Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 21, 2014

Three narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

While none of the films under review here will make it to my top five of the year list, I can recommend them as having something of interest to real film buffs. Not surprisingly, none were made in the United States, where filmmaking—along with everything else—is going down the tubes.

The first is “Starred Up”, a British film that opens on August 27th at the IFC and at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. “Starred Up” is prison slang for a juvenile offender who has been transferred to an adult facility because of chronic bad behavior.

Wikipedia reports that there have been 239 prison films made since 1929, including such favorites as “Each Day I Die”, “Bird Man of Alcatraz” and “Cool Hand Luke”. Filmmakers keep returning to this genre because it lends itself to the kind of climaxes all blockbuster movies aspire to—a prison break, a riot, a redemption of an unredeemable character, an execution, etc. If there’s a risk of being subjected to a stream of clichés, you have nobody but yourself to blame since probably every plot and character permutation has appeared in the 239 films in this category.

“Starred Up” is far more committed to realism than the average prison film. Indeed, if it weren’t for the very heavy working-class British accents (the film would have benefited from subtitles like Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”), you would think that you were watching one of those MSNBC Saturday afternoon reality shows set in prison. Filmed in an actual prison, “Starred Up” makes a genuine effort at conveying both the tedium of prison life as well as its stormy violent interludes. In one scene the main character fights off six cops who enter his cell to take him off for punishment, just as occurs on the MSNBC shows. Like the long-running “Cops”, there certainly is drama involved in police or guard combat with the criminal element. While MSNBC and “Cops” never show cops as sadistic lawbreakers, that is exactly what you will see in most prison films that from the very beginning, starting with “I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, take the side of the victimized prisoner.

Eric Love is a 19-year-old with a hair-trigger temper and a talent for fisticuffs to back it up. Played by Jack O’Connell, Eric is a young man who treats everybody as a potential enemy including his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) serving a long stretch in the same prison.

Anything and everything will set him off. Early on he beats a man half to death over a misinterpreted offense. When the guards come to haul him off to solitary confinement, he fights them to a standstill. Perhaps because of his youth and perhaps because of the challenge of reaching someone who appears unreachable, the prison psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) intercedes and recruits him to his ongoing group therapy sessions.

Eric is at first cynical about the therapist and refuses to take it seriously. But the other prisoners, who are Black and old enough to be his father, manage to get him to lose the attitude. Suffice it to say that this is not a “redemption” tale. Things conspire against such a pat ending, including his out-of-control father and the corrupt prison administration.

The best thing about the film is Jack O’Connell’s performance one—in a nutshell—that is more convincing than any I have ever seen from an actor. The ultimate anti-Jean-Claude van Damme performance, so to speak.

Jonathan Asser, a British poet and performance artist who was asked to do a show at the young offenders prison in Feltham, wrote the screenplay. Once he was exposed to prison life, he transitioned into a career as a therapist just like the character in the film whose methods were the same as the ones he used. Although the screenplay is rough around the edges, the film is a compelling portrait of society’s outcasts. To Asser’s credit and to the credit of everybody who took part in the film, this is one prison film that stands out from the pack.

Salvo opens up tomorrow at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center. The title might evoke the gunplay that occurs in this film about a mafia hitman, another well-worn genre, but it is rather the first name of the character we meet in the truly exciting first five minutes of the film.

Salvo Mancuso is the driver/bodyguard for an aging Palermo don who kills five attackers in a bid on his boss’s life. As he stands before the sole survivor, who he has shot in the leg, he demands the name of the man who has organized the hit. Once he has extracted the information by squeezing on the bullet wound, he places his hand over the man’s forehead like a priest giving benediction—and then puts a bullet through it.

The next day he sneaks into the house of the boss’s rival and discovers that the sole occupant is the gangster’s sister, a beautiful blind woman. After he gags her and ties her up, he lies in wait for her brother’s return. After he arrives, Salvo dispatches him with ease—he is a master craftsman at his trade. But instead of killing his sister, he puts her in the trunk of his car and drives her to a hideout in the countryside where he buries her brother. For the next few days, he looks after her intermittently but without anything that would betray his attraction to her. As the film reaches its climax, we learn that he has violated his boss’s instructions to kill her as well as fallen hopelessly in love with her.

The plot owes much to Hong Kong cinema where hitman often have hearts of gold buried beneath a stony demeanor and fists of steel. But this is not a Hong Kong type action film. It is much more like the underrated George Clooney vehicle “The American”, a film in which he plays a moody assassin who would seem far more at home painting nudes in a garret on the Left Bank and drinking absinthe.

The film has an esthetic that is one part classic Antonioni and one part Calvin Klein commercial. There is not much in it that is believable but it is a visual feast with a knack for the unexpected, like a scene in which eats tuna out of can in the kitchen of his temporary host. This is the Sicilian mafia, after all, not the New Jersey nouveau riche.


I have subsequently learned that Salvo was played by Saleh Bakri, a Palestinian. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Conversations with Palestine website:

LMaDO: Israel calls itself the “Jewish State”, the State of and for the Jews even though more than 20% of its population is Palestinian. You’ve partly answered and it’s very interesting to hear your views, but you’ve received awards from Israel, as an Israeli actor. So are you a Palestinian or an Israeli actor?

SB: I was born a Palestinian and will remain a Palestinian. I don’t believe that I could even be called an Israeli or that any Palestinian could be called Israeli because first of all Israeli is an hebrew name and I am not Jewish, I am Arab. It’s like calling Muhammad-Moshe. It cannot happen. It’s something that is not related to me in any way. Above all, Israel is not something that I feel any attachment to, anything good towards. It destroyed my life, my father’s life, my family, my nation’s life. And it’s still destroying it. I have nothing in common with this destruction, this racism, this separateness, this injustice. It’s the opposite, I care about Palestine as a place for everybody, as a place that was never Islamic, Christian or Jewish. Palestine was always a place for everyone, for every religion. It’s a shame that this place that has so much history and energy can be occupied by one religion. It should remain for everybody.

