Category: History

Pawn Sacrifice

September 28th, 2015 — 5:58pm

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Pawn Sacrifice

This is the story of Bobby Fischer, the American boy wonder chessmaster, who at the age of 29 in 1972 beat Russian champion chess player Boris Spassky to become the best chess player in the world. We meet young Fischer as a preteen growing up in Brooklyn where his preoccupation with chess makes him a very unusual brilliant young man. It would appear that his limited social skills matched with his total preoccupation with chess and a genius mind that could visualize and memorize numerous chess games in his head, suggests that he had Asperger’s disorder. As we follow this brilliant genius into preparation and ultimately arriving at the classic series of matches in Iceland, we see how he became preoccupied with the belief that he was being spied upon. He took apart a telephone looking for listening devices and even insisted that the venue for the match be moved to a basement setting instead of the large stage where it was to be held. He limited the number of TV cameras demanded a certain distance from him. The film does suggest that this classic famed match had great significance to both the United States and Russian governments. We even see that the CIA may have been involved in meeting Fischer’s demands for money and other requirements in order for him to participate in the match. However the film also points to the probability that Fischer’s mental functioning was much more than the political paranoia of the time. In fact, we think that a case can be made that Bobby Fischer had a schizophrenic mental disorder.

This well done film is a recounting of one of the most important and widely followed chess matches in history. It is also a sad story of a tortured soul. Tobey Maguire who plays Fischer as an adult did a fine job although it was a one dimensional view of this man as we never saw any evidence of him having any joy or meaningful relationships which we would expect even with a severe mental disorder. Liev Schreiber was quite good as the large contemplative Russian master Boris Spassky who barely said a word in the film.

Even though most of the movie audience probably knew the results of the match, seeing how it developed and went down was filled with suspense and drama. The subsequent downhill slide of Fischer which was not shown in the film and only told to us in a post-script at the end of the film, with a few newsreel clips, might have taken the movie to a more dramatic and interesting conclusion had the writers Steven Knight, Stephen Rivele and director Edward Zwick chosen to extend the film to this subject. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History

Labyrinth of Lies

September 23rd, 2015 — 5:31am

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To us, one of the most important and memorable aspects of this outstanding film is that the current generation of German filmmakers and the people related to this industry, have decided to make this movie the 2015 entry from Germany to the Oscars for best foreign film. Doing this also reflects the monumental theme of this movie, which is the responsibility of the German people for Auschwitz and the Holocaust.

The story is based on actual events and follows a young German prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) in Frankfurt, Germany in the early 1960s as he becomes aware that identifiable people now living in Germany were responsible for murder in the Auschwitz Camp during World War II. Although the Nuremberg trials, which occurred shortly after World War II nearly 20 years previously, were monumental in the prosecution of members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes, those trials were carried out by the victorious allies. In the film, which depicts a true story, we see, probably for the first time ever, a government trying to prosecute its own former soldiers. The question of who was guilty and was there any family spared having a war criminal among them is raised. As one of the characters states, the only innocent people were those who weren’t born yet or who were small children when all these events happened.

It matters very little that the main focus is on Johann Radmann who is the prosecutor played magnificently by Alexander Fehling, who was in reality a composite of three prosecutors in real life. All the characters in the movie are true to life and very believable. One of them, Fritz Bauer, played by the famous German actor, Gert Voss, has a famous legal institute now named in his honor. One of the buildings where the archival records were being searched in the film is the actual location of where the well kept records of the Nazi regime are now stored for historical examination.

Director/writer Giulio Ricciarelli has been very thoughtful in his choices, so as not to make the movie a recapitulation or a reenactment of the horrors of the Holocaust. Rather, he puts the focus on the impact on the people living in post-war Germany. One interesting point that was made very clear was that most of the German people at the time, depicted in the film, did not know about Auschwitz nor did they want to know about it.

We were reminded that our recent personal observations have shown that most contemporary Germans no longer deny their history. This was very clear to us in our recent visit to Berlin, where we saw the names of displaced Jews embedded in plaques on the sidewalks in front of their former houses. We also visited the very complete and well-done Holocaust museum as well as many other points of remembrance. This film clearly created an honest reflection of German history, which was not known to most of us. It was a powerful and beautifully done work of fact, emotion and importance. (2015)

Comment » | 5 Stars, Drama, Foreign, History, Uncategorized

Woman in Gold

September 5th, 2015 — 11:53pm

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Woman in Gold – nf

This is a movie about the Holocaust and it stars Helen Mirren and therefore it will get many people’s attention, which it l deserves. In our opinion, it doesn’t quite rank with Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, or The Pianist but it does deal with a fascinating historical story. It begins begins in 1907 with a painting of an Austrian woman by the famed artist Gustav Klimt. It ends about 100 years later in 2006 when the niece of the subject of that painting was able to win the legal battle to wrest this painting from an Austrian museum and brings it to the United States where she now lives.

