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Sunday, April 8, 2018

In Memoriam: Isao Takahata

            A giant has left us.  Several days ago, on April 5th, 2018, Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, died.  He was 82. 

            This is a heavy blow to anyone who considers themselves an anime fan.  Takahata was, in many ways, often overshadowed in the public eye by his longtime collaborator and Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who is certainly better-known to most casual filmgoers, but everyone who has followed Studio Ghibli knows just how deeply the two depended on and supported each other throughout their careers.  Each would likely never have had the sustained success they’ve had without the other. 

            Often referred to as the “animator who can’t draw,” Takahata long carried the nickname “Paku-San” around the Ghibli office; he would often come in each morning loudly chomping on bread, the Japanese onamonapia for which is “paku-paku.”  He was often teased by his co-workers for being comparatively lazy and laid-back, especially when compared to Miyazaki’s legendary work obsession.  In his afterward to a book cataloguing the studio’s early years, he credited their professional partnership as being one of the driving forces behind his achievements, writing, “It is through Hayao Miyazaki’s very existence that I have always felt scolded for my slothlike tendencies, been made to feel guilty, been cornered into doing work, and had something greater than whatever limited talents I might possess squeezed out of me.”

            However they were brought out of him, willingly or no, Takahata’s works will indelibly stand alongside Miyazaki’s as not just great animated films, but as some of the greatest films of all time.  He was never as prolific, per say, as others, being credited as the director for just five of Ghibli’s feature films to Miyazaki’s nine, but each film project he did choose has had a striking impact, and revealed a mind capable of working through a cast array of artistic styles and story types. 

            His most well-known and arguably most influential film, 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, is a realistic-looking, devastating portrayal of Japan during WWII, one that Roger Ebert argued had to be on any serious list of the greatest war movies ever made.  He followed this with a meditative work on childhood, country life, memory with Only Yesterday (1991), a film whose tone could not have been more different, and after that, he made the even more bizarre and fantastical Pom Poko (1994).  My Neighbors the Yamadas, released five years later, was yet another wild departure, a series of slice-of-life vignettes from a typical, middle-class Japanese family, drawn in an almost comically child-like style. 

            For whatever reason, he didn’t head another major project with the company until nearly a decade-and-a-half later.  But when he finally did return to the directing chair, the result was an artistic thunderbolt.  2013’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya not only ranks as one of the best works in the Ghibli canon, I have fervently argued on more than one occasion that it deserves to be considered one of the greatest films of all time.  It now turns out that it will stand as his final feature film, but my God, what a note to go out on. 

            Takahata may be gone, but his works resonate with such power and force that his memory will long outlive us all.  Every film of his is worth seeing, and if you haven’t seen any of them yet, now is as good a time to start as any. 

            Arigatou gozaimasu, Paku-San.  You are already sorely missed, but you will never be forgotten. 

-Noah Franc

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Critic, a Camera, and a Wall

            It began, as so much does in our information age, with a tweet, and snowballed from there. 

            On March 13th, 2018, a Twitter thread was started by Allison Pregler, aka “Obscurus Lupa,” between herself and several other current and former TGWTG/CA producers, where they exchanged horror stories related to working with the Walkers and the CA management, especially CEO Mike Michaud.  This thread started to go viral, and while many of the stories were, apparently, nothing new, in the wake of #MeToo many, many more fans, including, I am ashamed to admit, yours truly, were seeing and hearing them for the first time. 

            The success this initial thread had at getting people’s attention, prompting more and more content creators to come forward with their own stories of ineptitude, mismanagement, and in some cases serious abuse, culminating in a massive, 70-page (and counting!) online Google Doc, gathered under the hashtag #ChangetheChannel.  

