Monthly Archives: November 2019

“MADAME”— A Difficult Relationship

“MADAME”

A Difficult Relationship

Amos Lassen

Swiss director Stéphane Riethauser’s first full-length film, “Madame” is an honest and unflinching portrait of an aspect of his past in desperate need of reconstruction. The title refers to Caroline, the director’s grandmother (and muse), an elderly woman who is anything but resigned. She is a seemingly controlled and bourgeois individual with a surprising strength of character. 

We see the close and often difficult relationship between the director and his grandmother who is an undisputed model of courage and determination. The direct and wholly sincere dialogue which establishes itself between these two people is seen through the rich family archives: short films shot in super 8 (filmed by the director’s father, but also by the filmmaker himself when we was just a small boy), footage of Riethauser questioning his grandmother and slides and photographs of the family as well as through visual testimonies of the director’s past. 

Riethauser uses his film to give meaning to an aspect of his past which isn’t always linear. His current status as a director and spokesperson for the LGBT cause seen through out the suffering he has had to deal with in the past. He has felt obliged for a very long time to conform to a patriarchal, bourgeois version of society dominated by alpha males. The most important thing, it seems, is to “appear” to conform physically and mentally to a standardized version of “masculinity” which is both ridiculous and extremely arduous. Men, as described by the director’s father, should “be courageous, fight for their family and their country. Yet, today we are taught that  gender roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed. 

Riethauser not only paints a picture of the strong bond he shared with his grandmother but he also explores the patriarchal and bourgeois society within which genders must be interpreted and performed by following enforced instructions. The young Stéphane ended up creating his own alter ego called “Riton”, a façade of pure arrogance and machismo behind which he could hide and disappear. By doing this, the clichés surrounding gender are revealed. The director converses with the affluent, grandiose and complicated character of his grandmother, but he also uses his own inner dialogue, looking for traces of the “self” that lies hidden beneath the way he behaves as a result of a past governed by bourgeois respectability. 

 The power of this documentary is in the balance between intimacy and meticulousness, between the humor and the tragedy that is found in a reality based only on appearances. Film permits Reithauser to express all those things that he was unable to say about love and sex during his childhood and adolescence. He takes a dispassionate and ironic look at how things once were, and, for this reason, we get a liberated voice to a past that is dominated by “things unsaid”. 

Madame is Caroline, a ninety-year old self-made woman who´s countered and overcome sexism all her life with wit and with humor. Stéphane is a victim of  homophobia. when he tries to overcome that which he´s internalized, he finds his grandmother externalizing it for and onto him.  The sufferings of grandmother and grandson both come out from sexism. However, as the film moves forward and he comes to accept his homosexuality, she becomes part of the problem.

The documentary is beautifully structured and narrated, as it examines the sexism in society, founded on homophobia, and so encompassing that it makes Stéphane turn against himself and against nature.

Madame and her grandson are both very charismatic and together with the narration, the structure, the editing, the music, and the attempts to understand oneself and each other makes this both a glorious and timely film. “Madame” goes way beyond a standard autobiography to look at the stifling of human desires that can take place even in the most comfortable setting.

Granted, Riethauser grew up in an affluent Geneva family and where, as the firstborn son, he was pampered and adored by his attractive parents. This adoration came at a price, though and he felt pressure to grow up into an exaggeratedly masculine alpha male, something he was clearly not destined to be or do. We shows us sex roles anew: “a conception of women as mystical, helpless, and revered; men as controlling, aggressive and entitled, with shame and hate the fate of anyone who dares to move beyond the constructs.” We enter the milieu in which he grew up, and his first-person narration adds to the slow awakening and eventual withdrawal from that environment.  At the same time, a parallel story  about his grandmother Caroline comes forth and we see her concealing pain beneath her rough exterior without a trace of self-pity. Like her grandson, she was punished for wanting something other than what proper Swiss father figures decreed was what was expected of her. Riethauser has a stronger than usual awareness of male privilege, and his empathy for his grandmother is moving. For her part, she encourages him to lead the fullest life he can.

The film traces the director’s his life journey to become a liberated man and gay activist in his forties. He beautifully exposes the repression he was lucky and young enough to escape.

“Anyone: A Novel” by Charles Soule— The Realistic Future

Soule, Charles. “Anyone: A Novel”,  Harper Perennial, 2019.

The Realistic Future

Amos Lassen

Charles Soule’s “Anyone: A Novel” takes us into a of technology in a realistic future. We meet a female scientist who creates “a technology that allows for the transfer of human consciousness between bodies, and the transformations this process wreaks upon the world.”

