Sunday, December 5, 2010

God Grew Tired of Us

God Grew Tired of Us is a truly unique film: a tale of then, and now, pain and promise, joy and longing. It is the true story of people in a distant land who, despite living a life devoid of what we in the U.S. would call the most basic of necessities, lived a good—even joyous life, only to have that life destroyed by civil war, and resurrected in a totally different and often perplexing form.

Sparsely narrated by Nicole Kidman, and directed by Christopher Quinn, God Grew Tired of Us begins in Southern Sudan, where, prior to 1983, a group known as the Dinkas enjoyed a primitive, yet exceedingly rewarding life, farming and tending their cattle over a rich, lush landscape. They bathed in the Nile, grew what they ate, and developed a strong sense of family and community.

This some-would-say idyllic life came to an abrupt end during the second Sudanese civil war between the Muslim north and the black Christian and animist south. In–as they say, 'the blink of an eye', Northern government troops raided the Dinkas’ villages, raping their women, murdering their men, sexually mutilating their male youth, and taking those who remained as slaves. Children were herded into huts and burned alive Animals were slaughtered or left to die.

The only villagers to survive the attack – the so-called "lucky ones"– were the youngsters (mostly boys between the ages of 3 and 11) who were tending cattle in the forest during the rampage. Escaping into the African jingle and across the desert, 27,000 of them traveled more than one thousand miles on foot, in search of a safe haven.

Many would not make it, succumbing to thirst, hunger, pestilence, animal attacks and bombing raids. After a three-year stay in Panyidu at a UN and church-charity-sponsored camp on the Ethiopian border, they were forced to flee when the fighting grew closer. Backtracking through the Sudan, they headed toward Kenya, arriving at a camp in Kakuma in 1992, and what they hoped would be a temporary sanctuary.

Using an indelible collection of archival and more recent footage, God Grew Tired of Us takes us from those earliest of days through 2002, when the first group of refuges were relocated in American cities around the country. We see what they loved and lost, follow them across the desert to that end-of-the road camp where they would languish for more than ten years, and watch as several of the young men make the mind-bending transition to life in these United States.

The jump from archival to then-current film begins in Kakuma, shortly before the chosen few had to say their good-byes. We get a sense of how hard it was for them to leave, as great expectations mixed and mingled with fear of the unknown, guilt at leaving this extended family, and worry that they would never be able to return to their native land.

The bulk of the film focuses on three of the refugees (John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach) as they settle into life in America. Their feelings are intense. Confused, awestruck, frightened and hopeful, they are barraged with all manner of first-time experiences, having never turned on a light, slept in a bed, set an alarm clock, seen a refrigerator, used a toilet, come upon a trash can, taken a shower, worn shoes, or stepped inside a supermarket. The only thing I can equate it to would be if somehow I was plucked from my easy chair and set down on Mars, with only the barest notion of how to survive.

"I hear there is something called an ‘apartment’" says one boy, shortly before they leave Kakuma. "What does it look like?" asks another. "I’ve never used electricity" says a third, adding,"so I imagine that it will be very hard for me to do that."

Still, they press on, willing to do whatever it takes, be it "digging latrines, cleaning dog’s teeth" or "singing songs to old people so that they’ll fall asleep" in order to make enough money to improve their lot in life, as well as the lives of those they left behind.

And so we watch them as they make their way, marveling at our cultural differences – ("In U.S. there is only one wife" notes one of the boys, "These things are going to affect us"), while trying to make sense our seeming indifference to those in need.

Their reactions and moods―a mixture of gratitude and guilt― are at the heart of this beautifully crafted film. Inspiring on so many levels, it is a tribute to a people who despite all that has befallen them, remain inherently happy, loyal, loving and true to their heritage.

It is amazing that in this day and age, when news is instantaneously transmitted through all manner of technology that their plight was not recognized sooner, and aid did not come quicker. When, in 2001, help did arrive, some 3,800 boys were relocated in Pittsburgh, Syracuse, New York and Omaha, and thirty-four other U.S. cities.

Discontinued after 9/11 for security reasons, the program that brought Daniel, John and Panther to America was eventually re-instituted in 2004, shortly before the end of the second civil war. But their mission is far from over, as, by some counts, 17,000 young people have yet to be relocated.

Some choose to remain. Nearly all hold on to the hope that they will find lost family members alive and well, and that one day they will be able to return to their villages. Since the film was produced, programs have been established to help them search for their families, retain their culture, get an education and make their way into the workforce. But it is slow going.

God Grew Tired of Us is a remarkable documentary—a mixture of heartbreak and joy, wonder and wisdom, success and failure. I hope you will step out of your comfort zone and seek it out. It is everything a documentary should be, and more.