            I won’t try to summarize it all here, but I do think the Doc is worth reading in its entirety.  If you only have time for bullet points, Suede has already put together an excellent companion summary.  Needless to say, this is heavy stuff, the kind that simply can’t be ignored.  To my immense disappointment, however, CA and the Walkers in particular have done exactly that.  At first they simply blocked any and everyone who directly wrote them on Twitter about this.  Since the Doc hit, the only official response has been a brief, half-assed, victim-blaming farce of an “apology”, one that even the site’s most ardent supporters have found wanting.  As a result, over the past month numerous producers, including Todd in the Shadows, Film Brain, Rap Critic, Suede, and even Linkara (whose seniority and status on the site rivals that of Brad Jones, Angry Joe, and even Doug himself) have announced their departure from Channel Awesome, and since the “apology” came out on Monday the company’s Youtube page has lost well over 20,000 subscriptions, and that number is still rising. 

            It would be one thing if the stories of mismanagement, bad communication, double standards, lack of company policies and standards, and production chaos could simply be chalked up to the initial inexperience of ambitious, amateur filmmakers in over their heads.  It would be disappointing, but not necessarily deal-breaking, if it turned out that the Walkers were just kinda dickish and frustrating people to work with and/or for.  We’d be having a different conversation if there was any indication that the Walkers had learned from the mistakes of the early years and reformed their business practices.  We’d be having a different conversation if any sort of genuine remorse from the heads in Chicago were forthcoming. 

            But we’re not having any of those conversations.  We’re having this one.  And we’re having it because, when taken collectively, these stories point to a pair of internet celebrities that, despite their remarkable talents, are simply unsuited to being in a position with decision-making power over the lives and careers of others.  People who found themselves in such a situation, partially through sheer luck and circumstance, but who never bothered to try and learn how to use that power responsibly. 

            Yes, the worst abuses clearly come from Mike Michaud and Mark Ellis.  But the Walkers cannot be separated from this (and there are more than enough examples of Rob being directly involved in some problems), because they are the face of the company.  They are Channel Awesome.  It only exists because of the Nostalgia Critic.  The IP ownership of the name aside, if Doug had ever truly dug in his heels and said that things needed to change, it could have happened.  But he didn’t, and so far there are no indications that he will ever do so. 

            And even he, as much as I admire him, has his own direct responsibility in much of this.  My good friend and podcast partner, Justin (aka The CineMaverick), the person responsible for introducing me to Doug Walker in the first place (and whose comments to me on #ChangetheChannel were the inspiration for the title of this piece), told me that the story that's stuck with him the most is how Doug initially wanted a To Boldly Flee scene between Linkara and Lindsay Ellis (then still known as Nostalgia Chick) to essentially be an extended rape joke.  When confronted about the very, VERY obvious problems with this, he did eventually relent *somewhat*, but never seemed to grasp why making light of rape was the height of bad taste, and STILL forced Lindsay to record assault noises for the dub.  

            This particular story, I find, is emblematic of the worst part of all this.  Sadly, there is a clear and persistent pattern to all this; the women.  Almost without exception, the worst stories, and the most damaging treatment and abuse, has been towards the women, producer or otherwise (though this of course in no way discounts the experiences of men who mistreated).  There is a clear and present undercurrent of sexism and misogyny, both explicit and passive, running through much of the working environment these stories flesh out.  And that’s the part I find most depressing.  With all the needed upheaval of #MeToo happening, I’d always thought that the Walkers, at least, knew better.  Clearly, I was wrong.  Yes, this sort of thing is and has been standard in a lot of lines of work.  But it doesn’t excuse it, and it needs to change.  We can’t turn a blind eye to this shit anymore.  

            None of this needed to happen.  All these stories of mishap, especially surrounding the production of Suburban Knights and To Boldly Flee, have prompted quite a few people to compare the Walkers to Tommy Wiseau and The Room, and in some ways the comparison is not without merit.  But the clear divide between the two is that, while Wiseau is an utter black hole of anti-talent, the Walkers are the exact opposite; they are sharp, funny, and extremely talented comedians.  They never would have had the lasting success and impact on online criticism they’ve had if they weren’t.  But talent is, never was, and can never be an excuse for the mistreatment or exploitation of others.

