Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Apollo’s Girl

May 14, 2017


Exiles: Away From Home…

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
June 16 in LA at Laemmle Royal)

For a rich and deeply satisfying look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. Schrader has chosen a cool, objective approach to her subject, which frames the white heat of politics and culture threatening to burst into flame in every sequence, and hooks you from Scene One.

The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives, both of whom accompanied him abroad en famille), and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader, famous for her role in Aimėe & Jaguar, applies all her acting smarts to her cast’s talents and draws a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich.

Because the technical, aesthetic and dramatic elements are always in perfect balance, and the tensions between Zweig’s inner life and his public persona heighten the intensity of the portrait, it’s as close to total immersion as you can get without actually having been there. Surely you will be inspired to move on to Zweig’s novels and essays, which made him the most successful writer of his time and have continued to remain the basis of dozens of films right up to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014. (P.S.: Pay attention to the way the end of Zweig is shot. Fascinating choices!) Deservedly Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

(Opens May 12 in NYC at Cinema Village;
June 2 at O Cinema Miami Beach)

Full of turbulence and moving at warp speed, Elián will keep you breathless and on the edge of your seat right up to the end of the narrative: Elián Gonzalez was only a little boy when he was found alone, clinging to an inner tube, in the ocean between Havana and Miami. The boat on which he had traveled with his mother, her boyfriend and dozens of Cuban refugees had sunk, and his mother had drowned. Overnight, the beautiful child became a sensation—television crews and reporters swarmed the house where he lived with the Miami aunts, great-uncles and cousins who had claimed him. The media circus exploded into a cause célèbre for Miami’s Cuban exiles, always at the boiling point, and for the many public officials who joined the efforts (pro and con) to grant American citizenship to Elián and to prevent his return to Cuba, where his father (who had learned he was gone only after the boy and his mother had fled under cover of darkness) had immediately sought to reclaim his son.

Photo by Shaun Best REUTERS

Eventually, members of Congress and Janet Reno (then Attorney General) determined Elián should live in Cuba with his father. The fire and brimstone that accompanied every twist in the story were shocking in their ferocity. There were daily confrontations on the streets of Miami and Havana; instead of cooling with the passing of time, the violence escalated, with demonstrators, police, Federal agencies, religious institutions and—always—hordes of media pouring accelerant on the flames. The ugliness lasted six months, until Elian’s father flew to Andrews Air Force Base to join his son after Federal agents stormed the home in Miami where Elian, hiding in a closet, was literally snatched from the arms of the fisherman who had originally found him. The entire affair could not be forgotten; its after-effects impacted the presidential election of 2000, and US foreign policy for over a decade.

Benefitting from a wealth of footage (which spares us none of the competing opinions and shameful frenzy of the many participants), Elián is still remarkably even-handed. Not only in exposing the disturbing zealotry of the exiles in Miami (which caused the INS the Border Patrol to stage the armed rescue raid that terrified the little boy), but in Cuba as well. Through no fault of his own, Elián had became a pawn in the United States as a symbol of “democracy”, and then again in Cuba where, after his return, he was “adopted” by Castro as a symbol of Cuban ideals.

Despite the heat of its subject, this film is told and made by experts who really know their stuff: Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden have, between them, filmed and written prize-winning material that is both intensely emotional and impeccably researched. As I discovered while digging through the internet, Golden published a piece in 1994 (it haunts me still) read article here about how the US destroyed the then-state-of-the-art Cuban health care system, several others about Elián Gonzalez, and a series on the abuses of Guantanamo.

There is no question that Elián will roil your heart and your mind as you are horrified by the brutality of the forces pulling at the traumatized six-year-old. The film also spends quality time with the grownup Elian, who seems to have weathered the storms of politics, just as he once weathered the shipwreck that left him without a mother and at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Whatever your feelings about the issues, you will be shaken by this chapter of very recent history whose ending still remains to be written. Don’t miss it.

Cooper’s London

November 25, 2014





Backlist: Get Ready to Read!

The Pushkin Press in London has been doing the English-speaking world a fine service by bringing the works of Stefan Zweig back from their underserved limbo. Anthea Bell has been doing new translations of the fictions, impressive in their accessibility and accuracy of tone, anthea belland Pushkin has also been re-publishing the non-fiction in the original 1920s and 1930s translations by Eden and Cedar Paul. I remember about a dozen volumes of Zweig in English on my mother’s bookshelves when I was a kid (my grandmother had them in the original German). She was always telling me that he was one author I shouldn’t miss.