Finally, there is “The Auction”, a French Canadian film that can be described as a twist on the King Lear tragedy. The main character, a 63-year-old man named Gaby, owns a farm in the Quebec countryside where he raises sheep and lives in splendid isolation with his pet dog. His only friend is his accountant who has just brought over a computer that will help Gaby manage his finances. He has about as much interest in the computer as he does in the modern novel. This is a man close to the roots—at least that is our first impression.

He receives a visit from his daughter Marie who lives in Montreal with her younger sister Frederique resides as well. Like most young people with a hunger for art, culture and wine bars, a farm is a good place to leave behind. Marie has bad news. She is divorcing her husband and will take over their house, where she will live with her two young sons. But there’s a hitch. She needs $200,000 to become the owner. Could Gaby put up the funds, she asks. Since the two daughters never bother to visit or even to phone their dad, you would think that he would tell her to get lost. That is what a modern-day King Lear would do.

But Gaby immediately decides to sell the farm and move into a senior citizen’s complex in the nearby town where he would look for work. Not only will he give up the independence he once enjoyed but the company of his pet dog that he decides to put down.

As a taciturn and expressionless personality, it is hard to read Gaby. Is he doing this out of love for his daughter or is he simply tired of mending fences, shearing sheep, and tending to the never-ending list of chores that comes with farm ownership. It is to the everlasting credit of this remarkable film that you are never quite sure. Long after you have seen the film, you will be thinking about the remarkable main character.

“The Auction” can be rented from FilmMovement.com, one of the “alternatives to Netflix” I wrote about last Friday.

August 14, 2014

Two films to be avoided like they were Ebola

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

Last night I got an email from Harvey Karten, one of the founders of New York Film Critics Online and an all-round great guy, who asked me why I walked out of the press screening for “The Notebook”, a Hungarian film based on a novel by Ágota Kristóf. I also had a bad experience the same day with a press screening for “Expedition to the End of the World”, a Danish documentary opening at the Film Forum on August 20. It irked me so much that I emailed NYFCO colleague Avi Offer, who was at the screening, to get his take.

Generally I don’t bother writing “rotten” reviews of such films on Rotten Tomatoes, since I prefer to cut indies, foreign films and documentaries some slack. From time to time, when a publicist for such films will write me to ask what I thought the day after a screening, I might say that I didn’t care for the film at all but will refrain from trashing it on Rotten Tomatoes. When it comes to big budget crapola like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, it’s no holds barred.


After I wrote Avi Offer a quasi-tweet that “Expedition to the End of the World” was a “terminally crappy film”, he wrote back that he was “constantly wishing that Werner Herzog were the director instead!” Since the film was a fatalistic shoulder-shrugging affair about the extinction of the human race due to climate change, I might have been more amenable if it at least had Herzog’s knack for story telling and vivid characterization that is present in both his narrative and documentary films. But the film was bad both in terms of message and presentation.

“Expedition to the End of the World” is about the voyage of a three-masted schooner to the northeast coast of Greenland to study the geology and biology of a region formerly inaccessible. With global warming, it has become possible for such a ship to get through waters formerly blocked by ice floes.

The press notes quote a geologist who was part of the team: “Life on earth will survive us. We’re but a parenthesis in the development of the earth. And most likely a very short parenthesis.” Very likely this is the same geologist who explains that the bacteria contained in the permafrost will come to the surface once global warming reaches its peak toward the end of the 21st century. Human beings might perish but the bacteria will go on. This sense of impending doom is shared by just about everybody on board but there is not even the slightest expression of anger or dismay. The crew might be described as anti-catastropism writ large.

It might have been a better film if at least we had a better idea of what they were trying to find out. We see them hacking away at rock formations or depositing dead fish into containers for future laboratory examination but there is no attempt to make any sense of their activity. Nearly the entire film is devoted to the men (and one woman) doing pretty much the same thing a bunch of vacationers would be doing on one of those “see the wilderness” tours advertised in the back of National Geographic, like taking target practice with high-power rifles (they were meant for defense against polar bears that have largely disappeared due to habitat change), skimming rocks, sightseeing, playing a banjo, etc.

When they are not hanging out and having a grand old time, they are sitting around the galley dining table and philosophizing about existence, something that led Avi Offer to comment: “I thought it was never going to end when they started talking about the meaning of life!”

You can get a sense of director Daniel Dencik’s priorities from the short bios he put together on members of the crew:


Before he became one of the world’s greatest artists, he had the brown belt in karate. Before that, he was a squatter in Germany. He loves Slayer, Sarajevo and Strawberries.


Ideally she would be piracy. She is driven by an uncontrollable love for her animals, which she can only keep track of with her microscope.

Dreadful, just dreadful.


“The Notebook” was even dreadfuller—yes, I know, that is not a word. So much so that I walked out after a half-hour. Let me provide the gory details on what led up to me bailing out.

This is the story of 13-year old twin boys living in Budapest whose father is in the Hungarian army. So unconcerned about historical context, the screenplay makes no effort to explain that Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany during WWII.

When he returns from the front for a brief visit, the two boys are happy to see him and sad to see him go off to the battlefield once again. In his absence, they are instructed to enter everything that happens into a notebook that he bestows on them, along with two brown scarves.

Just after he leaves, their mother puts them on a train with her to escape Allied bombing of Budapest. Their destination is her mother’s tiny farm in the countryside far from the devastation being visited on the city in 1944.

