Category Archives: Film

“UTOPIA”— The Indigenous of Australia

“Utopia”

The Indigenous of Australia

Amos Lassen

Exploring offenses practiced by popular media, big business, police forces and Governments helping the Australian 225 year campaign of genocide continue against Aboriginal Australians. “Utopia” is a new documentary exposes the shocking social conditions in Australia’s remote indigenous communities. This is also his fourth documentary on the brutal history of genocide, dispossession and discrimination against Australia’s indigenous population. The film brings us a look at Aboriginal disadvantage. It contrasts poverty, chronic ill-health and third-world housing against the comfortable lifestyles of the rich in Sydney and other Australian capitals. It also touches on high indigenous incarceration and suicide rates, deaths in custody, forced assimilation and Aboriginal resistance.

While Pilger is clearly and deeply concerned about the plight of Aboriginal people, the underlying political line of the documentary is flawed and serves to divide indigenous and non-indigenous workers. Rather than just indict the capitalist system, and the economic, political and social interests it serves as the cause of this social catastrophe, he argues that the terrible conditions facing Aboriginal communities are a result of the inherent racism and ignorance of “white” Australia.

The film opens with a television interview with mining magnate Lang Hancock from the early 1970s. Hancock is asked about his solution to the “Aboriginal problem?” and he replies by saying “Those that have been assimilated… I would leave them alone. The ones that are no good … dope the water up so they are sterile and that would breed them out.” Do we not hear overt racism here?

Next we see a handcuffed Aboriginal boy being repeatedly tasered by police followed by footage from a police station where an Aboriginal man is violently assaulted by police and left semi-unconscious in a cell. The man dies three hours later without receiving any medical attention.

The documentary crosses to the Utopia region, about 200 kilometers north-west of Alice Springs in central Australia. This is one of the country’s poorest communities with up to 20 Aborigines living in each house, forced to suffer dysfunctional toilets and kitchens, with no electricity or running water. Many indigenous families are homeless, sleeping on mattresses on the ground.

Ampilatwatja medical centre manager David Smith tells us that the lack of decent housing contributes to a range of illnesses and that it is common —for cockroaches to crawl into the ears of adults and children and he further states that many diseases eliminated in under-developed countries still thrive in Aboriginal communities.

It is to Pilger’s credit that he exposes these terrible social conditions. In his interview with Arthur and Leila Murray, parents of Eddie Murray, a young Aboriginal man who died in police custody in 1981 at Wee Waa in New South Wales, we see the parents sharing their difficult and protracted struggle to uncover the truth about their son’s tragic death.

This is one of the few occasions in the documentary where Aboriginal people are shown as part of the working class. The film also looks at the Liberal-National Coalition government’s “intervention”—the police-military takeover of Northern Territory indigenous communities in June 2007, which falsely claimed to be protecting indigenous children from sexual abuse.

Because of this, Canberra enacted a series of initiatives that included the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory, the quarantining of welfare payments, compulsory acquisition of land and other anti-democratic legislation. The then Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough alleged that pedophilia rings and drugs were rampant in Aboriginal communities. I find it interesting that the film does not deal with what the government did and did not do during all of this while we learn that Australia’s Richest 200 increased their combined wealth from less than $5 billion in 1983 to over $25 billion during the next five years. We also see nothing about the Australian working class and instead we get the impression given that everyone in “White Australia” is living in suburban happiness. The conditions of the vast majority of ordinary working people, along with the unemployed, single parents and the disabled are not mentioned and neither is the emergence of the new privileged Aboriginal elite.

Pilger blames “white society” and this is the political outlook of a privileged section of the Aboriginal leadership. Racial identity politics have been promoted in particular by various pseudo-left organizations to divide workers on ethnic and racial lines and to block a unified, independent movement of the working class against the capitalist system.

There is nothing new to be seen in “Utopia” and Pilger uses that as his most damning point. He’s a partisan narrator, an antagonistic interviewer and a bloody minded researcher but in the end what Pilger presents is truthful to the point of being self evident.

Pilger explores the history and continued maltreatment of its indigenous population, even to the point of using the name of a poverty-stricken settlement in the Northern Territories as the title of the film. As Americans, we might understand everything here but we can certainly identify with the racist situation that is in Australia today.

“THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT”— Subversive or Slapstick?

“The Brand New Testament” (“Le tout nouveau testament”)

Subversive or Slapstick?

