Category Archives: Film

“BRAIN DAMAGE”— A Headache from Hell

“Brain Damage”
“A Headache From Hell” 
Amos Lassen

Frank Henenlotter’s “Brain Damage” is a little film that caused a lot of talk when it was first released. When its distributor decided to release it with an R rating in the U.S., the film lost two of its most over the top sequences (one involving a club girl getting her brains literally knocked out, and the other featuring a nasty string of brain matter being pulled out of an ear). The watered down version still managed to find a cult audience and now, finally, Americans can see it in all its uncut glory.

Brian (Rick Herbst, later Rick Herst), shares an apartment with his brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald). He wakes up with a strange headache and finds a crusty, eel-shaped creature lurking in his room. The creature talks and occasionally slips a needle-like appendage from its mouth into Brian’s neck, whereby it injects the young man with a psychedelic chemical causing hallucinations.

Brian (Rick Herbst), develops an unhealthy symbiotic relationship with the creature to good effect. Brian becomes addicted to a strange psychedelic drug given him by the slug-like monster and we soon realize that one of themes of the film is that it is a public service warning over the perils of drug addiction.

The parasitic worm-like creature, feasts on human brains and escaped from the apartment bathtub of the elderly European couple, the Ackermans (Lucille Saint-Peter & Theo Barnes). The creepy couple had named their talking pet monster Aylmer. He escaped because they feed him animal brains instead of his preferred diet of human brains. Aylmer, preferring to be called Elmer turns up in the apartment of the Brian and gets in his head. When Elmer grasps Brian’s neck and injects him with a blue psychedelic juice that reaches his brains, everything seem beautiful and Brian is hooked. The addictive drug causes great mood swings and Brian’s life goes upside down. He moves to a cheap hotel and like a junkie tries going cold turkey to kick his habit while a mocking Elmer sits on the sink crooning and laughing at his futile efforts. Brian tries in vain to dump his clinging girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), as he hopes to learn how to handle his addiction without harming himself or others. However, Brian soon realizes that the monster controls him and uses him to murder innocent victims so he can exist by sucking out their brains, Brian wants out of this Faustian deal. Brian has sunny hallucinations, followed by coming down without remembering what happened. There are a number of ghastly incidents while Brian hallucinates that result in such deadly things as murder: a night watchman (Bradlee Rhodes) in a car junkyard has his brains consumed after he arrests Brian for breaking in and dancing around in the yard, a hot girl (Vicki Darnell) in an East Village rock club has an awful bloody experience as she tries to orally service Brian, and a guy (Michael Bishop) gets zapped by Elmer as he…. (you had better watch this yourself.

The addiction becomes too strong for the kid to handle and his life unravels with no one to help him.

Brian’s neighbors eventually catch on and inform him about the history of this creature, called the Aylmer which has been bought and traded over the centuries. Determined to hold on to his codependent prize, Brian refuses to hand Elmer over and the result is tragic and surreal.

The real fun of the film is in Henenlotter’s curious little detours along the way. The aforementioned nightclub scene remains a jaw-dropping bit of sick cinema and the finale takes some unexpected turns. The performers generally do a nice job. Herbst maintains a nice balance between comical hysteria and genuine pathos.

Special Features include:

– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations

– Original Mono and 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround Audio Options

– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

– Isolated Score

– Brand new audio commentary by writer-director Frank Henenlotter

– Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage – brand new documentary featuring interviews with actor Rick Herbst, producer Edgar Ievins, editor James Kwei, first assistant director Gregory Lamberson, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti and makeup artist Dan Frye

– The Effects of Brain Damage – FX artist and creator of “Elmer” Gabe Bartalos looks back at his iconic effects work on the film

– Animating Elmer – featurette looking at the contributions of visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti

– Karen Ogle: A Look Back – stills photographer, script supervisor and assistant editor Karen Ogle recalls her fond memories of working on Brain Damage

– Elmer’s Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage – featurette revisiting the film’s original shooting locations

– Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession – an interview with superfan Adam Skinner

– Brain Damage Q&A with Frank Henenlotter recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival

– Image Galleries

– Original Theatrical Trailer

Bygone Behemoth – animated short by Harry Chaskin, featuring a brief appearance by John Zacherle in his final onscreen credit

– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck

– Limited Edition O-card with exclusive artwork

– Collector’s Booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

“THE CHEF’S WIFE”— Creating a New Life


Creating a New Life

Amos Lassen

French director Anne Le Ny’s “The Chef’s Wife” is a brilliant comedy as well as a master class in French acting. It stars two of the most critically acclaimed actors in modern French cinema, Karin Viard and Emmanuelle Devos and this is the first time that they star together. Carole (Devos) feels inadequate and overshadowed by her Michelin-starred chef husband, Sam (Roschdy Zem). She decides to take a course at an adult training center and there she meets Marithé (Viard) who wants to help Carole create a new life with plenty of fulfillment.