We follow this journey through the life of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) who grew up in a wealthy Austrian family and lived very comfortably surrounded by fine things including great works of art. She and her family were Jewish and the film dramatically shows scenes which depict the anti-semitism and the demoralizing treatment of the Austrian Jews by the Nazis in the 1940s. We see this one family, previously quite happy, torn apart overnight as a few members escape and the remainder perish in the holocaust.

Fast forward to the United States in the 1990s and an older Maria Altmann, living in Los Angeles, finds family letters which document some of the valuable works of art including the Woman in Gold now in an Austrian museum which she recalls being in her home as a child.. She connects with a young lawyer by the name of Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of the famous Austrian composer, who joins her on this great odyssey. It involves them returning to modern day Austria and battling the government there with the help of an idealistic Austrian reporter played by Daniel Bruhl. This adventure eventually takes them all the way to the United States Supreme Court and successfully ends in a contested arbitration in Austria.

Director Curtis Simon deserves credit for an outstanding job and Helen Mirren, as usual, performs what could be an award winning role. The story is predictable and uncomplicated. Occasionally, the film is in German with subtitles but the characters speak mostly in English, including times in Austria when you expect them to be speaking their native language. Most important however, this movie allows another generation to experience the tragic story of the Holocaust so it will not be forgotten. (2015)

1 comment » | 4 Stars, Drama, History


August 16th, 2015 — 11:18pm

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Aviva Kempner is the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a documentary filmmaker who is interested in showing the contributions of Jews to society. Among other films that she has made were The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which told the story about the life and career of the first Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. She also made a film titled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of the actress, writer and television star Gertrude Berg. This time she has taken on the story of Julius Rosenwald who died in 1932. He was the son of an immigrant peddler who never graduated from high school but became a successful businessman and ultimately the president of Sears Roebuck. He was a major philanthropist and focused his energy and his wealth on the African-American communities in the South. He was the moving force in building over 5000 schools in the early 20th Century for young black students in Jim Crow states. This film also showed the support he gave to Tuskegee University in Alabama and his relationship with one of its founders Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald was a truly remarkable man who had the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

Rosenwald was a living example of the historical bond which has existed between Jewish and black cultures in the United States. Much of this story is told with interviews with such people as Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, Gordon Parks, Cokie Roberts , various descendants of his family and many others. The fascinating subject of this film and his actions will resonant with many people and should provide an example for future generations.

The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the implications of Rosenwald’s contributions may have led her to lose focus at times. For example, the visit of Eleanor Roosevelt to Tuskegee University to pay attribute to be Tuskegee Airmen and the ride she took in a small plane was quite interesting but moved the film further from its main theme Similarly, telling the story of Marian Anderson, the great black singer and one of the recipients of Rosenwald’s many scholarships, led the filmmaker to deviate into a long exposition about Anderson’s achievements. Some of these interesting but somewhat extraneous segments would have been better left to the bonus DVD which will accompany the film when it is purchased for personal use (although we understand that that bonus DVD in the making, is already three hours long). While not a great film, it was a unique look at a very special and not well-known person who made many contributions that changed countless lives. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

Best of Enemies

July 30th, 2015 — 2:05am

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Best of Enemies

The 1968 democratic political convention was held in Chicago in a year filled with violence, political turmoil, and civil unrest. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president because of the controversy over the Vietnam for war. His Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination beating anti-war spokesperson Eugene McCarthy. In the Republican Convention in Miami, Florida, former Vice President Richard Nixon beat Ronald Reagan for the nomination and went on to win the election. One of the memorable aspects of this political year was a series of 10 debates between William F. Buckley Jr., conservative spokesperson and Gore Vidal, liberal spokesperson that was aired on the ABC television network during the political convention. It is these debates that are the subject of this thought provoking and revealing documentary film produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. It is ironic that when ABC made the decision to inject the debates into its TV coverage of the conventions, they were number three in the ratings and were a poor number three at that. Yet, their use of these debates propelled them to the highest ratings over the other two networks who were doing gavel-to-gavel convention coverage. This is probably the beginning of the type of news coverage which we see today which is filled with pundits discussing and debating the news on many different networks.