As she searches for a cure for Alzheimer’s, she finds herself mysteriously transported into her husband’s body and this occurrence, a mistake, changes her life forever.

We move ahead some twenty years where “flash” technology allows individuals the ability to transfer their consciousness into other bodies for specified periods, paid, registered and legal. Now one can “Be anyone with Anyone” the slogan of the company that now offers the ultimate out-of-body experience. Beyond the reach of the law and government regulators is a black market called the “darkshare”, where desperate “vessels” anonymously rent out their bodies, no questions asked for anything including sex, drugs, crime or even worse. 

Soule brings together today’s story of the discovery and development of the flash and the story of one woman’s crusade to put an end to the darkness it has caused in the world twenty-five years after its creation. This is speculative fiction that  takes us to a world where identity, morality, and technology collide— a vision of a future, we have never expected to see. We look at gender, power, and what it means to be human and this stays with us after we close the covers of the book. The same technology that can lets us cure the problems and woes of the world can take us into a world where selfishness and greed rule.

“DENIAL”— Short and Sweet

“DENIAL”

Short and Sweet

Amos Lassen

Misti Dawn Garritano (co-director [with Mackenzie Leigh Barmen] and writer),  and Timothy J. Cox are a married couple experiencing another day. In just three minutes we see cute interactions and amusing action. However, what can happen in just three minutes? Let me just say that you will be surprised. I can’t possibly summarize what happens without giving something away. But I can say that if you have ever been involved in a serious relationship, you will be familiar with what happens here.

The unnamed wife calls for John to fix the toilet but she realizes that he is spending quite a bit of time in there causing her to check on him to see what could possibly be taking him so long. The two performances are amazing all around. Cox as John comes across as a husband who will do anything for his wife but there is more below the surface. He and Garritano have great chemistry. They seem like a married couple living in the house that they have always lived in and, of course, we sense immediately that this is comedy. Everything works here and for three minutes, you can lose yourself in “Denial”, albeit for a short time.

 

 

“THE MIGHTY KONG”— King Kong for Kids

“THE MIGHTY KONG”

King Kong for Kids

Amos Lassen

“The Mighty Kong” is an animated, family-targeted, period “King Kong” adaptation. Dudley Moore gives his final performance. He is Carl Denham, a movie director with a nerdy sidekick who’s his cameraman and assistant only the nerdy sidekick, Roscoe (William Sage). They make musicals of wild animals appearing silly but at some point “Mighty Kong” gives up its script.

 

Carl Denham’s  wild animal Broadway show sure needs a new attraction, so when he learns about an island where these is a giant gorilla seems to be just the thing. So he, his leading lady Ann Darrow (Jodi Benson), his assistant Roscoe and their guide Jack Driscoll (Randy Hamilton) go to Skull Island, where they soon find out the natives aren’t friendly; they kidnap Ann to offer her to their giant gorilla Kong. Kong likes Ann, but doesn’t care for the other members of Denham’s expedition and tries to drive them off the island. Finally, Jack saves Ann and they knock Kong out and bring him to New York City, where he’s to star in Denham’s latest Broadway production. However on opening night, Kong escapes, wreaks havoc to the city, and ultimately grabs Ann and climbs the Empire State Building but naturally is no match for fighter planes, etc.  

The animation is interesting and the film has a sense of charm even with its bad songs  and music and the performances have a lot to be desired.  I was never a fan of the original Kong story so it would have taken a lot to impress me here but it just did not happen. It might have been a lot of fun.

“The Trap” by Ludovic Bruckstein— Two Novellas

Bruckstein, Ludovic. “The Trap”, Istros Books, 2019.

Two Novellas

Amos Lassen

Ludovic Bruckstein’s “The Trap” consists of two novellas, published for the first time in English that give us a fascinating look at rural life in the Carpathians around the period of the Second World War. We read of the fall  into disorder and fear of two c communities that were once havens of religious and racial acceptance but that were, in fact, constructed on foundations of prejudice and discrimination. Bruckstein gives us the effects of the Holocaust not only on the Jewish community, but also the wider Christian society. “The two novellas tell cautionary tales of how gradual changes that individually seem inconsequential can lead to catastrophic alterations in the very fabric of society which, by the time they are acknowledged, are irreversible.” These stories are a warning that passivity and political apathy can be just as harmful as actions.

In 1972 Bruckstein left Romania for Israel. While in Romania, he wrote plays and short stories, and taught at the University, but was never considered literarily. He published his writings in Israel until his death in 1988 and caught the attention of the local literary critics but remains largely unknown in Romania. Istros Books brought Bruckstein into the wider, English-speaking literary world, publishing two of his novellas, “The Trap” and “The Rag Doll.”