Grandma is one of the most absurd caricatures I have run into in a film in a very long time. She greets her daughter and her two grandchildren with a long stream of invective. What did you do with the other kids, she asks? The mom says she only had the two boys. Oh, replies grandma, generally when a bitch has pups she drowns those she can’t take care of. In one of the film’s constant tendencies to depict unnatural reactions, the mom takes all this in stride. Evidently grandma hates her daughter with a passion, but no explanation is offered.

Perhaps she is just a misanthrope since after mom goes back to Budapest, she beats the children every day and twice on Sunday. On their first night there, they are forced to sleep outside. On the next day, when they are finally allowed into her filthy hovel, they learn that they have to do chores in exchange for food, including chopping firewood and other menial labor that the boys carry out dutifully. They become slave labor in effect.

Eventually they develop a strategy that will allow them to tolerate her beatings. They will beat each other to “toughen” themselves up to the point where her fists can be laughed off. We see the two boys beating each other with sticks and belts until they collapse to the ground, blood pouring from their nose and mouth. Just like the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons Bart and Lisa Simpson love.

Many years ago Esquire magazine used to run parodies in which a fairy tale would be retold in the style of famous writers. As “The Notebook” unfolded, I felt that I was watching Cinderella rewritten by Cormac McCarthy. This is a tale that is unrelentingly sadistic and ice-cold but salvaged—in the eyes of many—by its art-house flourishes. The twin boys are meant to be compelling after a gruesome fashion, like the “kid” in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” who would plunge a knife into your ribs if you caught him in a bad mood.

Last August Slavoj Žižek raved about the novel to Guardian readers as part of a series described as “a book that changed me”:

The Notebook tells the story of young twins living with their grandmother in a small Hungarian town during the last years of the second world war and the early years of communism. The twins are thoroughly immoral – they lie, blackmail, kill – yet they stand for authentic ethical naivety at its purest. A couple of examples should suffice. One day they meet a starving deserter in a forest and bring him some things he asks them for.

When we come back with the food and blanket, he says: ‘You’re very kind.’

We say: ‘We weren’t trying to be kind. We’ve brought you these things because you absolutely need them. That’s all.’

If there ever was a Christian ethical stance, this is it: no matter how weird their neighbour’s demands, the twins naively try to meet them. One night, they find themselves sleeping in the same bed as a German officer, a tormented gay masochist. Early in the morning, they awaken and want to leave the bed, but the officer holds them back:

‘Don’t move. Keep sleeping.’

‘We want to urinate. We have to go.’

‘Don’t go. Do it here.’

We ask: ‘Where?’

He says: ‘On me. Yes. Don’t be afraid. Piss! On my face.’

We do it, then we go out into the garden, because the bed is all wet.

I am glad that I walked out before the twins pissed on the Nazi officer’s face.

Zizek concludes his article:

This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.

Actually, there is some evidence that the super-star Elvis of Marxism achieved his goal some time ago, according to Lingua Franca:

Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.

Looks like someone else needs to get pissed on…

August 8, 2014

Alternatives to Netflix

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:45 pm

One of the four excellent films reviewed below.

I’ve Got a Home Cinema Jones…

Alternatives to Netflix


Living in New York and being press credentialed, I have access to foreign films, offbeat indies, documentaries—often connected to festivals–that never make their way to smaller cities and towns. That is one of the benefits still extant in a city rapidly being converted into a hedge fund Sodom and Gomorrah.

There is Netflix, of course. It does manage to include some offbeat items that unfortunately are the proverbial needles in a haystack. To address the needs of the serious cinephile, some websites have emerged over the past decade or so that take us into account. As opposed to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus and Vudu that are accessible through a Smart TV, a Roku box, or a similar device, these websites can only be streamed to your computer. However, if you own a flat-screen TV with HDMI input, with which such TV’s are generally equipped, all you need to do is connect your computer to the TV and voila.

This is not an exhaustive review of all the websites that are alternatives to Netflix but they are among the most popular. Vyer and FilmMovement generally offer films that are not available on Netflix. But they have smaller inventories in comparison to Fandor and MUBI that do overlap to some extent with Netflix. However, Fandor and MUBI are not loaded down with the garbage on Netflix so it easier to find something worth watching, as is the case with two of the films I review below. Just out of curiosity, I checked to see if they were on Netflix and they were (“Sous les bombes” and the William S. Burroughs documentary). That being said, I never would have found them there since Netflix in its pandering to Cineplex tastes would have no incentive to highlight them.

All but one (FilmMovement) have trial memberships so it is worth checking them out to see which one most nearly meets your needs. I will say this, however. If you are a serious film buff without an art house in your city, you will find that the monthly fee that compares roughly with Netflix is well worth the price of admission. Plus, you can make your own popcorn at home without the tablespoons of salt that Cineplexes and most art house popcorn drench theirs in.

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August 4, 2014

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

“The Winding Stream” opens today at the Elinor Bunin Theater at Lincoln Center. Simply put, it is the greatest documentary about musicians I have ever seen. The title of the film is a song made famous by the Carter Family, the subject of the film. But more broadly, it is about the great folk tradition of the Appalachian Mountains. In a period of deepening hatred and violence, watching a group of musicians expressing what is truly great about the USA is reason enough to put this film on your calendar. If there is anything civilized about this festering wound of a nation, it is that it produced musicians like the Carter Family.

Do not disturb my waking dream
The splendor of that winding stream
Flower in my canoe, his eyes they looked me through
That someone there with golden hair
Is very much like you

My knowledge of the Carter Family was probably about the same as most of my readers. I bought a copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in 1972 that featured Mother Maybelle Carter along with other country music pioneers. Then, 32 years later I saw Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter in “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic. Neither the record nor the film prepared me for the astonishing story of arguably some of the most important musical pioneers of the 20th century.

