropriately named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who faces off against a gang of blood-thirsty bounty hunters led by their vicious German leader, Loco (Klaus Kinski). The pair are memorable protagonists/antagonists— Silence is cool, calm and silent and Loco is ruthless and cunning and talks too much. Watching them onscreen together is an engrossing experience. The ending is what the film is sensational and it is what the film is known for (among other things).

There is a sense of despair and hopelessness throughout and n Corbucci’s world, the lines between right and wrong are blurry and the good guys don’t always walk away unharmed. It’s a bleak, brilliant and violent vision of an West without morals. The film features superb photography by cinematographer Silvano Ippolito and a haunting score from Ennio Morricone.

Themes here include class struggle, the corruption of the law and violent political revolution and it was released during the turbulent time of the Vietnam War and protests ere happening in America during its filming. The film was never released in American theaters, only on video and later on DVD and now on Blu ray from Film Movement. It has found its niche with a small but appreciative following of hardened cult fans that could handle its tough lessons on law and order. At the end, and this is not spoiler, all the good guys are dead and most of the bad guys remain alive. We see that one man alone can’t fight against the system to make it right and this is contrary to what most of the other Westerns were about back then.

The film’s hero, Silence, is a mute gunslinger, who kills only in self-defense,. His vocal cords were slashed by a sadistic bounty-hunter when he was a youngster and witnessed his parents being gunned down by the bounty hunter working for crooked Snow Hill banker Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). Since then Silence has hated the bounty hunters who murder and bully the unfortunate under the full protection of the law. He charges $1,000 to those requiring his services to eliminate the bounty hunters. His M.O. is to force the bounty hunters to draw on him, and he either kills them or shoots off their thumbs. When a group of Mormons have been forced to go into the mountains as unwilling outlaws, forced into stealing for survival by Pollicut, some hire Silence to protect them from the bounty hunters seeking them out. His reputation has grown time and he’s hired to get revenge by Pauline (Vonetta McGee).

She became a widow when the deranged bounty hunter Loco and his partner Charlie gunned down her husband after he threw down his rifle and surrendered. Pauline says “They call him Silence, because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.” Silence eggs Charlie to draw on him and is killed, and he then pursues Loco.

Loco also charges for his services, but only uses the law as a cover for his greed and killing: he’s a madman who would kill either for money or to get his kicks. Loco works for the wealthy and powerful Pollicut and is to put down the Mormon renegades, and Silence works for the oppressed to get justice against the powerful. 

The governor of the territory is aware of the bounty hunters taking advantage of the law and says amnesty will come and the outlaws will leave the hills in peace, but until then he sends his top man Burnett (Frank Wolff),to be the law-abiding sheriff of Snow Hill.

It all builds to one downbeat shootout massacre of at least some twenty people by the gun crazy bounty hunters, as it ends in despair and hopelessness. Justice didn’t come to the territory until decades afterwards.

Trintignant makes the most of his non-speaking part and conveys a dense moral ambiguity lurking within himself. He’s matched every step of the way by Kinski, whose fascist behavior gives the film a disturbing political subtext.

The oppressive snowstorms which punctuate the film provide startling tableaux of men on horseback trudging through the hills; this is a western that actually makes the viewer feel cold.

“MILE MARKER”— 8000 Miles On the Road to Recovery

“Mile Marker”

8000 Miles On the Road to Recovery

Amos Lassen

PTSD is very strange disease and I bet that most of us rally have no idea how terrible it can be unless it happens in our own families. Let me say from the outset that this is not an easy film to watch but it is a very important look at a very major problem. Korey Rowe, who made this film gives us a very real look at PTSD. The film, “Mile Marker” is about Rowe and his two tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, Korey Rowe, along with his former Rakkasan Brothers on their long road to recovery from PTSD. The Rakkasans were the invading force for both Middle Eastern Theater Wars where Korey and his unit were in the midst twice.

This film looks at and investigates new and controversial techniques and methods for treating PTSD and as it does, it gives us a look into the lives of veterans in America today. To make this film, Rowe traveled 8,000 miles across the United States and back from his home in California. His purpose was to check in with his former battle buddies who served with him 15 years ago in the 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Air Assault Division. As he travels, he interviews psychologists and specialists from the National Center for PTSD in White River Junction, Vermont hoping to get a better understanding of the underlying symptoms and associated triggers of those with PTSD.

