Sunday, September 27, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: In the grip of hard truths—both political...

Screen Grabs: In the grip of hard truths—both political and personal

The Truth, Disclosure, Mr. Jones, and a slew of documentaries tackle everything from Soviet famine to Las Vegas shooting


New releases of interest this Friday run a global gamut from Vegas to Australia and Japan, with France, Russia and South Korea in between. It’s an assortment that particularly highlights the (hopefully) temporary loss of off-line arthouse venues, as many of these films would surely have played theaters rather than going straight to streaming and other home formats under different circumstances.

Mr. Jones
One of the worst if also least-known catastrophes of modern history is the subject of this latest by globe-trotting veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden). Gareth Jones (played here by James Norton) was a young Welsh journalist well-connected enough that in 1933 he’d already worked for former Prime Minister Lowell George and interviewed Adolf Hitler.

A Russophile with considerable foreign-relations expertise, he became suspicious about the improbably boastful economic claims coming out of the still-new Soviet Union. He managed to get there, and elude his minders long enough to grasp the horrific truth: That the unrealistic expectations of Stalin’s Five Year Plan for growth had resulted in a famine whose largely Ukrainian death toll is now estimated as being anywhere from three to twelve million.

This powerful depiction of that journey and its muddy political consequences spurs some of Holland’s best work ever, with Jones’ excursion into a countryside of frozen corpses assuming the tenor of a surreal nightmare. It’s a movie worthy of its terrible subject, with a particularly vivid supporting performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter whose famine denialism was subsequently exposed as a deliberate cover-up on Stalin’s behalf. Mr. Jones is available on digital and On Demand.

Not to be confused with the same-named recent Netflix documentary (about transgender screen representation), this Australian drama is a little firecracker in which a complex tangle of hot-button issues blow up in the characters’ faces. At first it seems unpromisingly stagy, entirely driven by long scenes of dialogue between the two 40-ish couples who pretty much comprise the entire character roster. But you soon forget about those limitations.

Neighbors as well as ostensible friends in the same leafy, upscalingly middle-class suburban neighborhood are the Bowmans and the Chalmers. But their differences in style—journalist Danny (Mark Leonard Winter) and filmmaker Emily B. (Matilda Ridgway) are on the granola side, politician Joel (Tom Wren) and housewife Bek (Geraldine Hakewell) rather yuppiefied—do not ease an escalating point of awkward contention. The Bowman’s four-year-old daughter has described abuse at the hands of one of the Chalmers’ older (but still preadolescent) sons. No charges are being pressed, but the couples have very different ideas on how to proceed, or whether indeed the incident even occurred.

Denial, past traumas, even blackmail eventually figure in writer-director Michael Bentham’s first feature, in which a series of initially civil sit-down meetings gradually degenerate into angry, accusatory chaos. One might accuse a lesser film of taking on too many ideas in too schematic and garrulous a fashion. But Bentham pulls it off, with the help of an expert cast and a willingness to let melodramatic hysteria become black comedy. Disclosure is a deviously entertaining tale in which every character viewpoint is understandable—yet at the same time, you totally get why these people want to throttle each other. It’s available On Demand and on DVD.

House of Hummingbird
Bora Kim’s debut feature is set in 1994 Seoul, where fourteen-year-old Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park) is a nice, shy but luckless student unpopular at school and beset by dysfunctionality at home, where her parents squabble and her brother bullies her. A secret boyfriend and a kind Chinese tutor provide some encouragement, but not for long—Eun-hee seems destined to be let down by everyone around her.

Slow-moving, low on incident (despite the incorporation of some major public events from that year), House builds impact almost imperceptibly, so that when our heroine finally lets her emotions out in a well-deserved tantrum, it’s like the sky is falling. Her resiliency provides some measure of hope in a gracefully handled narrative that suggests Kim might be at the start of a major career. More info here.

