movie reviews May 2013

no place on earthiron man 3 the reluctant fundamentalistthe great gatsbyStar Trek into darknes • Fast & furious 6The hangover Part IIIthe icemanwhat maisie knew

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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What Maisie Knew
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

What Maisie Knew might focus on a child, but its engrossing content might get past any grownups that let their minds dawdle. Reworking a Henry James story, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright cleverly envision the way children might view the relationship between their parents collapsing. It also introduces viewers to an unusually strong little girl who never seems precious or phony. That said, she seems wiser and more compassionate than the people who have tried to raise her.


In the first few minutes of What Maise Knew, we discover the title character (Onata Aprile) is already raising herself. When the pizza delivery boy shows up at the door, she’s the one who collects the pies and pays the fellow who brought them.
Her mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and father Beale (Steve Coogan) barely seem to acknowledge anyone has been at the door because they’re too busy bickering. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel present the yelling pretty much the way Maisie would experience it: in fragments and free to the details that started the dispute in the first place. The fact that the two aren’t married only seems to make the custody fight more acrimonious.

As the film progresses, we learn that the reason may not necessarily be that important after all. Beale is a British businessman whose dealings take him across the Atlantic on a regular basis, enabling him to gain only a fleeting view of his daughter’s development. Susanna has a music career that keeps her at arm’s length from Maisie as well. The film also implies that she and her entourage might be more interested in getting wasted than keeping an eye on the grade schooler.

Maisie often spends more time with her nanny and later stepmother Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and the man whom her mother has claimed to marry, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Because the two are on opposite sides of the custody dispute, they don’t get a long at first. Nonetheless, one of the joys of watching What Maisie Knew is getting to know their characters and that many defy our early perceptions of them. Like Maisie, we discover who really can take care of her and who really has the girl’s best interests at heart.

What’s almost miraculous about this film is that it could have disintegrated into maudlin drivel, but McGehee and Siegel present the story in such a matter of fact way that all tears and sighs are earned. In brief glances we see can see the charm that Beale might have used to win Susanna and Margo over, and how his sudden and irresponsible actions can alienate them. Coogan may be best known as a comic actor, but he can also briefly make viewers care about a fellow whose caddish behavior threatens everyone else around him.

The cast is universally solid, and Skarsgård’s English is so fluent that it’s easy to forget that he’s a Swede. As the central character, the tiny Aprile carries the entire film on her back and never shrugs. She could coast on the fact that she’s cute, but thankfully doesn’t. Like the film, her performance is low-key but thoughtful and compelling. She doesn’t say much, but a few glances convey a lot.

Watching a movie like What Maisie Knew gives you hope for the future because there are some young folks out there who are a heck of a lot smarter and more compassionate than we are. Thankfully, the adults behind this film captured the minds of these youngsters so effortlessly. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 05/27/13)

Haiku

What Maisie Knew
We need more films on
grade schoolers who are smarter
than their smug parents.


The Iceman
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Richard Kuklinski was not your usual wise guy. When it came to taking out his bosses’ opponents, Richie could be meaner and more ruthless than his peers. He also had a strange moral code that seems incompatible with his profession. He refused to kill women and children, and he managed to keep how he made his living from his wife and his daughters.

In The Iceman director and co-writer Ariel Vromen poses the question of whether it’s possible to balance a clearly evil occupation with a happy domestic life. The answer appears to be no, but the most intriguing moments in The Iceman emerge a sense that Richie might be able to pull of this sort of con.

The movie opens, not with an exceptionally brutal hit (the real Kuklinski had approximately 100 of those) but an awkwardly successful date with the woman he’d marry, Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder). Richie doesn’t say much, but there’s persistence in his courtship, and his long silences indicate a tenderness his rough features and his formidable height belie.

Much of the reason Richie is quiet is that he doesn’t want her knowing that he’s involved with the porn industry and that a powerful wise guy named Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) pays him well for an occasional murder.

Demeo has built up a lot of enemies, so that keeps Richie steadily employed. Nonetheless, Deborah may be naïve, but she and her daughters aren’t stupid. Richie’s odd hours and the skuzzy-looking types he brings into her home naturally arouse her suspicion.