In investigating the techniques and methods for treating PTSD (such as marijuana), we look into the lives of veterans in America today. Korey was inspired  by his former battle buddy, Jesse Snider, who lost his struggle to PTSD in 2014 and this film gives an authentic portrayal of veterans today in America as they fight combat to overcome drug addiction, criminal issues, and their own personal struggles with PTSD. These are real stories by real people who have lived through and survived this terrible growing epidemic.

 Korey Rowe’s goal is to explore the truth of the life of veterans and the ongoing struggle with PTSD. He took care of everything about each interview he had including the lighting, the   monitored audio and the focus—he conducted each interview, edited the entire film and secured distribution on his own, ran all equipment maintenance, and drove every mile of the trip without a support staff on a minimal budget and extending timeline. This is the result of his determination.

 The film has already been awarded Best Documentary and Best Cinematography at the Sunny Side Up Film Festival, Award of Excellence at the IndieFest and more. For more information about Mile Marker, visit milemarkerfilm.com.

“In honor of the number 22 and its association with 22 veterans per day committing suicide, Mile Marker will be available on iTunes for presale on May 1st until May 22nd, when the movie will be released. 22% of all gross presale receipts will be donated to the organizations who have partnered with the film to help spread its message. Those organizations include: Hero Grown, MAPS, Weed for Warriors, Vet Cannabis Group, Heart Strings for Heroes, Veteran Health Solutions and The Mission Continues.”

Korey Rowe, currently lives in Los Angeles and is a producer, editor and owner of Prism Pictures, LLC. He served with the 101st Airborne Division 187th Infantry Regiment in the Afghanistan Invasion as well as the Iraq Invasion and lived in the Middle East for most of 2002 – 2004.

“Oh Lucy!”— A Black Comedy About Stereotypes

“Oh Lucy!”

A Black Comedy About Stereotypes

Amos Lassen

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a middle-aged unmarried office worker a Tokyo Office where she is expected to pass the whole of her working life doing the same mundane and monotonous chores every. Her life away from the office is not much better. She lives in a tiny one-room apartment which is packed with the remains of unfinished food and unopened mail.

One day, she gets a phone call from her twenty something-year-old niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) who is desperately broke and wants Setsuko to take over a course of English lessons which she signed up for but can no longer afford, and for which she cannot get her money back. Because she is somewhat sweet on Mika, Setsuko agrees and goes off to the school for a trial lesson.

The ‘school’ is in one of the city’s infamous Love Hotels, and once inside, Setasuko is greeted by John (Josh Harnett), aHH the teacher who insists on being very American and hugging her the moment she walks into the room. His unorthodox methods include the fact that all pupils must take American names (she becomes Lucy) and wear wigs to “acclimatize themselves” away from being their traditional reserved Japanese selves.  At first, Lucy is aghast about this but she soon begins to enjoy it (especially John upon whom she develops an instant crush).

Then when she returns for the second lesson, she finds that John has left the school and gone back home to the US. As if that is not enough, she also finds that Mika has also gone with him thanks to the money that Setsuko had paid her to take over the lessons.

A couple of months later when Setsuko/Lucy gets a postcard from Mika that gives her a return address, she decides to go to the United States herself, ostensibly to find Mika but she is really more interested in finding John. Her elder sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), who is also Mika’s mother, insists upon coming along even though there is not much love lost between mother and daughter.  There is also an undercurrent of bad feeling between the sisters too that goes back to when Ayako stole Setsuko’s only boyfriend and married him.

When they arrive at the apartment where John is living alone and broke, they learn that Mika left. John also does not seem to be as handsome as he was in Japan. Of course, that does not stop the sisters talking him into joining them chasing after Mika, and along the way, the rather desperate Lucy keeps making bad errors of judgments.

A great deal of the humor is, at first, directed at the sensibility of the reserved Japanese middle classes but it then changes and takes aim at the recklessness of surfer types dudes and blue-collar Californians. This becomes a story about culture clash. 

The film was inspired by the writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s own experiences when she first came to study in the US as a student. Shinobu Terajima is wonderful as the reckless Japanese spinster who loses her inhibitions when her buttons are pressed.  Her performance is perfection. The film is really about the tricky art of communication. The film does not depend on Setsuko and company’s newness to America and limited English to deliver easy laughs. Rather its aims are more ambitious and center on emphasizing what can be expressed through difficulties in communication.

