REVIEW: Remember

2 04 2016

Remember“As I speak to you now, the icy water of the ponds and ruins fill the hallows of the mass graves, a frigid and muddy water, as murky as our memory.” These words come from the powerful closing monologue of Alain Resnais’ seminal 1955 documentary short “Night and Fog,” one of cinema’s first attempts to grapple with the Holocaust. It may seem hard to believe from our 21st century vantage point, but there was a time when our culture seemed in danger of turning its back on the horrors of the Nazi’s brutality and ultimately forgetting the sights of the concentration camps altogether.

In the past two decades, films as varied as “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “Son of Saul” all made cases for how culture and film can help us understand these events by reliving them. Spielberg, especially, pleads for collective remembrance, even going so far as to bleed the fictional representation into a then-present day verité scene.

Atom Egoyan’s “Remember,” as the title implies, is a film about memory. Specifically, it follows Christopher Plummer’s dementia-riddled Auschwitz survivor Zev Guttman as he embarks upon a quest to identify Nazis who assumed the identities of exterminated Jews to sneak into America. The film’s tension comes just as much from the lapses in Zev’s memory as it does from each stop on his cross-country journey to visit the many men assuming the alias Rudy Kurlander.

But in the world created by screenwriter Benjamin August, the act of remembrance is not a central thematic concern. It is the pretext for a revenge thriller. He misses an opportunity to use fading memory as more than a plot device. Remembering what happened in the Holocaust is perhaps more important than ever in a time where a new generation will never personally encounter survivors and a leading presidential candidate wavers on disavowing an unrepentant racist who wants to rehabilitate the image of Adolf Hitler. Many blame genocides in Syria and Darfur on our cultural amnesia. Might it strike again, if we are not vigilant?

August and Egoyan are free to make whatever movie they want. But why bother dredging up such loaded historical material only to produce a standard-issue genre flick? Art can be equal to the challenges of our times. We should not let those works content to stay disengaged off the hook so easily. C+2stars

REVIEW: Devil’s Knot

4 06 2014

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddThe miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis Three, a group of Satanist wrongfully convicted of murdering young children in rural Arkansas, has received plenty of attention from non-fiction filmmakers.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about their case; the final film netted them an Oscar nomination.  And if that wasn’t enough, Academy Award nominee Amy Berg made her own documentary on the subject, “West of Memphis,” to great acclaim.

Now I love a good documentary, and judging from the occasional surprise mainstream crossover hit like “Blackfish,” most audiences aren’t opposed to them either.  Yet there’s only a limited audience that those films can reach, sadly, due to some inherent bias people seem to possess against non-fiction filmmaking.  If you take a look at the list of highest-grossing documentaries, no one is reaching wide audiences unless they are Michael Moore, a pop star, or a cute animal.

I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the filmmaking team of “Devil’s Knot,” a narrativized account of the events in the case.  If you tell the story as a legal thriller with Oscar winners like Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, it has the potential to reach an entirely different crowd of people that would never stop to watch a true-life procedural.

It’s a real shame, then, that Atom Egoyan’s film fails to connect on just about every level.  His feckless direction leaves “Devil’s Knot” not a tonal mess but downright confusing.  Reducing a subject that has received nearly seven hours of coverage from the “Paradise Lost” films alone into a two hour feature is a lofty task, and Egoyan never figures out an effective method of intelligibly conveying the facts and events.  (Not to mention, there are still enough questions lingering in the case to fill another film.)

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