Because of his height (6’3”) and his crooked features, Michael Shannon is a nearly ideal choice to play a hardened hit man. It’s no stretch to believe the bug-eyed actor could take out another man without remorse.

What makes Shannon’s performance exceptional is that he can effortlessly handle the seemingly unlikely tender side of Richie. He looks genuinely smitten with Deborah and has an easygoing manner with his daughters that fellow wise guys never see.

The supporting cast is unusually deep, and Vromen has a knack for shrewdly casting familiar actors against type. David Schwimmer, who usually plays nebbishes, is surprisingly convincing as a double-dealing gangster, and Chris Evans, who most audiences know as Captain America, is great as a hit man who delivers ice cream when he isn’t killing people.

The Iceman might have been more effective if it had focused on how Richie’s seemingly contradictory moral code enabled him to do his job and return to his family afterwards. In one of the film’s better sequences, he chews out his brother (Stephen Dorff) in prison because the latter fails to understand that killing a little girl guarantees he’ll stay in the Big House until death. Richie’s sibling correctly observes that Richie is no better even though he abstains from murdering women and children.

Scenes like this carry more narrative weight than some of the murder sequences. The big question of The Iceman is how Richie came to live with himself after all he had done. Showing the hits, although necessary, doesn’t enable viewers to explore the enigma thoroughly enough.

To his credit, Vromen makes the killings look repellent but doesn’t dwell on them. They’re over quickly. This, sadly, is about as far as he journeys into the fascinating puzzle that is Richard Kuklinski’s mind. (N/R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 05/27/13)

Haiku

The Iceman
Kuklinski’s mind is
far more interesting than a
parade of bodies.


The Hangover Part III
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Thanks to YouTube, we no longer have to sit through mediocre films to get to the sequences in them that actually entertain. For example, there’s no point in renting or purchasing the tedious Sleep With Me, a failed experimental film about whiny, self-absorbed, witless Angelinos, when YouTube has the only good scene in the entire film.

It’s an extended monologue where Quentin Tarantino convincingly argues that Top Gun is actually a gay metaphor. Get ready for a good laugh and feel free to thank me for saving you a couple of hours and a few bucks.

The Hangover was a remarkably imaginative and clever comedy that was as sidesplitting as it was vulgar. Director Todd Phillips ingeniously put viewers in the same place as the bewildered trio of partiers known as the Wolfpack. Even though they might not be the most likable guys on the planet (Bradley Cooper’s Phil is a teacher who embezzles from his impressionable students), the audience is with them because it’s delightful to find out how the three wound up in their bizarre predicament.

While most of the cast and the director and co-writers are back for The Hangover Part III, lightning has not struck for a third time. To be fair, it didn’t strike when Phillips recycled the first film with Part II and merely Xeroxed the original tale in Bangkok. As a result, there was no suspense, comic or otherwise in the second installment, and the third, which has some, sure needs a lot more.

This time around Phil, Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) commit to a painful intervention for the obviously insane Alan (Zach Galifianakis). Alan doesn’t want to go to the loony bin, and talking him into it isn’t easy.

Before the other three can convince Alan it’s for the best, a group of gangsters kidnap Doug (not again!) and force Phil, Stu and Alan to locate escaped criminal Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). The gang’s leader Marshall (John Goodman) wants Chow because the former Asian crime lord has stolen one of his stashes of gold bricks.

Alan, who has rather skewed priorities, is the only person in the United States who has stayed in touch with Chow. If the Wolfpack can’t turn over Chow to Marshall, Doug might die in an unspeakably grisly manner.

What follows is a tepid road trip from California to Tijuana to Vegas with only brief flashes of comic inspiration, usually from Galifianakis or Jeong. In the first movie, the high-strung Stu and the amoral Phil generated their share of chuckles because the pressure of finding Doug sometimes made them act as outrageously as Alan.

As a result, the first movie had more energy and more fun than the ones that followed. Stu and Phil are now merely straight men for Alan, and now that we know he’s the ultimate loose cannon, his bizarre utterances don’t amuse as frequently. Galifianakis can still deliver creepily amusing non-sequiturs with aplomb, but because he and the other Wolfpackers are familiar, the element of surprise is gone.