The film ends on a bittersweet note as Setsuko finds herself alone and isolated with her future up in the air. She returned home to things worse than when she left and she’ll have to figure out how to live a different life. But of course, that’s nothing she hasn’t done before.

“THE SECRET LIFE OF LANCE LETSCHER”— Portrait of the Artist

“The Secret Life Of Lance Letscher”

Portrait of the Artist

Amos Lassen

“The Secret Life Of Lance Letscher” is an intimate, psychological portrait of the collage artist and a deeply personal and psychological look at the man and his works. The story is told through memories of trauma and triumph and gives us a look into Letscher’s profound insights on creativity, the subconscious, work ethic and spirituality. We see his unwavering determination to stay in the moment — free of mind, thought and preconception. The documentary features detailed images of more than a hundred of his collages, sculptures and installations that we see here while at the same time we are lucky to be given intimate access into Letscher’s methodical techniques and brilliant mind.

This is an emotionally piercing study of the man who was a tortured artist. Sandra Adair directed the film with grace. The film follows Letscher as he takes on a new challenge – crafting a large mural made of metal along South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, one of the city’s most trafficked business districts. Letscher’s artwork is stunning and nearly impossible to contemplate at times. The film gets get up close and personal with Letscher so that the audience can understand the painstaking process that he goes through in order to create (“cutting an insane amount of extremely thin slices of paper which are then combined and layered over one another, creating a mosaic effect that still maintains a sense of coherence, despite the multitudes of colors and ideas which are seemingly competing with each other for attention”). We become very aware of

Letscher’s pain and it is dealt with minus the sentimentality or lazy aesthetic decisions which might’ve cheapened the message and lessened the overall impact. His troubled family life as a child is explored, which then moves into his own struggles as a father and husband.

We watch Letscher grow as a person and as an artist while he undertakes the construction of the mural from scrap metal. One of the best things you can say about any successful documentary is that people who are already familiar with the subject or person up for discussion will enjoy the piece just as much as the uninitiated.

I had not heard of Letscher’s art world contributions before seeing this documentary, and it’s a testament to Adair’s abilities as a storyteller that she was able to go deep into the humanistic root of her film.

Letscher’s life is rich in drama, love, and ambition, and it is inspiring to see someone process and work through their demons in order to create something like art. We watch Letscher grow as a person and stretch himself as an artist as he works and we feel love for the man and his works.

“FINDING OSCAR”— A Search for Justice

“Finding Oscar”

A Search for Justice

Amos Lassen

Directed by Ryan Suffern, “Finding Oscar” is a feature-length documentary about the search for justice in the devastating case of the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala. That search leads to the trail of two little boys who were plucked from a nightmare and offer the only living evidence that shows the Guatemalan government’s part in the massacre.

In 1982, the village of Dos Erres in Guatemala was given the “scorched earth” treatment by a special operations unit of the Guatemalan Army, the Kaibiles. All of its villagers (men, women, and children) were murdered. Some were executed and thrown down a well and others were thrown into the well while still alive. Before their deaths, the women were raped and forced to cook for the captors. The only survivors of the massacre (aside from villagers who weren’t present) were two young boys, ages 3 and 5, Oscar Ramirez and Ramiro Cristales. This documentary is a harrowing telling of the Dos Erres massacre, the search for justice, and the search for Oscar, an important missing link in the story.

The events are recounted via talking heads by relatives of those massacred in Dos Erres and by those looking to put the pieces together. Among them are forensic anthropologist Freddy Peccerelli and human rights prosecutor Sara Romero. Peccerelli and his team exhume the bodies and piece them together so that the surviving relatives may give them proper burials and provide some form of closure. Sara Romero gathers information for a case in which she hopes to provide justice for the victims and their families. The information she has gathered comes from two former soldiers of the Kaibil special operations unit of the Guatemalan army.

One of the men was a cook for the Kaibiles and he shares about two boys that were spared and taken by two soldiers to their families and raised as part of those families. One boy is Oscar, who was 3 years old when taken and had no memory of the massacre or of his former family. The other boy, Ramiro, was 5 and memory of the massacre fully intact, and he is able to recount with stomach-churning detail what befell the villagers, including his mother and little sister. It takes a decade and more confessions and corroborations are had before the case is strong enough to not be tossed out. And the final detail is Oscar.