Alvin Pleasant (AP) Carter grew up in rural Virginia and had much in common with many of his neighbors: deep religious faith, a love of music, and grinding poverty. When he wasn’t eking out a living as a farmer, he was performing at local dances and supplementing his income selling fruit tree seedlings door-to-door.

One day as he approached the home of a potential customer, he heard a young woman named Sarah Dougherty singing a folk song. When he came face to face with her, he knew that she would be his wife. What he didn’t know right off the bat was that she would become part of a trio called the Carter Family. AP’s cousin Maybelle would join him and his wife and start performing locally as the Carter Family. But they were not making the kind of money that would allow them to quit their day jobs. Indeed, for most local musicians performing was a sideline to farming, preaching, or other traditional ways of making a living.

That all changed when music producer Ralph Peer came down South to recruit local talent for a burgeoning recording industry that considered such music marketable. This was before the term country music was coined. Instead the Carter Family was playing what was called old-timey music. In 1927 Peer set up a temporary studio in Bristol, Tennessee and auditioned the Carter Family, who knocked him off his feet. In many ways this was the forerunner of the Sun Sessions of the 1950s that featured Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis et al. Not only was the Carter Family discovered at the Bristol Sessions; so was Jimmie Rodgers. After signing contracts with Peer, the Carter Family became full-time professionals.

The next big breakthrough occurred in the late 1930s when they were featured on XERA, a “border radio” station in Mexico along with some of the younger members of their extended family, including June Carter. The segment on their stint there is mind-boggling. Border radio came into existence when entrepreneurs felt thwarted by the 60 thousand kilowatt ceiling on radio transmitters. One of them was a physician named John Brinkley who upped the ante by creating a 250 thousand kilowatt transmitter that could reach not only the USA but also the entire world. As one interviewee put it, that was the Internet of its day.

Brinkley was able to launch the station with funds he made from a lucrative practice that amounted to the Viagra of his day. He earned millions performing surgery on men that involved putting a goat’s gonad nearby their testicles. Among the amazing film clips included in the documentary is Brinkley delivering a spiel about removing the hood of a clitoris so a woman could enjoy full sexual stimulation. Well, at least he helped the Carters reach millions.

The documentary moves along with interviews of Carter Family relatives, including Johnny Cash who appears to be close to the end of his life based on his snow-white hair and frail demeanor. In contrast to the morbid quality of his final great recordings, he is positively rapturous about the impact that the Carters had on him, long before he met June.

It also benefits from some very savvy commentary from musicians in the Carter tradition, including Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who adored Mother Maybelle. You see some amazing performances from the assembled musicians as well as footage of some incredible performances they were part of, including a duet of Hank Williams and Anita Carter, June’s sister.

I could write another thousand words about this amazing film but will leave it like this. If you get yourself over to Lincoln Center and begin watching it, a smile will come to you immediately and even stay with you hours after it ends. You could see one on my face now as I finish this review.

Five years ago I posted a Dossier on FBI entrapment in “war on terror” prompted by what had happened to four men in Newburgh who were arrested by the FBI for their alleged role in a plot to attack Riverdale synagogues and fire a missile at airplanes on the Stewart Air Force base tarmac. The NY Times displayed some skepticism about the arrest. An FBI agent provocateur had no luck recruiting men from a local mosque who regarded him as suspicious. Instead he approached someone who had only a fleeting connection to the mosque and who was more interested in a quick buck than in jihad. In claiming that the four men were Islamic terrorists, the District Attorney did not let the facts get in the way:

Law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday. Mr. Payen reported himself to be Catholic during his 15-month prison sentence that ended in 2005, according to a state corrections official. Mr. Cromitie and Onta Williams both identified themselves as Baptists in prison records, although Mr. Cromitie changed his listed religion to Muslim upon his last two incarcerations; David Williams reported no religious affiliation.

Now, five years after their arrest and five years into their 25-year sentences, HBO has begun airing a documentary titled “The Newburgh Sting” that is both a stunning exposé of the entrapment but a timely warning to all people involved in social struggles to maintain a watchful eye against those who urge “more revolutionary” actions such as planting bombs. From the looks of things, they are likely to be FBI operatives.

Much of the film consists of footage that was recorded by hidden FBI cameras to make its case. There is something both pathetic and comic about the discussions that take place between the “brains” behind the conspiracy and his unwitting dupes. Sadly, the four men, who are not very bright, show little appetite for killing anybody and are far more interested in talking about what they are going to do with the money they make. As happens universally in such cases, there was less than a zero possibility that any of them would have gotten involved in such a plot if the FBI had not set the gears in motion, particularly a Haitian youth who was barely capable of taking care of himself even if he had a bankroll. The NY Times reported:

Payen, described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window — striking two teens — and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen’s apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.

For those of you who are HBO subscribers, you are probably aware that it has supplanted PBS as a primary source of cutting edge documentaries. It broke the story on the West Memphis Satanic Cult miscarriage of justice and is continuing in that vein with “The Newburgh Sting”.

“The Newburgh Sting” can be seen on-demand from HBO now. If you are not a subscriber, I suggest you find a friend who is or find a new friend with one if necessary. This is an important film. And if you can’t make such a connection, I urge you to go to the film’s website (http://www.thenewburghsting.com/) and find out how you can get involved in reversing the railroad convictions of four young men whose main offense is being gullible and desperately poor.

Finally, while on the subject of PBS’s failure, I can at least recommend a documentary titled “Fallen City” that can now be seen on their website until August 28: http://www.pbs.org/pov/fallencity/

It was directed by Qi Zhao, who served as executive producer for “Last Train Home”, a powerful study of the hardships faced by factory workers forced to leave rural poverty.