            I’d be lying if I tried to pretend that this all hasn’t cut me very, very deeply.  I have lauded and been inspired by the Walkers for nearly a decade now.  I have spent countless hours watching my favorite videos of theirs repeatedly, and dragged Lord knows how many friends and family members to my computer to show them this or that review.  The Nostalgia Critic has helped me though so many times when little else would cheer me up or put a smile on my face. 

            So, yes, this hurts me as a fan, as it hurts my friend Justin and many other people I know who feel similarly about Channel Awesome.  But in the end, what we as fans must accept is that any discomfort on our parts is ultimately just not that important.  I have lost an emotional refuge in a turbulent world, and that blows.  But these people who have been directly used and harmed by Michaud and the Walkers have lost jobs.  They’ve lost friendships.  Their physical and/or emotional health has suffered.  In some cases they’ve been subjected to online abuse that followed or continues to follow them long after they left the company.  Focusing on that- shining a light on it, and fighting it- is far, far more important than whatever personal conflict I’m experiencing over this. 

            I can’t tell anyone how to process all this or what to do.  We each need to consider the evidence and decide for ourselves.  But after reading everything and giving it careful thought, my course of action is clear to me, as painful as it is. 

            I have officially unsubscribed from both the Twitter and Youtube sites for Channel Awesome.  I will cease watching any and all new videos on the site, including everything by the Walkers.  Regarding the older NCs, Bum Reviews, Vlogs, and Sibling Rivalries, the reams of comedic craftsmanship that have brought me truly uncountable moments of joy, happiness, and peace, I can’t yet say if I can ever watch them again.  It’s still too soon for me to decide that.  But, at the very least, I am on an indefinite hiatus from watching or recommending any past material of theirs. 

            I am open to revisiting this stance on both old and new materials and to one day supporting them (meaning the Walkers, not Michaud) again.  However, that can only happen under the conditions that A) either Michaud leaves CA, or the Walkers do, and B) they give this a proper response and apology, or if I have some solid reason to believe that they have actively changed their ways.  What form such amends could take isn’t something I can say, but I think a fair standard would be something that at least a majority of the producers currently sharing their stories accept as genuine, so that is what I will look for.  If the Walkers simply up and leave Channel Awesome, which would be quite a remarkable move, then I would certainly keep tabs on what they do next, at least at first.  But I highly doubt they will do this. 

            However, until that day- and as painful as it is for me to admit this, such a day may very well never happen- I can’t, in good conscience, continue to follow and promote than as I have before.  I am also going to commit myself to a project that, in retrospect, I should have made time for long ago.  On no less than four occasions in the past, I have written here to lavish praise on the Walkers.  I will not delete or alter those past posts- I feel it would be dishonest and disingenuous of me to pretend my feelings then were other than what they were- but I feel a responsibility to balance this out as best I can.  Erego, over the course of the next few months, I will write a series of articles covering the many former TGWTG/CA producers who have impacted me every bit as much as the Walkers have, and whose work I've continued to follow after they left the site.   

            Look, there's no other way to say it; this sucks.  Everything about this sucks.  But this clearly needed to happen.  Allison, Kaylyn, Lindsay, and the other producers who have been mistreated deserve better as artists and as people.  We deserve better as fans and consumers. 

            We have lost, perhaps, a refuge.  But I feel this is necessary to rectify the past and allow us, together, to make another one.  One safer and brighter, one based on genuine mutual trust, not lies and exploitation.  It’s time to start over.  It’s time to take the next step in creating a better tomorrow, for all of us.  It’s time to change the channel. 

-Noah Franc

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cinema Joes Podcast: March 2018 Update

            Another month is in the bag, but for scheduling reasons it was a little quieter on the Cinema Joes front as we adjust to a new recording schedule.  Nonetheless, we still have three lovely new episodes out for you all to enjoy, viewing and downloadable on our Itunes page. 

March 7th: Our Favorite Post-2000 Best Picture Winners (mini)

            With another awards season finally fading into the rear-view mirror, we looked back at nearly the past 20 years of Academy Awards history to discuss which Best Picture winners we feel have and will continue to stand the test of time. 

March 11th: Mute/Is Netflix In Trouble? 

