Tuesday, March 31, 2015

HRWFF 2015 Film Review - The Wanted 18

It's hard to find anyone who can truly state that they have experienced both sides of the Israel and Palestine conflict evenly.  In the film The Wanted 18 directors Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan have managed to find a subject that fits the criteria, a group of cows. The film starts with the narrator who was in a refugee camp in Syria at the time of the first Palestinian Intifada. The scene shifts to an individual hiking up steps in the mountains recalling the Intifada a time of civil protest and boycotts. The people of Beit Sahour were paying taxes to a foreign occupying government but were not allowed to produce anything on their own. All of their food and supplies came from Israel. If the plan is to boycott then an alternate source food away from your target is mandatory. The Beit Sahour  Agricultural Committee came up with the ideas of cows that they purchased from a Kibbutz. Through the cows they could produce their own milk and the bovines could be the centrepiece of a collective farm.

The key to the documentary project was the decision to use stop motion animation thus giving few of the cows a voice and personality. Riuka, Ruth Lola and Goldie are introduced first as staunch supporters of the Israeli State while at the Kibbutz then slowly transformed to Palestinians as they eventually become hunted by the Israeli army once declared A Threat to the Security of the State of Israel by the Military Governor.

The directors bring a lot of humour to a serious subject and time period though the use of the animated cows.  The story is mix of live action accounts from Beit Sahour residence who were present at the time and all played roles in keeping the cows hidden and throwing the army off the trail. The absurdity if the situation is played out on film as the Israeli Army locate the cows, takes their pictures noting their numbers and gives the farmers 24 hours to get ride of the Bovines. The Palestinians hid the herd leading to a curfew and soldiers going around town showing the photos asking residence if they have seen this cow.

The film tackles the serious issue of a tax boycott the West bank.  The Beit Sahour residence did not want to pay them to a foreign government. The Israeli's insisted they had to pay and began to confiscate any items they could for those in arrears. They stop people who were offenders on the street taking their cars on the spot. They come to homes to take furniture, televisions and dining room tables. The practice did not stop until a UN edict was put in place followed by the 1993 peace agreement between Sharon, Arafat and Clinton. The cows were no longer needed and the legend of the white calf that escaped into the desert on the way back to Israel is pursued by the directors towards the end of the film.

The Wanted 18 is a unique take on the Israeli Palestine conflict. It shows in a light hearted and understated way how outlandish activities and positions can build up on both sides. The interviews are emotional while telling of the events many finding the period a high point in their lives. The directors though the use of the stop animation cows display how ones perspective can and would change based on the message you're being fed from either side of the wall. It is a film that I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4

The Wanted 18 | Amer Shomali / Paul Cowan | Canada / Palestine /France | 2014 | 75 Minutes.

Tags: Bovine, Civil Disobedience, Boycott, 1993 Peace Agreement, Intifada, Stop-motion Animation. Documentary.

HRWFF 2015 Film Review - Burden of Peace

The film opens with a grainy black and white television image of General Jose Efrain Rios Montt . He is speaking to the Guatemalan people explaining how you need to be ruthless when dealing with communist enemies. The next shot is of a couple of soldiers in Montt's Army who when asked about human rights replies that they are political ideals for socialist countries. The documentary jumps ahead 30 years to the 2010 swearing in of Claudia Paz y Paz as the first female attorney General in Guatemalan history. She is taking office in the first series of free elections 14 years after the end of the civil war.  Paz y Paz has a strong moral codes that she stands by the chief being that justice for victims regardless of gender, social status or ethnicity is justice for the country. As she takes office in Guatemala City the murder rate due to the rampant drug wars stands at 15-20 per day. Victims body's lie in the street in the exact spot where they were felled. The Mexican drug cartels have free range in the meal country and corruption runs rampant in the government. Many of the ex military leaders turned in their military uniforms for suits to continue to wield power in the government or in business organizations in the private arena.