Finding Oscar is the main thread in this documentary. It’s not just about corroboration, but about bringing together loose ends and telling someone their history— telling someone that he is not who he thinks he is; telling someone his family was wiped out by a man who was looked at as a father and a hero. When Oscar is finally found, we get a story that is both heartwarming and melancholy. It’s a reconnect with father and son that no one expected. And in the end of it all, justice is served as Oscar travels back to Guatemala from the United States to give his testimony. Soldiers are sentenced and the former President Efrain Rios Montt is brought to face his crimes as well.

I had no knowledge of the long civil war in Guatemala so “Finding Oscar” taught me something new. “Finding Oscar” takes in the history of Guatemala’s recovery from its civil war, the process of searching for the disappeared and identifying remains, and the stories of other children who were taken after their parents were killed. The film includes testimony from participants in the massacre, some of which is extremely harrowing – but surprisingly, there are also moments here that may make you joyfully weep.

The picture presented is a complex one with a significant international dimension. Ronald Reagan’s government in the US provided funding to the side responsible for the massacre, which went on to dominate post-war society, making justice impossible for many years. Partway through the film, it emerges that Oscar has become an illegal immigrant in the US, complicating the business of searching for him still further. He’s not an obvious immigrant, because he has light colored skin and green eyes which saved his life in the village because he stood out from the more obviously indigenous children there. There’s evidence that the massacre was considered as part of a program of extermination.

The documentary includes archive footage, interviews, observational film of key moments and illustrative footage from the locations where events unfolded, including the field where the well with the bodies was found (a place which remained dangerous to visit for decades). This is a small documentary about a terrible incident in a country that doesn’t command a lot of attention on the world stage but director Suffern has put together a documentary that has widespread relevance and the ability to connect with viewers from all backgrounds. It’s a stunning piece of work.

“GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF”— A Look Inside

“Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief”

A Look Inside 

Amos Lassen

Alex Gibney takes us into Scientology, one of the most controversial and secretive religions in the world in “Going Clear” as he explore what members are willing to do in the name of religion. The film touches on a wide range of aspects of the church from its origin, to an intimate portrait of the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, to its recruiting practices, to present day practices by church officials.

About a third of the way into the film, the recorded voice of L. Ron Hubbard outlines a key part of Scientology doctrine involving a tyrannical galactic overlord named Xenu and the story sounds nothing like the pop-cultural punch line it’s become in recent years. Instead, it sounds like a fascinating and profoundly disturbing glimpse into the psyche of the man himself. Collaborating with author Lawrence Wright, on whose 2013 book this documentary is based, director Alex Gibney follows a chronology of the church, beginning with Hubbard’s origins as sci-fi pulp writer and world traveler, his development of Dianetics in the 1950s, and how his ostensible breakthrough in modern mental health slowly, and by design, metastasized into the legally protected, tax-exempt religion that exists today.

We see an overwhelming cache of official documents and footage that show much of the speculation and innuendo surrounding the church’s furtive operations. We watch as Hubbard chastises an interviewer for comparing Scientology to Freudian psychology. Included is a recent video of the church’s current master and commander, David Miscavige, perched on a Third Reich-style stage, announcing to an arena of followers that the organization’s war for tax-exempt status has been finally won. The film ties the material into a coherent framework that provides a concise, scholarly context within which Scientology can be understood as a real system of beliefs, with roots in a specific time and place. This is a focused examination beyond how it could be that a science-fiction writer invented a religion at all and to what actually draws people to it.