            We’ve had an extraordinary run on Cinema Joes of us picking films to review that, by and large, we all loved or at least enjoyed watching.  With Mute, one of the latest original works by Netflix, that changed, and for the first time we found ourselves at an utter loss to try and understand the decision-making process.  The result was one of our most frustrating, but also one of our funniest, discussions yet. 

March 18th: Our Favorite Underappreciated Character Actors

            With Sam Rockwell finally winning an Oscar after years of acclaimed-work, we decided to sit down and discuss which of our favorite character actors that, in our eyes, are still yet to get the attention and love they deserve.  A follow-up on actresses will also be out soon, so stay tuned! 

            Please continue to follow, like, subscribe, and recommend us further! 

-Noah Franc

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Films for the Trump Years: Arrested Development

**blanket alert: pretty much ALL of Arrested Development will be spoiled in the following article**

            Few TV shows have proven to be as enduringly meme-able as the glory that is Arrested Development.  Created by Michael Hurwitz in the early 2000’s, the show originally aired on Fox until low viewership led the studio to pull the plug.  Things stayed that way for a while, with the show accumulating a larger and larger cult status, until Netflix got hold of the rights and produced a fourth season, which debuted back in 2013.  Starring Jason Bateman, it was a tale of the hilariously sad antics of a perpetually dysfunctional rich family forced to confront their demons after their father is arrested and the company (along with their fortune) threatens to fall all to pieces before anyone can say, “Banana.” 

            From episode one onward, the show is a masterclass on how to build a story for the long-haul.  The lengths the show’s creators went to set up jokes and plot twists episodes, and sometimes seasons, in advance, and the myriad references to hilariously obscure movies or past roles of the actors in the show are rightfully legendary, and may prove Hurwitz and his team to be the greatest (or most terrible?) masterminds in television history.  And even beyond the writing, the show constantly used shifting cameras, perfectly-timed sound effects, and spot-on editing to throw just about every possible audio-visual gag at the audience it could. 

            And that could have been enough.  It could have been a show driven solely by its own pessimistic nihilism ala Family Guy or South Park, and make bank on how fiendishly layered its fourth-wall breaking plot contrivances were.  But it didn’t.  Instead, its creators went the extra mile and ended up creating a damn-near perfect time capsule of America in the early-to-mid-2000’s.  There are probably no two events as seminal to the fall of American public trust as the twin hammer blows of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, so it is eminently fitting to examine how they both became focal points of Arrested Development’s ever-winking cynicism. 

            It starts gradually at first, but as the second and third season go on more and more of the story centers around the unique cultural myopia around the start of the Iraq War and the fallout a year into the conflict, when people started to wake up to just how extensively the Bush administration had lied and manipulated to pull us into a war humanity is still paying for in spades today.  Depending on how you swing it, in fact, the Iraq War might be the most important external event in the show that affects the plot and characters. 

            Some (by no means exhaustive) examples; George Senior, we learn, is arrested and put on trial in part for building palaces for Saddam Hussein in the 90’s (one of which turns out to be hiding a veritable army of Hussein doubles).  A side character Gob marries was a torturer in Abu Ghraib.  One episode revolves around supposed proof the Bluth company was building WMD bunkers in Iraq…..except by the end the “evidence” ends up being a hacked picture of Tobias’ testicles.  Buster enlists in the army and is only taken because of how direly low recruitment has gotten….because of the Iraq War.  It’s his emotional struggle with the risk of enlisting that eventually leads him to take his fateful swim in loose-seal-infested waters.  The show was one of the first to parody the use (read: overuse) of “because 9/11” to justify the shitty, shitty policies of the Bush years.  Rob Cordry has a brief side role as an NRA-fanatic who literally forces people at gunpoint to accept his extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment.  The use of a black hand puppet to skewer racism and police violence YEARS before Ferguson.  And on and on and on.  

            The show is the debacle of Iraq.  It is crass, 21st-century capitalistic commercialism at its nihilistic peak.  It is the devil-may-care economics of the wealthy that directly caused the Great Recession.  It is one dig after another at the demise of reality TV and all it touched, and of the descent of local news organizations into Nightcrawler-style pits of ethical darkness. 