In her first few days in office Paz meets with the Prosecutor office staff letting them know quietly but plainly that things are going to change. The office had 1897 open cases with 2176 victims with a conviction rate on violent crimes sitting at five percent.  Paz y Paz is forced to have a formal meeting with staff to go over the basic act as filling out the complaint forms properly.  The bulk of the reports list the perpetrator as unknown and the word unknown is misspelled multiple times on the forms. The body language from the staff especially the males is overtly hostile many sit with arms crossed, frowns firmly in place or appear to be not paying attention at all.

Dutch directors Joey Boink & Sander Wirken pick up the story from day one on the job. The crew's plan is to follow four year term of the former social and human rights activists turned Attorney General. Pays y Pays climbs into he official vehicle after her swearing in finding the productions camera present. They go with her to her first meeting with the prosecutors' office in the northern most region of the country near the Mexican border where the situation is the worst in the country. The region have only opened four cases in the last while and zero of them have gone to trial. The crew also record the events during the Attorney General visit to the Ixil Region as two men who were kids at the time give the details of the attacks on their community by General Rois Montt's army in the early 80's. The pair talk about the men being lined up and either shot or beheaded. The women separated out elsewhere to be raped, gutted and or shot and their escape into the forest for survival. The attacks against the indigenous peoples in the region was considered an unpunished act of genocide by many in the country.

Within the first year Paz Y Paz had some significant successes.  Her team created an elite team of police officers help to identify and arrest multiple gang members.  The conviction rate jumped from five to thirty percent. The Guatemalan people begin to feel safer in their homes and on the streets. Paz y Paz then turned her gaze on to the actions of the military during the dictatorship years reopening cases attacking the culture of Impunity in the country. First she went after Oscar Mejia Victores Defence Minister in Rios Mott's regime then Rios Mott himself.  Her actions unsettled the old guard whose influence still ran deep in the country leading their mouthpieces in the press and private sector to commence personal and political attacks against Paz y Paz. At the same time former military intelligence chief General Otto Perez Molina who had no interest in investigating Guatemala's military past was running for and most likely to win the presidency.

Burden of Peace is a riveting story of a remarkable person who risked her personal and families safety to do what's right for her country. Her work was recognized all over the world as she accepted awards for her commitment to Justice in San Francisco and London. She was also a finalist for the Noble Peace Prize. Paz y Paz granted complete access to the film crew from day one of her four year term.  The only restriction being filming anything that could jeopardize open cases. Paz y Paz took on the old entrenched guard head on and her efforts gave her people a renewed belief that Justice regardless of background could once again be achieved in Guatemala. It is a film that I highly recommend.

**** out of 4.

Burden of Peace | Joey Boink & Sander Wirken | Netherlands / Guatemala / Spain | 2014 | 77 Minutes.

Tags: Genocide, War Crimes, Drug Cartel, Corruption, Activist,  Public Servant, Marxist, Socialist, Sexism.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

RAFF 2015 Film Review- Patron Saint

Janusz Dukszta lives in a small apartment in Toronto. He came to Toronto from Poland in 1959 then studies to become a Psychiatrist. He also served as the NDP member from Parkdale at the Provincial Legislature from 1971 to 1981. But the most remarkable fact about Dukszta is that he is a large contributor to the Toronto Art Scene having hundreds of pieces crammed into his Toronto apartment. The unusual thing is that all of them are commissions and just about all are of his likeness.

The film opens with a 2010 show at the University of Toronto Art Centre entitled Portraits of a Patron. The show brought Dukszta's pieces out of hiding from his Apartment and into the public eye.  Among his collection are 89 self portraits and several sculptures. The sculptures tend to mainly be of his head in different sizes of varied material including stone, granite and bronze.  The question one has to ask is the purpose.  Is it ego, is it narcissism or is Dukszta simply an eccentric individual with no family to carry on his linage so he has done so through Art.

First time director Michael Kainer's documentary takes the viewer into Janusz Dukstza's world. The bowels of his apartment are put on display and are the thoughts and reflection of the Artists that have produced pieces for the collection. The camera follows Dukszta back to Poland where his early memories were formed first during the Russian/Germany split of the country followed by the German occupation. Dukszta was witness to the removal of the Jewish residents followed by the killing of dissidents then anyone with any standing in the community that might threaten Nazi rule. The effect on Dukstza of his return to Poland could have been explored further in the piece.