The two women hit it off right away and they, bond over their desire for change. Both want more out of life in the workplace and in their personal life but do not know how to go about it. However, complications arise when Marithé meets Carole’s charming husband. We get a look at female friendship, love, lies and wanting something you can’t have. When Carole is laid off from her job, she wants to find another before her husband, restaurateur Sam finds out and so she goes to the adult training center where Marithe works. A friendship that will shake up the women’s lives begins.

Marithé’ stays busy retraining a roomful of women who’ve recently been laid off from a toy factory.  But there is one woman there who is obviously out of place, Carole. Marithé keeps Carole at arm’s length but agrees to help retrain her.  There is wonderful chemistry between the two women especially since they both want more out of life.

This is a well-written comedy/drama that is peppered with touching asides and comedic moments. One of the chief pleasures of the film is to simply watch the two actresses tear into well-written material and breathe life into their complex, occasionally even contradictory but finally always comprehensible characters. 

Carole never finished her studies and is unsure what she could do. To make matters worse is that Marithe and Carole start off badly. Carole’s too afraid to admit what she does for a living and that same evening, Marithe is taken out for dinner for her birthday to Sam’s restaurant, where Carole is the hostess.

Carole is flustered and introduces Marithe to Sam as her “gym buddy,” and not much later, life starts imitating Carole’s lies, at least to the extent that the two women start seeing each other outside of Carole’s office appointments. Marithe also meets Sam again on several occasions. In a more conventional film perhaps they would fall in love thus either ending Carole’s already miserable life would either be over or she would live her life in the shadow of a famous husband.

Instead there are problems that the other woman is better at identifying or helping to solve and thus creating a more complex inter-dependent dynamic for the protagonists. Things become morally problematic when the divorced, working-class Marithe finds herself practically forcing the clearly talented but unfocused Carole to assert her own independence, and this would mean not only a job for herself but also a divorce from the man that Marithe is secretly attracted to.

Both women need each other to become better. They have similar problems but director Le Ny doesn’t suggest that this means they become fast friends. Instead, much of their interaction happens in a middle area where the women’s individual needs are probably the biggest influence on their behavior. Neither necessarily acts out of malice.

Even though this is very much a female-centered drama, one of the nicest touches is the way it integrates the complex roles men can play in women’s lives, as is clear from Marithe’s very comfortable and warm relationship with her ex-husband (Philippe Rebbot) and his second wife (Le Ny).

On the surface, “The Chef’s Wife” revolves around the story of two women vying for the affection of the same man, but Le Ny digs deeper and the real emotional heart of the film is the relationship between the women. This is a funny and insightful look at the nature of female relationships.

Of course the question is raised as to what price is put on female relationships when the love of a man is up for grabs?  It’s an interesting dilemma and one that is treated with delicacy and humor. The two women are physically, character-wise and socially at opposite ends of the scale.  Marithé is blonde, career-oriented, passionate about her work while dark-haired Carole is childless, unhappily married with an undemanding job in the shadow of a successful husband> Nonetheless, the friendship blossoms because fundamentally they are two sides of the same coin.  Marithé admires Carole’s comfortable lifestyle while Carole is tougher and more devious than she appears. The reason that the friendship lasts is because each woman learns something important from the other.

“LABEL”— Two Women


Two Women

Amos Lassen

In “Label” we meet two young women in their twenties who are sitting in a café drinking coffee and smoking heavily as they talk about everything.

Schluppe (Kira Mathis) and Pansen (Mary Krasnoperova) are two women in a coffee shop and they speak of a mutual acquaintance as a “son of a bitch”. Now this would be interesting to pursue but there is more than one son of a bitch that comes up in the conversation.