“The Trap” is set among  the humiliations Jews had to deal with daily in Bruckstein’s native Sighet. ‘How easily a man accustoms himself to everything! Even to his own humiliation’ says Ernst, the main character of the story remarks that man easily accustoms himself to everything including his own humility. Ernst returned home from his architecture studies in Vienna  which had become a prison with invisible walls, and he had to escape from those walls’. He survives the war and is deported by the Russians following something that was completely absurd. We see that most situations and characters are in fact hiding behind the friendly welcoming appearance of a darker side. “Ernst is the witness of the historical revelation of the beautiful appearances, of the human lows and weaknesses. It is the experience that people that went through the horrors of the Shoah – as Bruckstein himself – had to live with thereafter.” 

“The Rag Doll”  is about a mixed marriage when the Jewish spouse either gives up or hides his/her identity. The love affair between Theo and Hanna was able to survive the harassment against the Jews during the war but failed when Theo met a much younger colleague at work. Hanna gave up her Friday evening candle lightning as a ‘protection’ for her daughters. But every once in a while, she is unable to do nothing when “she hears the usual anti-Semitic references or longing for her family home and the life with her parents, murdered during Shoah that disowned her anyway after marrying a non-Jew.”

These two novellas are very important for the literary Jewish history in Romania. The English translation is very welcomed. 

“His Boy” by Dean Cole”— A Gay Romantic Comedy

Cole, Dean. “His Boy”, ADP, 2019.

A Gay Romantic Comedy

Amos Lassen

Charlie Stone has problems. He has just discovered his boyfriend and his new BFF in bed together because he did not make it to “his fortnightly back, crack and sack wax.” He is so angry that he speeds away from his luxury home and finds himself stranded on the side of the road in a remote village. His fairy tale life has become a nightmare and he has no idea where his life is going. One thing for sure,  he did not expect bookshop owner, Nathan Marshall, to save him. There is a problem though— Charlie is used to a different kind of life style than that on the village. That kind of life includes having his hair and nails done and spending time with his glamorous girlfriends. Nathan on the other hand has lived an entirely kind of life.

But then Charlie learns that at the last minute, an amateur dramatics group in the town is looking for budding stars to fill in two of their starring roles. We are soon amid a dark but comic “look at love, death, dysfunctional family, emotional trauma and finding yourself, with a huge cast of characters.”

Told in first person, this is the story of Charlie, who fids his inner strength, learns self-acceptance and what it means to be part of a loving relationship. When we first meet Charlie, he a stereotypical upper-class snarky gay snob who is self-focused and defensive but with a big heart and vulnerability. As he finds his place in the world, Charlie becomes confident and optimistic.  It took Nathan for Charlie to discover himself. Nathan is a nice guy who is sincere and kind. He owns a bookshop and is a perfect change for Charlie. The romance between the two men is beautifully related. Author Dean Cole shares quiet and emotional moments that read honestly.

Charlie’s journey of discovery lets him find his true inner self and happiness. At first, I found Charlie to be annoying but as I got to know him, I realized that he is not so different from several people that I know. Sure, a lot of the situations and comedy here is ridiculous but we know that thus allowing us to laugh even harder.

“The Death of Baseball” by Orlando Ortega-Medina— Two Troubled Souls

Ortega-Medina, Orlando. “The Death of Baseball”, Cloud Lodge Books, 2019.

Two Troubled Souls

Amos Lassen

Former Little League champion Kimitake “Clyde” Koba. Former Little League Champion, believes that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe as he struggles to escape the ghost of his brother and his alcoholic Japanese father. He was born at the exact time that Marilyn Monroe died and has become fascinated by her, and believes he is her reincarnation. He has a troubled childhood, culminating in being sent for court-mandated psychiatric treatment for hitting a classmate around the head with a heavy stone. The classmate was trying to get him to perform oral sex on him.

Raphael Dweck is also from Los Angeles (although born in Israel). We first meet him leaving the psychiatrist’s office after his last appointment just as Clyde is coming in for his first. Raphael is an orthodox religious Jew, but with kleptomaniac tendencies and a very strong sex drive. The courts sent to him the psychiatrist for stealing. His parents and his rabbi think he should move to Israel for a while to live with an aunt  and his three cousins. They think this will straighten him out. When Raphael is in Jerusalem visiting his grandmother, his aunt and one of his cousins are killed in a fire in their house, and another of his cousins is called up and sent unprepared into battle against Egypt in the Sinai. Raphael blames himself for both.

