Category Archives: Film

“THE LEGACY OF MENLA”— Cancer and Tibetan Medicine

“The Legacy of Menla”

Cancer and Tibetan Medicine

Amos Lassen

Director Adam Miklos brings us a new look at Tibetan medicine in the story of three different Indian women who have been diagnosed with different stages of cancer. These women have opted to follow their faith in doctors from Tibet and go against the wishes of their families and/or the advice of Western doctors. Tibetan medicine comes from the bringing together of Buddhism and science and both believers and non-believers have taken heed of its progress. Not only do we see the film through the eyes of these three women but also we see the progress of medicine in Tibet and how doctors there are educated. We get a look at the past, present and future of the way these doctors heal their patients and it is absolutely fascinating to watch. After all, we know that hope and faith are beneficial to making people feel better and even though no cure is promised, patients achieve a different way of looking at death.

The rest of the world searches for a cure to cancer while at the same time doctors in Tibet diagnose and treat patients. This movie shows an alternative view of cancer. We follow Dr. Dorjee Rapten Neshar, Chief Medical Officer of Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute (TMAI) Bangalore Clinic, and one of the Tibetan doctors specializing in cancer treatment today. The doctor works with cancer patients of differing ages and backgrounds and at differing stages of their treatments and these patients share their emotions and lives as they are touched by Tibetan Medicine.

Through the doctor and his patients, we become aware of the results and limitations of Tibetan Medicine in how it deals with cancer. We also see the challenges that Tibetan Medicine faces in the production of medicine as it becomes more and more in demand and the environmental concerns that arise out of it. For me, the most exciting thing we see is how the Tibetan Medical tradition is adapting to today’s global world.

Director Miklos and two of his producers went to Tibet and spent two months with Tibetan Doctors in various parts of India. During that time, a month was devoted to Dr. Neshar. Their goal was to show how different this medical system is from those of the Western world. Then they went to Dharamsala, the new home of the Dalai Lama. The central institution of Tibetan Medicine, the Men-Tsee-Khang is located there and it was where they met three people who proved invaluable to their filmed study— a Russian medical student, a Buddhist monk who is responsible for the medicine production and a cancer patient. We learn that the approach to health is more important than the treatment itself. We are given a lot to think about here and I doubt we will ever see cancer or Tibetan doctors the same way again.

“DEFARIOUS”— An Experience in Fear

“Defarious”

An Experience in Fear

Amos Lassen

Chase Michael Pallante’s short film, “Defarious” introduces us to Amy (Janet Miranda), a young woman suffering from nightmares that are so terrible that she finds it difficult to distinguish between them and the real world. Reminiscent of horror film from the 1980s, Amy suffers not only from nightmares but also from visions of her dead mother and the line between dream and reality is blurred for most of the eleven minutes of the film. In her latest nightmare she was she was threatened by clown like villain, Defarious (Jason Torres), and this leaves her so upset that she wants to call a friend but she is unable to find her cell phone and she hears glass breaking even though she is alone at home. As she looks around she finds the character from her dream but sense that there is no waking up this time. She understands that he has come to kill her.

What is so fascinating is that in a short eleven-minute scene that is little more than a standard horror scene, this one is told with such style that the viewer is totally into what he/she sees and even though it is very simple, we are totally involved.

Director Pallante uses visual imagery and keeps the pace of his film at just where he wants it to be thus providing a view filled with the macabre and foreboding. The cinematography is shades of blue that expresses a sense of cold that makes this look surreal and brings fear to the audience. There is little dialogue and we do not know the motivations for what we see and there is virtually no exposition. It is up to us to figure out what is really happening.

In a very short amount of time, Pallante tells a short yet comprehensive story with no gimmicks and we seem to enter Amy’s mind and experience what she feels. The villain is terror, personified coming out of the shadows as something of a shadow himself even though he is totally apart from them and singular. When we see him in total, his eyes appear to be alien and coming from hell and he completely unnerves Amy and the viewer.

