Review of Holocaust Survivor doc is at Flickering Myth and below…
An in-depth and personal look at one of the bleakest points in history, Claire Ferguson’s Destination Unknown surveys the human stories at the heart of the events of the holocaust.
Skillfully inter-playing the stories of 12 survivors with archival footage from during wartime, the film allows an insight into the memories, passion and courage of these individuals. The film documents their various routes to escape the confusion and systematic evil of Nazi work camps such as Kraków-Płaszow, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Amongst those interviewed by producer Llion Roberts is Mietek Pemper, who helped Oskar Schindler compile the famous List and save thousands of people. Also featured is a survivor’s tale of meeting the fearful Amon Göth, the sadistic commandant of Kraków-Płaszów.
The struggles to survive did not simply end with the closing of the war. One of the things that the film does so well is highlight the tragic psychological damage that was done to these people, and the pain that does not simply go away after escape, survival or victory. Indeed in the case of Ed Mosberg, who gives lectures dressed in prison uniform, the past and pain of it does not seem to have dissipated very much at all. There is the sense that there is some power in keeping it where you can still see it.
The post-liberation period of the war is dealt with in some detail. The sheer chaos of Europe trying to come to terms with itself in the fallout of the war is given personality and intensity through these people’s stories. Mostly all in their eighties and nineties, the film lets them speak and does so with clarity and vision. A wonderful feature of the film is the energy given off by these survivors. When they have been through so much, it is amazing that they can still laugh and smile and dance. Yet, as evidenced through home video footage and photographs some can and do. And that tells us so much about human strength and resistance.
Destination Unknown is a powerful film and, ultimately, a profoundly moving one.
My review of the excellent Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith is over at Flickering Myth now… also below…
A meditative and blissfully soothing piece of art cinema, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F Percy Smith is a 55 minute tribute to the work of the pioneering microbiologist, inventor, artist and filmmaker. Released on dual format DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI, the release is essentially a Staples’s creatively selected montage of Smith’s defined and elegant films of flora and fauna. Making use of previously untested techniques of time-lapse, animation and micro-photographic elements, Smith was part artist and part scientist, constantly looking for new ways to describe the secrets of nature.
With the true commitment of a hobbyist (Smith initially developed his film techniques part-time while working as a clerk), Smith found brilliant methods of showcasing the world just beyond our senses. The film, sharing that clarity and vision, beautifully brings about the energy and passion of his work. Graceful images of insects dancing and flying about alien seeming landscapes are wonderfully sound-tracked by the composers, and help to create a powerfully relaxing effect. This alien-ness is intensified by the fact that there are no human voices at all in the film and no narrative to bring context to what the audience is witnessing. Simply put, it is life. And as alien and dreamlike as it all is, there is always the knowledge that all of this is around us all off the time. Mesmerising stuff.
Eight short films from the Secrets of Nature series, made by both F. Percy Smith and his fellow filmmaker Mary Field.
Find more information on Minute Bodies at www.minutebodies.com
My review of the documentary film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars screening across the UK on March 7th is over at Flickering Myth..
Just released new Blu-Ray/DVD pack of the Corman/Price Shakespearean vehicle Tower of London…
Find my review over at Flickering Myth and below…
What’s the best way to liven up a bit of Shakespeare? Get Roger Corman and Vincent Price involved of course!
Following the pair’s successful experiments with film adaptations of stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum and Tales of Terror) the idea seemed like a pretty good one. It’s certainly one which details many of the reasons why classic chiller fans are so devout to Corman’s genius ability to wring dramatic action out of every available space and dollar, alongside Vinnie Price’s wonderfully entertaining mixture of camp and maniacal performances.
Shot in a sharply focused black and white, the film is a loose remake of the 1939 film of the same title and the English playwright’s Richard III. There’s a bit of the Scottish play in there as well, as Price’s Richard of Gloucester – brother of a dying king – sets about taking out all of his rivals for the throne while also dodging the ghosts of those already slain. Price is, of course, the prime selling point of this movie with the actor at his nefarious best in this ‘drive-in Shakespeare show’.