The interviews with the artist themselves is the strength of the film. They speak to the fact that Dukszta would work with young artists that were just starting out. Therefore a commission meant validation of their work.  Dunkszta would also encourage them to be bold and take chances which helped with their confidence, enhanced their reputation and the money was a  good base for them to advance their carriers.  Painter Phil Richards did the most pieces in the Dunkszta collection dating back to his first collaboration with the Patron in 1971. He would often exchange travel for his services instead of money. Richards has gone on to produce pieces all over the world including a 2010 Royal Commission to paint a Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Max Streicher a sculpture and installation artist completed multiple works for Dukszta including a massive bronzed head.

The overflowing personality and humour of Dukszta drives the narrative. In one particularly funny scene he spots a fluorescent green city tram when back in Krakow and shouts nice colour then looks at his tie that happens to be an identical match. The gratefulness of the Artists also shines through in the piece. As Rae Johnson points out she was just starting out when Dukszta asked her to do a portrait she did not yet have a style or voice as an artist and his commission helped to kick start her career.  The narrative could have done more to explore Dukszta passion for Art or the reason why he keeps going or what Dukszta learned about himself as a result of the production.  The volume is evident but the root cause is not pursued by the production.

** 1/2 Out of Four.

Patron Saint | Michael Kainer | Canada | 2014 | 71 Minutes.

Tags; Poland, Toronto, Immigrant, Politician, Art History, Psychiatrist, Baroque, Krakow.

RAFF 2015 Film Review- Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy

In light of the January events at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris the role of Newspaper Cartoonist is acutely focused. Is their role to be satirical, should they provoke a response are their any taboo subjects that should be off limits? Do the answer to these questions change depending on the part of the world the cartoonist resides?

Director Stephanie Valloatto's film features 12 Cartoonists from around the world. Valloatto leans mainly towards French speaking professors but all corners of the planet are well represented. The leader of the group is Le Monde's political cartoonist Jean Plantureux who signs as Plantu. He has been called anti-Semitic one day then anti-Muslim the next. French Presidents call Le Monde to complain about how they are being portrayed and at the time of filming Plantu had a pending case in front of the French courts for a post where he went a linked the Pope to the Churches ongoing struggles with defrocked priests. Plantu is also the co-founder of Cartooning for Peace along with then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The different artists style of work depends on the accepted standards in their society. One of the most interesting subjects is Rayma Surprani who has to undergone personal verbal attacks in her native Venezuela. She started drawing Hugo Chavez when he came to power but as he got fatter she kept adding chins and bulk until the government passed a law that the President was not to be drawn. Suprani had to resort to ways around the edict by drawing stand in bananas with a crown to represent the leader.  The same scenario greeted Zlatkovsky in Russia. He had some freedoms in the Perestroika era especially under Yeltsin that continued during as Putin's rise to power. But as in Venezuela after Putin took office drawing the President was banned. Therefore Zlatovsky resorts to using the Russian bear and an overbearing Kremlin shaped crown to show the weight of the Russian Government on the Russian people and foreign states alike.

Valloatto does not avoid the controversial issues. She brings Israeli cartoonist Kichka and Palestinian foil Boukhari together with Plantu present as a buffer to discuss the goings on each side of the Sharon Wall. Boukhari Faso's Glez visits Zohore in his Ivory Coast editorial room as they discuss the boundaries of what they can get print and the points where they self edit.  Some of the drawers have to use other means to get their work out. China's Pi San has to resort to You Tube to get his more sketch like scenarios out to the public while in Tunisia Nadi Khiari's alter ego a cat named Willis from Tunis finds a home on Facebook and amongst graffiti on courtyard and building walls.

But the two main sources of backlash concern the piece called The Prophet by Danish author Kurt Westergaard that led to violent protests in the streets in the Muslim world and burning of Danish flags for the Artist daring to draw the Prophet Mohammed. A greater The backlash occurred in Syria  where cartoonist Ali Farzat was kidnapped and had all of his fingers broken due to a posting about President Assad.  Plantu responded  with a cartoon showing Assad at the steps of a butcher shop with the Title: Son of A Butcher since 1957.