Melissa McCarthy has a wonderful cameo as the only woman on earth who might actually want to be wooed by Alan. One wishes that Phillips and company had made a new film around her and left the Wolfpack behind. Oh, well. The good stuff will be up on YouTube in a few weeks or months. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/27/13)

Haiku

The Hangover Part III
Perhaps the Wolfpack
should stay in the woods and leave
Vegas forever.


Fast & Furious 6
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

I used to lament that director Justin Lin had squandered the promise he demonstrated in his clever debut film Better Luck Tomorrow. Now that he’s made four, count them, four “Fast and Furious” movies, I’ve got to admit that he handles vehicular crashes the way he used to handle dialogue and plot twists.

In the sixth installment of the franchise he gives us, high speed chases through the narrow streets of Europe, exotic locales, explosions that dwarf any fireworks display, property destruction on an apocalyptic scare and two of the most bracing catfight scenes every committed to film.

Who needs 3D when you have that?

When you have former MMA fighter Gina Carano (Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire) duking it out to the death with Girlfight star Michelle Rodriguez, it’s pointless to complain about the lack of Elmore Leonard plotting or Woody Allen-level dialogue. Lin promises adrenaline and eye candy and consistently delivers on his pledge.

This time around Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Conner’s (Paul Walker) retirement from their successful heist in Rio de Janeiro turns out to be pretty short. Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who pursued them on their last caper now requests their help in stopping a dangerous arms thief named Shaw (Luke Evans). This fellow is collecting parts for a high-tech weapon that can, oh, who cares? It’s all an excuse for nearly two and a half hours of amazing crashes, fights and massive property destruction.

For people who’ve been following the series since 2001, it also means that Dominic might have the chance to be reunited with the love of his life, Letty (Rodriguez), who Hobbs has found with Shaw’s crew.

Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan, who have teamed up on the last few installments, have the characters spout a lot of platitudes about family and teamwork. Thankfully, all of that takes a backseat to watching jaw-dropping feats of vehicular daring.

Essentially, Fast & Furious 6 is an exercise in excess, and an often-glorious one at that. Lin and Morgan never settle for an unlikely stunt when a totally outlandish one would amaze even more. People in this movie don’t fall; they leap to what would probably be certain death, only to be saved by the least likely means possible. If the builds of Johnson or Diesel don’t amaze you, the size of vehicles involved in traffic accidents will.

All of the characters are pretty one-note here, with the obviously dangerous Shaw being as bland as he is psychopathic. A little charm might have made him more menacing. Diesel and Walker aren’t asked to do much but look serious about surviving high-speed chases and escapes, so the real fun often happens when they are out of the picture. As Roman and Tej, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges receive and ably deliver all the film’s best lines. Apparently, Morgan ran out of wisecracks after he was done writing their monologues. One hopes the inevitable follow up will feature even more of these guys.

When Gibson and Bridges are on the screen, there’s something human that goes along with the cool machines. As a result, the eye candy briefly becomes a little more nutritious. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 05/27/13)

Haiku

Fast & Furious 6
Tyrese and The Rock
can make things that crash and boom
certainly more fun.


Star Trek Into Darkness
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams may not be Star Trek where no one has gone before, but at least he’s managed to make the series fun again. With a sizable budget he manages to deliver lots of spectacle and lots of boom, but more importantly, he and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof manage to be faithful to the essence of Gene Roddenberry’s characters while simultaneously breathing new life into them.

For one thing, Captain James T. Kirk’s (Chris Pine) impulsive and intuitive management style actually gets him into trouble this time. After yet another mission almost but doesn’t get the crew of the Enterprise killed, Kirk’s mentor Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) informs him that he’s been demoted, in part because of Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) unflattering assessment of the last mission. Kirk may have saved everyone’s favorite Vulcan’s life, but that doesn’t stop Spock from doing everything by the book.

Because Abrams is directing, Kirk doesn’t have time to brood. A former Starfleet spy named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been attacking their facilities and killing some of its top officers. The Fleet’s top admiral, Marcus (Peter Weller), assigns Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew to hunt down and kill Harrison.