As with all of the films and TV shows I write about in this blog, God Grew Tired of US is available through Netflix.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox

Well, It’s been a while since I last wrote. In the interim I’ve watched a lot of DVD offerings, some good, some bad, some really bad. But every now and again there was a film that coaxed a smile, sparked a tear, or got me to thinking about someone, some place or something I had never thought about before.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is an imperfect but often fascinating documentary. It’s a film about—of all things—a family-owned-and-operated soap company. The story is unique, the people are interesting, and the product (Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap) is a natural. I know, because despite its flaws, the film peeked my interest to the point where I actually went out and bought a bar.

Unfortunately, the film itself is very uneven, often transgressing from its subject matter for no apparent reason. I suspect the filmmaker used these fillers to compensate for a lack of archival footage, filing in the gaps with a little of this, and much-too-much of that. As a result, the film is a bit like one of those old-time frozen "TV dinners", with too much stuffing and not enough meat.

That said, if you can overlook or fast-forward through those ill-placed sequences, I think you’ll find this odd little documentary to be well worth your while.

It's the story of Dr. Emmanuel Bronner who, like his father before him, was a master soap maker and chemist. Unlike his father, he was—how can I put this? —a bit unstable. But boy oh boy, could he make soap. Castile soap. One-size-fits-all and does-just-about-everything soap.

Fans of the stuff say they use it to bathe themselves, shampoo their hair, brush their teeth, sanitize their kitchen counters, mop their floors and wash their dog. From vegans to world-peace activists, Dr. Bonner’s Castile Soap is beloved by many, not only for its versatility, but the message carved into each and every bar. And what would that be?

All-One. That’s it. That’s all. That’s enough.

The film examines the origin of Bronner's mantra, which turns out to be an abbreviated version of All-One-God-Faith, and fills us in on the life and times of this eccentric (to-say-the-least) individual. While the self-proclaimed doctor claimed to have escaped from a concentration camp during the Holocaust, it appears he had emigrated to states long before the war. In truth, he had escaped—not from a prison camp, but an Illinois mental hospital, where he was being treated for manic depression.

In brief—but insightful clips, we see Bronner lecturing to anyone who will listen about his all-encompassing, All-One philosophy. It was a passion that would quickly overtake his life, leading him to virtually abandon his children. Bronner’s son Ralph notes that his dad’s response to any such accusations was simply, “What’s more important – uniting spaceship earth or raising your own family?”

While any ill feelings may be hiding behind Ralph’s soft-spoken and genuinely kind manner, he has chosen to continue promoting the virtues of the soap and a peaceful existence. At seventy, he is the face of the family business, traveling the country, and giving away free bars of soap and hundreds of dollars at a time to unsuspecting but grateful strangers. A born promoter, he stands on his virtual soapbox, renting local theaters for an evening or two, in order to put on his free, one-man-show about what else, but Dr. Bronner's Magic soap.

Back at the factory, Bronner promotes peaceful co-existence in a very real way, purchasing olive oil (a key ingredient in his soap) from farmers on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian border.

It's a start.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is loaded with interesting, thought-provoking stuff—if you don't mind a little stuffing. Who knows, it just might inspire you to buy a bar, lather up and save the world.

Friday, July 30, 2010

DOC MARTIN: An extremely clever television series from across the pond.

Last week it was Christmas in July at my house. I stuck in a thumb and pulled out a plum of a DVD- or at least an unexpected treasure from among the new releases at NetFlix.

You know how you feel when you’re reading a good book and don’t want it to end? Well, that’s the way I felt about the BBC’s Doc Martin series. Last year after watching the final episode of season 3, I thought it was over. After all, the series had gone off the air in 2008. The writers had― I thought―wrapped things up pretty well. The ending. clever, the future of the main characters left to the viewer’s imagination.

Little did I know that the series’ star, Martin Clunes, and his wife—series producer Philippe Braithwaite, opted to take a two-year break from filming to catch up on life, and treat their daughter to her first vacation since the show began.

And so it was that, unbeknownst to me, Season 4 commenced in 2009, and appeared among NetFlix's new releases earlier this month, just in time to liven up the summer’s dry spell.

I came to Doc Martin after enjoying another gem of a series called William and Mary. That show starred a tall, average-looking but extremely gifted actor named Martin Clunes. Equally adept at drama and comedy, Clunes has a way of disappearing into his characters. The fact that he doesn't look like a leading man, serves both him and the story well.

If you haven’t seen William and Mary, you need to put it on your ‘to do’ list. It is exceptional, and not to be missed. Doc Martin is far lighter fare, with lots of twists and turns and special moments along the way.