Amos Lassen

God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a chauvinistic pig with an appetite who lives with his submissive wife (Yolande Moreau) and his feisty 10-year-old daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), in a three-bedroom Brussels apartment. It is there that he plans out humanity’s tragedies, crafting versions of Murphy’s Law just to mess with people’s minds.

Sick of God’s abusive behavior toward humanity and herself, Ea decides to strip him of his credibility and logs on to his computer and sends a panic-producing text message to everyone on Earth stating the exact amount of time they have left to live. The media labels this as “Deathgate”.

Ea escapes God’s wrath through the family washing machine, arriving in the real world to witness the terror produced by his wrath. At first, the dark humor is amusing and clever but it evaporates once an actual plot begins. The film comes across as trying to hard to alternate its comedy with a sense of sentimental and insincere gravitas. It feels like director Jaco Van Dormael felt guilty over his blasphemous concept to commit to it unabashedly, or find satisfaction in simply surveying this irreverent parallel world.

We learn that J.C. escaped the family at some point, seeking refuge from his father by pretending to be a statue of himself and only coming to life in front of Ea. The question of a world predetermined by computer code controlled by one single man hovers over the film but is explored as an excuse for narrative action and not for its allegorical potential. Once God realizes that Ea has wreaked havoc by rewriting his computerized orders, he takes the portal to the real world through the washing machine and ends up getting a taste of what he’s produced, such as being a victim of violence, hunger, and the need for identity papers which he cannot produce. However we see this an afterthought in a film that only fabricates sadness and depth.

God according to Van Dormael is neither infinite in his mercy or benignly disinterested. He is a domineering person with his wife and daughter Ea and often becomes abusive. When he follows his daughter into terrestrial Brussels, he is just crank with a bad temper who claims to be God.

All of the edgy, risqué, and potentially offensive material here is, however, funny. The film only really gets tiresome when it becomes politically correct and sentimental. The movie is made up of a series of sequential comedy sketches rather than a narrative to emotionally invest in, but it does delivers the laughs.

The somewhat transgressive story is wrapped up in a fantastical world that perhaps could’ve been dreamt up by the Monty Python gang. Ea is the driving force behind this film and when she decides to be a disruptive force, her mother remains mute. There are times that the film feels more absurd than irreverent and I wanted more of the political satire and less of the slapstick.

“ENDGAME”— A New Film from Israel

“ENDTIME”

A New Film from Israel

Tomorrow will be the last day of your life. Where will you go? Who will you share your last moments with? What will you mourn the most? 

Veronica Kedar’s “Endtime” tells the story of eight friends who choose to spend the last day of their lives together at home. The disturbing situation, the accessible alcohol and the complex dynamics cause everyone to face the meaning of their lives, their most painful regrets and the dreams that will never come true.

What do people do when they only have a few more hours to live? In an evening, with no tomorrow, there are no regrets, no second chances and no guilt. Only tonight exists and the night is young.

“APRIL FLOWERS”— Allegory and Heart

“April Flowers”

Allegory and Heart

Amos Lassen

Director/Writer Christopher Tedrick’s  “April Flowers” is a subtle, yet vibrant film. Celina Jade is April, a woman searching for love who faces situations as she does. Early on, April meets an old man on a park bench who asks her to place a stone with a name near a lake. He proclaims that now that he is older and has no relatives or friends alive, he puts names of prominent people and what this shows is that people are never really gone; they live on in our memories and what a beautiful thought that is. Throughout the film, April looks to return a journal to its owner. She sees this journal as an allegorical object, that unattainable goal we all strive for.

We see April in a diner imagining what a couple in the 50s would have looked like when they were dating. We see something of an older April on a train. Time is used simply as a connection.

For April, love is more of a mind game than a real emotion. One must consider it and reconsider it and then reconsider it again. If there is something that does not fit, it is to be left behind. Perhaps this is why April always feels lonely. She certainly seems to feel the need for love in her life. When a stranger accidently drops his journal in the subway, and when she finally manages to pick it up and wants to return it, he has already left the train and the doors have closed. April begins to read the journal (denying to herself, of course, that she is doing so in order to find the owner and return it). As she reads on and on, she becomes quite fascinated by the writings and she falls in love with the writer (at least she thinks she does, as she has never actually met the man, and there’s no contact information in the journal). From the little of what the journal holds for her, she pieces together her concept of where the writer lives and she puts up found posters there.

