By William Wolf

KARL MARX CITY  Send This Review to a Friend

In East Germany during the Cold War before the wall came down, the Ministry of State Security known as Stasi, had a wide network of citizens spying on one another and reporting on family, friends and neighbors, with an estimated total of 500,000 informants in addition to the 92,000 official staff members. After the wall was breached and the country was unified, files were increasingly exposed and the betrayals revealed were sometimes shocking.

"Karl Marx City," directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker and shown at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, explores a very personal story against this background. Epperlein, born in Karl Marx City, now called Chemnitz, has been puzzled over why her father committed suicide without leaving an explanation, only a cryptic note. She undertakes on camera to explore a nagging question: could her father possibly have been secretly working for Stasi?

We follow her dramatic inquiry, a formidable task, as Stasi has investigated more than 17 million people. Integrated into the film are clips from those terrible times, a visit to a Stasi prison, recordings made, examples of propaganda films aimed at the populace and assorted interviews.

What will Epperlein discover about her father? The personal stake is high, but Epperlein keeps the cool of an investigator as she pursues her goal.

The film, of course, becomes timely for American audiences, in light of the revelation of how much spying through technical ways ensnares our emails and phone calls, and the resulting storm that has been unleashed.

It also holds personal interest for me. When the Freedom of Information Act was passed I obtained an FBI file of some 300 pages reporting on investigating me for purely political activities during my youth. Some of the material was laughable even though the practice was so obnoxious. The Stasi investigation depicted reminds me of a portion of my file that said a New York Westside couple, whose names were blacked out, had reported my attendance at a left-wing fund-raising party. Who was that couple? I never knew, but decided not to ponder the identity and thereby cast aspersions on friends. That is merely an isolated example of the power to spy on people’s lives for political purposes, a practice against which we in a democracy must guard. “Karl Marx City” effectively takes us into the utter nightmare of what can happen under a totalitarian government gone haywire with individual rights not respected and fear spread so that nobody could be trusted. A Bond/360 release. Reviewed September 29, 2016 from Toronto. Posted March 29, 2017.

IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE  Send This Review to a Friend

Appetites are bound to be stimulated in the course of watching “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” a documentary directed by Roger Sherman and featuring chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov as the guide to this tasty survey.

The film is filled with scenes of cooking, tracing the growing of ingredients, and discussions that shed light on the nature of cooking in Israel. One truth emerges: Israeli cuisine’s distinct characteristic is that it is a blend of recipes and food of a broad mix of cultures, about 100 of them according to an estimate that Solomonov has made. There is a reason for this.

Israel is made up of people who came there from so many diverse backgrounds. They arrived with recipes for food their mothers and grandmothers made. There is also the Palestinian influence. So many different tastes abound, from the Jews of Spain to the Jews of Eastern Europe and North Africa. Amid all of this is the distinctiveness of local produce that has its own influence.

Solomonov, who is the award-winning chef and owner of Zahav and other restaurants in Philadelphia, leads us on a tour of restaurants in different parts of Israel. The visuals are alive with shots of tempting foods of an amazing variety, and we meet an array of chefs and homemakers involved in demonstrating their skills and tastes.

The approach is dominatingly secular, although there is also a section of the film that delves into the special situation of kosher foods for the pious and the rituals accompanying Sabbath dinners.

All of the attention to detail will be a plus for those with special interest in cooking processes, but for the lay spectator whose interest may lie in the overview, the film can be overly long. It clocks in at about 98 minutes, but it seems longer because of considerable repetition of the film’s basic analytical approach as the different geographical areas are visited.

This criticism aside, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is a remarkable exploration of an unusual confluence of cultures and tastes that are to be found in this fascinating country, a journey that reflects the very nature of Israel itself. Appetites lie ready to be awakened by a trip to the movies. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed March 27, 2017.

I, OLGA HEPNAROVA  Send This Review to a Friend

This Czech import written and directed by Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda is based on the real case of a young woman who deliberately committed an act of terror in 1973 by deliberately driving into a crowd in Prague with the result that eight people were killed and many injured. Bleakly shot in black and white, the film is a case in point of how insanity simmers in a person with outward indications along the way, but is not addressed and there is an eventual lethal consequence.