Raphael was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and is a teen prodigy who has been told his entire life that he has a special purpose in God’s plan. He has a problem in that he can’t shake off his doubts, his urges, or trouble and ruin that follow him around.

We move forward to 1982. Raphael now calls himself Ralph and has come back to Los Angeles and is working as an embryonic film maker and cashier in a run-down cinema. Clyde cross dresses as Marilyn Monroe. They meet and hatch a plan to make a movie about reincarnation. They form. A sexual relationship and Clyde wants to have a sex change operation so they decide to rob a bank. They wear character masks  but it all goes wrong.

Both Clyde/Marilyn and Raphael begin in bad situations with terrible families. Their families fail them at every chance and I see this as the theme in the book. Raphael comes across as a complete loser. He pretends to be a nice guy to Clyde/Marilyn, convinces them he’s an ally and they’re safe but is never around when things get bad. He starts out bad and he ends up bad. He seems to have no good qualities.

 Much of the book takes place in Israel, around the time of the Yom Kippur War and focused on a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Raphael, and Marilyn deserve our full attention as we read the tragedy and human frailty during a time of changing social mores in both America and Israel during a time of conflict and peace. There is the need for people to form a lasting emotional connections. The characters’ lives are troubled and suffer crises of conscience, faith and loyalty. I found myself totally immersed in the powerful positivity and destructing negativity, that Raphael and Marilyn display. These take them to commit ill-judged acts and they battle with issues of faith, identity and the tragedy in their lives. Together with the characterizations of Raphael, Marilyn and the social, religious and familial crisis they suffer, we are reminded of the changing times in this country during the 60s, 70s and 80s. from the 60s through the 80s.

This is an intense and thought-provoking novel about family breakdown written in gorgeous prose with characters that pull you in. I fell in love with Clyde/Marilyn, and I hoped that all would be good for them. We see how they grow from  child to adult and how they are failed by almost everyone in their life. 

This is not a book that will raise your spirits or give you a happy ending.

“PINK WALL”— A Relational Dram

“PINK WALL”

A Relational Drama

Amos Lassen

Tom Cullen’s  “Pink Wall” is made up of only six scenes from six years of a relationship, filmed with different aspect ratios to enhance the mood of where the couple is at that moment in time. We keep returning to one of those scenes, the night that Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) and Leon (Jay Duplass) met at a club and went back to his place. The film Cullen captures an immediate intimacy between these two through what feel like largely improvised scenes in which they let their guards down and act both goofy and revealing. Scenes like this are incredibly difficult in romantic dramas since they rely on believable instant chemistry and are often hurt by the fact that the filmmaker likes his characters before he convinces you to like them too. We jump forward to unhappier days in the relationship, but we keep coming back to that night that these two never wanted to end, and that they are likely trying in some ways to recapture for the next six years. 

“Pink Wall” jumps around in time in the other scenes, showing major events over the course of this relationship, ones that reveal Leon and Jenna’s character flaws. She’s controlling; he’s a slacker. In many ways, they don’t seem like a good fit, but he encourages her ambition in a way that helps her succeed, even if it leaves him behind alone in his apartment. Throughout, Duplass and Maslany feel like a real couple. The walls of performer and script disappear and we watch the rise and fall of a relationship, looking into the fights that happen as two people stay together. 

“Pink Wall” looks at the way couples can drift apart and begin to hurt one another in ways. It’s not an anti-love story, but a story about what happens when love alone isn’t enough. The film is mainly interested in depiction, not understanding. The truth is that these are two people who most likely didn’t belong together in the first place, a reality which neither the characters nor the screenplay are always seem willing to face. The movie seems to want to portray a good relationship that goes bad over time, but really it’s about a relationship that never really stood a chance but somehow carried on for six years.

It is the strength of its performances that carries the film and Cullen is good at storytelling.  This is a very intimate film that may just redefine how we should view relationships on screen.  While the film doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre but it’s totally enjoyable.

“WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS”— Debunking Evolution

“WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS”

Debunking Evolution

Amos Lassen

“We Believe in Dinosaurs” looks at a huge museum in Kentucky built to recreate Noah’s Ark and debunk the theory of evolution. The massive museum is a kind of theme park version of Noah’s Ark but with an agenda; it is part of a program designed to give truth to the teachings of the Bible. Although incomplete at times, the documentary convincingly explores the big-business connections to fundamentalist religion.

This museum is affiliated with another nearby museum, a Creation Museum that retells more of the Biblical experience for true believers. Directors, Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown, were able to interview some of the people involved with both museums as well as skeptics who protest the science that accompanies the exhibitions.