In 1968, there was no more well known spokesperson of the conservative points of view than William F. Buckley Jr. For many years he had a popular television program “Firing Line” where he took on people with opposing views and demonstrated his brilliance. He also was a columnist for well-known conservative magazines. Gore Vidal was an equally brilliant, articulate liberal spokesperson who not only spoke “the talk” but wrote many very successful books about American history and also penned successful novels including one well-known fiction work titled Myra Breckinridge.

As we see in this 87-minute documentary film edited by Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, these 10 debates were very fascinating to watch and were watched more than for the discussion about the conflicts of ideological viewpoints. Certainly, Buckley expressed his view that people should be more self-sufficient and shouldn’t depend on government handouts. Vidal made the point that the government has responsibility to support people in need. However, the essence of this historic debate was how these brilliant men try to take apart not only each other’s arguments but each other.

We didn’t see all the raw footage of the debate, but in a post-film discussion with Mr. Neville, one, of the director producers, he shared his analysis which counted that more than three quarters of the time, these men were trying to dissect each other, rather than carrying on a rational discussion of the complicated issues of their time. One can’t help reflect how this film reminds us that this may be how we are approaching our modern day political debates as the right and left trash each other.

It of course makes great television and there have been very few more exciting moments in live widely watched television than the culminating mutual attacks on each other that occurred in the Buckley-Vidal debates. There needs to be no “spoiler alert” here since the following moments which we will describe are well-explored in this documentary. Mr. Buckley compared the anti-war protesters (who were probably demonstrating at that very moment outside the convention hall) “to be bullying fascists.” Vidal then says, “The only pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley then uncharacteristically loses his temper and says, “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” (The fact that Vidal turned out to be “gay” was completely irrelevant especially since he was not out at that time and Buckley had used a very disparaging word in reference to him.) Another irony is that at the very moment that Buckley threatened to punch Vidal, the police outside were probably punching the protesters. In any case this documentary film gives an inside view of the meaning of this debate using commentary of people who knew the two men at that time and later in life. We learned that Vidal’s feelings and comments about Buckley, even at the time of Buckley’s death were as angry and as bitter as ever. Similarly, Buckley’s people who knew him suggest that Buckley never got over his feelings about Vidal.

A good documentary film not only presents the facts but also tries to put them in some kind of perspective. To a certain degree, the filmmakers here may have succeeded. You may need to be a student of television and politics to fully appreciate how the debate may have been a turning point in how such debates are handled in the modern media. However, if you step back you can perhaps see that our current political discourse in 2015 over ideological differences, may be getting very personal. This film presents a worthwhile lesson in these situations of what can go wrong between “The Best of Enemies.”

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

Jimmy’s Hall

June 18th, 2015 — 6:22pm

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Jimmy’s Hall – sp

This is a touching film made by veteran director, Ken Loach who is mostly known for his acclaimed work in Europe, with a screenplay by Paul Laverty. It deals with an important part of Irish history with which most Americans are not very familar. It is based on a real character, Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) who was an idealistic Irish leader whose main claim to fame, was running Jimmy’s Hall in an obscure Irish  town, first in the 1920s and then 10 years later, in the 1930s. In this hall, (which was really a home or a cabin) men, women and children would gather to sing the popular music of the time and likewise do the popular dances, children would also sing and dance and learn history and some of the older boys would learn how to box. There would be lively discussions and a good time would be had by all. So what is wrong with this? Where is the conflict and where is the story? While we are not intimately familiar with Irish history and the film does not spell everything out to be crystal clear, we do know there was great turmoil in Ireland during this time period. In particular, the Catholic Church vividly depicted by Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) did not like the idea that people would dance and sing or even learn outside the auspices of the church. There was also a great economic and social upheaval notably between Ireland and Great Britain during this time as well as class warfare between the prosperous landowners and the workers. There was great dislike by many for socialism and of course for communism when that became an important issue. Jimmy was an idealist who spoke his mind which led to him being deported from Ireland without a trial or even any hearing. There is a sad love element as when Jimmy first returned, he is reunited with his old girlfriend, Oonagh (Simone Kirby) who is now happily married with children but still shares her simmering love for her old boyfriend. That is really the theme of the movie – so many unhappy people who are dealing with political and social issues which were much bigger than all of them. This is a well-done film but it never really breaks out. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Foreign, History