The waiter is also a “son of a bitch”, and aliens are “sons of a bitches” and we cannot help but think that this is a really “down” conversation although I use the word “conversation” for lack of a better word to describe what is going on between the two women. It is amazing how much goes on in just four minutes, the length of the film but it is clear that this is a film about labels that we give to other people. We see how the world works with all the labels that exist in it.

Jaschar Marktanner’s film has more to offer than just laughs. It has quite a serious side but I will let you figure that out for yourself. The two young women appear to be somewhere in their twenties and seemingly will talk about anything. They think that people should be better and do not appear to be happy with what happens around them. They are direct in their opinions and know that how they feel will not be acceptable to other people. I see them as representing those who are marginalized from society and who seem happy to remain that way.

Each word of dialogue reminds us of the labels that we hear so much of in today’s world. One that label is applied it is very hard to get rid of it. Some of us even seem to be born with labels. I can remember hearing such expressions as, “She is so nice for an Italian” or “He is so gay, he must be a bottom”.

The movie was shot in glorious black and white with very little music aside from a piano making sounds. The way that the two women speak to each other is typical of conversations today and curse words are used so randomly that their meanings are lost. We see the two women as representative of those who have nothing to do but be disrespectful of others. I tried to find some thread of dignity but failed to do so. The real pity here is that society takes over the labels created by people and gives them out to whoever seems to need one. People who are different are labeled quickly. As I see and write this review, I think about how much there is in the four-minute running time of the film. It certainly took me labels; it is the depressing state of our society. I could have watched the film some sixteen plus times in the amount of time it has taken me to write this review….. and that is a good thing. It made me think.

“A MATTER OF TIME”— Mother and Daughter


Mother and Daughter

Amos Lassen

Kathryn Calder is the focus of “A Matter of Time”, in which director Casey Cohen looks at the most traumatizing, periods of Calder’s life. Just as the Victoria-based keyboardist’s career was taking off with the “New Pornographers”, her mother was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis which is better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Calder moved back to her childhood home in Victoria to help care for her mother and recording her solo album during the difficult process. We hear interviews with Carl Newman, John Collins, Kurt Dahle as well as with ALS medical experts and beautifully animated transitions which move the story along. These shed light on Calder’s strength and selfless devotion to the her mother.

Calder was touring the world with one of Canada’s biggest indie rock bands, The New Pornographers, when she received the devastating news that her mother, Lynn, had ALS and only a short time left to live. Kathryn learned that ALS is a progressive, paralyzing disease, with no treatment or cure and that it is a terminal illness requiring full-time care. Lynn and Kathryn’s bond goes beyond mother and daughter since they both have a love of music.Kathryn’s mother was once a piano teacher and she had always wanted to see her daughter on stage

And singing the songs that she herself had written. Now Kathryn felt compelled to have something beautiful come out of the grief of permanently saying goodbye and so she transforms the living room of their house into a studio. With her mother in bed just down the hall and her condition worsening every day, Kathryn filled the house with music and recorded her first solo album that was her parting gift for mother and her biggest fan.

This is a heartbreaking movie that looks at the power of love and music, and the inspiration, salvation, and possibility that occurs when these two forces come together. at the most challenging moment in one’s life. This was a especially hard film for me as I have a friend with ALS who has been declining and all of us know that there is nothing we can do and that his time with us is growing short. If he knows that, he doesn’t show it and he is probably the strongest of all of us.

We might think that this is a film about an artist and her music but it is also so much more. Director Cohen brings together archival footage, beautiful animation, and deeply emotional interviews. At its simplest it is about Calder’s rise as a celebrated solo artist and member of the New Pornographers and we see that the documentary is also about how a daughter deals with the death of her mother. It is inspiring and affirms life. We see Calder handling everything that comes her way and she does so with “grace, resolve, and courage.” We see that the film is made up of three parts—concert film, family portrait, and call to action. We enter the world of Canadian indie rock. The New Pornographers are an intersection point for bands that have helped define the country’s music industry for the last ten years.

The concert footage is amazing as are the original performances of Calder’s new songs. And yes it is also a deeply intimate, human story. Calder finds a new voice and begins a career as a solo artist. Likewise she forges a new bond, albeit a short-lived one with her mother and learns to say goodbye and move on. We also learn a bit about ALS and Casey Cohen manages to bring Lou Gehrig’s story to that of Calder’s mother in beautiful subtlety. Calder finds a way forward for herself and finds strength in community and hope in the future.