Olga, played with chilling understatement by Michalina Olszanská, imagines herself a victim of bullying and builds psychotic resentment until she wants her act to be a statement against the bullying of others in what she perceives as a hostile world. She is not attached to any political or terrorist movement. Her revenge is strictly personal.

She was found guilty, sentenced to death and eventually hanged in 1975, the last women who was executed in Czechoslovakia. At her trial she asked for the death penalty, her way of committing suicide.

But afterward in the year before her death, Olga’s split personality emerges and she sees another self who she believes can live on even after hanging. By the time of her execution, she is depicted screaming and desperately not wanting to die.

The film which holds one’s attention throughout for the way Olga and those around her are depicted, and although her act cannot be excused, we see the horror of the death penalty itself and its use as an answer to a madwoman’s actions.

While this case has no political connection, it underscores the difficulty in various situations of trying to prevent someone who is deeply disturbed and finds an outlet, perhaps in a terrorist organization, and committing a murderous act. The world is undoubtedly full of such individuals. The trouble is the problem of taking preventative action before a disaster. Of course, the majority of such sick individuals can go through life without harming anyone.

“I, Olga Hepnarova” sets one thinking while following the trajectory of this very disturbed young woman going through resentment against parents, unhappy lesbian encounters and her ultimate decision to seek retribution. An Outsider Pictures and Strand Releasing release. Reviewed March 25, 2017.

AFTER THE STORM  Send This Review to a Friend

The pathos of gambling addiction that helps cripple relationships and the intimate details of an affected family are movingly depicted in the superb Japanese film “After the Storm,” delicately written directed by master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Like Father, Like Son”).

The acting is superb all around, as we get a look into this particular family living in an area of Tokyo that reflects contemporary neighborhoods. The key character is Ryota Shinoda, played with dead-on accuracy by excellent actor Hiroshi Abe. Shinoda achieved a modicum of success with a novel, but that was a while ago and he cannot make progress in producing another. Meanwhile, he works for a detective agency, and in the process spies on his ex-wife.

She is Kyoko, nicely portrayed with ex-wifely irritations by Yoko Maki, who is annoyed that Shinoda can’t meet his support payments. She uses visits with their son, Shingo, played with childhood innocence and sometimes bewilderment by Taiyo Yoshizawa, as a bargaining chip. He needs a father, and Shinoda struggles to keep up a relationship with him. The father-and-son scenes are especially poignant, as Shinoda is jealous of the new relationship his ex has with a boyfriend who would prefer Shinoda out of the picture.

Shinoda during a day with Shingo buys some lottery tickets, symbolic both of the father’s gambling addiction and hope for a brighter future. Of course, the ex-wife is angered by this. What is especially impressive by Abe’s performance is that despite his behavior we can feel sympathetic toward him because it would appear that he can’t help himself from being a loser.

A particularly fine performance that gives further heart to the movie is that of Kirin Kiki as Shinoda’s widowed mother, Yoshiko. The way she speaks of her recently dead husband indicates that she did not have a happy marriage. She is also wise to her sponging son, always needing money to pay debts and going so low as to try to steal from his mother. Still, she obviously loves him. As for her own future, she longs for a nicer apartment, but it is unlikely that dream will ever come true.

The shadings in the portrayal of relationships also embrace Shinoda’s sister, played by Satomi Kobayashi, who resents her brother’s behavior, and the friendly relationship their mother maintains with Shinoda’s ex-wife. The storm referred to in the title results in Shinoda and his ex and their son being stranded for a night in Yoshiko’s apartment. It becomes kind of a defining night as all are positioned together.

The beauty of “After the Storm” is the way the film quietly goes about building reality and admitting us into the intimacy of the problematic relationships. There are no histrionics even as the characters face their difficulties and anxieties. The result is realism that goes beyond kitchen sink drama.

The film is thoroughly engrossing and often moving, and leaves one with memories of characters solidly etched in one’s mind. It stands firmly among the best films I have seen so far this year, A Film Movement release. Reviewed March 17, 2017.

FRANTZ  Send This Review to a Friend

François Ozon’s film “Frantz” is based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 “Broken Lullaby.” Set in a German town, a mystery occurs when a Frenchman visits the symbolic grave of a German soldier killed in World War I. He was Frantz, the fiancé of Anna (Paula Beer), who is still grieving about her loss.