Harrison has practically left a trail of breadcrumbs for where to find him. He’s on a planet in the Klingon system, which gives him a measure of safety. Sending The Enterprise to that world could start an unwanted war with the Klingons.

Kirk’s “rules, what rules?” approach means that not only he and the Enterprise headed there, but that they may try to bring Harrison back to earth for a trial. Spock finds the 23rd century equivalent of a drone strike immoral.

Now that Abrams has established his version of the Enterprise crew, he can let the characters have relationships that grow and change. The Abrams cast seem at home in their Starfleet uniforms and do more than simply resemble the folks who starred in the old TV series.

The romance between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is running into some rough patches because Spock’s devotion to altruism on behalf of the rest of the crew and logic make for unappealing pillow talk.

The banter between the characters is lively, and the same nods toward current events viewers regularly noticed in the old series can be found here. Who knew that targeted assassinations would still be debated two centuries later?

Abrams and the screenwriters also load the story with lots of nods to the mythology of the series and the movies that followed. Classic lines are tweaked to comic effect, although a few of these produce more groans that cheers. Fans who though that Abrams had altered the timeline too much can take some solace with this assignment.

The third act gets a little messy because Abrams and company seem to have stuffed just a little too much into this installment. At two hours and 12 minutes, the pacing slackens.

Fortunately, the omnipresent Cumberbatch demonstrates why casting directors adore him. He’s both charming and intimidating, and seems just the right person to teach Kirk a little humility.

The 3D is remarkably effective, and Abrams comes up with lots of places where the Enterprise has to dodge space debris to get to a destination. It’s refreshing when the higher admission price is warranted.

Because I’m not a Viacom stockholder, it’s easy to be indifferent toward how Star Trek Into Darkness does at the box office. With Abrams sincerity and craftsmanship, the Enterprise should live long and prosper. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/20/13)

Haiku
Star Trek Into Darkness

Kirk and Spock’s feuds can
be just as fun as seeing
the spaceships explode.


The Great Gatsby
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

For all its sweeping panorama, frenzied edits and confetti-gun and fireworks CGI, director Baz Luhrmann's (Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge) 3D spectacle The Great Gatsby feels surprisingly claustrophobic and plodding. The script, co-written by Australians Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, tends to all the major events of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel without attention to character, structure or pacing.

Luhrmann's anachronistic approach to serving up the story — contemporary soundtrack curated by Jay-Z, stylized 1920s New York fabricated on an Australian soundstage, peremptory post-production tricks — make the film even more unwieldy, boxing in facile themes and burying any and all complexity.

Possibly as an homage to the sadder moments of Fitzgerald's life, Luhrmann and Pearce infused the screenplay with a frame of their own making. In a snow globe of a sanitarium, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) dries out as he recovers from old-timey PTSD. As part of his therapy, his Santa Claus of a therapist encourages him to write about the events that haunt him. This leads to lots of distracting meta writerly effects, culminating in the origination of the eponymous novel, which opens a wormhole that, if followed to its conclusion, would effectively block Fitzgerald out of his own creation. This is a dismaying twist, proving the speculation that Luhrmann's ostentation and pretensions align more with the character Gatsby than with the author Fitzgerald.

Despite his constant voiceover narration, Maguire as Carraway doesn't convince as the objective, observant witness he needs to be. His big moment, as a Rear Window-type voyeur, pushes the poetic, jazzy boundaries to plain hokiness. His remembering his birthday after one of the finale's important confrontations comes off more as non sequitur than as an important milestone's being overlooked and then sardonically observed.

From Nick's hindsight comes the story of his arrival in New York in roaring 1922, to fail miserably at selling bonds on speculation but to insinuate himself into the rectangular romantic drama between his mysterious newly rich neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his debutante cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her philandering, brutish but blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Unfortunately, the charming Mulligan is too talented an actress to display Daisy's vapid selfishness. Her eyes convey too much intelligence and kindness. But Daisy's cohort, female golfer Jordan Baker, is played with verve and style by Elizabeth Debicki.