“MAIKO: DANCING CHILD”— Dancing for Life


Dancing for Life

Amos Lassen

Norwegian Writer and Director Ase Svenheim Drivenes introduces us to Maiko, a thirty something year old dancer who has been dancing for her entire. Her parents sold their home so that the young Maiko received the best instruction in dance growing up. mostly has played a crucial and pivotal role as her daughter’s main supporter and counselor, encouraging her to stay focused on her career and life goals as well as counseling her through seasons of loneliness while she was away at school.

We see many images and vignettes that reveal the physical pain and work that goes along with the beauty of ballet. At one point, a mealtime discussion with Maiko and her fellow dancers focuses mainly on various pain medications that allow dancers to continue to perform.

We learn that Maiko destiny was decided before she was born. Her name, Maiko, means dancing child and her mother has sacrificed to much to send her. to the most prestigious dancing academies in Europe. Maiko knew she couldn’t return to Japan as a failure.

Today Maiko is 32 and at the top of her career as a prima ballerina for the Norwegian National Ballet. But Maiko is no longer a young dancer and talented newcomers long for her position. When Maiko decides to start a family, she is forced to make decisions that might jeopardize everything she has worked for. What me really see here is the tough and dedicated life of a professional ballet dancer.



A Vampire Story

Amos Lassen

In a bathroom at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, we see what two bodies inside a stall are doing. We hear a sucking sound that’s actually Milo’s (Eric Ruffin) mouth on another man’s open neck wound. Right away, director, Michael O’Shea seems to say that Milo’s vampiric tendencies are homosexual and a mark of otherness. In Milo’s world of a disadvantaged seaside housing project in Brooklyn, his peers pick up on his weirdness; bullies taunt him. What they do not know is that once or twice a month, he hunts down white men and opens their necks with a penknife.

Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), a disaffected white girl with psoriasis. They bond over their dead parents and their alienation. Milo shows Sophie his apartment, which he shares with his poor and loving older brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten). It’s decorated with pictures from vampire movies. This is a subtle and sensitive vampire film set in an African–American community in New York City.

Milo is a sympathetic character even though he is somewhat creepy who spends his free time watching YouTube videos of animal-on-animal violence—including human-on-livestock—and public-domain horror movies. It perfectly follow that Milo and Sophie’s first date was to see Murnau’s “Nosferatu” . They seem to make a nice couple.

The film was shot on subways, in public housing, and out on the streets as well as in desolate parks and fields, boatyards and on project rooftops and the contrast in the various setting highlights the conflict between man and animal, the civilized and the wild, the boy and the blood-drinking beast. Though we never really know for sure whether or not Milo is a vampire although there is a strong suggestion that he is not. The film eventually comes across as look at a psychologically sick kid who is introverted, hiding in plain sight and existing in a world of poverty and violence. To make that world seem more real, we see several stereotypes such as Mike (Danny Flaherty) who is a caricature of white privilege. He visits Milo’s apartment complex and asks for his help to score some cocaine. Mike winds up in a basement, where through narrative contrivance he bumps into a band of thugs who are offended that he assumes that they’re drug dealers and lecture him on racial biases before they kill him. The film is strongest when it concentrates on the relationship between Milo and Sophie whose emotional lives are honestly presented. Milo is able to reconcile his homicidal impulse with mythology, until he’s pushed to confront the morality of his being a murderer.

Milo has become so taken by the movies that he wants to try out being a vampire for himself.  O’Shea wants us to see him as a thoughtful person who uses vampirism as a metaphor for the aggressiveness and that it is brought on by loneliness.


Milo has no friends and he freely tells this to his school guidance counselor.  His brother Lewis is a decent guy who has just returned home from the Middle-East war zone. We get the impression that he likes Milo but does not really know how to show his affection so he does so through macho commands. Sophie has nobody at home to nurture her and dreams of escape. She and Milo establish a bond as they recognize each other for the marginalized and ostracized characters that they are.  Milo thinks that a date with her is watching movies in his apartment library and these include vampire films. 