She becomes curious and meets the visitor, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who recounts a friendship with Frantz, seen in flashbacks and played by Anton von Lucke, prior to the war. (Could it have been a gay one?) The story grows more complicated, as Adrien meets Frantz’s devastated parents and romantic impulses spring between him and Anna. Of course, we may suspect that all is not as it seems.

The film is engrossing, but a rather fanciful ending doesn’t seem convincing. Yet on balance “Frantz” impresses and belongs to the category of anti-war films that portray soldiers as victims no matter on which side they are fighting.

The film is rich in detail and the atmosphere of a small German town still pained by the losses from the war. Resentments abound against the French visitor. A moving portrait emerges of Frantz’s parents, the father an angry doctor bitter about the loss of his son, the mother a sympathetic woman who has a leveling influence.

One’s emotions are stirred in various respects, and above all, we become involved in the developing friendship between Adrien and Anna. But always lurking beneath it all is the film’s anti-war posture, a position that never goes out of style given the horrors that followed World War I and now loom in the new circumstances of the present. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed March 15, 2017.

THE LAST WORD  Send This Review to a Friend

Shirley MacLaine, at 82 and in whatever reincarnation she is in, is the only reason for seeing “The Last Word,” a heavily contrived film written by Stuart Ross Fink and directed by Mark Pellington. MacLaine dominates the screen throughout as Harriet Lauler, who has a nasty temperament, has made a host of enemies and has a crisis in realizing she won’t be remembered kindly when she dies.

Harriet has a plan. Over the years she has been a benefactor to a local newspaper, and given her connection there, she enlists an obituary writer, Amanda Seyfried as Anne Sherman, to write her advance death notice. This is quite a task. How can Anne find somebody to say something nice about Harriet? It’s like the joke about a funeral at which nobody would speak about the deceased, who was thoroughly disliked. Finally, someone gets up and says, “His brother was worse.”

In Harriet’s case, she figures out a way to help the besieged writer. Harriet decides that she will find a social cause to work on and befriends Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) a problematical young African-American girl who needs assistance and straightening out. That gambit accounts for a good part of the plot.

Of course, along the way we learn something about the nicer side of Harriet and the trajectory of her life. The film gets soppy. But there is one steady ingredient, the acting of MacLaine, still an impressive pro after her long career. A Bleecker Street release. Reviewed March 3, 2017.

LOVE & TAXES  Send This Review to a Friend

It hurts to pay taxes. I get especially angry at the thought that when I pay taxes there are rich manipulators who get away with evasions while I have no way of doing so and must part with hard-earned money, as is the case with millions of others.

“Love & Taxes,” directed by Jacob Kornbluth and starring his brother, Josh Kornbluth, expands upon the latter’s one-man theater show to tap into the subject with humor. The film, written by the star, retains the format of Kornbluth before an audience, but expands with added scenes and cast members to flesh out the comedy and the central thesis.

For seven years, Kornbluth confides, he hasn’t paid taxes. How can he rectify that? There are complications galore, and I especially enjoyed his encounter with a former I.R.S. officer, nicely played by none other than Robert Reich, who, you will recall, was in the cabinet of former President Bill Clinton.

Yes, there’s the love interest reflected in the title, but the ultimate message of the film is that paying taxes is necessary to fund what the society needs. Kornbluth firmly articulates that in an encounter with a woman employee in a bank who suggests that he can do better with a check he is depositing by recommending a method of evading taxes. Kornbluth gives her hell with a lecture.

The film is mildly amusing throughout without being a comic gold mine. But there are plenty of chuckles, thanks to the spirited acting by the star parlaying his stage performance. But the film seems over-extended and would benefit by shortening. An Abramorama release. Reviewed March 3, 2017.

PUNCHING HENRY  Send This Review to a Friend

An amusingly sly look at television and standup comedy, “Punching Henry” chronicles the hapless adventures of Henry Phillips. The low-key film was co-written by Phillips and Gregori Viens, with Viens directing.

The plot involves Henry, who slogs through life as a guitar-strumming comic. He goes to Los Angeles, where J. K. Simmons as Jay Warren, a television producer, tries to sell Henry for a series.