Tom's low-rent mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) and her mechanic husband (Jason Clarke), mere footnotes to the story, are more than ever used only as machinations to move the plot forward. But Clarke's wild performance as vengeful religious fanatic plays too campy even for this over-the-top production and serves only to allow Lurhmann to hit and re-hit on the image of the occultist’s abandoned billboard, which doubles as possibly the most unsubtle metaphor for God.

As the striving Gatsby, DiCaprio is a great match for the most part. He's believable as a man hiding both a shameful past and his social-climbing ways. It's only that first introduction, regarding his smile of eternal reassurance, where DiCaprio's boyish charm does the part a disservice. DiCaprio wins in the inevitable comparison to Robert Redford in the role in the 1974 adaptation. However, Luhrmann's version seems more an embellished, bedazzled version of that movie than of the actual novel, with all the character development and emotional elements  — the scenes that take place between the elaborate, blow-out parties — squeezed out. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 05/13/13)


The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a movie with some fascinating things to say, but its statements seem to be uttered through a bullhorn. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) coaxes some solid performances, but her slow pacing and William Wheeler’s (The Hoax) dogmatic adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel prevent the film from achieving its desired emotional and cerebral impact.

British actor (and moonlighting rapper) Riz Ahmed (who was a riot in Four Lions) stars as Changez, a controversial professor living in Lahore, Pakistan whose theories on the relationship between the West and the Muslim world are based, not on speculation, but on his once rising career as a Wall Street consultant.

Ashamed of his cultured but cash-strapped parents (Om Puri, Shabana Azmi) flees Lahore to study at Princeton and soon learns how to be a takeover artist from the demanding and uncompromising Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland).

Casting Sutherland was the first mistake. Sutherland specializes in playing hard-nosed characters who refuse to take “no” for an answer. Yes, he does a terrific job of playing yet another ruthless role, but the moment he walks on the screen is also the moment we know that he's a bad guy.

It's hardly surprising that Cross is going to downsize thousands here in the U.S. and abroad. If we could gradually discover what a heel and a mercenary he is, The Reluctant Fundamentalist would be a lot more suspenseful.

The Islamophobia that emerges after 9/11 understandably fills him with resentment. Because he's Pakistani, Changez experiences humiliating and needless interrogations, but the same fanatics who attacked the towers would probably want his hide as well. They'd also resent his New York girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson). She initially has a meaningful relationship with him, but her past problems and her treating him like a novelty gradually fuels Changez's discontent.

A decade later in Lahore, Changez's anti-American sentiments catch the attention of a shady American journalist (Liev Schreiber). The scribe thinks that because of his beliefs, Changez might know who the Islamists are who kidnapped a fellow academic. 

Despite a ticking clock and a life on the line, Changez's crisis of conscience isn't as gripping as it should be. While much of the sociological observations are quite valid (people turn to radical ideas when the lose their jobs), the obviousness of some of the sentiments espoused in the film creates a curious sense of indifference.

There are also a series of plot twists that viewer can easily get ahead of but that the characters struggle with. Labeling The Reluctant Fundamentalist a "thriller" is misleading, but there really isn't a sense of urgency. 

As a discussion of current events, the movie almost works, but considering how people are wiling to kill each other for their beliefs these days, it's not unreasonable to expect a few thrills along the way. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/13/13).

Haiku Review

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Fundamentalists
can torment both sides of the 
Atlantic these days


Iron Man 3
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

In the comic books, Iron Man was considered a minor hero in the Marvel Universe. He had his fans, but books about the tormented inventor-tycoon Tony Stark didn’t fly off the shelves the way stories about Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America did.

On the big screen, however, Robert Downey, Jr., director Jon Favreau and now co-writer director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) have created a superhero who is far easier to relate to than his costumed peers. Much of what makes following Tony Stark and his high-tech suits so engrossing is that he is the least secretive action hero or “super” around.

Even James Bond and the Six Million Dollar Man assume aliases on a regular basis, whereas Tony Stark’s battles with public evil and his personal demons are on public display. While he can be vain, neurotic and overconfident, he’s still compelling because he never chose fame and his vices and foibles are ones we all have.