“Fallen City” looks at the plight of three families in Beichuan, a small city that was totally destroyed in the Sichuan province earthquake of 2008 that killed 69,195 people and left 18,392 missing.

Initially I was disappointed to discover that the film says nothing about the failure of the government to enforce earthquake-resistant building codes but was finally able to accept it on its own terms as a study of how people cope (or in some ways, not cope) with a terrible disaster. All families lost love ones in the earthquake and have been barely able to move forward. In one case, the loss of a beloved daughter has left a husband and wife incapable of bringing a new child into the world.

The director’s statement on the website linked to above should give you a sense of his motivation in making the film:

I’ll remember for the rest of my life the day when I arrived in the worst-hit city in the earthquake zone, Beichuan. The wreckage was greater than anything in a Hollywood disaster film. Survivors stumbled along with their belongings in baskets; a lady was crawling among the debris of a school, crying for her only son. A man was begging rescuers to stop digging him out because he would rather die with his wife and child, who lay beneath him; a young boy was checking every body bag for his parents. Sirens screeched, helicopters deafened, smoke and dust mixed with the smell of rotten corpses and disinfectants. For a while, all I could do was cry. But then, my instincts led me to film very wide and long shots, slowly and quietly. It was the only way to make sense of the turmoil, and it captured the soul of the disaster.



July 26, 2014

The Kill Team

Filed under: Afghanistan,Film — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

Arguably, the only good things to come out of the war in Afghanistan are the more than 30 documentaries depicting the American role as nothing less than heinous. Joining “Restrepo” and “The Tillman Story” in the top ranks is “The Kill Team”, which opened yesterday at Lincoln Center (full schedule information, including a nationwide rollout is here: http://killteammovie.com/see-the-film).

Dan Krauss’s documentary has an eerie resemblance to the tale told by Oliver Stone in “The Platoon”. An idealistic young Floridian named Adam Winfield joins the army to “do some good”, which in his mind meant helping villagers build wells and roads while protecting them from the Taliban.

Calvin Gibbs, his sergeant, has other goals, which are best indicated by the skull and crossbones tattooed on his calf. After being assigned to his unit, Winfield learns that Sergeant Gibbs, who has served in Iraq where he obviously learned his tricks, is determined to add notches to his gun barrel whether or not his victims are Taliban or not. Winfield is horrified to witness Gibbs killing an Afghan in cold blood and then planting an AK-47 near his dead body, after the fashion of New York cops planting a pistol on someone they have just blown away. Afterwards he cuts off the man’s finger and adds to a necklace he has fashioned, reminiscent of how Indian scalps were collected in the Wild West.

When Winfield begins to tell other men in his unit that he can’t abide such killings, and even urges his ex-Marine father to contact military investigators, Gibbs gets wind of his subordinate’s intentions and warns him that he will be next if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut.

If you have seen “Platoon”, you will recognize the similarity to the conflict between the character played by Charlie Sheen and his murderous sergeant played by Tom Berenger. Unlike “Platoon”, the two men in Krauss’s films are nowhere near equal. Winfield was about 100 pounds when he was enlisted, so light that he drank a gallon of water just to make the minimum weight while his sergeant was over 200 pounds.

Pressure built on Winfield to the point that he finally relented and joined Gibbs’s death squad for one hit that was eventually discovered during an investigation about hashish smoking in his unit.

Most of the film consists of testimony by Winfield and the men in his unit (except for Gibbs) who while not being proud of their role in the killings argue that this is what the army is about. It was Winfield’s misfortune to be caught in an untenable situation, one in which he would be a loser whatever choice he made. If he succumbed to Gibbs’s pressure, he would become a killer himself. If he became a whistle-blower, he would be killed.

The main message of the film is that the real kill team was not the group under Gibbs’s command but the entire military. It is to director Dan Krauss’s credit that he has made a highly dramatic and necessary documentary. It will make you both sad and angry, just the way that the long, long war in Afghanistan does.

Highly recommended.

July 18, 2014


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 11:51 am

Conquistadors as Liberators?

The Mad, Mad Mayan World of Mel Gibson


Since I doubt that any CounterPuncher would be inclined to watch Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” except on a dare, I almost decided not to include a spoiler alert. Gibson’s reputation precedes him, so much so that I avoided watching the film for the longest time. On a particularly arid cable TV and Netflix evening a month or so ago, I decided to give it a shot partly out of boredom and partly out of morbid curiosity.

I will give the devil his due. Gibson threw caution to the wind and made a movie that defied conventional Hollywood studio expectations. This is a tale set some time in the distant past in the Mayan empire of Central America that pits a classless hunting and gathering society against Mayan class society, with Gibson standing up for the primitive communists—as Frederick Engels dubbed such peoples.

Ironically, the film echoes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with the hunting and gatherers living in a state of peace and harmony soon to be threatened by a technologically more advanced society but one with more retrograde values. Also, like the original “Planet of the Apes” that starred Charlton Heston, “Apocalypto” relies on a deus ex machinasurprise ending that is intended as a commentary on civilization and progress.

The plot of “Apocalypto” is quite simple. Within fifteen minutes after the beginning of the film, a Mayan raiding party attacks a small village living in Yanomami-like simplicity deep within the rain forest, killing women and children wantonly. The men are then put in chains and led off to a Mayan city, where they are doomed to be sacrificed to the gods in the grizzliest fashion. A high priest cuts open the captives’ chests one by one and plucks out the still-beating heart to the adulation of the Mayan masses.

