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Tag Archive: First Run Features


Review by C.J. Bunce

From an educational standpoint and an historian’s eye, the Holocaust is the most important subject of study for anyone to understand why humans look to the past for answers.  Every aspect of historical scholarship can be found in studies of the subject, understanding politics, religion, power, discrimination, survival, and the worst potential of mankind.  A powerful new documentary takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a grandson and great-granddaughter of one artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), whose vivid, stunning expressionist and minimalist paintings document a broad look at life, tradition, and culture in Jewish Poland prior to World War II.  Produced, directed, and written by his great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki, Chasing Portraits illustrates the competing challenges in the debate over the repatriation of cultural artifacts, as it also pulls in issues of borders, the distance of time, and the critical importance of studying art history.

Once you get past the first minutes, which seem to be filmed on an old camcorder, this amateur documentary steps up into a compelling journey, thanks in part to a musical score that ties it all together, by Matthias Zimmerman.  The German Nazis murdered Moshe Rynecki in a concentration camp in Warsaw in 1943.  Many of his more than 800 paintings and some of his sculptures and carvings were smuggled out.  Hundreds were taken out by his son and her wife, who escaped Warsaw with their young boy, the documentarian’s father.  Other works fall into the categories of gifts, works purchased legally, and works that may have been stolen and resold.  Elizabeth Rynecki first meets with her father in her documentary, whose house walls are lined with his grandfather’s paintings.  She also points to a closet where several works are rather haphazardly stacked, no doubt viewed only by few people over the past 70 years.  In one moment her father replaces a framed piece that falls to the side with a thunk.  This becomes a key scene–although it’s not clear that the director realizes it–as she does not circle back to it later.  It’s key because she begins a journey of discovery that takes her from the U.S. to Poland and Jerusalem, inside major museums and private collections, in part to reclaim what she believes are paintings that rightfully belong to her family today.  By the end of the film she acknowledges that tens of millions of visitors have admired her great-grandfather’s works in the museums, and she interviews museum directors that have clearly given the paintings the care any curator would give to his/her collections.

The question for the viewer becomes one of moral rights and legal rights–the debate over repatriation of cultural and artistic works.  And the crux of the debate over where these cultural works belong today–to descendants in private collections or on display in national museums as educational tools for a vastly wider audience.  Eventually Ms. Rynecki files a claim for three works held by a private person in Jerusalem, whose method of acquiring the works is questioned.  But ultimately she retracts the claim.  Along the way she interviews her father, who says he clearly would prefer to forget his memories of Poland during the war.  Yet he complies with his daughter’s requests to document his memories, until it becomes too much for him emotionally and physically.  Clearly there is importance to the works, to his experience, and to sharing both with future generations, and Ms. Rynecki encounters numerous crises of conscience as she takes each step forward in her pursuit.  How far should she go?  How far is enough?  Her time travel to the past explores these questions and much more.

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Today marks the first day of a new streaming service, Ovid.tv, a film access platform combining the efforts of eight U.S. independent film distributors.  The new service is one effort to fill the gap left behind by the demise of FilmStruck, a favorite of cinephiles that was closed down by AT&T after acquiring Time Warner.  Initial film distributors providing content to Ovid.tv include First Run Features, Women Make Movies, Bullfrog Films, The dGenerate Films Collection, Distrib Films US, Grasshopper Film, Icarus Films, and KimStim, with more companies expected to add content to the service.  The goal of the platform is to provide North American viewers access to thousands of titles not yet available on other streaming platforms.  Initial content includes several of filmdom’s best documentaries, and on Day One more than 350 films are available for immediate streaming.

In a trial run of the platform, we immediately took in a screening of the award-winning film 56 Up, which has been called the greatest use ever for the film medium.  It’s simply one of the best dramas ever captured on-screen.  We reviewed it seven years ago here at borg, and now is a perfect time to screen the film for the first time, or to watch it again, as director/producer Michael Apted has recently wrapped the next segment in the film series, 63 Up, expected to be released later this year.  We also found The Penguin Counters streaming on Ovid.tv, a great film previously reviewed here at borg.  Social issues, auteur filmmakers, and foreign and domestic art house features fill out the initial round of content, including the works of filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Patricio Guzman, Heddy Honigmann, Chris Marker, Ross McElwee, Bill Morrison, Raoul Peck, Jean Rouch, Wang Bing, and Travis Wilkerson.  Works of others are expected to be added in the coming months, from the likes of Bi Gan, Pedro Costa, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Cheryl Dunye, Philippe Garrel, Nikita Mikhalkov, Eric Rohmer, Raul Ruiz, Dominga Sotomayor, and Jean-Marie Straub.

