Film Review – “The Cakemaker”

THE CAKEMAKER
Starring: Tim Kalkhof and Sarah Adler
Directed by: Ofir Raul Graizer
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
Strand
 
Sometimes it takes just a little patience for a cinematic experience to blossom into a piece of work that can be appreciated for its artistic endeavor. While the Israeli drama “The Cakemaker” may be littered with delicious looking pastries, it takes about half of its nearly two-hour running time before it offers something you can sink your teeth in to. Directed and written by Israeli filmmaker Ofir Raul Graizer (“Dor”), “The Cakemaker” is slow to develop during that first half and it leaves us wondering if it is going somewhere. Thankfully, it saves itself from blandness and leaves us wondering something entirely at the end.
 
Premiering at this year’s 52nd annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, “The Cakemaker” introduces us to Israeli Oren Nachmias (Roy Miller, “When Heroes Fly”) when he steps into a Berlin bakery where a young, talented German baker named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, “Homeland”) is working. In quick order it is revealed that Oren is living a secret life as a gay man while maintaining the life of a happily married family man in Jerusalem. Their affair continues for a quite some time as Oren routinely travels to Berlin on business. However, it all comes to an end when Oren is killed in a car accident after returning home on one of his trips.
 
It takes a while for him to find out, but when Thomas does he is left in a daze. Armed with information he gleaned from Oren during their relationship, Thomas travels to Jerusalem to find Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler, “Foxtrot”). While keeping his knowledge of Oren a secret to himself, Thomas eventually garners a job at Anat’s struggling kosher café. His pastries, however, turn her business around, much to the chagrin of some in Anat’s Jewish neighborhood.
 
It’s all quite dry and laborious, but there is a tangible creepiness to Thomas’s actions as he inserts himself deeper and deeper into his former lover’s life. He even goes so far as to wear a pair of Oren’s swimwear and run in his jogging shorts. What Thomas doesn’t count on is the attraction that the still grieving Anat begins to develop for the troubled German. It puts him in awkward position, but it also appeals to his yearning to experience Oren’s life.
 
Graizer’s story is nothing extraordinarily original, yet he inserts enough small twists in it to make it passably interesting. The relationship between the two men is poorly developed in the beginning, which makes it difficult to become invested in the story. Important elements are brought to light much later, which helps the second half of the film but still leaves the first half high and dry. Graizer’s pacing is also sluggish with too many moments of utter silence with nothing of interest transpiring. Yawn.
 
Miller’s performance is just a blip on the radar and Adler’s is merely satisfactory without enough depth of emotion. Contrary, Kalkhof wears a terrific mask on his face as Thomas is a perplexing character to figure out. What exactly is his end game? Does he want to live a lie, or does he want to do harm to everyone in the middle of the night? His blue eyes speak of someone who is moving along with clear thoughts, but there is a churning, pent-up ocean of emotion rolling around inside him.
 
“The Cakemaker” is a solid endeavor of average cinema with an ending that at least everyone can sit around and debate for a while.

Film Review: “Three Identical Strangers”

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Starring: Robert Shafran and David Kellman
Directed by: Tim Wardle
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Neon
 
“Three Identical Strangers” is the best documentary thus far in 2018 and one of the best overall films of the year. The well-deserved recipient of a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for storytelling at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “Strangers” is a compelling work that is thoughtful, compelling, moving and leaves a lasting impression for many moons after the credits have faded to black. Even though it’s been 38 years since long lost triplets miraculously reunited, it remains a story with ripple effects being felt to this very day.
 
Initially, “Strangers” reels us in with an infectious enthusiasm we feel radiating from Robert “Bobby” Shafran who describes with a gregarious smile how he stumbled upon his identical twin brother, Edward “Eddy” Galland. Their reunion made headlines across the country, but it became even crazier when a third brother, David Kellman saw doubles of himself in a newspaper. The triplets became overnight sensations and appeared on a multitude of media outlets at a blistering pace, which was only matched by their wild partying. Both David and Bobby recount those days, as well as how they started families, with great fondness. However, things start to take dark turn as “Strangers” begins to develop a grittier, tragic tone with its probe into how they were separated in the first place.
 
