Looking Backwards: Summer Treasure Hunt
Mea culpa! There were so many good films this spring that I simply fell behind. But then I thought you might be looking for something interesting to do while refusing to leave the house and remaining up close and personal with your air conditioner. So here’s an idea: films you should not miss are described below. The only catch: most of them are no longer playing in a theater near you. The good news: many of them are available on Netflix, on Amazon, or by streaming video. The challenge: for you to find them. Think of it as a new hot-weather diversion. Make some popcorn and a cool drink, go to your computer, and start searching for your rewards.
If you don’t know about the Internet Movie Database, here’s your chance to connect to one of the Web’s biggest and most useful archives. It not only lists virtually every film and TV show ever made, but includes their casts, production crews, filming locations, even box office receipts—and where they’re playing (if they are). In short, everything (even maybe more than you want to know) about them. Full disclosure: it’s also addictive and will provide hours of information so beguiling that you may never actually get to see the film itself. But be patient with it; you have to do a bit of scrolling to zero in on what interests you most. imdb
Of course Amazon is another option (for buying new or used videos and DVDs), and eBay also turns up some surprising treasures. And always, Google is your friend and guide. So, in alphabetical order:
City of Life and Death (Kino Lorber)
The outpouring of Holocaust films shows no signs of letting up. But almost all of them deal with the Nazis and their legacy; films about Asia before, and during, World War Two are much less common. Lu Chuan’s powerful City of Life and Death reveals what happened in 1937 when the Japanese invaded the city of Nanjing and massacred some 300,000 Chinese. Although a Free Zone was set up in the middle of the city to protect Europeans and other foreign nationals, it secretly sheltered wounded Chinese soldiers, and was eventually granted tenuous life in exchange for 100 Chinese “comfort women” to serve in the Japanese Army brothels. This is a big story, told from within, with heros and villains on both sides; the cast is excellent and the complex plot they inhabit is on fascinating, if unfamiliar, territory.
The Iron Giant (Warner Brothers)
This really nifty animated feature debut by Brad Bird (Ratatouille; The Incredibles) is full of gorgeous hand-drawn images, music by Michael Kamen, and household names voicing the characters (Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Vin Diesel). It represents two eras – the Cold War of 1957 (when Ted Hughes wrote the book on which the film is based) — and the end of the 20th century, when animation was turning the corner into full-frontal digital technique awash with musical numbers and pop culture references.
Iron Giant’s story—whose hero is a 9-year-old boy living with his single mother in a small Maine town—is about what happens when a 50-foot-tall metal robot crash-lands near the boy’s home and the boy saves its life. They bond, and the game is on. It’s essentially an affectionate satire of Cold War paranoia, pulp comics, beatniks and educational films whose message of free will and non-violence is very, very welcome. Track it down!
Kings of Pastry (First Run Features)
A second viewing of this last week on POV (PBS) only confirmed my original almost obscenely deep pleasure at peeking under the tent of the fiercely competitive world of Olympian pastry. And no one does “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” better than the French. So when a film opens with a beauty shot, an awards ceremony, and an enthusiastic endorsement by France’s president, Nicolas Szarkosy (acompanied by a Stephane Grapelli-ish version of La Marseillaise), just give yourself up to it. You won’t be disappointed! Especially when it’s from filmmakers like Chris Hegedus and D.A.Pennebaker.
Just watch while 15 finalists convene in Lyon to win the brass rings — in this case, medals confirming them as members of the elite Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, originators and creators of pastries beyond your wildest dreams. Because of their skill and the skill of the filmmakers, you are not only immersed in their fantasies of butter, flour, sugar, and chutzpah as they rise before your eyes, but in their personal dramas and (despite their rivalries) their profound camaraderie. Warning: it gets intense, and you will get hungry, even while you’re shedding tears and smiling, right up to the end.
The Last Mountain (Dada Films)
Seeing how much of Appalachia has been destroyed by Big Coal, and what the horrific consequences in human and environmental terms have been, is hard to face. But filmmakers Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes have enlisted Bobby Kennedy to keep us looking. A big cast of eyewitnesses, including local activists, politicians, and the corporate musclemen who level the mountains, scorch the earth and sicken the children lays out the issues with uncommon clarity. While such stories often remain unresolved, The Last Mountain—and its principal villains (Don Blankenship and Massey Energy)—has a resounding postscript: only weeks after the press screening, several lawsuits were in Federal courts to ameliorate some of the longstanding damage. They continue to progress.
Rabbit à la Berlin (Icarus Films)
Who says the Germans have no sense of humor? Rabbit à la Berlin puts that rumor to rest, with its tongue firmly in its sly cheeks. Remember the Berlin wall? And the 75-mile-long no-man’s land it delineated between East and West Berlin? Somehow, rabbits discovered this empty “oasis of peace and security, a perfect eco-system” early on. And, doing what they do best, they soon turned its grassy acres into rabbit paradise, free from predators and full of relatives. Until the wall came down. Having survived pesticides and poachers, they now live (mostly in West Berlin) in parks, apartment blocks, and ordinary courtyards. As the film’s four collaborators tell us, “Today, the rabbits of Berlin are free. But the price they pay for their freedom is a high one….Now they are left to fend for themselves, without the assistance of the state.” What makes Rabbit à la Berlin so memorable is its consistent, and delicious, irony, both in text and image. It’s brief (50 minutes), but worth the hunt.
Wasteland (Arthouse Films)
I am woefully late on this, but Wasteland has had so much (well-deserved) attention in so many high places, that I can only remind you about it if you haven’t already caught it along the way. In brief, the film follows artist Vik Muniz from Brooklyn to Brazil, where he finds an exuberant colony of dumpster divers (catadores) who work (and sometimes live) on Rio’s enormous Jardim Gramacho, the city’s teeming landfill. The catadores have a hierarchy of trash, sorting it by category and selling it to make a living.
Muniz’ idea is to not just document some of the most vivid personalities on-site, but to pose and photograph them in ways that mirror iconic works of art and, at the same, time, reveal his vivid subjects themselves. Once the photographs have been taken, they are magnified and reproduced in bits and pieces of garbage, like modern versions of Arcimbaldo’s fruit-and-vegetable portraits. Ultimately, the portraits are sold for the benefit of the colony, and the photographs are framed and given to the subjects. But none of this does justice to the energy, wit, and humanity of the film. It is stunningly photographed and edited, giving life to the possibility of making art out of the least likely sources. Director Lucy Walker (Blindsight; Devil’s Playground) has woven the complex, disparate strands of Wasteland into a really glorious rainbow coalition. And lucky you: you can go straight to some of the videos (yes, on Google’s video option) to whet your appetite for the whole meal on DVD.