“CINEMA NOVO”— A Movie Essay

“CINEMA NOVO”

A Movie Essay

Amos Lassen

Director Eryk Rocha shines a new light on a major movement in Latin American Cinema: Brazil’s Cinema Novo of the 50’s and 60’s. In this film he introduces us to the work of dos Santos, Rocha (Glauber), Hirszman, de Andrade, Guerra and many others. Cinema Novo was influenced by Soviet Revolutionary Films, Italian Neo-Realist, French New Wave and South American revolutionary ideas of its time.

This is a documentary that is more of an essay about film than anything else. Through interviews we get the background and then Rocha goes on to praise the work of the directors he features and we see the various ways of influence on cinema come from these people. There is no didacticism in the memories that are shared and we get quite a good sense of creative liberty. We soon understand that the process of chronicling a film movement is the same as creating one and this film is something of a love letter from son to father since his Eryk Rocha’s own father was co-founder of Cinema Novo. He is certainly qualified to make this film and he truly appreciates the value of using his subject and its guiding forces as a mechanism to explain it. He is able to draw on both his personal connection and his background in both factual and fictional efforts.

Rocha wonderfully captures the spirit and substance of a genre that swept a nation fifty years ago. The result is perfect for those who couldn’t be there to experience it for themselves.

“Cinema Novo” attempts to usher the audience into the requisite mindset. “It was an era where art, utopia and revolution walked together, an adventure of creation, friendship and non-conformism that presented new images of Brazil to the world,” the feature tells us and then it tries to validate such florid language with a well-edited assemblage of movie excerpts and interview footage.

It is a creation of fragments and segments, the former expertly excised from the works of or discussions with the elder Rocha and his contemporaries and the later bringing the clips together.

While the film starts with the features created during the period, before segueing to their makers and then rhythmically moving back-and-forth between the two, both remain equally fascinating. It is full of information and is a rich viewing experience. We move through Cinema Novo’s origins as an antidote to popular movies of the time, detailing the political and human motivations to make films that depicted the true state of the nation, and exploring both the success and the difficulties that arose along the way.

“AN AMERICAN TRILOGY”— Cyril Morin Directs Three Films About How We Live

“AN AMERICAN TRILOGY

Cyril Morin Directs Three Films About How We Live

Amos Lassen

“An American Trilogy” is made up of three films by Paris and L.A.-based filmmaker Cyril Morin that give us a perspective on three significant moments in modern American culture and history.

THE ACTIVIST” is a riveting and intimate political thriller set during the Wounded Knee events in 1973 and it recreates the paranoid culture of the 1970s. It shows the corruption and political scheming after the arrest of two Native American activists. What happened at the insurrection at Wounded Knee shows a tragic story of American subjugation of Native Americans by the government led by president Richard Nixon and how it was an attempt to subvert the actual events for political gain. This film genuinely develops the various characters in a layering manner. Directed by Cyril Morin this is an intense political thriller based on an actual report called the Sacrifice Zone that President Nixon signed off on.

Bud “One Bull” Ward began as a rebel who started an Indian immersion school and then had that taken away from him. As a result he turned to the American Indian Movement as way to fight the problems that existed at Pine Ridge prior to 1973.

Most of the film is set within a jail cell where Marvin Brown and Bud were sent after the unexplained death of Marvin’s wife. A brutal officer guarded their every move as Nixon’s representatives tried to stop the negotiations to end the Native American riots and the survival of the two of the two prisoners becomes an uncertain dispute.

“NY84” is the story of three young artists and lovers who are part of the New York art scene of the early 1980s and see their future challenged by the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We look at the

creative and emotional lives of Kate, Anton, and Keith. They are young and carefree but this all ends in 1984 when Anton and Keith contract a mysterious illness known as the “gay cancer.” As her music career takes off, Kate tries to save her friends in this bleak but affecting portrait of New York as it changed so drastically because of the disease.

 Singer-poet Kate (Sam Quartin), photographer Anton (Chris Schellenger) and painter Keith (Davy J. Marr) live in a crummy apartment. They work, party and play, feeling happy and safe in their cocoon. But then AIDS hit and people started getting sick.