As it turns out, the triplets improbable, 1980 reunion in New York set a series of disturbing events in motion that began with a negative meeting between the brothers’ angry parents, who were upset their sons had been intentionally split apart, and an adoption agency with some shadowy backers. It’s paired with an author/journalist in Texas who uncovers a secret study that, as David describes, turned the brothers into lab rats.
 
The sinister background to it all begins with late child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Neubauer (1913-2008). Neubauer was an Austrian Jew who was able to escape his Nazi-controlled country by fleeing into neutral Switzerland where he completed his training before moving in 1941 to New York City. It sounds heroic enough until we learn that like the Nazis he fled from, Neubauer initiated an inhuman, concentration camp-like experiment by orchestrating a program in which several sets of twins and one set of triplets, the brothers in “Strangers,” were deliberately separated during infancy as part of a clandestine “nature vs. nurture” experiment. Even more shocking is that it was the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services who helped Neubauer with a program that led to a variety of mental health issues among its unwitting participants as they entered adulthood.
 
Naturally, Bobby and David, among others, continually try to demand answers, but he ended the program in 1980, Neubauer, realizing his work would be controversial, had his study sealed upon his death at Yale University until the year 2066, thus insuring its participants would be dead by the time its findings would be released to the public.
 
“Strangers” is a superb example of documentary filmmaking as it entertains, educates and causes thought provoking discussion of the subject matter. All of director Tim Wardle’s interview subjects are engrossing to listen to and his overall storytelling flows naturally like winding stream. His work shines a light on a dark tragedy that almost disappeared into the shadows. This is a film that should not be missed.

 

Film Review: “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot”

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 54 mins
Amazon Studios
There is little doubt that the late cartoonist John Callahan (1951-2010) was as politically incorrect as they come. However, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, he had enough of a good life, or at least enough of an interesting one to base a movie on. After several years in limbo, Callahan’s biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” has finally hit the silver screen. Directed by Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Drugstore Cowboy”), this emotionally charged drama is one of the best films of 2018 thus far. This is due in large part to epic performances by three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master,” “Walk the Line,” and “Gladiator”) as the lead and Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Moneyball”) in a supporting role.
Based upon Callahan’s memoir “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?”, “Don’t Worry” is not a step-by-step biopic flick as it subtly dances back and forth among time frames during his life. An extra curve ball is thrown into the mix when some of his more notable drawings interject themselves across the screen to punctuate what his critics labeled as off-color humor. What we do learn about Callahan is that he was abandoned at a Catholic orphanage soon after birth and grew up in an area of Oregon called The Dalles near Portland. An alcoholic starting at the age of 12, Callahan became a quadriplegic at age 21 when on one evening in 1972 the equally inebriated driver (played by Jack Black) of his Volkswagen crashed into a utility pole at 90 miles per hour.
After months of rehabilitation, Callahan is eventually released back into the wild, but he continues to drink, something that is not played as darkly as it could have been. A day eventually comes when he hits rock bottom and he joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group sponsored by the guru-like son of rich parents, Donne Green (Hill). Green speaks continually of being honest and of recognizing a higher power to Callahan as he slowly makes his way through a 12-step program. Through it all he develops a relationship with a pixie-like flight attendant (Rooney Mara) from Sweden whom he first meets shortly after his spinal surgery. It’s an unlikely relationship and one that seems out of place within the film. It impedes the overall pacing of the story as it also eliminates other aspects of the real Callahan’s life that could have been examined – his earning a degree at Portland State University, his troubled childhood, or the six-year bender he went on after his accident, for example.
Don’t worry, this film is not all gut-wrenching sadness and pain as there is joy to be found in watching Callahan discover his true gift in life, a gift that led him to becoming a successful newspaper cartoonist despite his physical limitations. Phoenix delivers a raw, emotional performance as dives into his character with abandon. It ranks as one of his best roles and deserves to be remembered when Oscar season comes around. The same can be said for Hill who shines in a career defining role as an AA sponsor with his own set of demons. It is a genuine pleasure to watch them both as “Don’t Worry” won’t leave you any time soon after you leave the theater.