Nothing happens as a result but then she meets a guy, Jared (Jon Fletcher), who she at first she believes to be him. He isn’t but he does ask her out and the two eventually become a couple and a happy one at that. But then—- April picks up a new clue on the mystery journal writer – and risks everything just to find out about him …

This is an original romantic comedy that brings us surprises and follows no formula. I love that about this film.

“THE DEJA VUERS”— Unexpected Directions

“The Déjà Vuers”

Unexpected Directions

Amos Lassen

We have all experienced déjà vu before and never really understood what it is and why it happens. Chris Esper’s new film, “The Déjà Vuers” does not explain that but then it is something that can not really be explained.

Chuck (Kris Salvi) notices Morgan (Christie Devine), a woman he has never before met, on a park bench and what makes that interesting is that is exactly what he dreamt the night before. He tries to speak to her but at first, she is not the least bit interested and tries to get rid of him yet she is amazed at what he knows about her. The fact that is eating exactly the same fruit salad she ate in Chuck’s dream. The two begin a strange conversation that comes to Chris asking her to have sex with him. Suddenly they are joined by Elias (Craig Capone) a man who says that he is an ancestor of Morgan’s and that he has returned to the present to stop her from sleeping with Chuck.

Just as this plot sounds strange so is the film strange. It seems that Elias has really come from the past because he wants ice cream. As I watched I could not help but wonder where this story was going and why and then I realized that I was actually enjoying the film even though I really did not understand what I was watching.

Logically, there is nothing to understand here but neither does the concept of déjà vu. Everything happens in the same location and with a small cast yet we are not bored and the film is over before we really realize that we do not have a notion about what went on. It destroys the notion that it is impossible to enjoy something without understanding the time and the context. You definitely should want to have a look at “The Déjà Vuers” and then try to think it out.

“KINNARI”— To Enlightenment

“Kinnari”

To Enlightenment

Amos Lassen

I stand in awe of people who know how to use time to the best advantage and here I am speaking specifically of Christopher Di Nunzio’s short film (4 plus minutes), Kinnari. He manages in less than five minutes to do what others have spent thousands of pages trying to write about. We meet a man who is searching for a way to leave life but then….

If you stop for a second and reflect upon what you know about the end of life, you realize that you know nothing about it. We do know that death is a fact of life but that about says it all. It is a state of non-being and in that case being cannot possibly know it.

In this powerful sort film we get a meditation of the journey that leads the ultimate destination and the boundaries between it and life. (It is here that I am grateful for my degree in philosophy in that we get the chance to opine on something we know nothing about). Is that destination indeed “the great nothingness”? What does one think of during his final moments? Does he look back at his life in retrospect or does he simply walk toward this destination? What we see here is “a dream-like trek to enlightenment”; “an adventure of self-discovery”.

David (David Graziano) faces the end and comes to a moment of rediscovery with Kinnari (Jamie Joshi). In Buddhism, Kinnari is a tern describing a half-human and half-horse or half-bird hybrid, in Buddhist mythology and who is the archetypical lover. David sees her as a “goddess” and with her experiences a landscape that is surreal (which I suppose can also be said of death). . In a manner befitting to such consecrated figures, David moves with Kinnari through a surreal landscape. As Kinnari pulls David into this surreal realm, it becomes abstract and complex as he follows her up stairs that seem to never end. We become very aware of honest and intimacy when we realize the depth of what we see here. We feel haunted yet tempted and perhaps we are seeing something of David’s soul (as in T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” who measured out his life…).

Images are flashed before us and we are to put them together and decide whether they are omens, nightmarish, memorable or what. I wonder whether I am seeing intellectualism or opinion and struck by the beauty on the screen. There are questions posed and we are to formulate the answers— which I have yet to begin to tackle as I am still stunned by what I have seen. I ask myself if I really saw this and so I watch it again and again, my mouth open and my mind racing. How I do I review this? I can’t, all I can do is describe…. (and yes, if this was a review it would be five stars). Chris Di Nuncio did what many others have unsuccessfully tried— he caught me at a loss for words and as I reread this I realize that perhaps I really said nothing.