The movie’s narrative has limited dialogue and back-story. It relies more on mood and impressions, scenes of photo and recording sessions, pensive one-sided chats with an unknown interviewer, and tightly shot imagery that deftly shows the way they struggled against the epidemic.

“HACKER’S GAME” is a modern, relevant, and suspenseful thriller will keeps on the edge of our seats. Soyan, a hacker hired by a high profile cyber security firm, and Loise, a cyber detective, embark on a dangerous romance.

Soyan (Chris Schellenger) lands a job at BL Reputation Management after he’s caught breaching its IT system and potentially exposing sensitive information about its clients. The company specializes in creating new identities and rewriting histories — much like the witness-protection program except available to any VIPs or corporate entities.

At the same time in the Human Search Organization, human-rights lawyer Alice Carson (Gayla Johnson) has Loise (Pom Klementieff) tracking down families of victims of illegal arms trade. Soyan and Loise become romantically involved, while BL partner Russel Belial (King Orba) tries to seduce Alice under the false pretense of offering her a job so that he can sideline her. Soyan seeks to dump classified corporate, government and banking information on the independent Leak.

For the first time the three films are packaged as a trilogy in a 2-disc Bluray pack.

“INDOORS”— Trying to Make It Big

“INDOORS”

Trying to Make It Big

Amos Lassen 

  Eitan Green’s “Indoors” introduces us to Avram (Yuval Siegel), a small-time building contractor who is trying to make it into the big time, gambles on projects that exceed his capabilities. His family lives in the shadow of his career ambitions until one of the projects overwhelms him in debts that he cannot pay back.

Doron (Danny Steg),  Avram’s 14 year old son, is a star athlete who escapes from the difficulties  at home by leading  his school’s team to the Tel Aviv Basketball Championship.  His success on the court is an emotional force which helps his dad.

As the story opens Avram’s wife Dassi (Osnat Fishman), a nurse, is a member of a medical delegation on a humanitarian mission in one of the impoverished areas of Eastern Europe. When the situation at home becomes critically complicated she returns to Israel and discovers how much she worries about Avram and how much she really loves him.

Both his son and his wife go through a rough time due to Avram’s financial downfall but, in their shared effort to help him, they rediscover the strength of their family ties.

 

 Israeli Academy

Awards Nominee for

Best Screenplay

2016

Offical Selection

Jerusalem International Film Festival 2016

 

“VAUGHAN, STEVIE RAYE— 1984-1989: LONESTAR”— Quieted Too Soon

“Vaughan, Stevie Ray – 1984-1989: Lonestar”

Quieted to Soon

Amos Lassen

I must claim ignorance here. I do not know anything about Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was out of the country during his popularity and later death so this documentary is all I really know about him.

In the mid-1970s, when Stevie Ray Vaughan first emerged as a modern blues guitarist with great ability and passion. These two qualities distinguished his playing from that of just about all his contemporaries. His kinds of blues, however, did not really impact the mainstream in terms of buying his music via CDs etc. and so he struggled to nail a record deal. But by the time his debut album, “Texas Flood” was released in 1983, things changed and Vaughan became an international phenomenon and an artist of great importance in the revitalization of the blues genre.

This documentary gives us the up till now untold story of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s best years— that period between the release of that debut album and his tragic death in a helicopter crash in 1989. The documentary is made up of rare film footage, exclusive interviews with many close friends and confidantes, contributions from the industry professionals and music writers who documented his career as it unfolded. Included are seldom seen photographs and other features and this is an excellent way to enjoy the performer whose life ended too soon. This film is the sister feature to Sexy Intellectual’s previous documentary, “Rise Of A Texas Bluesman – Stevie Ray Vaughan 1954–1983”.

“DOWN ON THE FARM”— A Clever Animated Film

“Down on the Farm”

A Clever Animated Film

Amos Lassen

When a bale of hay goes missing on the farm, mystery-solving Oink The Flying Pig and his know-it-all pal, Boink the Owl, set off on an adventure to discover which of the farm animals is responsible. In order to discover who took the hay, Oink and Boink have to first learn all there is to know about all the suspects. We join them on their mystery-solving

They work together to uncover clues and inform the other animals of their findings. Directed by Kostas MacFarlane from a script by Lisa Baget, this story contains facts about horses, rabbits, chickens, and many other farm animals. It is educational and entertaining for the intended audience. We are proud to award it the Dove “Family-Approved” Seal for all ages. We hear the voices of Bobby Catalano, William MacNamara, Bill Oberst Jr., Jason Pascoe, KJ Schrock and April Rose.