Desert Dancer

March 14th, 2015 — 5:32am

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Although Iran is known to have a repressive government, it still has one of the highest percentage of educated people in the world as well as having 60% of its 73 million people under the age of 30. Therefore, it would still seem surprising that any kind of dancing in Iran is forbidden. This movie shows the true story of a student at the University of Tehran who five years ago with the few other students began to secretly learn how to dance in order to express their emotions. They gathered at a deserted basement and studied forbidden YouTube videos. They knew that they could be beaten and even killed if discovered as had happened to many other young people who flaunted the authority of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his paid thugs.

First time British director, Richard Raymond, read a newspaper article about  Afshin Ghaffarian, who led this group of dancers as they practiced and put on a performance in the desert for a small gathering of students who were secretly brought to this hidden recital. Ghaffarian’s life was threatened and he eventually made it out of Iran to Europe where he told this story. He then received further dance training and ultimately formed his own dance company, performing throughout the world.

Thanks to this film, the true story of the suppression of art and dance in Iran is told. It is also a metaphor for what is being done to the human spirit that is being highlighted here. Mr. Raymond put together a multi national cast of actors who were then taught to dance by Okram Khan, the choreographer of the opening night of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Although their names are not known to American audiences, their dedication to this story deserves to be recognized. Afshin Ghaffarian was played by Reece Ritchie. The other actors were Nazanin Boniadi, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Makram J. Khoury, Marama Corlett and Daniel Bass. You probably won’t remember their names but you will remember this film. It will touch you and remind you how sad it is when the creative expression inside of us is not allowed to come out and how glorious it can be when it becomes free. (2015)

Comment » | 5 Stars, Drama, History

Red Army

February 5th, 2015 — 8:22pm

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The Red Army-sp The Red Army is a film about hockey, except that it isn’t! We agreed with several people in the audience, with whom we saw this film, who stated that they had not been looking forward to this documentary about the national hockey team of the Soviet Union. However, we, like they, were entirely captivated by this incredibly well executed documentary written, directed and produced by the young filmmaker, Gabe Polsky. While much of the film showed actual footage of hockey games played by this extraordinary team, the scenes were beautifully put together between photos of early years of some of the players, magnificent interviews with a wide range of people and footage of life in the soviet union over the years. Mr. Polsky created a film that was enlightening, poignant and engaging by focusing mainly on one player, Viacheslav (Slava) Festinov and telling his story. By doing that, he told the story of the proud Russian people and their culture. He was able to explicate the determination and love of country, even in the face of adversity and lack of freedom that existed. Festinov as a young boy was like millions of other youths who wanted to play hockey and dreamt of being on his national team. Because of his skills he became part of the national hockey-training program that selects the best and vigorously trains them for several years. Through carefully constructed and interwoven interviews and film clips we come to see the total dedication to the game that these young men developed. We are introduced to the coaches who revolutionized the game by treating it on the level of complex ballet and complicated chess games, both of which the Russians had been known to be masters. We also see the unrelenting, even cruel training techniques that required total dedication and the total power that a coach with support of the government could have over the players. The film shows the fascinating years of the amazing world wide successes, then the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in which the United States Olympic hockey team upset the Soviet Union and went on to win the Gold Medal at Lake Placid and the redoubled efforts following that loss which created a whole new “must win” era in the Soviet Union. The events that then occurred with all the twists and turns of a “must see” thriller are captured in the film keeping the viewer totally engaged. The events in Festinov’s life as well as the changes in the Soviet Union are compelling. With hockey as a platform, it is what happens in the lives of the people in this space that makes for a film that compels you to become involved. It is the best of what a good documentary does. You see, you learn and most of all you care. (2014)