The film is more a character study than a horror film and we see that there are occasions for Milo to suck some blood, including that of a man in the men’s room from whom he steals money and a drunk on the street whom he follows in the apartment, feasting on the inhabitants.  When Milo silently witnesses the killing of Mike (Danny Flaherty) he understands that the thugs that did so also have special plans for him.

For Milo, loss and loneliness mean a descent into self-isolation, online videos of animals in pain, and the belief that he’s a vampire. This is quite a dangerous path he’s on, and it’s clear he’s thinking about it for a while now.

Milo kills and drinks his victims’ blood on a regular basis, and while he robs them too he’s not entirely sure what to do with the cash. His habits of His seclusion and thinking about murder change with the arrival of Sophie who moves into his building to live with her abusive grandfather. Like Milo, she has seen loss and suffering. Unlike Milo who acts on his feelings of pain and exclusion, she inflicts pain on herself. The two connect and share a bond based on vampire movies.


“The Transfiguration” is a restrained coming of age tale that features times of bloody violence. In that opening scene when we meet Milo sucking a man’s violently-opened neck in a bathroom stall, we see that this is not sexual and neither is it personal; rather it is a passion-less act of someone doing only what he must (or what he thinks he must) to survive.

Milo might or might not be a vampire himself, but the world around him is sucking the life out of everyone it touches. Milo sees his needs as part and parcel with his vampirism while we see it as something more real but just as dangerous. Milo is the way of becoming a sociopath and Ruffin’s performance with its cold-blooded behavior is convincing in the way we see how cut off from emotion and human connection that he appears to be.

“HEAVENLY NOMADIC”— Meet the Family

“Heavenly Nomadic” (“Sutak”)

Meet the Family

Amos Lassen

A family of nomads lives in the high, remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. There is elderly herdsman Tabyldy, his wife Karachach, their daughter-in-law Shaiyr and their 7-year-old granddaughter Umsunai. Shaiyr’s son, Ulan, studies in the city and visits them only during the summer holidays. Her husband died many years ago when he was drowned in a mountain river, trying to save a foal. Shaiyr decided to stay with the family because of her strong attachment to the land and its people. We see three generations of a nomadic family living in a yurt and breeding horses. This is director Mirlan Abdykalykov’s first film and it was Kyrgyzstan’s submission for the Oscar for best foreign-language film. It is a contemporary tale of paradise lost set in a remote region of the central Asian country. When a meteorologist Ermek (Jenish Kangeldiev) moves to live nearby, Shaiyr’s life will never be the same again.

“Heavenly Nomadic” highlights Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty and some of the country’s most enduring traditions, making this a film that seems like both a tender exploration of a family as well as a time capsule for cultural aspects that are fading as the older generations die off.

We cannot help but notice the absence of other men in the family. As I said, Shaiyr’s son Ulan (Myrza Subanbekov) is studying architecture in the city, much to Karachach’s disapproval. A new male, Ermek, enters the story. He is a middle-aged meteorologist whose sudden liking for horse milk and friendship with Tabyldy arouses Karachach’s suspicion. Although Shaiyr is no longer young, she is still attractive, and Karachach fears that their daughter-in-law could leave them.

The family is at the center of the film and the adult members of the family work without rest: the care for the herd requires constant attention—frequent milking of the mares, playing with the foals, tending to the horses on the pasture, riding and racing them. Akylbek’s wife Karachach has a personal point of view on everything, which is not always in agreement with the opinion of the other family members. Therefore she often tells her husband that ostensibly the daughter-in-law Shaiyr is not as kind to her as required by family etiquette. Akylbek silently listens, but does not react in any way. Once Karachach has spoken, she goes after her business. There are no admonitions, disputes or conflicts.

On the other hand, Shaiyr conducts herself impeccably and gracefully; the mother-in-law cannot really complain about her aloud but she does become jealous when she sees the daughter-in-law easily mount a horse and ride off. Shaiyr is the ideal image of a Kyrgyz woman: she is beautiful, she is a good mother, an excellent mistress of the house and a hard worker. She regards her father-in-law with respect and is loyal to her dead husband. She rejects the proposal of the visiting meteorologist Ermek to have a family. 