“FIVE NIGHTS IN MAINE”— Unspoken Resentments and Visual Mtaphors

“Five Nights in Maine”

Unspoken Resentments and Visual Metaphors

Amos Lassen

  Sherwin (David Oyelowo) arrives at the coastal home of his cancer-stricken mother-in-law, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) while in the midst of grieving the sudden death of his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg). He does not understand why he is there but it could be for any number of reasons. Maybe he is hoping for closure or looking to stop his recent reliance on cigarettes and alcohol or maybe he is just curious about his wife’s past claims that Lucinda disapproved of Fiona having a black husband.

“Five Nights in Maine” is a film that is full of the unspoken resentments and visual metaphors that propel any solemn drama about grief and mourning but even more interesting is that there is also a sense of gothic horror in it. Lucinda’s white, mansion home seems to give an idea that it has been coastal abandoned and Lucinda only greets her son-in-law during candlelit meals and then appears as regal and loud.

Lucinda and Sherwin’s uncomfortable dinners take place after we see long views following Sherwin as he washes dishes, explores the local woods, or interacts with Lucinda’s part-time nurse, Ann (Rosie Perez). The film tries to speak of his race without speaking its name and we see that Sherwin receives long glances from strangers at the grocery store, and he panics after hearing gunshots in the forest. These buttress Sherwin’s alienation from the film’s rural setting, but we had already felt that when he first entered Lucinda’s.

The film’s central characters are complex and difficult to understand. Through flashbacks we see the love and tension in Sherwin’s relationship with Fiona, but there is little about life outside of their marriage. Sherwin has lost his center while we do not see a center in Lucinda. Their brief relationship is uneasy and elusive.

We follow following Sherwin as he silently washes dishes, paces slowly through sparsely furnished rooms, smokes, and makes egg salad as the film captures the internal process of mourning.

Sherwin had only one tender moment with Fiona before learning that she had been killed in a car accident. Marooned in his home with a liquor bottle, and too paralyzed to deal with funeral arrangements, when Lucinda invites him to come to her home in Maine, he goes. Lucinda is very cold and dying from cancer. We do not know much about Sherwin’s life before the accident, although there were clearly some rough patches in his relationship with Lucinda. Fiona visited her shortly before her death, and we sense that this didn’t go well. As the two share dinner-table encounters over the next five nights, Sherwin’s depression slowly becomes quiet anger with the way Lucinda is treating him.

In the absence of much understanding of either of these characters, it is up to the audience to fill in the details by themselves. Director Maris Curran does not prod her characters into exposition and this is very clearly intentional. Grief is an emotion that is internal and one rarely sees it for what it is. Sherwin appears to be the only black person in this particular county and while this is never directly addressed, we see it in the way others stare at him.

Oyelowo gives a precise and controlled performance. Wiest never quite locates a middle ground between Lucinda’s terminal vulnerability and her use of verbal cruelty.

This is gut-wrenching drama that looks at the stages of grief and troubled communication. With his wife’s death, Sherwin is destroyed, unable to process the loss. He almost refuses to function as the process and only finds support from his sister, Penelope (Teyonah Parris). Accepting an invitation from Lucinda, Sherwin enters an uncomfortable situation, receiving guidance from her caretaker, Ann. Lucinda is a guarded woman struggling with terminal illness, leaving Sherwin in a difficult position of engagement. He is unsure how to discuss issues with Fiona’s mother and often remains distant as he takes in the remote location and the intense introspection it causes to happen.

Fragmented memories play an important part in the picture as the character breaks down his heartache into psychological puzzle pieces. When we meet Sherwin, he appears to be a happy man in a loving marriage. This idealized representation of the pairing from his perspective, the film breaks down the reality of the domestic situation with Sherwin, who grows more sensitive to past arguments and behavioral blockage as he grieves. He then surrenders to depression after losing his spouse, cutting off contact with the outside world as he lives in denial of what happened.