In looking at Scientology’s relationship to Hollywood, the focus is on the places of John Travolta and Tom Cruise within the church (I find it interesting that both of these men are constantly being hit with gay rumors). The film shows the actors as highly valuable assets to the church both financially and from a public-relations perspective. Of the two, it’s Cruise’s status as Scientology’s celebrity ambassador, however, that stands to be more permanently marred by the documentary’s assertions (that Cruise has allowed himself to become the international face of a religious organization responsible for documented mistreatment of its members). A fair amount of time is spent putting into perspective disparate pieces of information about Cruise’s involvement with the church that the public has already had glimpses of: Cruise’s close relationship to Miscavige; the church’s role in the dissolution of his marriage to Nicole Kidman; and a disturbing story involving actress Nazanin Boniadi, a young Scientologist who, the film convincingly claims, was groomed over a period time to be Cruise’s girlfriend and then abruptly discharged to cleaning bathrooms following an incident in which she offended Miscavige. Equally unsettling is the 2004 footage of Miscavige presenting Cruise with an award called the Freedom Medal of Valor during a grand ceremony celebrating Cruise’s work for the church. Over-produced and tacky, the official video shows Miscavige and Cruise embracing like fraternity brothers before Cruise delivers an acceptance speech and finally salutes a giant portrait of Hubbard whose hand is resting on large globe.

Juxtaposed against the film’s damning claims of Miscavige’s abuse of power and history of physical violence against particular church members, it’s the bizarreness of this last image that raises necessary questions: is Cruise aware of such incidents? If he’s aware at all, to what extent is he a willing beneficiary of Miscavige’s exploitation of church policies? Though the film fails to answer these questions, it very squarely implicates Cruise as the public figure with the most potential power to hold the church accountable for its abuses. It convincingly substantiates a special relationship between Cruise and Miscavige that’s all but impossible to justify in the context of a religion that’s known to force members into financial and emotional ruin under the guise of making the world a better place.

It is in its interweaving of the personal stories of top-ranking officials and otherwise hidden faces who have managed to get away from Scientology’s grip over the years that “Going Clear” is most powerful. It might have been enough to hear the darker parts of their journeys (how some were pushed to the brink of insanity, how families were torn apart), but many are given time to articulate what it was that the church offered to them as spiritual seekers. We see here the inherent contradictions between the public claims of Scientology as an applied philosophy and its actual practices and the film gives voice to these peoples’ stories by inserting them as recurring reference points throughout the film, from its opening credits to its closing shot.

Their stories vary but are unified by a search for purpose and meaning and an admirable desire to do away with insanity and war. Hana Eltringham Whitfield was recruited by Hubbard himself to become one of the church’s original Sea Org members, and this puts the faith at the heart of Scientology into perspective. Recounting the turning point in her decision to break from Hubbard’s charismatic influence after 19 years, Whitfield says, “I could not continue this game of Scientology without explaining away what he was doing. It got to be a way of believing.” Much more than just an exposé, the documentary penetrates the nature of faith to confront questions about why any of us

Gibney shows us the human faces behind scandal-making headlines. Unsurprisingly, “Going Clear” is weighted toward candid, impassioned interviews with ex-Scientologists who share their stories in the hope of keeping others from going through what they did.

Among the juiciest bits are onscreen comparisons showing how Hubbard refashioned bits of his pulp novels into his Scientology dogma; excerpts from the letters of Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Northrup Hollister (voiced in the film by actress Sherry Stringfield); and footage from Hubbard’s few TV interviews, in which it’s possible to see just how much his look and language informed the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

Starting with witnesses recounting how they were first drawn to the church by its promises of success, happiness and the vanquishing of personal demons; the initial euphoria of the “auditing” process (by which members are taught to rid themselves of painful memories from their past, and their past lives); and their gradual realization, we get to many years and thousands of dollars later to learn that there is nothing there.

We have fascinating statistics that include the slave wages paid to Scientology staffers; the diminishing number of active church members (estimated now to be around 50,000); and the exponentially increasing worth of the organization’s vast global real-estate holdings (said to be around $3 billion).

This is a great film about the dangers of blind faith or, as the subtitle of “Going Clear” puts it, “the prison of belief”. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Scientology whose consequences are all too apparent in today’s headlines. For Scientologists, going clear refers to a coveted status awarded to those who have completed a certain level of auditing. But for the men and women on screen here, it means using their own voices and demanding to be heard.

You couldn’t call “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” entertaining, exactly, but it is absolutely riveting.

     —Liz Braun, Toronto Sun

There is order and selection, of course – to say that this is storytelling is not to impugn its parts – but much of what he has to show you is remarkable in or out of this context.

     —Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

An indispensable general history of the enduringly controversial church.

     —Tom Gliatto, People Magazine

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”… is at times jaw-dropping, scary, unnerving, even disturbingly funny.