Cartoonist: Foot Soldiers of Democracy is a timely look at the craft and obstacles facing cartooning. The artists have to deal with censorship, political correctness, taboos and an increasing level of violent responses to their work. In some locations only overt racism is off the table while in others discussing the leader, Army, Judiciary and Religion are forbidden. Each cartoonist and editor self sensor but even the mildest post can gain extreme criticism in the modern world of immediate feedback over social media.

*** Out of 4

Cartoonist: Foot Soldiers for Democracy | Stephanie Valloatto | France | 2014 | 106 Minutes.

Tags: Freedom of the Press, Censorship, Political Correctness, Taboos, Politicians, Military, Violent Attacks.

RAFF 15 Film Review - Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery

The film opens with interviews with the principals involved with the painting that brought down Wolfgang Beltracchi's forgery career. They discuss the fate the forger should face. Each has a harsher sentence that the next with the most extreme being Kunstahaus Lempertz owner Hendrik Hanstein who recommends punishment under Muslim Sharia law. In fact Beltracchi received a 6 year prison sentence for his crime of selling 47 million in fake art over a 40 year period but after a year and a half was allowed to spend his days in his studio working on pieces as he attempts to pay back the 27 million he now owes through law suits.

As with any con man a big personality and extreme confidence is a must.  Beltracchi has both in abundance. As he tours around his studio he reflects on works of his main target Max Ernst along with other masters commenting on how easy it is to re create their work and in fact his versions of their works or his inspired creations to fill in gaps in an artist catalogue are better that the original works of the artists themselves. His wife Helene was a vital part of the plan. The pair met in 1993 and Helene soon fell in step with her husbands work.  Helene was front and centre in the couples biggest scam.  A claim that her grandfather had hid his art collection from the Nazi's before the war that she inherited at his death. Only there was no collection only works by Beltracchi's filling in gaps in targeted painters catalogues.

Director Arne Birkenstock basically says Action the hits lets Beltracchi roll full on. The story follows Beltracchi as he goes through the process of creating a forgery. Mixing period appropriate pigments, foraging though flea markets for early 20th's century picture frame preferably with dealer stamps on the back of the frames. Birkenstock  shows Beltracchi's technique for removing the original painting from the frame to leave a blank canvas for his work.  Lastly the forger's finishing aging steps are displayed including adding dust to the inner nooks and crannies of the frame to give that bumpy feel that one expects as they run their fingers over the frames's outer edge. Birkenstock uses a lot of long shots when filming the work in the studio. Overhead shots are also prevalent to show the scope and physicality of the work.

It turns out that the protagonist was tripped up by a moment of carelessness. He used a tube of white paint for his lost Campendonk creation Red Painting with Horses 1914 that contained a titanium white pigment that would not have existed in Campendonk's era. The mistake led to a police investigation and arrest as the family headed for an evening out. Beltracchi's teenage children were in the vehicle and it was the first time that they learned that their dad did not have a legitimate job in the art word.

Birkenstock also exposes the seedy underbelly of the High Art world.  The auction houses make millions in commissions along with the authenticators. The collectors are greedy for the prestige of owning a unique work of a master. So all parties have a vested interest for the paintings to be real. Couple this with the inexact science of authentication makes it relatively easy for forgeries to reach galleries, private collections and museums.

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery is an enjoyable production that is entertaining viewing whether you're an Art world insider or know nothing about art at all. Director Birkenstock creates a relaxed environment for his frank and open protagonist to tell their story. The charismatic pair committed crimes but somehow it seems that the people the pair duped were entwined in a system that is full of holes.  It is a film that I can recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery | Arne Birkenstock | Germany | 2014 | 93 Minutes.

Art, Forgery, Crime, Documentary, Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Art Gallery, Auction House, Sotheby's, Christies, Authenticators.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

HRWFF 15 Film Review - The One That Got Away

Thomas Beck lives for today. He does not dwell in the past and has not time for hate. His philosophy is to spend as much as he has or on occasion more than he has and surround himself with young people.  Now in his 80's he still does 50 pushups a day as part of his callisthenics. Tomi developed this attitude due to the many times he faced death directly as a child.  He is a survivor always doing what he needed to survive along with a knack to leave a situation before it turned completely for the worst.