Family Romance, LLC
This might more credibly be a newcomer’s film than Hummingbird. Yet it’s the work of no less than Werner Herzog, who’s been at it for nearly 60 years now. A rare non-documentary from him these days, it’s not a disaster like his last two narrative features (Salt and Fire, Queen of the Desert). Still, it’s an oddly lukewarm exercise that should be more interesting given its subject: A Tokyo business that provides actors to play roles in “real life,” such as a child’s long-absent father, a relative too unreliable to attend a wedding, or an employee taking a verbal beating from a supervisor for a serious error.

There are actual such “rent-a-family” enterprises in Japan, but this pokey piece with nonprofessional performers (presumably playing versions of themselves) doesn’t do much with that reality’s inherent strangeness, or the individual situations’ drama. It does at least testify to the nearly 80-year-old filmmaker’s continuing productivity and curiosity. It’s available on streaming service MUBI (More info here), and will be available free for 24 hours on July 3.

The Truth
A more satisfying if also minor endeavor for a cinematic master is this first foreign-language feature by Hirokazu Kore-eda, probably our era’s most internationally esteemed Japanese director. Shot in France, it has Catherine Deneuve as a somewhat imperious veteran movie star whose newly-published memoir manages to offend a fair number of people including daughter Juliette Binoche, who arrives with her American husband (Ethan Hawke) and little daughter (Clementine Grenier). Meanwhile, the aging diva is making a new film in which her role and much younger co-star raise discomfiting memories she deliberately left out of the alleged tell-all.

Showing little sign of discomfort himself working abroad, Kore-eda is on familiar thematic terrain here. Despite the more glamorous lifestyles depicted, this really isn’t so far from his Still Walking, another drama in which rueful adult children confront the unrepentant failings of perpetually selfish parents. (Reminded of her past misdeeds for career’s sake, Deneuve’s Fabienne shrugs ““I prefer to have been a bad mother and a bad friend, but a good actress.”) That 2008 film was great; this lighter, ultimately pleasing if considerably less powerful one is just good. It’s available on Amazon Video and other streaming platforms.

Money Machine and other new documentaries
The deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. to date occurred less than three years ago, yet is already less-remembered than several other such tragedies. Ramsey Denison’s documentary argues that that is due to a systematic cover-up that began as soon as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock stopped firing rounds at music festival attendees from his 32nd-floor suite in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel on October 1, 2017. 58 people were killed, nearly 900 injured.

The official word was, and remains, that the perp’s motives were unknown and his actions inexplicable. But we hear from business associates and others who firmly believe otherwise: They say high roller Paddock had a specific grudge against MGM (owner of the Mandalay and any other hotel-casinos on the strip), and his massacre was spitefully intended as payback for company policy changes he took very personally. Which of course excuses nothing, but the speed with which Vegas authorities explained/obscured his actions to protect the gaming industry became part of an ugly overall erasure.

Local police, politicians (including, yes, that crazy COVID-oblivious Vegas mayor), MGM management, possibly even the FBI are all fingered here as participants in a cover-up that also encompassed investigative incompetence and seemingly fraudulent solicitation of donations “for survivors” (which they never saw).

This expose has a somewhat tabloid-TV feel, and many interviewees are the kinds of loudmouthed or oddball personalities that normally invite skepticism. Yet a credible overall picture emerges of institutionalized corruption that will stoop to any tactics to protect America’s most lucrative vacation-destination “brand.” Money Machine is available through various virtual cinema programs. More info here.

Other new documentaries of note this week include local director Dawn Porter’s John Lewis: Good Trouble (in Roxie, Rafael and Alamo Drafthouse virtual cinemas), a portrait of the veteran civil rights leader that we have separately previewed here; David France’s HBO Welcome to Chechnya, charting the horrific recent rise of homophobic violence and even murder in that former Soviet republic; Sue Williams’ Denise Ho: Becoming the Song (more info here), which surveys the career to date of Hong Kong’s out lesbian veteran pop star, film/TV actress and pro-democracy activist; the Canadian Ask No Questions (more info here), about an elaborate cover-up involving the Chinese government’s repression of the Falun Gong religious minority; Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth, a pictorially arresting global tour of large-scale mining sites in which geological damage is big business; and Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu’s Elliott Erwitt: Silence Sounds Good (More info here), about the legendary photographer, who’s still active in his nineties.

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