When I was growing up it was still accepted that Zweig was one of the most important modern German writers, along with Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Franz Werfel, and other greats of that era; during the period before WWII Zweig was, for a time, the best-selling writer in the Western World. His biographies of Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Magellan and Casanova, among others, were iconic. If you wanted to be “cultured”, you had to know your Zweig. His novel Beware of Pity has to be one of the most astute and poignant psychological studies ever written as well as a gripping portrait of the final years of the Austrian Empire. It is, like all his fiction, one of those great and un-put-down-able reads. Zweig’s novellas and short stories are as unique and special as Chekhov’s or Katherine Mansfield’s, and as important as James Joyce’s Dubliners in their innovations and experiments-–or as unique as Alice Munro’s tales. At least one, Letter from an Unkown Woman, was the inspiration for a classic film of the same title by Max Ophuls in 1947. These new Pushkin publications have even inspired filmmaker Wes Anderson, or so he claims, to create The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose characters are loosely based upon and inspired by Zweig and his gallery of books.

The author’s own story is ultimately very sad. Convinced that his world had been blown away forever by the Nazis and fearful that it would never recover, zweig2Zweig ended up committing suicide with his young wife in Brazil after sending his memoirs, The World of Yesterday, to his publisher in Sweden; it was forbidden to publish him anywhere occupied by Germany (he had Jewish ancestry and was therefore an examplar of entartete or degenerate art. And everywhere that Zweig was known and loved or had friends and connections was occupied by Germany. A recent and very successful French novel, The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, imagines Zweig’s final months in Brazil and his suicide and was also recently published in English by the Pushkin Press.

If you haven’t already discovered Zweig, then perhaps the best place to start is his novel Beware of Pity and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. Both are brilliantly evocative of the final years of the Hapsburgs and just beyond and help you understand both their glamour and their crushing conventions. I would also acquire his Collected Short Stories, (relatively recently published) and perhaps one of the many famous biographies. He also wrote some fascinating essays; there is a collection of sketches of great historical moments called Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures, full of surprising information and brilliantly constructed sketches with the impact of tiny fables.

Novelist, playwright, journalist, biographer and historian, Zweig was wrong about one thing–his kind of culture has not perished from the earth. And with Pushkin’s new translations and publications in English, there’s a good chance for even more of a revival.
Recommended Stefan Zweig Starter Pack: The World of Yesterday; Beware of Pity; Collected Short Stories; Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures; Marie Antoinette; Magellan

Then you can move on to: The Post Office Girl, Journey into the Past, Casanova, Tolstoy, The Struggle with the Daemon…and more! He was incredibly prolific. But If you have holiday reading plans beyond everything by Zweig, here are some favourites on my bedroom table for Book-at-Bedtime reading.

Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 (Victoria Wilson)

stanwyck1One of the most thoroughly researched, best-written and consistently fascinating biographies of a Hollywood star ever published. It’s also nearly a thousand pages long and covers, so far, only about half the life. But, though it’s neither scurrilous nor gossipy–all the details are clearly supported by meticulous research–it feels much truer and more concise than it looks.

Victoria Wilson clearly adored Stanwyck both as an actress and as a person, and her enthusiasm and admiration shine through. She gives us a movie-by-movie analysis of Stanwyck’s considerable body of work as well as all the salient facts of her life while she was working on each film. And more! Because every time Stanwyck meets with a new director or writer or actor, Wilson gives us essential context.

As the political background to Stanwyck’s life changes—from World War I, the flapper era, the crash of 1929, Roosevelt’s presidency, to the rise of the totalitarian regimes in Europe–it’s clear not only what was happening to Stanwyck, but to the world in which she was living. We watch her grow as a human being and as an actress, applaud her triumphs and feel sad about the failures and problems. Every character remains vivid, not least Stanwyck herself; her difficult childhood is a riveting starting point. You gain insights into her abusive marriage to Frank Fay and her powerful need to stick with it and stanwyck3make it work as long as she could bear it; you understand the nuances of her love for Robert Taylor who was, as she noted, more beautiful that she was.

The book is fascinating not just for Stanwyck’s story but also for the story of Broadway in the 20s. plus the emergence of the talkies and their growing sophistication and technique throughout the 30s. If you have any interest at all in this era, you’ll love this book for its generosity of spirit. It’s endlessly informative, surprising, and provocative. It makes you want to read biographies of Frank Capra, Robert Taylor, Mae Murray, John Ford, and many others. Best of all, it makes you think about and want to see (or see again) just about every movie it mentions, especially the ones with Barbara Stanwyck. This is a five-star book I can enthusiastically recommend to any film fan. Or, in fact, to anybody.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (David Nasaw) 

Joseph P. Kennedy would be worth writing about even if he hadn’t been founder one of America’s most extraordinary political dynasties. He was a hugely successful banker during kennedy4World War I, the owner of a film studio and a major player in Hollywood in the 1920s; Ambassador to England at a crucial and troubled time in the 1930s and a huge influence on his sons John and Robert. His personal legacy was besmirched by scandal (read his erstwhile lover Gloria Swanson about him) and by his extremely authoritarian political stances. Yet he was also, finally, one of Roosevelt’s men.

