Opens Fri., March 15 at Harvard Exit. Rated PG-13. 97 Minutes.
This Oscar-nominated documentary is certainly important if you live in Israel, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip, but making the case for The Gatekeepers here is a different matter. Director Dror Moreh says he was directly inspired by Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, which drew lessons from the Vietnam War that applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. But those were our wars, our bloody mistakes, political bungling, and costly occupations. Israel’s Occupied Territories, acquired after 1967’s Six-Day War, are a different matter. So too is its secretive Shin Bet security agency, which conducts counterterrorism operations in those Palestinian regions, including drone strikes and targeted assassinations.
What’s most newsworthy here is that Moreh convinced six former Shin Bet leaders to go on record before the camera, where he treats them gently but not deferentially. (No outside opinions are heard.) These men are retired and can presumably speak their minds, though their mindset has been formed by decades of covert warfare with the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, and rock-throwing intifadistas. Unlike former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, these guys aren’t willing to reverse prior opinions or question their government careers. (Most have pensions, one assumes, and friends still working for Shin Bet.) They are, however, surprisingly skeptical about Israeli policies for controlling the Occupied Territories. And while there’s no consensus view, if Moreh asked for a vote, it seems they’d go back to pre-1967 borders. That would almost be like our giving Texas and Arizona back to Mexico.
Each former Shin Bet leader is identified only once at the outset of their studio interviews (conducted separately). After that, between the subtitles and Moreh’s computer graphics (often simulating real events), their identities blur together—bald buy, glasses guy, suspenders guy, blue-shirt guy, guy with darker blue shirt with a Nordstrom logo, etc. This may be more intentional than sloppy on the director’s part, since the six-man chorus speaks with a kind of unified, oracular authority. Mistakes were made, they say. We killed prisoners. We became too brutal. We tortured. We failed to protect Yitzhak Rabin from assassination by a right-wing Jew. We’ve only managed the problem of Palestinian violence, not solved it.
Basically, though no one wants to come out and say it, the Six-Day War was a Pyrrhic victory, the acquisition of a demographic time bomb compounded by Israel’s settlement policies. Moreh turns the best quotes into damning chapter headings (“Forget About Morality,” etc.), adding his own editorial guidance to the chorus. There’s little doubt he himself is a Haaretz-reading man of the left, but Moreh is hardly twisting arms here. He’s planning a longer TV version of The Gatekeepers for Israel, where it ought to have the greatest impact, though one suspects viewership will conform to existing political leanings. Will it be seen in the Occupied Territories? Whatever the market or wherever the viewer, one statement rings universal, and ex–Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin puts it in English for global emphasis: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Brian Miller
Like Someone in Love
Opens Fri., March 15 at Egyptian. Not Rated. 109 Minutes.
A kindly old professor is reinvigorated by befriending a vulnerable young call girl. If that story sounds familiar, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is also aware he’s working with stock elements in his latest mini-meta-drama. The twist is that the widowed professor (Tadashi Okuno) and the girl (Rin Takanashi) are Japanese, and Kiarostami, a fixture of European art-house cinema, doesn’t speak the language. He also shot his prior Certified Copy outside Iran, and that two-hander gradually morphed from a Juliette Binoche rom-com into something larger and more ruminative—like origami unfolded. By contrast, Like Someone in Love feels smaller, a strict exercise in story and character constraint. As they talk—there is no sex—and drive around Tokyo in a Volvo station wagon, the professor and the girl don’t change, and Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, ABC Africa) hardly seems interested in change. There’s just a shifting of mood and nuance as the girl shares her troubles and the professor frets about them; it’s like watching the vapors from a cooling cup of tea.