Film Review “Leave No Trace”

Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie
Directed by: Debra Granik
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hr 49 mins
Bleecker Street

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Has another star been born thanks to director/writer Debra Granik? While watching the powerful performance delivered by New Zealand-born actress Thomasin McKenzie in the new drama “Leave No Trace,” it is impossible to not think about what Granik once pulled out of a relatively unknown young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. It is perhaps an unfair comparison considering that Lawrence received the first of her four Oscar nominations for her role as a tough, teenage Ozarks girl in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” However, McKenzie, whose previous experience has primarily consisted of TV work, has, at roughly the same age as Lawrence was eight years ago, provided something that is special to watch on the silver screen. Through her eyes alone she projects her character’s tough, determined nature which she also reveals is just a façade masking a 13-year-old girl’s desperation to please a father traumatized by war.

The present-day setting for “Leave No Trace” is a heavily forested park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Widowed veteran Will (Ben Foster, Hell or High Water, The Messenger) and his daughter, Tom (McKenzie) live an isolated existence in the often damp and rainy woods. They survive by scavenging for food that nature provides them with only a few creature comforts of modern society. Will drills her on hiding techniques by making sure she leaves no trace of where she is at. Occasionally, they walk into Portland where he checks into a Veterans Administration hospital to get medications he later sells to other struggling vets to buy necessities for their life in the woods.

Their existence is changed forever when they are discovered by park rangers and law enforcement. Each is subsequently given a series of tests with social services questioning if she has ever been violated by her father. The system gives them a second chance to have a conventional life together as they are placed in a residence on tree/horse farm where Will is given a job. This new sense of normalcy is too much for Will as he cannot bring himself to be a part of society. The opposite happens with Tom whose introduction to a life outside of the one with her damaged father sparks a sense of curiosity within her and a desire to be a part of something more. This puts them on a collision course that will test the bonds of their relationship.

Based upon the 2009 book “My Abandonment” by American novelist Peter Rock, “Leave No Trace,” which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, is a moving work of genuine sadness that will pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has a heart. McKenzie is a revelation of such proportions that it is hard to think of another young actress who has demonstrated this level of promise since Lawrence. Her delivery is flawless as she brilliantly plays a young girl who has been forced to grow up faster than anyone her age ever should. There is a certain sense of tragedy about her, yet you can tell it has also forged an iron determination within her.

I would be negligent if I did not mention Foster who once again demonstrates how skillful of actor he has become in recent years. Pain leaks out of every pour in Foster’s skin as his character is so consumed by PTSD from combat that he is putting Tom in danger every day they are on the run without thinking about what he is doing. Unfortunately, like someone from a Greek tragedy Will is man who has fallen so far and is so broken that he simply cannot be fixed again. Foster does not have a lot of extensive dialogue to recite but his quiet moments speak volumes.

Although her story lacks the complexity of “Winter’s Bone,” Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, also a producer and writer on “Winter’s Bone,” has created something that will haunt you for a while after leaving the theater.

Film Review: “Eating Animals”

Starring: Natalie Portman
Directed by: Christopher Dillon Quinn
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins
IFC Films

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

After having reviewed movies for almost 20 years, it is a challenge to think of a work that has had more of a personal connection to yours truly than the new anti-factory farming documentary “Eating Animals,” with Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman providing its narration. For you see, even though I may be a mild-mannered film critic I have also been a family farmer my entire life, as has eight generations before me. “Eating Animals” doesn’t take aim on family farmers necessarily, but it most certainly shows what the effects of industrial farming has had on them since its skyrocketing growth beginning in the 1970s. The gross mistreatment of the animals we eat on our dinner plate is sickening to watch, but “Eating Animals” makes a valid point that it is nevertheless a dirty little secret everyone already knows yet chooses not to think about.

Director Christopher Dillon Quinn, who based his documentary on the 2009 novel of the same name by American author Jonathan Safran Foer, introduces us to a turkey farmer in Lindsborg, Kansas who is resorting to old practices of raising birds because of his disdain with genetically modified turkeys. Other farmers in the swine, dairy, beef, and fowl industries are also highlighted to demonstrate the difficulties they face trying to remain on their own. Quinn also examines the risks whistle blowers within the factory farm industry take when they try to shed light on the darkness. This latter point is punctuated with the enlightening and disturbing fact that several states have passed “Ag Gag” laws that essentially prohibit and punish whistle blowers.