            With the original show being such a perfect product of its time, it was perhaps inevitable that the long-awaited fourth season could not possible match it, being too far disconnected from the era and culture that spawned.…..

…..oh my God, there’s a subplot about Lucille proposing a wall on the Mexican border to keep minorities out, and her and George Senior searching for a politician dumb enough to latch onto the idea.  And this aired in 2013.  TWO YEARS before Trump opened his Presidential campaign. 

            Guys.  Arrested Development warned.  They fucking warned us. 

            And once again, while this coincidence would be scary enough, the deeper I got into Season Four the darker the rabbit hole became.  Much as the war on Terror became central to the story of the original three seasons, the Great Recession becomes a recurring theme tied to season 4.  Family members constantly gripe over who gets a cut from “the Stimmy.”  Tobias and Lindsay are directly roped into the housing bubble scam right before the market goes belly-up.  The season also managed to slip in predictive digs at the sheer absurdity of the “bubbled elites control the world, dude” conspiracy theories currently in vogue amongst the left AND the right, a phenomenon that proves stupidity is the only true equal-opportunity employer in this world.  In a passing remark, Ron Howard suggests that he and other Hollywood producers knew about the housing and market crash before it happened, implying an alternative world where tinfoil-hat claims that a cabal of snooty leftist elites control the world are real- and then never addresses these implications again, almost directly giving the finger to people who buy into such crap.

            Nothing there?  Overinterpretation on my part?  Maybe, but then this show has always been so meticulously constructed that even thinking such a possibility feels like a form of heresy. 

            The fourth season, by the end, almost feels too harsh, too cold, too terrifying.  People get really, genuinely hurt; Lucille 2 ends up dead, Maeby is going to prison as a sex offender, a desperate drug addict is literally left to die in a trash heap, and the relationship between Michael and George Michael- once treated as the show’s lone emotional center- is left so broken and twisted in the season’s brilliant final scene that it’s hard to imagine it ever healing again. 

            Sad?  Harsh?  Too much?  Perhaps.  But it’s a fitting conclusion for the Bluths, because there ultimately is no happy end for people like this.  Such constant lying, selfishness, close-mindedness CAN’T end any other way.  And it’s here the parallels between the Bluths and the Trumps, the GOP, and American conservatism and evangelism writ large get downright uncanny.  It’s not a perfect 1-1, obviously, but the shallow ignorance, the vain superficiality, the obsession with toxic masculine “strength” and the shows of wealth and might to hide the existential emptiness within- all present and accounted for. 

            One example in particular won’t stop haunting me.  Every time an uncomfortable truth about his life rears its ugly head, or he’s called out for his lies, cruelty, and hypocrisy, what does Gob do?  Grab whoever confronts him by the neck and shove a roofie down their throat so they forget by the next morning.  If there is a functional difference between that and the unceasing efforts of Trump and the GOP to cover up their lies and corruption with even more of the same, we haven’t yet invented a microscope strong enough to spot it. 

            And what better summation is there of the mental state of any sane, moral, thinking person in America over the past two years than the deep spiritual horror signified when characters are faced with a terrible truth, stare into the middle distance, and “Sound of Silence” begins to play in the background?  If there is one, I haven’t found it yet. 
            There is, of course, a very key difference between fiction and non-fiction to consider in all this.  The Bluths are monsters, but they mostly just hurt themselves.  The desolation of Trump and the GOP, however, could all-too-easily encompass the world if we don’t fight back enough. 
            Guys, Arrested Development tried to warn us.  We chose not to listen.  And now we’re paying the price. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years:

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short

Part 7- Human Flow

Part 9- Black Panther

Review: Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer (The Silent Revolution)

Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer (2018): Written and directed by Lars Kraume.  Starring: Leonard Scheicher, Tom Gramenz, Lena Klenke, Isaiah Michalski, Jonas Dassler, Ronald Zehrfeld, Florian Lukas, Joerdis Triebel, Michael Gwisdek, Burghart Klaussner, Max Hopp, and Judith Engel.  Running Time: 111 minutes.  Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Dietrich Garstka. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Despite modern classics like Goodbye, Lenin and Das Leben Der Anderen, the experiences of life in Communist East Germany remain a topic relatively untouched by German cinema.  Why this is I couldn’t say, except to hazard a guess that it’s still #toosoon, too fresh for many still alive who remember it and could claim offense or misrepresentation.  After all, how many decades did it take American WWII films to move beyond simple, unquestioning sanctification of “The Greatest Generation?” 