But does it work? Well yes and no. The film does indeed feature a transfixing Price who is always worth watching and the pace is (usually) high tempo – which was presumably something of a priority when re-imagining Shakespeare. However, some of the scenes seem a bit rushed and conversely far too much time is given over to a disturbing rack torture scene that doesn’t sit too well with the tone of the rest of the film. Horrible yes, and it does set out the ruthlessness of Richard’s pursuit of power but doesn’t fit too well with the pace and takes up a large segment of the total running time.
That aside, much of the film is better judged and aside from a fairly abrupt ending and the scene already mentioned, Tower of London is another release from the Corman/Price stable well worth seeking out for anyone fond of devilish literary inspired goings-on in not so merry olde England.
Wiener Dog review below and at Flickering Myth.
A Weiner-dog (or sausage dog in the UK) is another name for a dachshund, and the variously monikered creature is the common feature in this anthology film of four overarching chapters. Brought to the screen by indie-stalwart Todd Solondz, known for acerbic dark comic dramas Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, Wiener-Dog is an oddly unfulfilling affair. Given the themes of depression and disillusionment, this is not entirely surprising, but the project also has the sense of being slightly under-cooked. Without giving too much away, for many the ending will leave a bitter taste, which again, is not too much of a surprise given Solondz’s previous work. It also leaves questions about how much is shock factor and how much is there for its own sake. In response to this, Solondz could simply show the film’s opening credit sequence which displays a Wiener-Dog alone and dejected in a dog pound cage. It’s not as if things started out too well for the character, is it, he may well ask…
In the first chapter, the lonely dog is momentarily freed from her physical imprisonment by a wealthy suburban family looking to offer their terminally ill son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) a new playmate to aid his well-being. Stressed out mom (Julie Delpy) is terrified of the dog messing up their home, which leads dad (Tracie Letts) to soon insist that the dog is kept caged in the basement. Remi is just as imprisoned by his illness as Wiener-Dog is, and the two form a bond of companionship that is bitter-sweet to witness. On a rare release from their cages – Wiener-Dog’s physical and Remi’s emotional – they dance around the smartly decorated home with abandon. Unfortunately, a wrongly proffered granola bar leads to Wiener-Dog getting extremely ill and eventually put down.
In the second act, a nurse, Dawn Wiener, (the protagonist of Solondz’s 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse, played this time by Greta Gerwig), brings Wiener-Dog back to health and takes her home. She meets up with an ex-schoolmate/bully Brandon (Kieran Culkin)who convinces her to go on a country road trip with him to visit his brother and brother’s partner. This is the most successful part of the film to my mind, with great performances from Gerwig and Culkin bringing a believable and genuine disjointedness to interpersonal relationships. Dawn decides to leave Wiener-Dog at the sweet couple’s Ohio ranch and moves on with Brandon down the interstate and the rest of their lives.
The third act follows Danny DeVito’s bored and unfulfilled screen-writing professor as he tries to get his own creative work together. DeVito is great as the pained Dave Schmerz, someone who for whatever reason never got what he was looking for. Instead of artistic success, he gets the sack from his workplace after getting poor performance ratings from his students. In response to life’s unfair treatment he looks to make an artistic statement in the wildest of ways; by blowing himself and his dog up to smithereens.
Finally, the fourth act features another case of unfulfilled ambition provided by Ellen Burstyn’s crotchety old Nana. Always in the company of her own Wiener-Dog, lovingly named ‘Cancer’, she is visited by her granddaughter (Zosai Mamet) and her boyfriend – a visual artist named Fantasy (Michael Shaw). It soon becomes clear that her welfare is not top of the youngster’s priorities and Nana is eventually left alone again (with Cancer) assessing her own missed opportunities and life choices.