Overall, there is nothing revolutionary about what “Eating Animals” has to say about family farms. It’s a tradition/business that has been vanishing at an alarming rate for a few decades now. Quinn wants to lay a lot of this at the feet of corporations like Tyson, who have indeed had a negative impact on farming communities that once thrived when small farmers cooperated with one another. Now the farmers who work under contract for a company like Tyson, according to “Eating Animals,” are prohibited from helping each other and are treated like indentured servants. However, there are many more factors that have led to the demise of family farming that is left out of Quinn’s documentary.

Farms were lost during the 1970s not simply because of the explosion of prepackaged frozen dinners, as the film implies was a part of the problem, but because interest rates rose so high during the latter part of the decade that some farmers went into bankruptcy thanks to the loans they took out on their land. Quinn also ignores the fact that because of the rising costs of land, equipment, and seed/feed, most young people cannot afford go into the business if they don’t inherit the land outright. (It’s no coincidence that the farmers he interviews are middle-aged men.) There’s also a lack of desire among increasing numbers of young people to put in the long hours that it requires 24/7, 365 to maintain a farm and make it successful. Not to mention that farming is one of the most dangerous jobs to have considering the equipment that’s used and what larger farm animals can do.

In a back-handed way, “Eating Animals” does slam farmers for the ones being responsible for the disappearance of a large, freshwater lake in California. No mention is made of the historic draught the Bear Flag Republic has endured over the past several years or the fact that without irrigation, crops and animals in many parts of that state could not thrive. Quinn’s effort also mentions animal feed laced with anti-biotics and how it has contributed to the rise of superbugs. Unfortunately for him this is not the case anymore as the use of antibiotics in feed was eliminated effective January 1, 2017. The real problem, and it’s not discussed enough, is the explosion in the world’s population over the past 50 years. The consequential soaring demand, in part manufactured by corporations like Tyson with clever marketing, is what has put extreme pressure on the farming industry and helped propel the rapid growth of factory or industrialized farming.

Quinn does a nice job of exploring some of the ecological consequences of the swine and fowl confinement houses in the Carolinas, and the horrific distortions of what nature had intended when it comes to the animals we eat. The images of animals being treated cruelly at these confinement houses is stomach churning to say the least and may very well turn some folks who watch this film into vegetarians. While “Eating Animals” is a solid documentary, it still fails to give this topic the thorough examination it requires and leaves out a lot of details it should have included.

Film Review “Mountain”

Starring: Willem Dafoe
Directed by: Jennifer Peedom
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hr 14 mins
Greenwich

Our Score: 2.5 out 5 stars

This beautifully-shot Australian documentary attempts to explore why humanity has chosen over the last century or so to start climbing the tallest mountains in the world. Or at least this appears to be the only tangible theme to “Mountain” other than it being a work of eye candy that belongs on the National Geographic Channel. Director Jennifer Peedom’s (“Sherpa”) film doesn’t begin like documentary as we watch, in black and white, members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra tuning up their instruments and Willem Dafoe prepping before a microphone. Then suddenly we are thrust into some of the most wonderful cinematography you will ever see as we fly like Superman across breathtaking mountaintops.

From grandiose passages of British writer Robert Macfarlane’s 2003 book “Mountains of the Mind,” Dafoe speculates about what strange force from within the mountains changed humanity from fearing them to trying to conquer them. All the while we continue to see one shot of a mountain after another, often with a mountaineer dressed in a red or other brightly colored shirt to stand out in contrast to the natural background.

There is some expected exposition of Mt. Everest, the king of mountains, but generally what see are nameless geographical features from all over the world. It’s not just climbers, though, that puts us on the edge of our seats as they put their lives on the line in the name of trying to feel alive. There are skiers and snowboarders dropped from helicopters trying to stay ahead of avalanches they themselves create; tightrope walkers balancing themselves across gaping canyons; bicyclists jumping off cliffs; and let us not forget those that glide through the air at high rates of speed like flying squirrels. To Peedom’s credit, we do see some of the negative consequences these thrill seekers inflict upon themselves.

It’s a challenge to label “Mountain” as a documentary because there isn’t much to it that provokes conversation or opinions about the subject matter after the credits start to roll. Nor are we educated about the subject of mountains other than they are beautiful and some people like to risk their lives for them. The music is wonderfully played, especially the “Winter” portion of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s masterful “Four Seasons.” Dafoe’s narration is okay, but Macfarlane’s descriptions are borderline ridiculous with their grandiosity. In the end, “Mountain” is more style than substance.