            This makes Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer a bit of an oddity in the recent upswing of major German movies to come out in recent years.  Starring a bevy of young acting talents, it tells the story of a class of Abitur students (the German equivalent of a high school degree) who find out the hard way the price of being a disobedient teenager in a restrictive society.  At first, they think nothing of meeting in secret to listen to RIAS, the radio station of democratic West Berlin that was explicitly forbidden as capitalist propaganda within East Germany.  One day in 1956, a chilling report comes through of the Soviet’s brutal repression of an attempted democratic movement in Hungary.  This immediately strikes at their clear-eyed sense of a morally simple world- the eternal prerogative of the young- and they decide rather spontaneously to hold a protest minute of silence at school the next day, as a show of solidarity with their fellow Hungarian socialists.   

            Such an unplanned act of deviousness obviously sets off every alarm bell in the heads of the school leaders, fine-tuned to turn every unplanned citizen act into the mark of an enemy of the state; the eternal prerogative of the authoritarian.  What begins as a simple trick to anger their teacher soon pulls in the school principal, the parents, and eventually the higher-ups from the education ministry, all threatening dire consequences if an instigator is not thoroughly named and shamed by the entire class.   

            Most of the film follows Theo, Kurt, and Lena, three students whose uneasy love triangle with each other is easily the film’s weakest link, but to its credit it never draws much focus.  They are all fine as performers, but in the end the movie’s heaviest moments and biggest surprises are provided by many of the (at first) seemingly less-consequential side characters.  This is especially true for Erik (played by Jonas Dassler), a more distant classmate obsessed with living up to the perceived legacy of his dead father.  You might assume at first that you know exactly where the film is going with his character, but the film soon reveals hidden depths to his story that culminate in him having arguably the best and most emotionally gripping scene in the entire film.  The entire young cast acquits itself well, but Dassler shines the most with what he’s given. 

            The older characters are filled out with mainstays of German film and television, and here too, most notably with Kurt’s parents, there are things we eventually learn about them or see them do that contradict what we may have assumed about them from the start. 

            Authoritarian societies, by their very nature, force nearly everyone living within them to resort to secrecy, to always find ways to hide what they really think while still communicating it to others when needed.  In looks, in glances, in how hard you hold someone’s hand, you have to say more than you dare with mere words.  The cast and crew of Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer clearly possessed a firm grasp of this fundamental truth in their source material, and continuously find remarkable ways to bring that across throughout the movie, making this film seemingly simple, quiet, and unassuming on the outside, but with more than enough emotional depth to resonate with any attentive viewer. 

-Noah Franc

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: Der Hauptmann (The Captain)

Der Hauptmann (2018): Written and directed by Robert Schwentke.  Starring: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hoelscher, Waldemar Kobus, and Alexander Fehling.  Running Time: 118 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            A man- dirty, ragged, desperate, possibly a deserter- is fleeing from a group of Nazis who appear to be hunting out for nothing more than sport, calling out “little pig, little pig” as he runs.  He manages to shakes them off in the woods, but finds life as a vagabond in wartime Germany to be no less violent or deadly than life on the front.  He finds an abandoned car with the full uniform of a Luftwaffe officer that fits him perfectly.  After putting it on, another soldier (also a deserter?) mistakes him for a real officer and offers his services.  Thus begins his wild and increasingly cruel existence as the Hauptmann. 