The funny thing about Doc Martin is that Klunes’ character (doctor/surgeon Martin Ellingham) isn’t a very likeable chap. Truth be told, he does a lot of things that annoy me. But somehow, I have grown to like him in spite of myself – or should I say, himself?

As the series opens, Dr. Ellingham (an anagram for series creator Dominic Minghella) has just arrived in the fictitious fishing village of Portwenn, having left the big city of London, where he was a successful and well-respected surgeon. Why the sudden, and some would say downward career change? It seems that out of nowhere, the doc became hemophobic, getting down right queasy at the very sight of blood—not a great attribute for a vascular surgeon. But what was a deal-breaker in London, is just a blip on the radar screen in Portwenn.

As the town’s only physician, Doc Martin's waiting room is often packed with people of all ages and medical complaints. Though his bedside manner is virtually non-existent, and he turns away more patients than he tends to, the villagers are, for the most part, quite fond of him. It is a feeling that is in no way reciprocal, as he finds the majority of his patients foolish, annoying and unworthy of his time or doctoring. Pity the poor hypochondriac who wanders in for an ace bandage or bottle of sugar pills.

On the other hand, the doc has saved a lot of unsuspecting town folk and visitors from a wide variety of ills, thanks to his quick diagnosis both in and out of his ‘surgery’ or clinic. But when it comes to personal relationships, the doc is, to say the least, socially challenged. It appears that the only two people he cares anything about are his Auntie Joan and a winsome school teacher/ headmistress named Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz).

His affection for his aunt stems from a childhood of summers spent in her care on her Portwenn farm. Though we’ve never seen him show her any kind of real affection (not a kiss, not a hug, not an ‘I love you, Auntie” in 4 years'-worth of episodes), we know by the way he acts when she falls ill or has any kind of problem, that he cares. As for Louisa, he seems unable to say or do anything even mildly romantic without screwing it up. One moment he’s kissing her, the next, he’s offering her breath mints. Not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of.

So what does Louisa see in him? Her attraction to this stodgy, distant, unromantic and generally rude man is somewhat of puzzlement, but then again, 7 million viewers a week found him intriguing, so why not Louisa?

I suspect the answer lies in the hope that this curmudgeon of a man, smile-free, and totally tactless, is, beneath his highly starched collar and wardrobe full of pin strips, a good soul. There are hints of it every now and again: glimmers of hope― signs of a caring heart, and wish to do better.

Whether he will or won’t, one thing is certain: he is an exceptional physician, with a knack for diagnosing unsuspected or misdiagnosed ailments. This particular talent makes for some interesting plot twists and unexpected endings. Just when you think you know how know things are going to wind up, something happens, and all bets are off.

Will Martin and Louisa wind up together? Will he ever say the right thing at the right time? Will he ever conquer his phobia? Return to the city and leave Louisa and the good people of Portwenn behind? Perhaps series 5, which is scheduled to begin shooting in 2011, will reveal all, though I suspect not.

By the time season 5 reaches our shores, it will be 2012, which gives you plenty of time to catch up on the first 4 years of the series. Its exceptionally well-written scripts and a supporting cast are guaranteed to keep you glued to your TV, DVD player or computer screen.

Stephanie Cole’s Auntie Joan is feisty and warm, stubborn and softhearted all at the same time: a woman who has rescued strays (human and otherwise) all of her life, including her own nephew.

Other quirky but lovable characters include plumber/ restaurateur Bert Large – (who is), and his son, Al, (who isn’t), played respectively by Ian McNeice and Joe Absolom. Pauline Lamb (Katherine Parkinson), is the doc’s feisty and slightly dippy receptionist, office manager and blood-taker, while Sally Tishell (Selina Cadell), owns and operates Portween’s one and only grocery/chemist (drug store). A major fan of Doc Martin’s, she is a bit of a hypochondriac, wearing a neck brace despite the fact that there is nothing wrong with her neck. Purveyor of pharmaceuticals and other telltale items, she knows everybody’s business, and shares her opinions with anyone who will listen.

In addition to these and other series' staples, a wide assortment of characters weave in and out of Portwenn, including Dr. Edith Montgomery (Lia Williams), who appears for the first time in season 4. Aside from being sexually aggressive, she is, in many ways, a female version of the doc. How she fits into the picture is one of those surprises I was talking about that keep you guessing.

Filmed on location in the fishing town of Port Isaac on the North Cornwall coast, Doc Martin offers up an inviting picture of a near-perfect place to if not live, vacation. Seaside retreats and winding roads dotted with family farms and rows of sea-worn cottages beckon viewers from as far away as Australia to come and take a look. And many do.