A difficult melange of the serious and sarcastic, Wiener-Dog ultimately comes across as an interesting idea that outstays its welcome, like a dinner guest trying to impress with self-consciously ‘weird’ jokes and depressing scenarios. Worth watching for the second act, which strikes the right balance of profundity and touching humour, but otherwise the film plays out like much of the characters’ lives; somewhat disappointing.
Review of feature documentary Francofonia at FM and below…
Francofonia from writer and director Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark) is an inspiring and deeply affecting study of the meaning of art, humanity and memory. Making use of a strikingly original narrative template, the story veers around the entire structure of the Louvre museum in Paris, taking in its history, and specifically, but not exclusively, the building’s experience of Paris’s Nazi occupation during World War 2.
As with Russian Ark, that famous one-take feature, this is art that is not enabled by a quick pitch or solid beginning, middle and end. This is culture and life ringing out as clear as day, and Sokurov’s personal ruminations on the subjects of art, war and society sound out like one of the most fascinating lectures you were ever fortunate enough to receive at college.
The theatrical pieces of French museum curator Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and German Count Franz von Wolff-Meternich discussing the ideas of protecting works of art in the occupied museum offer a chillingly dreamlike sense of heightened realism to the film, which is made only more odd by the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte roaming around the halls providing an 18th Century commentary on just how things are going.
Sokurov’s personal obsessions are also provided within a strange conversation between him speaking in Russian and an ocean going ship Captain talking in English caught in a trans-Atlantic storm. These sections are presumably telling us something about Sokurov’s ideas about time and space, but the meaning is unclear. What is for sure is that they add to the over-arching weirdness written all over this avant-garde and beautiful film. As with his earlier film, the majesty of the visual flair on show is impressive and allows the audience into the sheer spectacle of great architecture.
Much of what Sokurov appears to be telling us seems to come down to the fact that the best of humanity, kept within museum walls such as the Louvre’s is ultimately extremely vulnerable and open to all sorts of base elements. Francofonia ultimately succeeds as a lyrical paean to art and how in order to survive as humans we must respect it and keep it safe. At times when nothing is quite certain, keeping what’s best safe and sound can offer more comfort than most. With a haunting other-worldliness about the whole thing that is curiously frightening and at time wryly humourous, Francofonia more than deserves its place in the Museum for the Curious.
Review of The Unspoken over at FM and below…
While confusion and mystery is at the heart of all good horror stories, clumsiness and disjointed narrative is not. With this in mind, the question at the root of the many problems The Unspoken has will be voiced and not left silent. It is this – if you have spent building up most of the film to hope for some kind of payoff and are then left wanting, do you have the right to feel disappointment? When viewing this perplexing mishmash of a production I would be forced to say yes, indeed you do.
Focusing right away on the haunted house style of horror film, the story shows us a strangely portrayed sequence of a family’s disappearance from the stock eerie looking homestead. 17 years later a mother and son move into the house, and a teenage care assistant (Jodelle Ferland) agrees to help look after the mute and seemingly troubled boy, Adrian (Sunny Suljic).
What follows never manages to invoke any scares or anything much of any interest. The writing seems to have ignored most advisory rules for a good quality script with banalities rebounding across the boards. The mother truncated figure seems to have been transported from a soap opera with none of the surreal terror that this could have brought in a more trustworthy hand. In actual fact, the performances and most of the scenes feel forced and clash in an irritating and strangely dull manner. Oddly enough it seems to have been put together without any reasonable knowledge of any horror genres at all (which again is strange as the executive production team have credits on Insidious and Paranormal Activity, so someone involved should know their way around a modern horror film).
In any case, the film also involves a strangely truncated lesbian romance story that does not go anywhere and does not serve any purpose as such. As with the disappearance of the family in the past, the writing again draws attention to something and then just leaves it hanging. This seems to go against pretty much all forms of basic creative writing advice. Only Jodelle Ferland in the lead manages to get anything much out of this mess, with her tough but vulnerable lead offering the tiniest shred of light in this turgid plunge into the worst of commercial horror.