Shy Akiko (Takanashi) isn’t very good at her job, a part-time escort gig to help her through university. Introduced in a crowded bar scene, she’s the least dynamic part of the tableau, a sad young flower already gone to wilt. Dispatched by her pimp to the suburban fringe, she’s bathed in cold neon through the car windows. Waiting for her, old Takashi (Okuno) wants to make soup, not bukkake. Their meeting is mainly a contrivance—and Kiarostami their pimp?—for a dialogue on jealousy and possession. Akiko has a way-too-controlling boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) who also appears during the 24-hour drama, mistaking Takashi for her grandfather; her moonlighting comes as an ugly surprise to this volatile young garage owner.
“When you know you may be lied to, it’s best not to ask questions,” says Takashi to hotheaded Noriaki. Even as he tries to mediate between these two doomed lovers, you know it’s a fool’s errand. Kiarostami is old enough, at 72, to identify with the professor’s soothing words, cardigan sweaters, and musty tastes (old stereo, vintage LPs, Broadway ballads). He knows that grandfatherly advice will be ignored by youth. For both the filmmaker and the professor, Akiko may seem like a fallen woman of 19th-century literature, but modern-day Tokyo isn’t so romantic. The movie puts an abrupt end to such bookish sentimentality, like the final page ripped from a short story we’ll never finish. Brian Miller
Opens Fri., March 15 at SIFF Film Center. Not Rated. 112 Minutes.
In Avi Nesher’s Israeli coming-of-age drama, the Summer of Love is also making waves in 1968 Haifa. There its impact complicates the work of matchmaker Yankele (Adir Miller, a ringer for Vincent D’Onofrio), a Holocaust survivor who lives in Haifa’s red-light district. Yankele’s lovelorn clients in the Lower City include Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), a beautiful dwarf who operates the local cinema.
The setting may sound Felliniesque, but it makes a grave and lasting impression on teenage Arik (Tuval Shafir), who becomes Yankele’s protégé that fateful summer. (The story, based on a novel by Amir Gutfreund, is framed by Arik’s return visit nearly four decades later.) Yet The Matchmaker is also grounded in historical details—like the family of dwarfs who actually survived Dr. Mengele’s experiments and established a successful movie theater in Israel. Also genuine is the difficult, sometimes impossible challenge of resuming life after years in the camps. That’s why Yankele lives down by the harbor, says Arik’s father, a survivor himself: “They want to be near the ships, in case of another disaster.”
When Arik meets Tamara (Neta Porat), the sassy cousin of a friend, he begins the inevitable, bittersweet journey to manhood. From there, The Matchmaker essentially hews to formula. Arik looks back on a pivotal summer with an adult’s perspective, contemplating the mystery of why Yankele can never be with his beloved fellow camp survivor Clara (Maya Dagan). Writer/director Nesher wisely avoids the trap of explaining too much about these characters and their histories, allowing the story’s nuances to come through naturally. Yankele wears a deep, jagged scar across his face, which remains a mystery. You just know it’s there, and can never go away. GWENDOLYN ELLIOTT
The Rabbi’s Cat
runs Fri., March 15–Thurs., March 21 at Northwest Film Forum. Not Rated. 100 Minutes.
French cartoonist Joann Sfar published a U.S. collection of his The Rabbi’s Cat stories, set mostly in prewar Algiers, in 2005, but he’s an artist who’s worked in several media and graphic styles. He directed the 2010 live-action movie Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, based on his prior comic about the pop singer; he’s illustrated a version of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince; and his other subjects have included child vampires and Marc Chagall. Co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux, Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat combines several stories following widowed Rabbi Sfar and his talking cat (gifted with speech after devouring the family parrot).
During the 1920s, the Casbah is a multicultural idyll full of Jews, Muslims, French colonial overlords, and wacky Russian exiles. (The rabbi even has a friendly Muslim cousin, also named Sfar.) As in his graphic novels, Sfar renders the frescos, tiled floors, and stepped, Mediterranean architecture with bold colors and squiggly, irregular lines. Everything looks jittery, exaggerated for comic effect (including some Semitic noses), and that tendency extends to the storytelling. The Rabbi’s Cat is essentially a collection of chatty vignettes and anecdotes, some philosophical, some silly, and one too violent for small children (who wouldn’t want to read all the subtitles anyway).