Gibson makes sure to make the Mayans look as scary as possible, with tattoos and piercings in such abundance that you might think you are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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July 11, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”; “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:41 am

Counterpunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 11-13, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

A Survival Guide to Summer Blockbusters


“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are sequels to two films that made it to my five best list in years past. Two nights ago I attended a press screening for the first film that opens everywhere on Friday, while the second I saw in a neighborhood theater as probably the only person eligible for senior discount to have done so. The films deal with a question that is at the heart of the human condition under late capitalism, namely how to relate to animals—the quintessential Other. Of course, dragons never really existed but in the animated feature they have much more in common with horses and dogs. Even though they breathe fire and can fly, they turn out to be anxious to be domesticated, the conceit that makes the animated feature so endearing—even to an old crab like me. Unfortunately the Dragon sequel is not nearly so good as the first in the series, a victim of Hollywood’s lust for profits. But the Apes movie fares much better, to the point of topping the original. Of course, leaving James Franco out of the sequel would guarantee that.

For those who did not see the first film, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a canny fictionalization of the questions posed in the documentary “Project Nim”. Franco plays a scientist attempting to teach the chimpanzee Caesar how to communicate after the fashion of the experiments conducted by Columbia University professor Herb Terrace on Nim Chimpsky from an early age. The animal was named after the MIT linguist who was firm in the belief that only human beings can use language, either spoken or signed.

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July 9, 2014


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

This is the third and final installment on the 2014 NY Asian Film Festival.

Tonight’s feature “Firestorm” is a Hong Kong policier that can best be described as 118 minutes of blazing machine-gun battles between cops and gangsters rendered as artistically as a Balanchine ballet.

Veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau plays Inspector Lui (no relation), who seeks to capture or kill a gang that picks out targets on the basis of how “exciting” they are. It turns out that armored cars are their favorites, just as lions prefer wildebeests. In each of the robberies about as many bullets fly back and forth as in the Battle of the Bulge.

These gangsters are merciless. How merciless, you ask? Merciless enough to toss a 10-year-old girl out a 3rd story window as her father watches helplessly. That was his punishment for being a snitch.

Caught in the middle is a guy named Bong who upon getting out of prison returns to gangster life despite the threat that poses to his marriage. This is about as much human drama you are going to get out of a Hong Kong flick that makes “Kill Bill” look like an Eric Rohmer story. Gordon Lam plays Bong. Like Lau, he is a veteran of Hong Kong gangster movies well known to those addicted to the genre like me.

Alan Yuen wrote the screenplay and directed “Firestorm”. You almost get the sense that he was trying to establish a new benchmark for wild shoot-outs, one that would make John Woo retire from filmmaking or at least stick to Chinese counterparts of Eric Rohmer.

The climax of the film lasts for about 20 minutes and includes a mind-boggling exchange of gunfire that sets off a huge gas main explosion that leads to a sinkhole swallowing up cops, cars, buses, subway trains, and countless law-abiding citizens. It is the most breathtaking series of images I have seen since the closing moments of Takashi Miike’s “Dead or Alive” in which a standoff between a cop and a gangster leads to a nuclear Armageddon.

You will likely forget about “Firestorm” the minute you leave the theater but while it is rolling, you will have as much fun as if you were on a roller coaster. I loved it.

Check http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2014 for time and place.


July 7, 2014

I found it at the movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Over the past month I have watched two films for the first time since 1959, when I was 14 years old. Neither one of them will make it on the top hundred films of the 20th century, probably not even one I compiled, but both were my introductions to cinema, as well as having a profound impact on my world outlook and psychological development.

The first was “Sailor of the King”, a 1953 British war film about a Canadian sniper concealed in the cliffs of a South Pacific island just west of Chile holding off Nazi sailors trying to repair a battleship. It didn’t make it to the USA until 1959 apparently. For 54 years that film haunted me. I could never remember the title but just by happenstance a search of the NY Times archives using some combination of words like “Nazi”, “rifle”, “island”, “ship” turned up a 1953 review. Not only did I finally know the name of the film, I was able to track down a DVD from Amazon.com. The film was just as thrilling as when I first saw it even if it was “greatest generation” hooey.

The other was “Roots of Heaven”, a 1958 John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

But before I get into the films, I’d like to tell you about the movie house culture of the period. “Going out” in a small town in the Catskill Mountains back then meant one of two things, going to a restaurant or going to the movies. For those of us living in the village of Woodridge, this meant a 5-mile trip to South Fallsburgh’s Rivoli Theater and almost always on a Friday night.

Tony Balducci ran the theater with an iron fist. If he spotted some kids throwing jujubes at the screen, he’d trod down the aisle to accost the guilty party. You could hear him coming a mile away since he had a wooden leg, the result of a Japanese attack on his ship during WWII. Ka-thump, Ka-thump, Ka-thump. Just like Captain Ahab on the deck of the Pequod.

Here’s a local resident commenting on Tony Balducci at the Cinema Treasures website, where the above photo was found:

I too remember Tony Balducci-ie. Peg Leg. He was the terror of the entire kid population of Fallsburg. For if he ever had to discipline you in the theatre or eject you – there was double trouble ahead. Since he knew every child in town, he would call home and inform your parents of your crime and you caught hell when you got home. Tony had a son and a daughter – once I remember the son opened the forbidden door behind his father’s office desk that led to the vast dark and dank cellar of the theatre. I can still remember the sight and smell of the cellar.

Friday night was “date night”. Other than the yearly junior or senior prom, this was the only place where a young man and woman could “go out”. Generally those on a date sat toward the rear of the theater where they could avoid prying eyes. It was understood that if you were on a date, the boy would be entitled to drape his arm around the girl’s shoulder. Those who were “going steady” would “neck” during the film. Those of us who were a bit younger used to spend as much time looking at them as at the screen because we were curious about the dating game.