“MR. PIG”— A Father/Daughter Road Trip

“Mr. Pig”

A Father/Daughter Road Trip

Amos Lassen

“Mr. Pig” is a beautiful road movie from director Diego Luna in which California pig farmer Ambrose (Danny Glover) and daughter Eunice (Maya Rudolph) travel down every predictable road imaginable without properly exploring their history. Ambrose is a dying man who loses his farm and hits the open road in search of a proper home for his valuable hog Howie. The film takes us down memory lane as we get quite an honest look at the reality of getting old. Early on, Ambrose visits a pig-holding warehouse and is so horrified that he almost has a panic attack and from this we see his state of mind. We see the mechanics of emotion in human relationships with our parents (and with animals) and ultimately explore compassion when it comes to our own mortality and a basic understanding that humans and animals should all die with dignity.

Unfortunately the film meanders a bit too much. I see where this could have been a brilliant short film about man trying to unburden all that he has within. He and his daughter are estranged probably because of something to do with Ambrose’s pig farm and we hear Eunice over the telephone asking her father when he will be coming to visit her, something he probably never thought about doing. However now Ambrose is broke and destitute with banks looking to foreclose on the ranch and his hope is to sell off his favorite hog to a family friend for $50,000. He talks to the pig like a lifelong companion, treating him with the concern and care he probably has never shown to his own daughter. Eubanks has a code when it comes to his animals; they should be treated with respect and given free range to roam. This code causes the deal to fail just as fast as his fading health.

Eunice comes to the ranch and finds her father on the verge of death and so she begins a journey with him to find a suitable home for the hog.  This is a chance to make amends with the father who has barely been in her life, and perhaps help ease some of the guilt he’s carrying over his absence. We see a lot of sadness and it will undoubtedly be tough for some to sit through. What few laughs there are come from the stubborn, oversized hog, while Glover and Rudolph trade in mutual sadness. “Mr. Pig” is an odd story of family reconciliation, one that isn’t afraid to work our emotions.

The film does not suffer from sentimentality the slowness of the pace, like Ambrose’s unreliable wagon, threatens to stall multiple times. It is difficult to say that I enjoyed the movie because reality is not always enjoyable but it has a lot to say about the later years of life and family and for that alone it is worthwhile to see. The performances are quite good and Howie, the hog, will steal your heart.

“BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS”— Celebrating Outcasts

“Best and Most Beautiful Things”

Celebrating Outcasts

Amos Lassen

Michelle Smith is a twenty-years-old precocious blind woman who chases love and freedom in quite a provocative fringe community. Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject. She also has Asperser’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can fixate on a subject almost the exclusion of all else.

The documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, Massachusetts until shortly after graduation. Michelle knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment ending, she wants to be independent so that she can develop as an individual and as a woman.

Michelle lives with her mom, Julie, who is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” Her parents are supportive but are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

Michelle received an offer for an internship with someone who worked on the “Rugrats” show in Los and if it works out it would be perfect for her. For the disabled, life is rough and it is heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart.

Michelle is a something of a nerd who is into anime and Darla and collects dolls. Then she gets into the BDSM scene and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship even though they are both young themselves. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift.

Director and filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time. What, for me, the film does is challenge our ideas of what “normal” is. We get a look at the uphill battles people with disabilities face in a world often not designed to accommodate them and also a lively, engaging portrait of a young woman with ordinary hopes and dreams: Michelle is an explicit challenge to our ideas of what “normal” is, particularly as it concerns her autism and how it shapes how she interacts with other people. Zevgetis finds an intriguing way to replicate Michelle’s experience of the world when it comes to her sight: she can see some things if she holds stuff very close to her face, so the filmmaker sometimes engages in extreme close-ups that reduce the frame of vision down to the smallest perspective. Nonetheless Michelle’s eye on the world and the possibilities open to her is enormous; we can see from the moment it is broached that she may be getting her hopes up in an unrealistic way. But as young people we all did that. Regardless of our capabilities, we all want and need the same things out of life, Michelle may be, in the words of the film’s tagline, “not your average outcast,” but she’s not so unusual at all.

Director Garrett Zevgetis’ self-described mission in making this film was to tell Michelle’s story without focusing on her disabilities and in this way have us ponder our own concepts of normalcy.

Michelle is bright, outgoing, vivacious, and determined not to be held her back. However, she also can become overwrought and argumentative and retreats into herself when she feels her disabilities are dominating her life.

Michelle’s desire is to rise above her circumstances and this is what propels her to find ways to experience life on her own. She skates at a roller rink, goes to bars, becomes involved in a sexual role-playing community, and spends a week in Los Angeles. Her confidence and self-esteem develop, allowing her to overcome the reservations expressed by family and a former teacher.