In his teens Thomas was separated from his family and interred by the Nazi's in a camp for children in Hungary, The children were given very limited rations many worried about the fate of their parents and grandparents.  It's in the camp that he meet Edith Greiman. They would spend their nights huddled together. It was through their contact that each were able to survive the situation and the war.
Each were approached by camp guards and given the opportunity to escape arranged by concerned relatives. They did not know whether or not the other survived until 60 years later when they both settled in Australia, Thomas in Sydney, Edith in Melbourne.

Edith is the worrier to Tomi optimistic outlook on life. She was taken away from the Nazi's at 14 to be interred in the same camp as Thomas. After her escape arranged by a favourite Uncle, Edith  spend much of the remainder of the war hiding in a cellar at a farmhouse. She had one book to read Robinson Caruso that she must have read hundreds of times before it was safe to come out during daylight hours. At the films opening her Husband and father of her four children Saul had just passed leaving Edith in a depressed state. She was not alone but lonely in her big empty home.

Directors Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock started with Thomas Beck on the project. Due to the film Thomas was able to reconnect with Edith. Thomas had not returned to Hungary or Europe since the war but was willing to go back to tell his story for the documentary. The directors use a mix of old pictures and live exploring by Thomas to old and mainly abandoned sites in Hungary where negative events or deaths occurred in his family.  One particularly sad location is a nunnery where there is a memorial for a group of girls killed after a raid by the Nazi. Thomas finds his half sister in the group photo of the girls.

The One that Got Away is a touching story of two survivors who's worlds were torn apart in their early teens. They sought comfort in each other during their darkest days and both managed to live full and satisfying lives on the other side of the planet from the site of their worst memories. They did not know whether the other had survived but through the documentary were able to reconnect and rekindle the close feelings they had in the Camp three generations ago. It is a film that I can definately recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

The One that Got Away | Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock | Hungary /U.K. | 2013 | 70 Minutes.

World War II, Jewish, Nazi, Australia, interred, hiding, fugitive, survivor.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dreamworks Film Review - Home

Oh (Jim Parsons) is a member of the alien race The Boov who've been running from their arch enemy the technically advanced Gorg for as long as most Boov can remember. The Gorg follow the Boov from planet to planet destroying every new home the Boov inhabit. At the films opening the Boov have target Earth as their next residence where they hope to finally escape their pursuers.

The Boov are proud of their cowardice and their leader is Captain Smek (Steve Martin) the best of their species at running away. Oh is not popular among his kind his name is based on the exasperated expression muttered by other Boov when he makes a suggestion or offers an opinion. After learning three or four facts about humans the Boov arrive on the planet politely using their suction tube technology to relocate the humans to a small section of Australia. The rest of the planet including all of the key capitals and large cites are taken over by the Boov. As his species are settling into their new surroundings Oh makes an error that could result in the Gorg learning their new location.  Oh is forced to flee running into the only human left in the city, Gratuity Tip Tucci (Rihanna) who is looking for her mother Lucy (Jennifer Lopez) relocation spot.  The pair join forces, Oh needing Tip to escape while she needs Oh's assistance to find her mom.

Director Tim Johnson creates an animated film that is entertaining for both children and adults.  The production is well paced and the action sequences on come off smoothy. The script adapted by Tom Astle and Matt Ember from Adam Rex's book The True Meaning of Smekday is peppered with subtle jokes for the adults and clean lines that will prompt reposes from all ages.  The script has several good lessons including not judging people before you know them and not blindly following leaders without critical questioning.

Jim Parsons is strong in his voice work debut as Oh. He delivers his lines well bringing his character to life especially when exaggerating the Boov's habit of slightly messing up human expressions that could grow tiresome in the wrong hands. Rihanna not only plays Tip but also did the soundtrack for the film. She is memorable as an outsider from Barbados just settling into her new surroundings when the Boov's vacuum tubes sucked up her mom taking her away. Steve Martin is his usual solid self as the cowardly yet mean Captain Smek.