If you, like me, are tired of reality TV programs and other questionable fare, take the high road to Portwenn. It may take you an episode or two to get into the series, but once hooked, you’ll be in for a heck of a ride.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A SECRET - A compelling tale with a French twist

Based on an autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert, 2007’s A Secret is, on one level, the story of a Jewish family's struggle to survive during the Second World War. On another level, it is a tale of forbidden love and its emotional consequences.

It's also a study in timing—the "if onlys","what ifs" and "should have beens" in life. We have all, at some point, been the beneficiaries of good timing: arriving at the bus stop just as our bus pulls up, or being the fifth caller when that’s what it takes to win the prize. Similarly, we've all experienced some measure of bad timing: being the sixth caller, or arriving at the bus stop moments after the bus has pulled away.

More often than not, timing―good or bad— means little in the grand scheme of things. But every once in a while, timing can totally change a person's life. This last scenario is the premise of this most unusual film.

We pick up the story in the spring of 1940, just days before the German Occupation. Inside a synagogue somewhere in Paris, Maxim Grimberg (a name he will later change to "Grimbert"), an athletically-gifted, ruggedly handsome fellow, is about to wed Hannah, his soft-spoken, non-athletic but adoring bride-to-be.

Moments before the ceremony, Hannah’s brother Robert and his well-toned, beautiful blond wife, Tania, rush in. Introducing their mates, Hannah and Robert innocently brag about their spouse’s virtues (Robert: "She’s a swimmer." Hannah: "Maxim’s won wrestling"), unaware of the instant and overwhelming attraction between the two.

The tale is told in retrospect by a thirty-something François (Mathieu Amalric), son of Maxim and Tania. No misprint, he is Tania's child. Early on, François realizes that he can never live up to his father's dreams, and yearns to know what brought about the seemingly impenetrable wedge that forged itself between them from the first. His quest for the truth ultimately leads to questions answered and secrets revealed.

Though this is basically a war-time saga, Grimbert’s script spans several decades, zigzagging back and forth in time from the early 1940s to the mid 1980s. Turning a basic cinematic device on its head, cinematographer Gérard de Battista calls up the past in rich brushes of Technicolor, while filming the present day in black and white.

The device works, as we are treated to lush representations of a courting life that, in many cases, is enhanced and idealized by the young Grimbert's imagination. Attention to detail is evident in every frame, thanks in large part to costumer Jacqueline Bouchard and production designer Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko. A 1950s swimming pool sequence is particularly rich in spirit and authenticity.

The casting is equally stunning, in that both Patrik Briel (Maxime) and C’ecile De France (Tania) are athletic, strong and good-looking. DeFrance’s Tania reminds me of a young Sharon Stone minus the tough, intentionally sexy edge, while Briel’s Maxime is reminiscent of Yves Montand in his prime. And, like Montand in his prime, Briel is wildly popular in France, both as a singer and actor.

As the waif-like bride-to-be Hannah, Ludivine Sagnier is the perfect counterpoint to De France’s athletically-gifted Tania. Dressed down to look like a pleasant but average-looking young woman, she looks nothing like the sexy savvy Julie she portrayed in Francois Ozon’s film, Swimming Pool.

And speaking of Julies, Julie Depardieu, as long-time family friend and confidant, Louise, provides a quiet but strong note to this complex and engrossing tale. She is, as it turns out, a keeper of secrets, one of which, is her own.

While the war (including the Holocaust) is in itself a character in this piece, there are only a few stock shots of actual warfare, and virtually no concentration camp footage. What we do see is the inevitable impact that history had on the Grimberg's life long after the war was won.

In less gifted hands, A Secret could have easily warped into a heavy-handed soap opera. It is only because Grimbert and director Claude Miller chose to address the major issues with subtlety and restraint that the film is as good as it is.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a few exquisite and emotionally-charged moments. One scene in particular stands out, as Maxime views a lake-bound Tania from his bedroom windows. I can still see him rushing from sill to sill to catch a fleeting glance of her, much as Boris Pasternak's distraught poet raced frantically up the stairs to the rooftop window of his ice castle to watch the ill-fated Lara ride away with Victor Komarovsky in Dr. Zhivago.

As I read over these notes, I realize that I haven’t told you much about the actual plot of this incredible film, but to tell you more would rob you of some of its most engrossing and thought-provoking moments. What I can say, is that A Secret explores the way everyday people react in times of they deal with loss or the possibility of loss, and love, and hope. The fact that it is based on a real family - Grimbert's family - makes it all the more relevant. A Secret is an extraordinary film. I urge you to see it.