Comment » | 5 Stars, Documentary, History, Sport


February 5th, 2015 — 8:10pm

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Timbuktu sp- “Timbuktu” is widely used to describe a place extremely far away and regarded by many as a myth. In reality it’s a city in Mali, West Africa. It is situated on the southernmost edge of the Sahara Desert. This film although named Timbuktu was actually filmed in Mauritania, a country a little to the north and deemed a little safer for the French and African crew and cast that made this highly charged political film. This movie was produced and directed by Ahderrahmane Sissaki who also co-wrote the screenplay. It is the first film from Mauritania and one of the very few from Africa to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It attempts to show how the Jihadists, who are contemporary armed Islamic fundamentalists, attempt to impose their values on other Islamic people who don’t hold their extreme beliefs. The setting is the beautiful African dessert where some animals run wild and others are herded by local people many of whom are religious but don’t hold the extreme beliefs of the Jihadists. This leads to horrific scenes, which include a young couple being stoned to death for having a sexual relationship and not being married. Others are given painful 40 lashes for singing and enjoying music. Women are also forbidden from even showing their hands and must wear gloves. The actors are quite good and very believable in their roles although most have not acted before. Some of the actors, we learned, have performed as musicians. The storyline is more a tableaux of scenes woven together to achieve the message that the filmmaker clearly wishes to make. It has relevancy to the world situation as the news is filled with stories about terrorism by various extremist Islamic groups, such as ISIS, al Qaeda and others as they spread their influence throughout the world. A movie such as this one that attempts to show extremism and oppression of people becomes even more effective than political speeches and news reports to educate the public. We understand that already the movie is showing strong box office appeal in various parts of Africa as well as in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. However, as an enjoyable, absorbing well done film we can’t put it near the top of our list. Granted the photography is quite beautiful and did capture the texture and ambience of the land. However there is no real storyline. There is no character development and we really know very little about the background of any of the people that we meet. Since they mostly walk around with some type of cloth around their faces (men and women), at times we didn’t even know who was who. Some of the scenes were drawn out too long in our opinion. We had the opportunity to question the filmmaker about some of the fine points of the movie that we did not comprehend. Although that helped to understand what had occurred, regular movie goers will not have that added help. The overall message was fairly clear but we found the movie which was 97 minutes, to feel much longer. In sum, the political value trumps the cinematic value. We hope it makes a difference but we can’t recommend it as a must see film.(2015)


Comment » | 2 Stars, Drama, History


December 20th, 2014 — 11:47pm

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Selma sp- It is hard to believe that this is the first docudrama about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. who is played by David Oyelowo. The screenplay by Paul Webb and superb directing by Ava DuVernay chose to examine one specific event in the historic 13 year career of this civil rights icon and that is the March from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery, which took place in 1965. The first steps towards desegregation had occurred 10 years earlier when Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in front of a bus which led to the Montgomery bus boycott, coordinated by Martin Luther King Jr. Blacks had the right to vote but were blocked by the local registrars using tactics dramatically shown when Annie Lee Cooper, magnificently played by Oprah Winfrey, attempts to register to vote. As is clearly explained in this film, this denial based on racial discrimination was not only illegal in and of itself but it was further compounded by allowing juries to be all white since proof of voter registration was required to serve on juries in the South. It also kept the biased white politicians in their leadership positions. This state of affairs led to a first futile attempt to peacefully march to the courthouse steps by King and his followers, which is brutally disbanded by the local police. There were very revealing depictions of the behind the scenes discussions of King and his associates who included Rev. Abernathy, John Lewis and many others. The film showed those favoring a more violent confrontation such as the leaders of SNCC as well as interactions between King and Malcolm X. There are also several scenes between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) where Johnson expects King to delay his demonstration for a year or two so the President, elected by a landslide a year earlier, could pursue other agendas including programs within his “war on poverty.” As shown in this movie, it is not one of Johnson’s finest moments. King does not take no for an answer and we see the results as thousands of people including many whites, especially clergy in all denominations descend on Selma. The reliving the historic march from Selma to Montgomery sent chills up our spines as we were captivated by the visual effects including black and white clips of the actual event which took place almost 50 years ago. So often Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed by new generations as an almost mythical person. He has a national holiday named after him, streets have his name and it is is said in the same breath as other great Americans such as George Washington and Abe Lincoln. In this film he is shown to be a real person who at times seems anxious and scared and even has his human foibles as we see in a dramatic confrontational interaction with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). Other very fine actors in this movie include Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth and Martin Sheen.   King comes alive with a tremendous performance by David Oyelowo who is a Shakespearean actor by training and an experienced film actor. Producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner who we met at our screening related how Oyelowo was drawn to his part with an almost mystical destiny. He gained 30 pounds to resemble King and his oration of King’s words knocked it out of the ball park and could not have been better. This movie took us back in time and allowed us to experience one of the great moments in American history with all the fear, pain and tragedy, yet ultimate triumph of that march from Selma to Montgomery. (2014)


1 comment » | 5 Stars, Biography, Drama, History

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