Notable fiction features available today include the independent production mystery I, Anna, starring Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne, the Japanese horror film Creepy by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the award-winning The Widowed Witch by Cai Chengjie, and Shoehei Imamura’s 1967 film, A Man Vanishes.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

This week the world celebrates the inimitable penguin, now known to number at 12 million across Antarctica.  Yesterday was World Penguin Day, and this week is the premier of The Penguin Counters, a wonderful new documentary from First Run Features with initial screenings at Cinema Village in New York City this week.  Lawyer-turned-penguin researcher Ron Naveen has spent two decades studying and counting penguin populations, releasing the first “State of Antarctic Penguins” report this week.

The Penguin Counters, directed by Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon, follows Naveen as he leads an excursion of researchers to the Antarctic with the task of counting all the penguins on the continent one by one, over the course of a week.  By doing so Naveen demonstrates what most of the scientific community knows–that populations of certain species of penguins (Adélies and chinstraps) have dwindled over the past 20 years–but Naveen now can back that up with actual data.  He and his team also learned that other populations, such as the gentoo, have learned to adapt and increase their numbers.  One of the key causes of the declining populations is that a primary food source, krill, are dying from warming temperatures.  In the film Naveen points to one mass of the tiny crustaceans beached from the record warming ocean temperatures as evidence.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Getzels and Gordon take viewers along on an amazing trip where few have gone before, to a treacherous and strikingly beautiful place that one of the researchers says he sought out for having the qualities of a completely different planet with similarly unique landscapes and animal life.  Unlike the typical wildlife documentary showing the “circle of life,” this film shows the positive world of the penguins as Naveen & Co. encounter them, with their tens of thousands of nests across the frozen lands.  The filmmakers take two tangent trips along the way, one to visit the final burial ceremony in the Falkland Islands in 2011 of Frank Wild, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “right-hand man” on his famous Antarctic voyage of exploration (his remains were only recently discovered).  The other follows Naveen as he explores the site of a former processing plant for giant whales, now abandoned and taken over by its own local animal inhabitants.

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1971 movie poster

On March 8, 1971, more than a year before Watergate, during the popular televised Muhammed Ali vs Joe Frazier fight, eight individuals broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole every file, and proceeded to expose the FBI’s illegal scheme of surveillance and intimidation of citizens including Martin Luther King, Jr.  All of these illegal FBI practices had been condoned by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard Nixon.  Four decades before Edward Snowden leaked similar information about illegal surveillance of Americans, this small group, called The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, did the same thing.  Director Johanna Hamilton has documented the accounts of the break-in and lasting implications that began in Media, Pennsylvania, in her documentary 1971, now available on DVD and streaming video.

Like All the President’s Men, that gripping account of the Watergate break-in by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this far less known burglary completely unraveled the taut fabric of the federal government’s surveillance program, resulting in the temporary cessation of invasions of privacy and illuminating the intimidation tactics the government was using on individual rights activists.  Hamilton’s documentary combines a re-enactment of the days leading up to the break-in and interviews with five of the eight members of The Citizens’ Commission who planned the burglary, risking their families’ futures to uncover concrete documentation of the detailed, planned and FBI-endorsed illegalities.  No one was ever arrested for the theft of the documents and subsequent disclosure to the press, although all but one of the planners ended up on the FBI’s list of suspects.

1971 documentary clip

Hamilton’s storytelling is gritty and heart-pounding, the stuff of a great, classic suspense mystery, with a gripping score by Philip Sheppard.  The laundry list of ludicrous government programs exposed is simply jaw-dropping, how leaders of any generation could condone such clearly wrong ideas, like monitoring local neighborhood ladies’ groups, planting federal watchdogs among activist groups, and using fear to intimidate anyone who wouldn’t toe the line of the government’s actions without question.  Would Watergate have played out the same way without the events in 1971?  Would J. Edgar Hoover have been exposed as the crook that he was and would his COINTELPRO program have been shut down without the discovery of one of the documents uncovered by The Citizens’ Commission?  1971 is on par with the greatest documentary classics, such as Harlan County, U.S.A.