The cat demands a bar mitzvah from his startled owner, but that episode doesn’t get beyond the theology debates. Do cats have souls? Can cats be Jewish? Never mind, here comes cousin Malka, who keeps a lion as a pet. The rabbi’s ripe daughter Zlabya seems to be bursting into womanhood (the unnamed tomcat ecstatically burrows between her breasts), but she never exchanges more than chaste glances with a blue-eyed painter who arrives comatose in a box, having escaped the Cossacks back in Russia. Sfar employs different animation styles for that past pogrom and various fantasy scenes (in one, the Rabbi becomes a cat, too), which gives the film an antic quality—as if the impatient author keeps flipping the pages ahead before you’ve had time to appreciate his lovely drawings.
Thus the movie becomes a colorful picaresque—diverting, not deep. During a trans-African expedition to find a lost tribe of Ethiopian Jews, the rabbi and company even encounter a Tintin-like reporter in the jungle. It’s a nod to the comic books of Sfar’s youth, where religious and political conflicts could be gently resolved in pulpy pages. In this way, The Rabbi’s Cat plays like a charmingly erratic series of postcards from a time and place that never really existed. BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., March 15 at Sundance Cinemas And other theaters. Rated R. 98 Minutes.
Eighteen-year-old India Stoker is a sensual, feral sort of girl. Park Chan-wook’s tantalizing Stoker opens with her scampering barefoot around her family’s sprawling Connecticut mansion, stoically stabbing a needle through a blister on her finger, allowing a spider to crawl up her stockinged leg. As played by Mia Wasikowska, India is pale, scowling, perpetually in shadow. And she’s done something mysterious, something that needs explaining. That much is obvious from her whispery opening monologue: “Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free.” It’s an eloquent way of putting a common teenage lament: It’s not my fault.
India certainly didn’t choose her crumbling family situation. After her beloved father is killed in a car accident, her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) goes into a wilting, unstable state. Kidman and Wasikowska, Australians who share dark, straight brows and opalescent skin, are reduced to wan ghosts, avoiding each other in the large mansion. Evelyn sparks to life when her late husband’s brother Charles (a brilliantly snaky Matthew Goode) arrives from Europe for a prolonged visit. India never knew she had an Uncle Charlie—first seen as an apparition at her father’s funeral—and she resents his intrusion, particularly after she sees the lustful looks he exchanges with her mother. India fairly smolders as she spies on them dancing to the torrid heat of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Summer Wine.”
Park, known for his violent thrillers in South Korea (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), here makes his English-language debut. He builds India’s fear of her uncle by imparting each scene with an air of momentousness. A metronome atop a piano tocks like the staccato of heavy boots on a floor; India’s pencil scratches urgently in her art class; a basement ceiling lamp swings and creaks; a freezer rumbles like a shifting bogeyman. But these are just tense hints. The movie begins so delicately that its sudden shift to brutality comes as a surprise. The first startling moment occurs when India’s aunt (a trembling Jacki Weaver) appears too petrified to give Charlie her address. From there, violence spills out, along with frightening family histories, and India is magnetized by the dark new presence in her life.
Stoker retains a sense of creepy quiescence—India sharpens the bloody tip of a pencil into clotted red shavings; the camera follows a dried streak of blood on a hardwood floor—but the script (by actor Wentworth Miller) leaves too many gaps for Park to fill. The reason for Charlie’s obsession with India remains a blank. But the masterly performances of the three leads, and Park’s subtle layering of suspense, offset the heavy-handed violence.
“Charlie, who in the world are you?” Evelyn marvels early in the film. All too savagely soon, she’ll find out. ERIN K. THOMPSON
Opens Fri., March 15 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not Rated. 90 Minutes.