When the feature ended (usually something like “The FBI Story” featuring James Stewart”), we’d go outside and get picked up by our parents or hitch a ride home depending on the weather. A big part of the after-movie scene was older guys driving back and forth in front of the theaters in their prize cars, just like in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”. A cool car would typically be something like a Ford convertible with a continental kit, fender skirts, and glasspack mufflers that sounded bad. Something that looked like this:

However, from time to time we went to a weekday feature, almost always when there was no school the next day. I am not exactly sure what went into Tony Balducci’s programming decisions (or perhaps his schedule was dictated by some higher corporate body) but the weekday features tended to be more substantial.

As far as I can remember, “Sailor of the King” was the first “foreign” film I ever saw. Despite being a British film, or perhaps because it was a British film, it was light years away from what I had been accustomed to out of Hollywood. The witch-hunt had robbed the film industry of some of its sharpest writers and directors. Even when they weren’t trying to smuggle in a progressive message (which turned out to be very rarely, even in the 1930s), they were always determined to push the artistic envelope—manifested most often as film noir rather than socialist realism.

C.S. Forester adapted his novel into the screenplay for “Sailor of the King” just as he did for “The African Queen” and “Sink the Bismarck”, two other Union Jack war stories. He is also the author of the Horatio Hornblower series of novels that celebrated British warfare on the open seas in the 18th century. Among the fans were Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway.

The film is something of an oddity in that it contains two separate stories with only a tenuous connection. In the first part we meet British naval officer Richard Saville shortly after the end of WWI. He is in the same train compartment as Lucinda Bentley on his way to his first assignment. The two fall madly in love at first sight and go off to a hotel to consummate their passion. It was all done very tastefully but still had enough heat to make a 15-year-old feel realize what he was missing.

Michael Rennie, the actor who played the spacemen in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, plays the officer while Wendy Hiller plays his love. Hiller was arguably the greatest actress of her time, performing Shakespeare on stage and Eliza Doolittle in a 1938 film.

After they part ways, the film skips ahead to WWII where we meet the crew of the cruiser Amesbury, one of three under the command of Richard Saville. They hope to find and sink the Nazi battleship Essen wreaking havoc in the waters off the Chilean coast. The Amesbury manages to hit the Essen with a torpedo but sinks after suffering heavy damage itself, leaving only two survivors in the water taken prisoner by the Essen. One of them is Andrew Brown, the long-lost son of Richard Saville, who is played by Jeffrey Hunter—John Wayne’s sidekick in “The Searchers”.

On board the Essen, Brown discovers that they plan to do repairs on the Essen in the inlet of an island in the South Pacific just out of range of the two remaining British cruisers. If they manage the repairs within twenty-four hours, they will be able to escape the British snare. Brown decides that it is up to him to pin them down until the British catch up and destroys the Essen. This will be done by stealing a rifle from the ship’s armory, sailing to the island in the dead of night, and taking cover in the rocks overlooking the Essen. When they begin doing repairs at the break of dawn, Brown opens fire on them—thus jeopardizing the Essen’s escape.

By 1959 I had probably seen dozens of war movies. After all, WWII and Korea were not that far off and Hollywood had become accustomed to churning out flag-waving spectacles that had the GI heroes killing off hundreds if not thousands of krauts or gooks. “Sailor of the King” is completely different. Although a hero, Brown is doomed to be hunted down by the Nazis who vastly outnumber him. Not to stretch an analogy too far, this war movie has more in common with existential literature of the time than the typical gung-ho John Wayne flick. “Sailor of the King” can be ordered as a DVD from both TCM and Amazon.

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

The peaceful guerrillas, whose main activity is shooting rifles in the air to disperse a herd just as poachers are arriving, are led by Morel, a former big-game hunter who grew sick of killing animals he admired. Trevor Howard, the actor who played the British officer in “The Third Man” as well as other roles incorporating the national stiff upper lip, plays Morel. Morel’s chief combatant is Forsythe, an alcoholic and disgraced ex-officer played by Errol Flynn, an alcoholic in real life who died less than a year after the filming. Huston wrote:

Errol Flynn was truly ill, but it had nothing to do with Africa. He had a vastly enlarged liver. He continued to drink, however, and he was also on drugs…. I remember seeing Errol sitting alone night after night in the middle of the compound with a book, reading by the light of a Coleman lantern. There was always a bottle of vodka on the camp table beside him. When I went to sleep he was there, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night I’d see him still sitting there—the book open, but Errol not reading any longer, just looking into his future, I think, of which there not much left.

The most interesting casting in the film was Juliette Gréco as Minna, Morel’s love interest. Gréco, still alive at the age of 87, was the quintessential bohemian who was very familiar with the French West Bank scene, hanging out with Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Miles Davis (also her lover) at various times in her life—the Metropolitan counterparts of Morel’s band of outsiders.

In addition to her affair with Miles, Gréco was also the lover of Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer. Most of you might reasonably associate Zanuck with Hollywood schlock like the 1938 “Little Miss Broadway”, a Shirley Temple vehicle but also more serious films like “The Grapes of Wrath”.

“The Roots of Heaven” was echt Huston material, even though it never achieved the fame of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or “The African Queen”. Perhaps its meager box office figures simply reflected the failure of an audience to connect with realities that would become a lot more immediate in a couple of decades. 1959 was not a year for thinking in apocalyptic terms. That being said, there was a lot of concern about nuclear weapons, something that Qvist alludes to. In another scene, a minor colonial official is reading a book about the coming nuclear Armageddon.

The real inspiration for this film came from Romain Gary, a most compelling figure. Gary was born Romain Kacew, a Lithuanian Jew, in 1914, moving to France with his mother in 1928. After the Nazis occupied France, Gary joined the Gaullist wing of he Resistance and flew 25 missions as a fighter pilot.