Review of Abbey Grace over at FM and below…
Effectively acting as a merging of two classic forms of horror story – the haunted house and the possession – Abbey Grace is an enjoyable piece of home spun terror. Bringing out good performances from its cast, most notably the two leads of Sheridan and Hobbs, the movie is worth a look for fright fans after something a little different. The film plays with different genres and manages to make some solid points about sibling relationships and psychology, while also building up a reasonably tense atmosphere of unease and fear.
Debbie Sheridan (actor and also the casting director) plays Stacey, a successful psychiatrist who returns home to look after her agoraphobic brother Ben (Jacob Hobbs) following the death of their mother. Ben has not left the family home in over twenty three years, and is pretty difficult to deal with to say the least. Our early introductions to the brother and sister’s relationship is one of animosity and mistrust, often centered on Debbie’s pet dog Duke. As an OCD sufferer, Ben is not overly taken with the lively canine, and makes his feelings on the subject known in great depth.
After Stacy finds a strange headstone marked as the burial place of a child named Abbey Grace and Duke digs up the mystery items of a shoe and a box, the tension between the siblings becomes even more fraught. When Ben’s behaviour starts to become unmanageable and he complains of seeing a strange girl around the house, Stacy seek help from friend and co-worker Bridget (Amber Gallaway). She helps the two delve deeper into the history of the house and the eponymous Abbey who, as an unquiet soul has plans for all of them…
Overall, the film manages to pack a decent amount of scares in within its low-budget horror construction. It also allows a nice line of dark humour to be drawn out in the bickering siblings dialogue, something that marks it out as slightly different from a purely run of the mill shocker.
Review of a truly remarkable film, In Pursuit of Silence is over on Flickering Myth and below…
How noisy is the world these days? And how often do we really get the chance to experience silence – or at the very least, a quiet absence of loud? Not very often this impressive and exquisitely created film would suggest.
Patrick Shen’s superbly produced documentary takes the audience on an exploration of the ins and outs of modern sound levels, with a suggestion that the current trends of metropolitan soundscapes are damaging in a variety of different ways. Bringing out a number of personal stories, alongside professional scientific research, the film is a powerful encapsulation of a new-world dilemma.
Shot in a number of different locations around the globe – from the streets of the loudest city in the world, Mumbai during the festival season, to a lonely tree in Iowa, the film is much more than a traditional science and nature documentary. It takes in a whole range of subjects, with the visual language playing an integral part. In fact, the dialogue is kept to a minimum and there is no traditional narration, instead offering the insight of experts and intellectuals who have looked into sound-pollution and its impact. Each part of the film features beautifully realized representations of the natural world and our place in it, and this alongside philosophical and psychological analysis establishes exactly why this is such an important study.
John Cage’s work 4’33 could be said to be the film’s theme song, and the creator of that silent masterpiece provides thought provoking detailing of what led him to come up with the piece’s complete silence (or near silence, depending on where it is being performed). The composition is mentioned throughout the film, and how its reputation has shifted through the ages since its creation could be said to highlight our changing attitudes towards silence. Nowadays it seems to be a rare resource, and its stock could be said to to be on the rise…
The scale of the value of silence and just how striking it can be is brought out in scene after scene. A particularly striking one is recorded during a Remembrance Day two minutes silence in the Lloyds of London Building. The trading room floor falls fantastically quiet and then just as suddenly reverts to the high-octane clamour of the financial world.
Another memorable part of the film is provided by Greg Hindy, a man searching for calm and well being through a self-imposed vow of silence. He embarked on a walking quest from New Hampshire to Los Angeles and shares his thoughts with the filmmakers throughout the film. The effective display of simply holding up his notebook detailing his thoughts to the screen allows us into a private world, full of sights and intensity without the need for dialogue. He sums up the process beautifully in the following lines: “Sometimes to really see things the way that they truly are, you have to take a step back, and then another step, and then a few more.”
A meditative study, both intriguing and frightening – as quiet contemplation becomes more of a rarity – In Pursuit of Silence raises awareness in hauntingly beautiful fashion. Strongly recommended.