Visiting Lucinda clarifies that he is both family but also a stranger. There is dysfunction and unresolved issues between Lucinda and Sherwin and they play with pain and contempt that is very much like a blame game. We see the hostilities and confusion that are all tied to Fiona’s behavior over the last few years and her final exchange with her dying mother. There’s always something brewing beneath the surface here— tensions are taut and vulnerabilities are exposed.

The power of the belongs to Wiest and Oyelowo, who deliver portrayals of anguish and a tentative partnership in grief. Oyelowo captures the mental process of a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself and looks for any opportunity to exorcise his boiling feelings. Wiest plays a woman with a specific reason for social resistance as she holds the feature’s mystery. We as the audience eventually understands her isolation and hesitance to bond with Sherwin. It would have been enough just to watch these two but Curran has prepared something special, transforming a simple tale of reconnection into a maze of confusing emotions.

“MR. GAGA”— A Look at Cultural Expression”

“Mr. Gaga”

A Look at Cultural Expression

Amos Lassen

I was lucky enough to spend some of this weekend with Israeli documentary director Tomer Heymann who came to Boston to show three of his films, two of which I had not seen before, one of which I had seen before, “The Queen Has No Crown” reminded me just how much I miss being in Israel. The other two, “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now” and “Mr. Gaga” cemented Heymann’s place as a Israel’s most documentary film director .

“Mr. Gaga” looks at Ohad Naharin, choreographer of the Batsheva dance company and if you have seen any of their programs then you know that it is a powerful dance troupe that was founded in 1964 by Martha Grahame and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild. Naharin was appointed artistic director in 1990 and not only influenced the state of dance in Israel but universally as well. Heymann takes us into his life and gives us his history both with and before Batsheva and we see how he shaped his work and learn of the personal tragedies that have made him who he is.

Now in his mid-60s, we learn here that Naharin served in the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War, (in an entertainment unit because an injury kept him from being assigned to combat assignment). After his release from the army, Naharin’s mother pushed him to continue dancing and even though he thought it be a bit strange to begin professional training as late as age 22, he did so. He soon was dancing in the companies of Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart and those experiences, unhappy as they were for him, were the sparks that caused him to discover dance variations that were meaningful to him personally. While in New York, he fellow dancer Mari Kajiwara, who left her spot as a starred dancer in Alvin Ailey’s troupe and began to participate fully in her husband’s projects.

 

In 1990, Naharin received the offer from Batsheva and although Mari was not wild about moving to Israel with him, she did so and became the company’s rehearsal director. When Naharin began at Batsheva, the usual audience was made up of a conservative and older crowd although I do remember seeing quite a powerful and innovative program “The Green Table” in the 1980s. Before Naharin threw out the conservative programs that had once defined the company and brought in his own works that were truly innovative and new. Hr used movement that was unpredictable movement, added multimedia and spoken text, developed dance programs based on sociopolitical themes and by and large changed the company from the inside out, attracting new audiences as he did so. Batsheva became critically admired at home and abroad and its fame spread quickly. Israelis considered Naharin to be a “cultural hero” and many who had been uninterested in dance began to flock to performances.

Heymann takes us back in time via archival footage (Naharin entertaining Israeli troops, or dancing with his mother at the kibbutz where he was born), interviews with Naharin himself, and incredible dance excerpts, thus giving us the definitive portrait of the choreographer. We see his evolution as an artist through the development of his signature form of “gaga dancing,” by which dancers freely interpret the music, rather than focus on dance technique. It would be more than enough to say that this is a gorgeous and moving film that takes us into the mind of Naharin but it is so much more than that. It is also much more than a look at the creative process and the life of a man who changed dance. I believe I was in a state of awe as I watched the film.