We see the special attention paid to the relationship between adults and children. If Ulan, the young granddaughter of Akylbek and Karachach, Umsunai is still at a pre-school age and all the adults provide her with care and attention. Legends and fairy tales play a great role in the education of the granddaughter; the grandmother and grandfather often tell her stories. What is surprising is that these mythical stories correspond to the girl’s present experiences, and those of other family members, too. In one story, for example, Karachach transforms the legend about the bird “sutak” (a kind of owl) that is supposed to sting the daughter-in-law about her friendship with Ermek. Karachach cannot bear such, in her opinion, obscene behavior by Shaiyr.

The legend is that during old times, an old shaman woman Kara-Bakshi lived on the place where the family now have their home together with the son and daughter-in-law. Once the old woman saw her own daughter-in-law with a stranger. She got very angry and cursed her “to be forever a bird!”. Since that time the daughter-in-law flies the sky, crying out: “Sutak! Sutak! I’m as pure as white milk!” Therefore everyone bows before the bird and forgives her, so she may calm down. But she won’t turn into a human being.

When Karachach, triumphantly looking at her daughter-in-law, finishes the tale, Shaiyr runs out of the yurt under the pretext of looking after the horses. She easily jumps on the herd’s leader, her favorite horse Ak-Sary, and goes off to the peacefully grazing mares.  

In the end there are only women in the heavenly settlement: Akylbek dies, Ermek and Ulan have left for the city. It is the inner force and spiritual wholeness of the three heroines who are representatives of several generations that give us the basis to believe that they will honorably continue their mission on our earth, for they have pure thoughts personifying an ideal world-order to which we should all want to reach.


“Undatement Center”

Starting Over

Amos Lassen

There was a time when dating was so easy. If a guy wanted a date, the most difficult thing he had to do was get up the nerve to ask someone to go out with him. There were places one could go to find dates and there were singles parties. Then along came the Internet and technology and everything changed. Now, it seems, that when a man wants a date, he needs to provide a cover letter and a resume before he can consider asking someone out.

Jack (Trevor Duke) has been single for a long time and he decides that the time has come to begin dating again. He decides to use a dating service to find the date and, as you can imagine, the results will be humorous. While getting a date can be quite hard, we also have to know how to act on a date so there will be no long embarrassing silences when one of the parties is thinking about what to say next. That moment when both parties realize that they have absolutely nothing in common can also be difficult to deal with or even as a result of too much to drink either side can appear moronic and has nothing to say. I think it is safe to say that we have all been there. Director Chris Espy has also been there and he has chosen to make this new film about dating.

Jack (Trevor Duke) hasn’t had a girlfriend for twelve years and he is just 26 (which means that he has not had a date since he was 14 years old. The time has come for him to meets someone and so he enrolls in a dating agency and there he has to have dates in front of other men (who also want to try their luck with the same girl). However, Jack has no luck and is turned down by every woman he meets. He then decides that he will take the role of the interviewer and it costs him $500 more to do that. However, this changes him by giving him a sense of power and allowing him to be the one to say no (which he does time after time. But then Lindsey, quite a beauty sits down in front of him and…

In just ten minutes, “Undatement Center” gives us some fine performances and some great humor. We are immediately reminded of how dating once was when w see that the girls that Jack is interested in want to see a résumé, a cover letter, his latest health check and then he still can’t score. Jack reaches the conclusion that he has been going abut dating all wrong and arranges that he get on the other side of the table and take charge of those who come looking for dates. He soon realizes that he enjoys giving the kind of abuse he had once received himself. Jack was not the kind of character I would sympathize with, he had the ability to put people off but when he changes his tactics I found it hard not to like him even though I am pretty sure I would not want him as a close friend. He is also, by the way, a fine actor who turns in a fine performance. What I really like about his film is its subtlety both in direction and in performance.



“THE PROMISE”— The Armenian Genocide


The Armenian Genocide

Amos Lassen

As “The Promise” opens we see a title card that tells us that1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Turkish during World War I. Of late, there has been a renewed interest in the fate of the Armenian people but until I saw the number killed, I did not realize the extent of it and this title card weighed on me heavily as I watched the film. Directed by Terry George, “The Promise” is set in Turkey and follows medical student, Michael (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant guy who decides to have a life with a local girl (Angela Sarafyan) so that he can secure his position at one of the prestigious schools in Constantinople.

