Movie review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is a creative story about the filming of the famous 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The movie takes quite a bit of liberty with the facts but has an engaging and somewhat spooky storyline.

Nosferatu was F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece, a German film about vampires that took Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its inspiration. (Stoker’s widow would not give Murnau the rights to make a movie based on the book.)

In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau is an egomaniac, driven to make the perfect film no matter what the cost. And the cost, it turns out, is huge. He keeps his cast and crew in the dark about some scenes, locations, and most importantly, the actor playing Count Orlok (his movie version of Count Dracula). Orlok, he pronounced, will be played by Max Schreck, a certain actor that no one else knew. Schreck would stay in character the entire time, never coming out of character even when no filming was taking place.

People thought Schreck/Count Orlok odd, but no one thought much of it. Not even when cast members had to be replaced because Orlok was attacking them to drink their blood. This is not to say that the cast and crew weren’t weirded out by Orlok—they were. But no one really thought anything was amiss.

And then during one drug-induced bout of honesty, Murnau confides in some crew members about Orlok’s true nature, where he found him, and what he promised him. The crew members who heard the truth were horrified. But not horrified enough to try to prevent the inevitable from happening.

The film follows many of the shots and scenes in the original Nosferatu. Murnau shoots Gustav approaching the castle, Gustav and Orlok looking over and signing the contracts, and Orlok attacking Greta. The original story is spooky enough but the storyline of the new movie adds a new layer on top, more horrifying than scary.

Once the crew is in the know about the truth—that Murnau made a deal with Orlok—they go along. That is almost more horrifying than the deal that Murnau made—if Count Orlok acts in his movie, in the end, Murnau will give the vampire Greta, the female lead. In the end, those in the know become victims of the vampire too. All the while Murnau films—one death after another—until the vampire is killed by the rising sun.

Shadow of the Vampire truly sports an unusual storyline and is populated with outstanding actors. If you are a fan of Nosferatu, the vampire genre, or horror, you will likely enjoy this movie. The horror revolves around how far one man will go for glory and others will go as passive enablers. The movie resonates with history. Just a decade or two after the movie takes place, Germans would be passive enablers of Hitler. Horror indeed.

Advertisements

Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.

Movie review: Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

The topic of torture may seem passée. Until you remember that War on Terror has still not ended and GITMO still exists. In some respects, nothing has changed since late 2001.

Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2007 and it is easy to see why. The film uses the kidnap, torture, and murder of a Pakistani taxi driver as a springboard into examining the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror.

Dilawar, who earned a living by driving a taxi for his remote Pakistani village, disappeared in 2002. Five days later he turned up dead after having been tortured by US forces. His death certificate, which had been given to his family, listed homicide as the cause of death. Homicide at the hands of Americans. (The death certificate was in English. The family did not know the listed cause of death until a reporter read it to them.)

Dilawar had no rights, no hearing, no trial. He was considered a threat, picked up, interrogated, and tortured—to the point that his legs were described as “pulpified”. If he had lived, his legs would have needed to be amputated.

Taxi to the Dark Side proceeds to interview soldiers who were responsible for the treatment and torture of detainees at the Bagram detention center. They did not have clear rules or guidelines to follow. They did not follow field manuals. Nor the Geneva Conventions. Vague instructions trickled down from above that allowed, even encouraged, what could only be called torture. At the end of the documentary, we learn that these soldiers were eventually made scapegoats, tried, and in many cases convicted of torture. Higher-ups were never charged.

The techniques used at Bagram made their way to Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq where similarly horrible atrocities were carried out. The documentary does not sugarcoat anything that was done. Graphic pictures and short videos show the torture.

Experts such as lawyers, military personnel, and psychologists appear in the documentary, explaining how torture came to be the norm and how the Geneva Conventions were ignored. Torture was defined however higher-ups in civilian and military leadership wanted to define it, which let them state with a straight face on camera that the US does not torture. All of the techniques that were used were never officially approved but were on lists of techniques to use that circulated among detention facilities worldwide.

Fascinating was the bit about how these techniques came to be. Decades earlier psychologists looked into the best ways to essentially break someone. In recent years, putting people in isolation has been recognized as inhumane treatment—isolation can mentally unhinge people and have lasting psychological effects. Related to extended isolation is the use of sensory deprivation. Psychologists discovered, and the US started to use, techniques of sensory deprivation to destroy people.

The use of sensory deprivation explains the use of hoods on detainees (and the use of goggles underneath these hoods) as well as mittens. The hoods, not to mention the goggles, were never about transporting prisoners safely. Without input from your senses, you start to loss contact with reality, which has profound effects on your mental health. Within a couple days, you start to hallucinate.