Even though Zevgetis emphasizes Michelle’s personality and accomplishments, her disabilities are an integral a part of her story. By the time the film is over, we realize that all we have done is observe her. The film’s strongest aspect, though, chronicles how someone like Michelle, even with her obvious talents and abilities, can be made to feel like an outcast and pushed into a life of dependence by conventional thinking that focuses on what she can’t do rather than on her abilities.

Early into the film, Michelle Smith says while standing in her bedroom, “This is my life.” By that, she means not just the dozens of dolls and playthings lining her walls, but also herself. Michelle remains in front of the camera and talks about her tribulations.

The film’s title is drawn from the Helen Keller quote “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” We really do not understand Michelle as anything more than a symbol for perseverance even thought I really wanted that to happen.

“CAST OFFS”— Trash or Treasure?

“Cast-Offs”

Trash or Treasure?

Amos Lassen

 Vered Yeruham and Oren Reich’s new documentary is looks at what Israelis throw away. I was so reminded at how some Bostonians furnish their homes by waiting until the school year is over and the students put their furniture out on the streets for whoever wants it. The film follows some of the things that Israelis throw out that then end up in the Palestinian Authority, where they return to life.

The film shows that there is an underworld that exists alongside of our consumer reality – “a transparent existence of transparent people whose livelihood depends on the objects we discard offhand, without even giving a thought to their fate”. We truly see the meaning of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

Every day, thousands of appliances, toys and pieces  of furniture are left on Israel’s streets and they are the debris of an obsessively consumerist society. “Cast Offs” is the story of the junk collectors from both sides of the border, Israelis and Palestinians, who salvage these items and  sell them to the people who can’t afford the “real thing”.

“NIGHT JOB”— First Night

“Night Job”

First Night

Amos Lassen 

In his first feature film, J. Antonio brings us the story of James (Jason Torres), a temp doorman on his first night at his new job as a temporary doorman. Working the night shift is usually a strange experience for many until they become used to it and this is probably because darkness brings out many who are not seen out in the light. Filling in as a night doorman at a Manhattan high-rise apartment building, James meets not only strange tenants but street people as well.

James figured that a job like this would be less stressful than many others. His boss told him that probably the worse that could happen would be a homeless person trying to enter but unlike many other places, New York lives as much at night as it does during the day.

James gets the impression that the tenants of the building enjoy solving their issues and problems in the lobby and he tries to simply do his job of keeping the building quiet and secure sine he really knows nothing of conflict resolution (and that is job anyway). Of course it was hard not to see how many tenants came home after having had a few drinks. James certainly gets his share of oddballs including an exorcist (Robert Youngren), an old eccentric woman (Bettina Skye) who seems to have advice on everything giving unasked advice, a girl (Stacey Weckstein) who wants to help James by encouraging him and tries to make him feel better by kissing him when he needs it the most. James is not alone on the nightshift; there are others (Lester Greene, Hardy Calderon, Jose Espinal) who at first seem to understand to give him coffee and alcohol. His co-worker, the night porter (Greg Kritikos) never is where he is supposed to be and just as James begins to get a hold of how to work this job, a homeless trespassers (Brignel Camilien) appears.

All of the film is in black and white and it all takes place inside the apartment building. The one color sequence that we see is when James dreams about being invited to a party on the roof where he meets a woman. I wondered if director Antonio was reacting to movies who often show dreams in black and white while the rest is in color. Unfortunately, the acting is uneven but that could be due to budget constraints and it is admirable that a director would have such a large cast for a first film. Yet there were several really fine performances— Stacey Weckstein as the girl born with a golden spoon in her mouth and who has never had to want for anything. Timothy J. Cox never seems to have a bad performance and he is again a stand out as the boyfriend who gave his apartment keys to his girlfriend. I hate to not congratulate an actor on a job well done but Torres as James was just okay but then he, being the central character, had the job of reacting to all of the craziness that took place during his shift. Do not write him off, however, he has a lot going for him and I am sure we will be hearing from him and about him in the years to come.

I was not expecting as much humor as we get here and overall this is quite a funny kind of noir film that brings us quite a collection of characters. It takes a bit to become used to the odd narrative of the film but once you do, you will feel like you are in the building looking on as a series of mini-dramas take place. There were so many actors here that if I were to name them all, this review would be five times as long so please excuse me for not citing everyone.