Gary was married to Jean Seberg from 1962 to 1970, an American actress best known for her role in “Breathless”. Like Juliette Gréco, Seberg was an outsider—more of a radical than a bohemian. Well known as a sympathizer of the Black Panther Party, she was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (as was I). In 1970, the FBI circulated a tale that she was pregnant with a child fathered by Black Panther member Raymond Hewitt rather than Romain Gary. Gary blamed the FBI for her suicide in 1979, a product of the harassment she had suffered.

Although Gary was very much a man of the left, he never got sucked into the Communist Party, a fact that very likely explains why he was able to fight the good fight for so many years. I got a big chuckle out of what Romain Gary biographer David Bellos said in “Romain Gary: a Tall Story” (according to Bellos, Gary was something of a bullshit artist):

Gary remained as skeptical of the inheritance of revolutionary thinking as he did of its source. Conventional left-wing intellectuals in 1960s and 1970s France continued to distinguish their role from that of the bourgeoisie, even though virtually all such figures were either active or former civil servants (as university or school teachers, like Sartre) or persons of independent means, like Philippe Sollers. So when Gary has his stand-in Bondy ask him in “A Quiet Night”, “What is your position with respect to the bourgeoisie?”, he is asking a highly coded question. No other prominent French writer of the day would have dared answer as Gary does: “Right inside it.”

“The Roots of Heaven” can be seen on Amazon streaming.

July 1, 2014

2014 NY Asian Film Festival: “No Man’s Land”

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

In the opening scene of “No Man’s Land”, we hear voice-over as a falcon swoops down upon another bird on an arid and foreboding plateau somewhere in Northwest China surrounded by mountains. The narrator, a lawyer who is the film’s anti-hero, tells us that in ancient times two monkeys decided to cooperate with each other. One would serve as a sentry against tigers, while the other would gather up peaches that the two would share. That act of cooperation led to an increase in the monkey kingdom, to the point where they became homo sapiens.

As this is being explained to us, a man pops up from beneath a pit beneath the ground and begins reeling in the falcon that has been snared by the bird left there as bait. We eventually learn that he is a poacher bent on selling falcons to Arab oil sheiks that domesticate them for hunting other birds.

Thus is established the primary message of a Chinese film that is a perfect blend of politics and action. On one level, the “no man’s land” is a remote area far from the nearest city. On another level, it is China today—a land of criminality, corruption and greed that is a rejection of that primal pact of cooperation made between our legendary monkey ancestors.

Shortly after the poacher begins headed toward the nearest city with his caged falcon, he is intercepted by a game warden who puts him under arrest. As they are headed down the road with poacher and bird in the back seat, a massive pickup truck broadsides them, killing the cop. The driver of the pickup is a poacher himself who will use murder as a means to ill-gained profits.

After the second poacher is arrested for killing the cop, he hires a lawyer from the big city, the same man whose words we heard at the beginning of the film and who is a perfect symbol of China’s new middle-class. He is banking on the possibility that a victory in court will catapult him into the top rank of his profession. After he successfully defends his client, the lawyer—one Pan Xiao—presents him with a bill for services rendered. Duobuji, the poacher, tells him that he will pay up in 10 days. Since the lawyer probably understood that his client was a murdering scumbag to begin with and not likely to pay up, he demands immediate satisfaction or else he would go to the cops. Duobuji offers him his red sedan as collateral, which was as near to hard cash as he would get from the villain except for the pirated falcon.

As he tools down the highway in the middle of nowhere headed back to civilization, the lawyer runs into one misadventure after another, always revolving around the poacher’s attempt to get back his car or various road rage incidents that make California look like a Quaker meeting by comparison. In most cases, it was the cynical and self-serving lawyer who triggered the other driver’s rage.

This is a road movie that evokes any number of other films, starting with the Mad Max series. However, director Ning Hao, who also wrote the screenplay, was not interested in a dystopian future. He is describing the China of today, taking artistic liberties but not that far from the reality:

A scooter rider in China is lucky to be alive after being repeatedly rammed for seemingly no reason by an angry motorist.

Video of the incident shows the driver of the car speeding towards the rider on a busy road, before ramming into it.

After successfully hitting the bike, the driver then swerves his car and again aims at the rider.

The film also suggests that the Coen brothers have influenced Ning Hao since the mix of homicide and bone-dry humor is cut from the cloth of films like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo”. There are also signs that he has absorbed the Spaghetti Western genre since his scenes of the northwest China desert and the mayhem that takes place within it have more than a whiff of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as one villain after another fight over the falcon like it was a box of silver stolen from a stagecoach.

“No Man’s Land” was made in 2009 but it was not released for theatrical distribution until 2013. Even though it might appear superficially as a noirish comedy about dirt-bags, the authorities figured out that the film was really about Chinese society. The censors objected to a film with so many “depraved” individuals and “accused Ning of nihilism and forgetting his social responsibility as a film director.”  I would say that Ning Hao had social responsibility in abundance. That is why his film was suppressed for 4 years.

I have a very high regard for Ning Hao and recommend an earlier film titled “Mongolian Ping-Pong” that is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming on Fandor, an arthouse counterpart to Netflix. Like “No Man’s Land”, it has a poetic grasp of the beauty of the desert and mountains of that part of the world.

In April 2014, Oliver Stone made a trip to China to meet with the country’s leading filmmakers, including Ning Hao. Stone berated them for not having his guts. Why didn’t they take on Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution? Ning Hao shot back, calling Stone “belligerent” and reminding him that steps toward free speech in China must be taken “step by step”.

One hopes that “No Man’s Land” can be distributed nationally in the USA before long. It is first-rate filmmaking. For New Yorkers, I urge you to attend tonight’s screening just to make sure that you can catch it. If you have found my film reviews reliable over the years, I can assure you that this is 4-star entertainment as well as a powerful critique of Chinese society. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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