The basic arguments against torture are also laid out in the documentary: torture doesn’t work and it violates our American principles. Despite the evidence that torture leads to misinformation at best and the realization that torture defies basic human rights upon which our American principles are built, over a third of Americans still condone its use—even after the Abu Ghraib scandal!

That Americans would still condone torture in large numbers is shocking to me and a profoundly depressing realization. If we are fighting the War on Terror to preserve America and its principles, but doing so violates our principles, what is the point of the war? If we do not have our principles, what do we have?

Another disturbing point brought up in the documentary is that Guantanamo was touted as a place to put people that the US captured on the battlefield. But in fact, most of the people who have called Guantanamo home have been people that our allies have handed over to us, not people that we captured. By some accounts, 95% of detainees were handed over by our allies. By other accounts, this number is only 93%.

And by allies, I mean Afghani warlords and Pakistani authorities. For money. They handed over people, and we gave them money for these people no questions asked. The abuse of such a system is enormous. How many detainees have been there for years or decades because someone had a grudge against them back in Afghan (or as one person mentioned, someone wanted their poppy field and turned them in in order to gain possession of the land)?

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was one such person. Begg was seized in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he spent 20 months being tortured. Eventually the British government was able to gain his release.  Begg is interviewed throughout the documentary.

The horror is that not only is US torturing people, which goes against our principles, our military rules, and the Geneva Conventions, but the US is giving people money in exchange for detainees. It is the body count phenomena in Vietnam all over again.

Unlike in Vietnam, success in the War on Terror is not necessarily counted how many people we have killed, but how many people we have locked up. To prove that we are winning, we have to inflate the body count. Here, let us pay you to give us people whether they are involved in terrorism or not. Guilt isn’t important. Numbers are. Just like in our criminal justice system where we value people—anybody—being locked up more than administering justice and getting the right people locked up.

Experts in gathering intelligence speak in the documentary about how misleading information gathered from torture really is. Building rapport is a much more successful technique to extract legitimate information.

One intelligence expert explains how a typical rapport building session goes. The thing is, he states, the life of the person detained is over. They know it. You know it. What is important to the detained person now is negotiating with captors about the things that matter to him: his family. You offer to do things for his family, to take care of them, to give his children education…only if he cooperates. That method of intelligence gathering, the expert explains, is highly successful.

But rapport building does not make for good TV. A small point made in the documentary bears some thought. Popular culture touts not rapport building but torture as a legitimate way to extract information. The ticking time bomb scenario, where we must extract information immediately to save hundreds or thousands or millions of American lives, is a common theme. Would you justify torture if it meant saving lives? Rather a hypothetical question for a situation that has never occurred. But this scenario and the justification of torture has permeated our culture thanks to its portrayal in media and entertainment.

Ironically the use of torture is putting millions at risk rather than making them safer. The more we torture people, the more we create people opposed to the US and willing to attack the US as revenge for the torture and mistreatment that they endured. Since 2001 we have been creating future terrorists because of how we have treated people from Islamic cultures. We reap what we sow, and the chickens will come home to roost.

In the process, we are losing what we are trying to defend. America was founded on rule of law and certain freedoms. We have betrayed this and continue to do so. Without these rules and freedoms, such as habeas corpus, which states that we cannot be detained indefinitely without a hearing, what are we? How is American democracy different from a dictatorship or authoritarian regime?

Roundup: Movies reviewed during 2018

As a final farewell to 2018, I’ve gathered the movies I reviewed in 2018 along with short plot synopses.

Top picks are highlighted in yellow. Stinkers are prefixed with *.