He is not really in love with the girl but he has a dream and he needs her to make it come true. He promises to marry her after he finished his exams that can between two and three years. He leaves Constantinople foe the Imperial Medical School where he stays with his uncle Mestrob (Igal Naor) who has an impressive river-side home where he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the tutor for his uncle’s children. Ana is in something of a relationship with Chris (Christian Bale) a journalist for the Associated Press. Soon Michael and Ana are having a secret affair while Chris is out of town investigating a story. Chris is onto quite a big story and he sees first hand that Armenians are being rounded up and killed. These tensions soon hit Constantinople and Ana and Michael hide in a local hotel. Michael is soon discovered and thrown into prison and forced into slave labor and Ana returns to Chris to help other family members during the troubles. When Michael escapes, he must do everything he can to survive, and he has to make personal choices for the greater good as the genocide increasingly intensifies.

The film is a romance about a love triangle with a woman caught between the two leading men. It is impossible not to see the horror that is happening around the three characters. There is also the commanding presence of Isaac and Le Bon that add to what the movie has to say. However, the film is somewhat old-fashioned in that it is bloated.


It all begins in 1914, in the little village in southern Anatolia where Michael an Armenian apothecary, becomes betrothed to a young woman so he can use her dowry to study medicine in the capital of Turkey. He is supposed to return to his future bride when his studies are over. However, the big city offers way to much for him to leave. Ana is a Paris-educated Armenian who is serving as a tutor for the young girls of the Armenian family where Michael lives during his studies. At the medical college, Michael becomes fast friends with a young Turkish student who is only studying medicine so his father doesn’t make him enlist in the army.

Shortly after Michael’s arrival, the Ottoman Empire joins the Central Powers, and the city erupts into chaos as Turks begin rounding up any and all Armenians—starting with the intelligent and influential. It is then that Michael is arrested and where he witnesses some of the horrors of genocide firsthand.


The first half of the film or so is actually a quite effective historical drama and we clearly see the lines of tension and familiarity among the various Armenians and Turks in the big city. When the film on the love triangle between Michael, Ana, and Chris, it slows down and seems to lose direction. “The Promise” succeeds in fits and starts (there are moments when it’s really good, really interesting, and really emotional and there are moments when it’s very boring). The performances are quite good, however and Isaac is excellent throughout.

The Armenian genocide is a very important point of history, and while this kind of romantic epic worked well in the past, there are far more interesting ways of telling such a vital true story. The “soapy” aspects of the film deter focus from the real horrors that are ongoing, and while this cast shines when given serious emotional moments, these moments are few and far between. The film struggles to find an ending and the result is a feeling of listlessness during what should be an intense and emotional conclusion.

Armenian Genocide was indeed a genocide, and thus has a special, terrible place in human history all its own. In fact, the word genocide was coined by a Raphael Lemkin precisely in response to the Armenian genocide.. The United States has not yet formally recognized the Armenian genocide and neither has the United Kingdom, nor Israel nor many other countries. The countries that do formally recognize the Armenian genocide have only done so in the last 20 years even though it occurred in 1915 (though, the events directly leading up to the genocide began far earlier, and killings took place until 1923).

The Armenians were a Christian people living primarily in eastern Anatolia and had long been the subject of Ottoman abhorrence because of religious and ethnic tensions. In 1914, and the Ottoman Empire was newly under the control of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), otherwise known as the Young Turks. The CUP was a Western oriented, modernizing movement and it was still decidedly anti-Armenian. When World War I broke out, the CUP leadership saw the global chaos as the perfect cover to carry out their campaign of extermination. While scholars continue to debate exactly when the events of the Armenian Genocide began, it is widely agreed that the genocide proper began around April, 1915.

Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide was not rigidly structured, mechanized or an industrial effort. Instead, the killings mainly took the form of death marches, in which Armenians were forced from their homes for “relocation” and were then marched through the Empire until they perished from exhaustion, disease, exposure, or starvation. There were also more straightforward mass killings by the Ottoman military as well as bands of mobile executioners. Those Armenians that weren’t killed were used as slave labor (and then murdered), sold into sex slavery, or forcibly converted to Islam.

When the genocide finally ended in 1923, about 1.5 million Armenians had been killed or displaced, the region of Armenia almost entirely purged of its historic people. The genocide destroyed 75% of the entire Ottoman-Armenian population.