In this substantial biography, Professor Nasaw – who had access to papers the family had never shown before– goes far to clarify Kennedy’s beliefs and behaviour and evoke strong understanding (if not exactly sympathy) for him. Kennedy’s stand in favour of co-operation with Hitler’s Germany, for instance, is made more explicable. He was extremely able, and a central figure in much that is important in twentieth century history and, indeed, influential to this day. So the book is a kind of “must-read” for anyone interested in the personalities of that period. Though exhaustive, the book is never exhausting,
but well-written and almost impossible to put down. I didn’t like Joseph Patrick President Roosevelt Delivering Radio AddressKennedy any better for knowing more about just why he was anti-Semitic or how helpful he was at times to Roosevelt. Still, this is definitely a good account of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century from a conservative, ambitious right-wing point of view. But I find I liked and respected the Roosevelts a lot better. In fact, The Patriarch drove me straight back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–the Home Front in World War II.

More on Ms. Goodwin in the next installment.

Apollo’s Girl

July 16, 2014




A Summer’s Tale (1996)

Just in time for the dog days, Eric Rohmer’s third installment of Tales of the Four Seasons has been restored and released for the first time in America. Why so long? Perhaps it fell into some cinematic crack, but the timing couldn’t be better. With July simmering around us, there’s no better antidote than this survivor of a movie. So let’s go to the beach…

But not the sun-drenched, saturated-color glamour
of the Cote d’Azur, where you pick summerstale2our way toward the Mediterranean while looking around to see who’s in the water. No.
This summer’s tale plays out on the lesser-known and everyday Atlantic, near La Rochelle. It’s cool, in every sense of the word. The film’s crisp, restrained palette of rocks, sun and sand, the middle-class ambiance of the beach and the pale bodies of its citizens are rendered as an alternative to the heat of the Riviera. And what a relief!

Eric-Rohmer-001Rohmer himself is a relief, too. We have missed his adolescents talking out their problems on long walks, or over the ubiquitous red wine that lubricates their opinions. It’s always about relationships–monogamy or the thrill of the chase and the unknown–talk is life to his self-obsessed young adults. What makes Rohmer so special is his fondness for the angst that never dies, expressed with eloquence and reticence. And how, in his young, heartfelt protestations of probity are delivered so that the audience is in on the joke and the layers of denial and emotional need that frame every conversation.

summer's tale 3A Summer’s Tale begins simply enough, with Gaspard (Melville Poupaud) arriving on the beach looking for his girlfriend Lena (Arélea Nolen) who is traveling to meet him. But she’s still in transit. Soon Gaspard is deep in conversation with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a charming waitress/graduate student, about his relationship. And–what do you know–the waitress professes friendship, and suggests he meet Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), a friend of hers who might be just right for him while he waits.

No sooner has he begun to explore the possibilities of Solène’s “rightness,” then his capricious girlfriend shows up to tantalize–just as the waitress decides that perhaps Platonic might not be the way to go.
summer's tale 1There are no ultimatums or slamming doors, but eventually the lovelorn soloist has become the pivot of an increasingly lively menage
à quatre. It’s complicated: all sincerity and self, with incrementally elaborate deceptions necessary to maintain equilibrium. The comedy is sly, but
consistent, and just as we wonder exactly how summers tale- 2Gaspard will extract himself from what has become an embarrassment of riches, he finds a solution. Won’t give it away, but it’s worth waiting for and drew appreciative, knowing laughter from the sophisticated crowd. Definitely the right movie for right now. Look for
A Summer’s Tale and thank Big World Pictures for bringing it back.

Human Rights Watch Festival

Compared to the scale of last year’s political turmoil, 2014 offered a different aesthetic: small-scale, tightly focused, and intense. Often quieter. But no less affecting. One of the most powerful choices was the Sundance Audience Award-winner, The Green Prince, directed by Nadav Schirman.
It green princetranscends the you-can’t-make-stuff-like-that-up category with a real-life journey that, against all odds, generates a deep friendship between a young Palestinian zealot and the Shin Bet officer assigned to recruit him as a double agent for Israeli intelligence. It is, in fact, a terrifying story, with implications that remain troubling long after you leave the theatre. Schirman has figured out how to enhance the essentials with a combination of archival footage (chilling) and occasional reenactments designed for maximum impact.
The Green Prince pulls no punches and, given the current news from the Middle East, is a must for anyone who sustains even a scintilla of hope that coexistence is an option. Though still on the festival circuit, it will be in general release later this year. Find it! (From Music Box Films)