  • The Edge of Seventeen (2016): Comedic coming-of-age film where misfit teenage girl loses her father and wanders the proverbial desert before discovering that those in her life who she is pushing away are the opposite of what she assumes: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1I1
  • Dark Horse (2016): Inspiring documentary about a Welsh bar that decides to collectively own, train, and race a horse and their experiences breaking into the upper-class sport: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1IJ
  • Jackie (2016): Dramatization of the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination focused on Jackie and the impact on her life: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1J6
  • Hidden Figures (2016): Dramatic film based on historical events that shows the female African-American mathematicians who were responsible for the successes of our space program in the early years and the profound discrimination that they faced: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Ju
  • The Lobster (2016): Black humor avant-garde film about mandated heterosexual relationships that reveals societal assumptions about one’s relationship status: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1JQ
  • 3 ½ minutes, Ten Bullets (2015): Documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis in 2012 that reveals uncomfortable truths about how racism and misperceptions about blacks help perpetuate violence against them: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1K8
  • Saving Capitalism (2017): Documentary that is part history lesson and part economic lesson where Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, explains how we ended up with the economic situation we have now: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1KF
  • 20th Century Women (2016): Glimpse into the lives of one teenage boy and the women surrounding him in the 1970s and how they affect his view on the world and himself: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1KZ
  • Newtown (2016): Documentary that seeks to interview people who lived through the horrible slaughter in Connecticut in 2012 and their ongoing struggle: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Lb
  • Merchants of Doubt (2014): Documentary that investigates the use of so-called “experts” to sow doubt about crucial issues facing society and the world at large and how this practice is putting us and our world at risk: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Ln
  • I Am Not Your Negro (2016): Documentary based on unfinished book by the giant James Baldwin that focuses on the impacts of Evers, King, and Malcolm X and weaves his book with interviews of and information about Baldwin: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1LI
  • Mahabharata (1989): Adaptation of parts of the beloved Indian classic with a multicultural cast that brings a twist to its interpretation: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1LV
  • Black Panther (2018): Action movie about an advanced African nation hidden from the world yet challenged to bring its advanced ways to a world sorely in need of salvation: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Mc
  • Frantz (2017): Foreign film highlighting tensions between French and Germans after WWI seen through interactions between a French soldier who killed a German soldier and the German parents and finance left behind: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1ME
  • Get Out (2017): Woke horror film that weaves racist messages and stereotypes from society into a horror movie storyline: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1MR
  • The Armstrong Lie (2013): Documentary filmmaker given full access to Armstrong and those around him during and after the doping allegations: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1N1
  • Roosevelt (2017): Sort of coming-of-age movie where the death of a shared cat unites a twenty-something with her past and the damage she caused when she left her boyfriend: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Na
  • The Big Sick (2017): Dramatic comedy based on the real-life events of a casual relationship that turned serious after the woman’s hospitalization: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Nc
  • Wonder Woman (2017): Action movie depicting Wonder Woman’s initial forays into the world of man during WWII: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Nr
  • Loving Vincent (2017): Visually stunning animation that uses Van Gogh’s paintings as the scenery to recount the last months of his life and investigation into the circumstances of his death: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1NK
  • LBJ (2017): Dramatic retelling of Johnson’s transition from majority leader in the Senate to Vice President to President. Shows his strengths, fears, and foibles as he wheels and deals: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1O7
  • Zero Days (2016): Absorbing documentary that walks through the history and implications of the 2010 malware attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1OF
  • Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017): Documentary that explores everything the library is and how it is reinventing itself for the modern age: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1P0
  • Elle (2016): Psychological thriller of a powerful businesswoman, the childhood trauma of her father being a convicted serial killer, and her flirtation with a neighbor who raped her: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1P9
  • Citizenfour (2014): Documentary that records the initial weeks after Edward Snowden revealed classified documents to reporters: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Px
  • National Gallery (2014): Documentary that delves inside the National Gallery in London to show the various ways the museum is staying relevant to the community at large: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1PM
  • Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015): Disturbing documentary about the history of the cult, its founding, and the abuse suffered by survivors: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Q2

Movie review: Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015)

Going Clear is a pretty disturbing documentary. Maybe I found it disturbing thanks to the age we live in—in an age of collective lies, misrepresentation, and alternative realities. Or maybe I would have found it disturbing even if we weren’t living in our current political and social reality in the US.

The documentary is interspersed with interviews of former members high up in the echelons of Scientology. As the narrative that the documentary recounts unfolds, one by one these people leave the organization.

“Leaving the organization” sounds so benign. In fact, leaving is not an easy thing to do. Often it sounds like the tactic an abused woman must take to leave an abusive man. By leaving they lose their social network, which is made up exclusively of other church members, and family members, who are told to sever all ties with them.

The documentary starts by focusing on the founder of Scientology, his background, and his motivations. L. Ron Hubbard comes across as an authoritarian, ego-driven blowhard who was motivated by the almighty dollar. It is not a flattering portrayal, though I have no reason to think it is unrealistic or exaggerated. His background was science fiction writing. With a need to make money, he parlayed his stories into a religion that he sold to millions.

The documentary also recounts the history of Scientology, its power, and the abuse it inflicted on adherents. The organization fought the IRS to recognize it as a religion so that it could avoid paying taxes. (L. Ron Hubbard lived out the later decades of his life avoiding the IRS.) The fact that the organization beat the IRS says something to its power and reach.

What could only be called human trafficking, kidnapping, and slave labor went on behind its cloak of secrecy. Those in power sought to destroy anyone who escaped and spoke out. Unimaginable amounts of money were at stake. Scientology was founded on a desire to make money and through the decades morphed into a monster fed by gluttony.

The experiences of the people who escaped are heart-breaking. They were all lured into the lie that they were working towards something bigger—Scientology claims to channel people to work for making things better in the world. In fact, these people lost decades of their lives and family members to this cult. It is a scary reminder that dreams and hopes can be manipulated, and people subjected to trauma all for power and money.