     —Dave Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

Director Alex Gibney’s hauntingly effective “Going Clear…” suggests only trouble ahead for the frequently criticized and always strange Church of Scientology.

     —Hank Stuever, Washington Post

If “Going Clear” were a Hollywood thriller, I’d complain that it’s too over-the-top. But this is real life, which is mind-blowing, and as a documentary, it’s disturbingly good.

     —Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

“DAYVEON”— In Arkansas

“DAYVEON”

In Arkansas

Amos Lassen

After his older brother’s death, thirteen-year-old Dayveon (Devon Blackmon) spends his days roaming around his small town Arkansas home. He eventually becomes involved with a local gang that draws him into the camaraderie and violence of their world.

Debut writer/director Amman Abbasi’s tender “coming-of-age film in an environment of violence is special with its vision, regional flavor and overall personality.

Dayveon lives with his older sister, Kim (Chasity Moore) and her boyfriend, Bryan (Dontrell Bright). in Kim has a 3-year-old son to take care of, so without her, Dayveon has no parental figures to look up to other than Bryan. No matter how hard Bryan tries to keep him safe, Dayveon, along with his friend, Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson) end up joining a local gang called the Bloods.

The film is a slow-burning, atmospheric drama that takes its time to immerse the viewer in Dayveon’s life. The film follows Dayveon around as he idles away during hot summer days. You feel like you’re watching a documentary because it’s so grounded in realism. When Dayveon joins the gang, suspense gradually increases, but it’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of suspense as you’re wondering if and when something tragic will befall Dayveon or one of his friends. There is no complicated plot and the film is more concerned about establishing atmosphere. Abbasi includes very little of back-story to Dayveon. All we know is that his parents aren’t around and that Dayveon is still grieving over the death of his brother a few years back. There are no flashbacks or long expository scenes. Abbasi trusts the audience’s intelligence and patience.

Visually, this is a fest for the eyes. Some of the shots look mesmerizing and cinematic and nothing in the film goes over-the-top—not even the natural performances. If you appreciate understatement and humanism, you’ll appreciate “Dayveon” all the more.

The film is built on the idea of imparting sensuality to a region—an almost exclusively black small town in rural Arkansas. Eugene Richards’s medium-format photojournalism in the Arkansas Delta in the late 1960s is often breathtaking—and in no way trivial aestheticism. Abbasi’s careful, patient framing contextualizes the downtrodden lives of his characters. He, however, is not confident enough to let this detailed environment pull its own weight, and ultimately the film leans on overwrought metaphors and contrived plot actions to make sense of itself. Dayveon is an introverted, frustrated orphan who, while grieving from the recent gang-related death of his older brother, finds himself pulled between two distinct guardian figures: his sister’s chummy boyfriend, Brian and an amoral gang leader, Mook (Lachion Buckingham). From the moment that the boy first meditates on his makeshift memorial to his fallen brother while caressing a tender photograph and then an inherited handgun, innocence and corruption are juxtaposed: Afternoons spent playing video games with Brian or biking around with his friend, Brayden move into nights spent apprenticing on the assorted petty crimes of Mook and his Bloods.

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Scattered throughout the film are observations of unforced intimacy that dig into the hard realities of this forsaken swamp town in the Deep South and the difficulties of finding transcendence there.

The local Bloods jump him into their gang early on in the movie, with leader Mook taking him under his wing, showing him and his friend Brayden the how to belong. At the same time, Brian tries to reach out to Dayveon, by even offering to be like a brother, although it might be too late. That scene

in which Brian tries to reach out to a very restless Dayveon is one particular standout moment where dialogue, narrative intention and emotion play out as if the characters knew what needed to be said, but no script was needed. 

“Dayveon” is a movie where characters, not just the title one, are shown in lights we may not have seen otherwise. Bloods members are shown half-passed out, talking to themselves about what the point of all this is; Dayveon and Brayden have a poetic moment learning how to make gang symbols with their hands while sitting by a pond. The movie is full of idyllic passages that strike as human first and foremost, even if Abbasi’s hands can be heavy playing with slow-motion or different film formats. 

“Dayveon” walks a fine line between his own cinematic daydreams and those of his environment, and the film is electrified by mixing the two. It is a poignant reflection on universal ideas—growing up, of vulnerable men, of the fear of innocence being lost. We have heard this story before, but not in the way “Dayveon” presents it here.