The film’s title refers to the attempt to link the museum’s religious manifesto with some facts of science. Since dinosaurs are popular with kids (who are the target audience for these museums), the creators had to find a way to bring  appeal to their messages. They decided to claim that dinosaurs did exist and that they were created at the same time as all other animals (on the sixth day of creation), but were destroyed in Noah’s Flood. The geological evidence of the dinosaurs’ existence is explained by sediment found in the rocks left after the Flood submerged Earth. In this way, there can be audience-friendly exhibits in these Biblical museums alongside of indoctrination.

What we see here is a disturbing trend in contemporary America, but it is only part of the story. We hear from a former creationist who changed his mind and a geologist who tries to debunk the pseudo-science depicted at the museums  but the documentary really needs  a few more scientific voices.

There are disturbing scenes that show children and adults indoctrinated into using catchphrases to defy the scientists. When scientists talk about the history of Earth, children are taught to call out, “Were you there?” In addition to sending a message, the sponsors of these museums want to make money. Over a million people visited the Ark Encounter museum in its first year of operation, but the residents of Williamstown, Kentucky, who hoped to see an economic boom from tourism, were disappointed. The novelty quickly wore off, and stores that were hoping to capitalize on the tourist trade soon found themselves closed.

These details while interesting do not add depth to the subject at hand. It could be that the directors did not feel it necessary to prove the case for science, but an end title reports that 38 percent of Americans believe in creationism suggesting that perhaps a stronger history lesson is needed.

The Ark Encounter museum is built to precisely the dimensions specified in the Bible (510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high) and it is intended to promote Creationist ideas in an easily accessible, family-friendly way. However, there are many questions including the use of public funds while the government of this country is supposed to commited to the separation of church and state. Does the museum communicate a message that could save souls, is it a harmless eccentricity or is it a dangerous assault on reason and truth – and, perhaps, part of a much bigger problem?

Those campaigning against the museum and local people who are just trying to do what’s right for their town without getting drawn into lots of complicated political and theological arguments are part of the focus. There are many familiar stories here but also a few surprising ones as we look at the difference between lore presented in scientific terms and back-to-basics scientific method.

Some will find the film disturbing, especially with regard to the propaganda on display, but it deserves credit for making room for everyone involved to be seen as a human being, and the story of what actually happens once the Ark is opened is an interesting one, raising questions about the real motives behind its creation.

What really matters about this film, however, is how it fits into the larger conversation about truth, opinion and fact and how we manage these things in a democracy.

“WORLD OF DARKNESS”— The Shaping of Film, Literature, Fashion, Club Culture, and Fans

“WORLD OF DARKNESS”

The Shaping of Film, Literature, Fashion, Club Culture, and Fans

Amos Lassen

In the early 1990s a game was introduced that caused a change affected many areas of current society. “Vampire: The Masquerade” introduced us to a dark side and it embraced ideas of being a creature of the dark instead of hunting it.

The documentary. “World of Darkness” looks at the game that came from White Wolf Publishing. It starts back at the roots of White Wolf and shares its story up to the present day, some 30 plus years. We look at what it meant to be a player in the early days when roleplaying games were just gaining a place on the fringes of society. “Vampire” influenced the roleplaying game industry and brought about the rise of the narrative and movie further away from a heroic fantasy setting and brought more women into the roleplaying community.

As the film explores the gaming industry and beyond, we see the influences on pop and on modern classic horror films. But there is more to the story than the influences on the media culture. Profiles of the live action events and the players who attend are scattered throughout the movie and we see that the game has influenced many and still continues to be regular entertainment for many people.

 

There have been troubles along the way for White Wolf and the documentary covers some of that and the film even includes commentary from the founder of the fan club who ended up in court with the company. It also looks at the attempt to become an online gaming presence and the hardships faced as the company had to change directions as entertainment modes changed.

Many of the facts we get here are widely known but this is a celebration of the game and the movement it helped grow. We do not see the company as being perfect but rather through a more holistic approach.

For fans of roleplaying games, this is a movie that will give a better understanding of what is happening with these games and how they have changed, and continue to change. This is a look at the history of the White Wolf company and their historic horror. It not only looks at the games but also at the culture and style that they created.

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The film is shot beautifully and lovingly by Giles Alderson, the director, and Andrew Rodger, the cinematographer. All of the makers of the original games discuss their contributions to all of the World of Darkness titles. We see the evolution of the games and the growth of the community. As the film moves forward, we see different larpers getting into costume for their games of Vampire the Masquerade and learn of  the impact of White Wolf games on pop culture.