The most exciting part of the film comes when Naharin faced censorship during the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel. The program was an interpretative look at the song “Echad Mi Yodea”, a song that is traditionally song at the Passover Seder and it is, in essence, a song showing the Biblical history of the Jewish nation and the laws that are apart of it. The dancers were dressed in various stages of underwear and some of the organizers of the anniversary celebration demanded that the dancers be more modestly clad. Naharin was under extreme pressure and was invited to the home of the then president of the country, Ezer Weitzman, who tried to influence him to change the costuming. Instead of doing so, Naharin withdrew the program as a protest to censorship and in this act we see the importance of the arts in its role of interpreting and questioning the world. Religious Israelis and members of the Orthodox community objected to seeing the dancers’ limbs as they wore standard-issue military underclothes. Naharin today says that the influence of religious fundamentalism has become so powerful today that he is worried about the future of Batsheva. Having seen other occasions of attempted government censorship in the arts (stage productions of “Cabaret” and Hanoch Levin’s “The Great Whore of Babylon”), I totally understand how he feels.

This scene gives the film an unexpected socio-political side and is a paean to the right to cultural expression. Naharin provides commentary for a good deal of the film and I cannot help but admire his sincerity and wit.

Heymann spent eight years making his documentary on Naharin and take my word for it, it is worth the wait. I got the impression that Ohad Naharin is something of a private person who would rather use his energy in teaching his dancers than in speaking with the director yet we see that the two men have developed a sense of trust in each other and out of this comes this beautiful film. Naharin is a demanding dancer and choreographer who exhibits a gentle side and it is very easy to see why he is so respected. We also sense the determination of Heymann in getting this film made.

Tomer Heymann is a fascinating and interesting person in his own right and we see his compassion for his subject. In the Q and A that followed we learned a great deal about how the film was made and we sense his love for what he does. There is a lot that I did not say here so there is still plenty for the filmgoer to see when he watches this beautifully sublime film. I did not want it to end. I am so grateful of the relationship that has come about between myself and Heymann and I await the day that we can sit down and talk one-on-one.

“PROTEUS”— An Animated Documentary

“PROTEUS”

An Animated Documentary

Amos Lassen

“Proteus” is an animated documentary that was written and directed by David Lebrun in 2004. It looks at a 19th century understanding of the sea with emphasis on the life and work of German biologist and researcher Ernest Haeckel who was fascinated with one-celled microorganisms known as radiolarians and these are featured prominently here. To the thinkers of the 19th century, the single-celled marine organisms known as radiolaria (that are as dissimilar as snowflakes and just as beautiful) came to be the infinite variety of undersea mysteries waiting to be explored. But to Ernst Haeckel, the biologist and artist who discovered, drew and eventually classified 4,000 species, these ancient creatures were proof that nature itself was God.

In “Proteus”, director David Lebrun draws on science, art, myth and poetry to express that period’s fascination with all things oceanic. Central to his narrative is Haeckel, who while struggling to reconcile this newfound and creative passion with his desire for order and rationality, finds his answer in the fantastical geometric shapes of the radiolaria. To him, they are a perfect communion of the systemic and the aesthetic: nature’s own art forms. As he looked into his microscope, he drew, in detail, the intricate forms that eventually appear in his 1862 monograph, “Die Radiolarien.”

“Proteus” is about the historical context of the matter. We see the significance of the radiolaria as explained by earnest narrators that remind us what it was like to study at the time of Charles Dickens and every once in a while, we hear a stanza from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Background music by Yuval Ron is heard as the organisms pulse and we are both dazzled and disoriented by what we see. Director Lebrun credits Haeckel’s with his influence on many movements and thinkers, but he ignores his theories of evolutionary biology. It has been generally accepted that Haeckel committed scientific fraud in his 1868 drawings of embryos and his endorsement of eugenics is believed to have been a major influence on the political philosophy of the Nazi Party. The exclusion of these disputes leaves us with an incomplete portrait of a complicated man.

In the 19th century, the world beneath the sea was both the ultimate scientific frontier and the home of imagination and the fantastic and the documentary explores the century’s engagement with the undersea world through science, technology, painting, poetry and myth.

Regardless of theory the film is a gorgeous visual feast. You only see cinematography like this once or twice in a lifetime.