Home is an enjoyable well presented fast paced. The story and visuals will appeal to the younger set plus the film includes just enough smart dialogue to keep parents engaged.  Jim Parsons and Rihanna perform well in their first voice work roles. The story is straightforward, two misfits team up to teach each other that contrasting groups can learn from each other and embrace their differences. The film has a couple of thematic threads that are beneficial to learn at a young age or as a grown up.  It is a film I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Home | Tim Johnson | U.S.A. | 2015 | 94 Minutes.

Tags: Aliens, Invasion, Search, Family, Outcast, Outsider, Immigrant, Tolerance.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Film Review- Focus

Never drop the con die with the lie is the mantra of third generation confidence man Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith). Nicky meets Jess Barrett (Margo Robbie) at a hotel bar in New York City. Nicky is in the bar because he landed a table at an exclusive restaurant posing as a famous chef while Jess picks out Nicky as a rescuer to escape a mauler hitting on at the bar. Jess tries to run a scam that a veteran Nicky easily catches then gives her a few tricks of the trade before he departs for the Big football game XVII in New Orleans.

Jess follows finding Nicky in another hotel eating establishment the joins the crew as an interim. She gets to know the players on Nicky's crew as they lift wallets, watches and credit cards from easy unaware marks in town for the big game. Husbands looking for a good time and groups from out of town landing on the hour at Louis Armstrong airport are prim targets for Nicky's crew. They are not interested in the big retirement score but rather looking for volume as they ply their craft in the streets of the French Quarter and Hotel lobbies in the Big Easy. After a very successful week the crew makes one final play on game day that is a risk but has the capability to turn into a large reward.

The narrative shifts to Buenos Aries a good while after the events in New Orleans.  Nicky is working for Spanish race team owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santro) that has a new technology he is looking to implement but one team owner McEwen (Robert Taylor) is standing in his way. The pair hatch a plan to deal with the disgruntled team allowing Garriga to freely use his technology on the circuit. As Nicky is about to put the plan into place Jess shows up as Martinez's girl turning the events upside down along with the two heavies  Garriga's Owens (Gerald McRaney) McEwen's Jared (Dominic Fumusa) who are not Nicky's biggest fan.

Writer Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa present a fast paced caper that thrives in the opening part of the film. The story has habit of placing key scenes in hotel lobby bars and restaurants for  building into the transient nature of those engaged in the profession. There are no meetings at the office or a residence as con artists tend not to be in one local for a long period of time. Cinematographer Xavier Grobert pushes the blue's grey's and silver's to give the film a high end look painting a world of money, toys and status that that con artist always wants to display to the world. The sequence of multiple running games and cons at the fictional AFFA Big Game XVII week in New Orleans probably needs a rewatch to catch every rapid-fire pickpocket and bag swipe that appears on screen in a 5 minute span. The credit for the delicate ballet goes to Apollo Robbins The Gentleman Thief as consultant and choreographers of the original sleight of hand maneuvers

Will Smith is solid as Nicky. He is believable in the role getting  off a few Smith trademark jokes but his performance does leave a lingering thought that there could be bit more he could have given to the role.  Margot Robbie continues her accession to the position of it girl in Hollywood. She handles the role of Jess well switching back and forth from naive intern to junior con to the one running the rouse.  Gerald McRainey is notable as the heavy for Garriga Owens. He is crusty does not like the work ethic of Nicky's generation and the main force along with Robbie that keep the second half of the film going.

Focus is an entertaining film. The story moves on multiple levels and layers that could loose some viewers with the twists coming on a loop right to the closing scenes. The two main locations New Orleans and Buenos Aires are suitable for the jet setting fare. The cast do a good job with the material making it a film I can recommend.

*** out of 4.

Focus | Glenn Ficarra / John Requa | U.S.A. | 2015 | 104 Minutes.

Tags: Confidence Man, Crime, Football, Auto Racing, New Orleans, Buenos Aires,  Father -Son, Teacher - Protege.