This is the background of “The Promise.” The atrocities to come are hinted at in the beginning of the film, but seem to materialize out of nowhere. It is well known that Hitler was an admirer of the Armenian Genocide, but what is less known is that the Germans were highly complicit in its perpetration, having had knowledge of the events and the requisite control over the Ottoman military and government. Ana and Michael fall in love just as the roundups of prominent Armenian intellectuals and businessmen begin and Chris travels around the empire catching glimpses of the atrocities being committed upon the Armenian population and reporting back to America.

As a story, and as a film, “The Promise” is routine, and disjointed with very little context is given for the genocide itself, which is the real subject of the film. Even with its shortcomings, this is the first “big” film about the Armenian Genocide to be released and it is very important. Many people are unable to put a face on Armenia or the Armenian Genocide. Unlike Jews, Armenians are not an especially visible group in popular culture. We are reminded of what of Joseph Stalin’s famous quotes— “the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of one million is a statistic.” This lends credence and importance to this film.


“Concrete Love: The Architecture of the Böhm Family”

Meet the Bohms

Amos Lassen

Germany’s most important architect is Gottfried Bohm who at ninety-four years old still works every day on construction projects with his sons Stephan, Peter and Paul. He has been preventing them from becoming independent and the center of this is Elisabeth, Gottfried’s wife was also an architect and wife, mother and their most important source of inspiration in the family. “Concrete Love” is a documentary that gives us a look at famed Pritzker Prize laureate Gottfried Böhm and his all architect family.

We first meet Gottfried as he is adding delicate details to a large urban planning sketch. He is at home Cologne. As the film moves forward, we see examples of his expressionistic buildings (concrete chapels to the school of Brutalism) as well as Gottfried’s attention to the experience and comfort of those using them. He is still disciplined in his output, and though he’s not designing as many buildings as his sons, he still spurs his sons on. After the passing of Elisabeth, we see human fissures in the family relationships. The sons share their concerns about each other and the expectation of their father and they do so vulnerably and candidly.

I believe that everyone wants to leave behind a legacy to be remembered by and this family certainly does just that. Swiss documentary filmmaker Maurizius Staerkle Drux looks at the legacies of the three generations of German architects and brings us an extraordinary “sensory portrait of the family, both intimate and immaculate in design”. We come into the Bohn family just as the matriarch Elisabeth falls ill. Her husband Gottfried (who is supposedly retired and has been for years though by most accounts retired for years) continues to work diligently everyday on new designs with pencil and charcoal. He still is the lord over the work at the firm with his sons. When Gottfried sits in his home office sketching new wonders with an incredibly steady hand, we see Elisabeth napping in the background and occasionally rising to chastise her husband on his ideas.

Elisabeth and Gottfried gentle argue and this is what makes the film so special— the humanity and the family love that we see here. It is love that spurs the elderly couple on. With Elisabeth’s passing the mood shifts to one of reflection and sojourn. A light has gone out with Elisabeth, an inspiration for each of the Böhm men in their own ways. Stefen continues to focus on attaining work in the fast growing Chinese market, Peter gets ready for the opening of The Museum Of Egyptian Art, while Paul struggles with the controversy over the construction approach to a new mosque.

Gottfried has of late begun to leave the house more as he goes to his past architectural accomplishments across Germany. He built great concrete churches which have become monuments for the ruins of World War II. He was a soldier under the Nazis and this is still a great shadow and tender spot for the man and his family who are pacifists and whose interests are creation and faith and not destruction and hate. Gottfried’s work shows healing, especially in the older structures that he does not want replaced by newer buildings. For him, this is concrete and steel but also of the flesh and of the spirit. Architecture then is perhaps the greatest reflection of his human soul be it abstract and practical in form and function. 

We realize that Gottfried has created monuments that are both eternal and of the moment. Seeing his work is an emotional experience and we sense that we are experiencing something great. He knows this as well and we really sense it when we see him sitting in a seat in a Ferris while overlooking Cologne, smiling at his accomplishments that he sees from above.


I found the documentary to be quite lyrical in the way that it both measured and deliberate. We are with the family as Gottfried approaches his ninety-fourth birthday and we see something new. The sketch that he was working on when the film began is not at all like his usual designs. This is a reflective design of a man who has been reborn but has never forgotten his past. Elisabeth always wore a red shawl that flowing like water and the same red flowing like waves are to be the roof of the theater. What a beautiful tribute!!