            We never learn his real name. Who he is, where he came from, what led to him being hunted; he betrays none of it, stuffing it all deep within himself in his fight to survive from one minute to the next.  And what a strange and surreal fight it is.  In a world where all revolves around whether your papers are in order, the man continuously bluffs his way past one obstacle after another by insisting he’s been entrusted with a secret mission by Adolf Hitler himself.  Soon he’s practically handed control over a small concentration camp with the expectation he will single-handedly solve its overcrowding problems.  If you have ever seen a single film about Nazi Germany before, you can probably guess where the end of this particular road lies. 

            That the main character remains such an enigma from start to finish is ultimately the main stumbling block holding this film back.  The ever-more-complicated lies he’s forced to spin to keep up the charade leads to him ordering and/or personally committing heinous war crimes, but because we know nothing of who he was before, we don’t know if he was already someone with a propensity for murdering people in cold blood or not.  Does he go through any sort of personal transformation, and does this hurt or trouble or haunt him in any way?  Is it all the act of a supremely skilled con artist, or is he really as fervent an ideological Nazi as he pretends to be? 

            Perhaps the movie is simply meant as a meditation on the moral entropy we are all prone to, especially in times of crisis.  Perhaps we are witnessing an adaptation of Dante, seeing one man arrive and welter in the deepest pit of hell.  This would certainly fit with how the tone of the shift continues to shift into more surreal and debauched territory in its second half, including a shot of the man wandering alone across a literal carpet of human skeletons in a forest before being swallowed up in the darkness of the pines. 

            Perhaps the real story, the real narrative arc, lies with Freytag, the first soldier to join the man.  At first, he seems a simple man and a simple soldier (if there is such a thing) content to help as best he can.  But you can see the shift in his eyes as he slowly begins to realize something is terribly off about the man he’s sworn himself to. 

            Ironically, for all its horrors, this is a stunningly beautiful film to watch.  Shot in crisp and piercingly clear black-and-white, every frame is packed with a richness of detail few color films could hope to match.  A steady knowledge of composition is clearly at play, because sequence after sequence provides us with worlds of information about the various characters and their relationships to one another without ever needing to explain much of anything. 

            Still, at least a few moments of introspection on the man’s part would have done much.  I can’t help but feel that the film does itself a disservice by ignoring a lot of potential depth in its thematic material.  This is, apparently, based on a real-life war criminal named Willi Herold, but as of this writing I don’t know enough about him to ascertain whether or not the film is historically accurate.  As it stands, I see it as much more of a moral allegory for the depravity people are always and ever capable of, once enough societal restrictions are lifted.  This is a remarkable film I will not forget seeing anytime soon. 

-Noah Franc

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Cinema Joes Podcast: February Update

            As many of you know, in addition to my writings on this channel, I am a founder and longtime contributor to the intrepid cinematic explorations of the Cinema Joes Podcast.  It was a busy month, what with the build-up to awards season and all, so here’s a short run-down of the topics we explored this month: 

February 4th- 2018 Oscar Reactions (mini-episode)

            With the Oscar nominations out a bit later than normal this year, we sat down to give a shortlist of our biggest thoughts on this year’s nominations, and what some of our desired outcomes are. 

February 11th- I, Tonya/Should Real-Life Villains Be Awarded Their Own Films? 

            With I, Tonya causing a major cultural effort to re-visit the sordid world of early 90’s Olympics drama, we offered our take on what the film could/should mean for cinema going forward, and discussed the merits of trying to make films from the perspective from…shall we say, less-than-sympathetic real-life figures. 

February 18th- Notable Sports Documentaries (mini-episode)

            With the Winter Olympics in full swing, we decided to give shout-outs to sports documentaries we found particularly impactful and worth seeing, whether or not you fancy yourself a sports fan. 

            And by sports, of course I mean baseball, and literally nothing else. 

February 25th- Black Panther/What Makes A Fantastical Setting Work?

            What else could we close the month out with but with our thoughts on Black Panther, which is shaping up to be one of the defining cultural events of 2018.  Being a trio of white men, of course, we are quite limited in what we can say about a lot of the film’s cultural meaning and import, but since we all loved it, we saw no shame in taking an hour to laud its merits and suggest everyone and their grandmother go out and see it. 

-Noah Franc