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Wagner & Me poster

Wagner & Me is a documentary about a fanboy and fandom, and about whether you can separate an artist from his art.  It features the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry as he investigates his favorite musician, the 19th century German composer of the famous Ring Cycle, Richard Wagner.  What you may or may not know is that history has documented Wagner as an anti-Semite, and that Fry is Jewish.  Why does this matter?  To some Wagner is the greatest composer of his day, if not of all-time.  Yet as we learn in Wagner & Me, his works of good vs evil took on their own life under the reign of Adolf Hitler.  Hitler would whistle Wagner amongst his friends and troops and the very rousing works of Wagner were often played to inspire his men.

Stephen Fry is one of the best actors in England.  In his comedic career he often partnered with actor Hugh Laurie of later House, M.D. fame, and is known in the UK from his many series, such as a A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and various Blackadder series.  He is well known as a good guy, an intelligent thinker, a philanthropist, and friends with actresses Emma Thompson and Carrie Fisher.  Fans in the States know him best from his movies.  His first film was a bit part in Chariots of Fire and from there he went on to act in A Fish Called Wanda, Peter’s Friends, I.Q., A Civil Action, Gosford Park, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he voiced the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, and narrated Harry Potter video games.  He also has a recurring role on the TV series Bones.  Most recently he played Mycroft Holmes opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and later this year he stars as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  He may be most famous to genre fans for his superb performance as a rebel hoarder of banned works opposite Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up Series is almost interactive in its immersion of the viewer into the lives of 14 children from the lower and upper classes of London as they grow and spread across the world over the next 50 years.  At the beginning of the first documentary from 1964, 7 Up, the purpose of the first show was revealed:

“Why do we bring these children together?  Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000.  The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” 

The initial episode interviewed the children about their thoughts and dreams.  The children ranged from lower class kids, some who appeared sad and distant yet hopeful, to the kids from wealthier means who seemed almost prescient of their lives’ future paths.  Seven years later Michael Apted, the now well-known director of Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorky Park, was just out of university, and at 22 he revisited the original 7 Up project.  From there he has returned to interview and share with us the status of these people every seven years in this unique time-capsule-meets-time-travel voyage.  In June 2012 the eagerly awaited 56 Up revealed what had happened to everyone in the intervening seven years to television audiences in its principal release in England.  First Run Features began a limited release of 56 Up in the States and Canada last month and this weekend the broader distribution begins in movie theaters across North America.  Check our earlier article here to find out about local movie listings of 56 Up in your area.

Peter returns to 56 Up

Thanks to First Run Features, borg.com was given a special screening of 56 Up this week.  We’re happy to report that just as fans of Apted’s work have come to expect, 56 Up stands up to its prior entries. The gut-wrenching feeling as you watched the rollercoaster ride of certain individuals’ experiences from past episodes is happily less present as the Up crew reaches 56 years of age.  Where the past two installments carried underlying themes of encountering traumas of life, like divorce and deaths of family members, we can glean from the older and wiser individuals a universal view of happiness and maybe tranquility now, an acceptance of self, and less real regrets about past decisions throughout their lives than discussed before.  That isn’t to say that the impacts of a typical daily life, including a devastating UK recession, are not very real to the subjects of the film.  Yet despite some participants now caring for adult children and even their grandchildren, living on government aid, and encountering other negative changes of circumstance, when asked  by Apted even the most challenged of the group are thankful for what they have.

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By C.J. Bunce

Forget about watching Downton Abbey one year behind viewers in England.  Forget about getting Lost Girl one year after Canadians see it or Doctor Who weeks after the Brits see it (OK, actually we’re really jealous about all that).  We’ve been excited about this news since we learned of the British release and first discussed Michael Apted’s new entry in his landmark series here at borg.com this past August.  After seven months Michael Apted’s 56 Up is finally in theaters in the U.S.

What is 56 Up?

As I said back in August, if you were asked to determine what single piece of film should be put in a time machine to preserve what it means to be human for future generations, or to send a synopsis along with a new Voyager space probe to a distant world so they could learn about us, what would you select?  For me, there is one documentary series that rivals all other documentaries and non-documentaries alike, that required so much thought, cooperation, and coordination over the years that it is amazing it was even possible.  That series is Michael Apted’s Up Series.  At a basic level, this true life tale of class and social inequality may very well be the closest we ever get to time travel.

Apted preview

Roger Ebert has called the series “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.  No other art form can capture so well the look in an eye, the feeling in an expression, the thoughts that go unspoken between the words.  To look at these films, as I have every seven years, is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.”  It’s also on his list of the 10 greatest films of all time.

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