The story is framed via an interview that Sarah Silverman conducts with Henry, with flashback illustrations of what happens. Ironically, it is a video taken of Henry falling off a platform during a performance that goes viral and points the way to potential success. But it is not the kind of demeaning success that Henry seeks.

There are amusing situations befalling Henry along the way. One especially funny incident occurs with his lesbian friends, Zoe (Stephanie Allynne) and Jillian (Tig Notaro), with whom he is staying. The couple wants a child, and Henry acquiesces to a request that he have sex with Zoe, so she can get pregnant. He attempts to functionally do his duty, but much to the chagrin of his perfunctory partner, Henry hilariously fails to deliver.

Phillips is amusing in an understated way. Silverman is enjoyable as the interviewer, and Simmons is droll as the determined but frustrated producer.

“Punching Henry” is no comic gem, but offers many knowing chuckles in following the life of its protagonist. A Well Go USA Entertainment release. Reviewed February 24, 2017.

MY NAME IS EMILY  Send This Review to a Friend

The circumstance involved in the filming of “My Name is Emily” is a story in itself. This first feature has been written and directed by Simon Fitzmaurice, a victim of ALS. He is paralyzed and used movement of his eyes and special software to type the screenplay, and also that method to direct. The result stands on its own as a sensitive, involving story.

Set in Ireland, the plot focuses on Emily, whose mother dies, and who remembers how her iconoclastic father, Robert (Michael Smiley) was taken off to a home for the treatment of the mentally ill. She protested tearfully at the time. Emily was installed in a foster home. At her new school she is treated as an outsider. Her father’s yearly birthday cards have meant a lot to her, but when she turns 16 there is no card.

The essence of the film involves Emily (Yvanna Lynch), aided by a sympathetic school friend, Arden (George Webster), setting off to find her father and free him from the institution. The journey of Emily and Arden holds interest because of what Emily and Arden experience and learn along the way.

What Emily discovers about her father upon reaching the destination is upsetting. He has already left and retreated to live elsewhere without telling Emily. Having issues of his own to resolve, her father appears oblivious to all he has meant to her and Emily must now cope with this new situation.

Fitzmaurice’s film moves along with sincerity and the cast members are convincing in what is both a story of neediness and required understanding. A Monument Releasing release. Reviewed February 17, 2017.

THE SALESMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

A brilliant and stirring new film, “The Salesman,” has arrived, a work written and directed by superb Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”). At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it won for best screenplay and best actor and it has just been nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign Language category. It is easy to see why.

One aspect that adds interest is that Emad (Shab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) play actors appearing in Teheran in an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” It is fascinating to watch a cast shown at work putting on this classic American play.

The main situation arises out of a crisis involving a collapsing structure of the building in which Emad and Rana live. It is necessary for them to evacuate speedily and find another apartment, which they do. However, they do not know of what previously occurred in their new quarters, which had been occupied by a prostitute.

There is an attack upon Rana by a mysterious stranger, and she has been shattered by the experience. Was it just an assault, or did it include rape? Her husband is properly furious and wants to get to the bottom of the mystery and wreak revenge on the culprit. He suspects a delivery man.

Farhadi’s enormous skill is displayed in how he develops various plot threads that make what could be a simple mystery a complex study of a human tragedy stemming from this incident. The more that is revealed, the greater the emotional involvement between the characters—and for the audience.

Emad is consumed by his hunger for revenge, much to the exasperation of his wife, who would rather forget the situation, which she didn’t want to report to the authorities. (If a woman is raped in Iran, even as the victim she bears a stigma.) When Rana learns what is at stake for a particular family, her humanity leads to a sharp rift with Emad, and we can only suspect the toll this will ultimately take on their relationship.

All of the acting is exceedingly good, from the principals to the subordinate players. The direction builds the film stealthily, raising the ante for all concerned as the story progresses. “The Salesman” is packed with atmosphere and mounting tension, and it powerfully involves the audience by the time the mystery is discovered. The year is young, but “The Salesman,” which had a limited run elsewhere in 2016 for Oscar qualification, now also stands out as a potential for 2017 best lists. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed January 25, 2017.


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