privateviolencedeanna_touched-finalPrivate Violence
(Director: Cynthia Hill) The tag line of Private Violence is “…the most dangerous place for a woman in America is her own home,” and ample evidence for the statement is offered repeatedly in this harrowing, disturbing account of the truth behind many marriages, and not just in America. Many of the victims are disadvantaged, but the pattern of violence and escalation is not confined to the 99%. One of the most shocking interludes reveals a highly respected doctor with a long history of domestic violence screaming imprecations at his wife and those who would restrain him. If that doesn’t unsettle you, the narrative thread of one woman’s terrifying attempt to find justice should forever answer the question “Why didn’t you just leave?” She eventually finds an ally with a similar history who is able to navigate the judicial labyrinth and bring the case to trial, with a verdict of guilty that will make you cheer while you weep. This is one instance where states’ rights are an almost insurmountable obstacle to a good outcome. (HBO: October, 2014)

(Director: Richie Mehta) is narrative fiction, generated by the reality of child trafficking that forms a horrific bridge between the haves and have-nots in the Third World. Needing extra money to subsist, a father “sells” his adolescent son through a relative to work in a distant factory, rationalizing the arrangement as a necessity, but only temporary.

Due to come home for the holidays, the son never returns. With the growing fear that something has gone terribly wrong, the father sets out to cross India and reunite with his boy. He encounters realities far beyond his simple existence and is unable to find anything more than the likelihood that Siddarth has been kidnapped and forced into an unthinkable life. Siddharth (like Mehta) has both gravitas and modesty, but the understanding that Siddharth will never be found shakes the father and mother, and its understated sorrow has greater magnitude than a more sensational film could ever provide. (Zeitgeist Films: In national release.)

The Beekeeper (Der Imker)  Director: Mano Khalil

der imkerAnother gentle and understated storyof a Kurdish beekeeper (Ibrahim Gezer)who has been granted
asylum in Switzerland. Only gradually does he reveal to his new friends the horrors that led him to flee Turkey (his entire family was killed), and find the strength to take up his old profession despite the Swiss laws—generating a hilarious sequence of the absolute and well-meaning correctness of Swiss bureucracy versus the beekeeper’s real need. The bees are his salvation, and he will pass his knowledge on to the next generation. But The Beekeeper, without a domestic distribution, will remain unseen in America.


casa grandeAlways a pulsing grab-bag of unexpected goodies,
the current Latinbeat scores with two  debuts: Casa Grande (Director: Fellipe Barbosa) is an unsparing coming-of-age story
that offers one of the most arresting (and original) opening sequences in cinema history.

Forget that car on the road going endlessly toward the horizon! Casa Grande’s beginning tells you everything you need to know about one of the essential players (the father): his conflicts, goals, and the house he has acquired for his family that is a source of pride for him, and a burden for his rebellious son. It is dusk; he paddles in his Jacuzzi, cools off in his pool, dons his expensive terrycloth bathrobe and heads across the patio to his house. He switches off the music that we mistook for a background score, then methodically turns out the lights that blaze through the windows as he climbs from the entry to his bedroom. The house is comfortable and welcoming, and will turn out to be built on sand.

The economic and social issues that plague modern Brazil are navigated well and imaginatively here, without short-changing any of the human drama, or the seriousness of what lies under the surface of suburb and favella. Barbosa keeps all the complex threads in motion so we can see the fabric of society unraveling without requiring explanation. It’s what movies can do in the right hands.

paula hertzogAnd now for another understated gem that simply sneaks up on you:
Natural Sciences (Director:
Matías Lucchesi) and yes, another example of how to tell a story by making the camera dialogue’s equal partner. The story is simple—a young girl’s obsessive quest to find the father she has never known—and, at 77 minutes, brief. But every second counts. At its center, and its alpha/omega, is (the then) 11-year-old Paula Hertzog, co-winner of Best Actress Award at the Guadalajara Film Festival. More, Natural Sciences also won Best Film and Best Screenplay there, then went to Berlin and walked off with its Generation Kplus Grand Prix. But you know, it’s not about the statuettes and crystal plaques; it’s about what happens on the screen and how you feel about it.

The old saw about not appearing with child actors does not apply here. As spectacular as Hertzog is, and will be (the camera really, really loves her!), the ballast is shared with her co-star, Paola Barrientos,  who (while never natural sciencesstealing a scene) manages to provide a compelling and beautifully nuanced portrait of a teacher who recognizes her pupil’s gifts and is determined to help her find herself, whatever the cost. You might call it a buddy movie, or a road movie, but it’s just a movie that will stay in your mind for a very long time. You will probably cry, too, but you will be happy. 

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