Seeing the horrors of war through the eyes of a child is nothing new to the movies, and there are plenty of films about lost innocence and survival during wartime. The Oscar nominee War Witch, made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by French-Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen, is about innocence robbed, abused, and preyed upon.
Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is a child soldier in an unidentified sub-Saharan African nation. Narrating her story to her unborn child, the 14-year-old recalls the time, two years earlier, that her village was massacred by rebels and she was forced by their commander to shoot her mother and father. Abducted by the rebels, she’s saved from even worse abuse after her visions mark her as a witch, a living totem for the warlord known as the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), who commands by force of personality and perceived power. Later, another rebel will claim Komona for his concubine. Yet between her travails she finds tenderness from an albino boy, a fellow soldier who becomes her champion, and from his uncle, a village butcher who embraces her like a daughter.
The material world merges with magic and superstition through Komona’s perspective, which Nguyen treats matter-of-factly. The ghosts of her parents and other war dead are not movie special effects, but actors caked in white mud and makeup, as in ritual theater. These nearly human figures are the most evocative suggestion of guilt and fear and horror experienced by Komona.
Nguyen skillfully reminds us of the child beneath the soldier, with a mix of innocence and survival instinct. By not identifying the war, he makes her story strictly a matter of power, not politics. These kids aren’t fighting for a particular cause or ideological leader. But in his determination not to exploit or sensationalize, Nguyen leaves Komona more symbol than person and her story a half-remembered nightmare. He shies away from the deep emotional scars carved into their hearts and minds of these child soldiers, and he avoids showing them as violent sociopaths. And I can’t blame him—I don’t know if I could endure seeing a direct portrait of their ordeal. Nguyen’s compassion and commitment to the issue is admirable, and at its best, War Witch is devastating. Yet it’s also impressionistic and reflective where it ought to be angry and outraged. SEAN AXMAKER
West of Memphis
Opens Fri., March 8 at Guild 45th. Rated R. 147 minutes.
We have a strong and unusual regional link to the West Memphis Three, the Arkansas teens wrongly imprisoned for almost two decades, blamed for killing three children in 1993. Among other celebrities, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder became a passionate defender of the trio, one of whom, Jason Baldwin, now lives in Seattle. Interest in the case was raised mostly by the three acclaimed Paradise Lost documentaries directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky between 1996 and 2011. After the first one, Vedder, Johnny Depp, and others rallied to the cause, drawn in particular to the charismatic, music-loving Damien Echols (now a bestselling memoirist). Once branded as Satanic cult killers, the West Memphis Three were finally freed in the summer of 2011, an event that received international media attention. So why do we need another doc on the subject, two years later?
That is the question for producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who put their Lord of the Rings money to a good cause—offering both legal support and the funds for West of Memphis (directed by Amy Berg, Deliver Us From Evil). Unfortunately, their film never makes the case for its belated arrival. (It was released in other markets last year but didn’t make the Oscar cut.) Back in the early ’90s, it was hard to get information out of Arkansas; more recently, entire websites have been devoted to the West Memphis Three. Books have been written, and more movies are planned. Baldwin even has a hand in the coming fall dramatization Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
Against all that awareness, the Jackson/Walsh film creates a phony dramatic tension, starting at the beginning of the crime saga, pretending we don’t know the outcome. Echols is treated as the main protagonist (he and his wife are credited as producers), Baldwin barely appears, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (the slow one) is more of a prop. Vedder, Depp, Henry Rollins, and Patti Smith offer testimonials, and Jackson and Walsh even become interview subjects, too. The only news here is hardly new, dating to 2007: DNA found at the crime scene matches that of the stepfather of one of the slain boys, Terry Hobbs, but it’s unclear if that evidence would be admissible in court. And if Hobbs or anyone is ever charged and convicted of the crime, it seems unlikely that Berlinger, Sinofsky, Jackson, or Walsh will be back to film it. A poor, forgotten corner of Arkansas will be forgotten once more. BRIAN MILLER E