For example, after taking on divine AND extraterrestrial forces in Marvel’s The Avengers, Stark (Downey) has more to worry about than prototypes for new armored suits that haven’t met with his standards. Enduring the attack on the Big Apple has left the previously “devil may care” Stark with a series of debilitating panic attacks.

Naturally, Stark has little time to rest or seek professional help because a terrorist known simply as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) has been attacking sites all over the globe and broadcasting eerie messages tormenting America’s corrupt President (William Sadler). The explosions from The Mandarin’s attacks leave no conventional clues like bomb fragments, so he seems to be able to strike where and when he wants with impunity.

Stark may make hasty decisions, like daring The Mandarin for a showdown, but being a genius enables him to figure out what the mysterious villain’s real agenda is. Ending the Mandarin’s campaign is complicated by the fact that Stark’s ego, a rival tech tycoon (Guy Pearce), a spurned one-night-stand (Rebecca Hall) and a plucky kid (Ty Simpkins) are all competing for the former defense mogul’s attention. Further, his relationship with Stark Enterprises CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is under strain because of his inability to step away from his superhero activities.

Black and co-screenwriter Drew Pearce come up with lots of ways to set up explosions and cool battles with super-suited combatants, but what makes Iron Man 3 a consistent treat is that Black, who’s best known form creating the Lethal Weapon series, has refined a knack for developing interesting people to put in those suits. Stark’s relationship with his pal and government-backed super Col. James Rhodes/War Machine (Kansas City’s Don Cheadle) is explored in greater depth here, and Black even develops different fighting styles for the two.

Stark can kick some butt without the suit, but Rhodes can do far more damage and inflict it more nimbly because he’s in the Air Force. Cheadle reportedly hates wearing the War Machine suit, so it’s a pleasure seeing him and Downey sharing their best scenes with little metal costuming.

In fact, much of the fun for all three Iron Man movies is not in the action but in the dialogue. Downey delivers wisecracks effortlessly and even makes standard putdowns sound fresh and lively. He also has a rare gift for making viewers empathize with Stark’s indulgent ways. After all, it’s rare for a hero to be just as fun when he’s reformed, and somehow Downey makes that happen.

Thanks to an astonishingly gifted cast, it’s easy to look past that fact that the bad guys have a way of speedily recovering from injuries that makes them seemingly invulnerable. Black and Drew Pearce only give the fuzziest explanation for how Stark can get around that. Nonetheless, when you’re laughing at Stark’s witticisms, it’s hard to voice concerns like these, especially while you’re laughing. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/045/13)

Haiku
Iron Man 3

Good casts are just as
vital as good effects in
blockbuster movies.


No Place on Earth
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

One of the intriguing dilemmas facing documentary filmmakers these days is that simply telling a true story no longer seems sufficient. Because documentarian Errol Morris and feature filmmaker Steven Spielberg use roughly the same technology, documentaries feel wanting if filmmakers tell sloppy or uninvolving tales.

Director Janet Tobias has certainly found a worthy story with No Place on Earth. The discovery documented in the film is both historically valuable and harrowing. Sadly, the execution of the film doesn't measure up to a terrific subject.

A New York-based investigator named Chris Nicola explores caves for pleasure and happened to be on a trip to Ukraine in the 1990s to explore his own family roots. He discovered some clothing and other scraps and learned that Jews hid from the Nazis and local partisans there, but few people would talk to him about the matter. Nicola was troubled by the possibility that the people whose artifacts he discovered probably died during the Second World War.

We quickly and happily learn that isn’t true.

An answer to the mystery Nicola discovered in a grotto wound up living only seven miles from his home in the Big Apple. Some survivors and their families eventually settled there.

A group of survivors and their descendants vividly recall what life was like in the caves. Saul and Sam Sterner are now well-past 80 but can still recall with remarkable detail and accuracy how they and others got by for nearly two years. These energetic, charming guys recall how they evaded both the Germans and sympathetic Ukrainian partisans, giving the Nazis the ultimate middle finger in the process.

Some of the caves had neither food nor drinkable water, but these refugees survived for nearly two years, coming up only to look for potential meals. One additional problem arose when the Ukrainians, who had initially greeted the Nazis as liberators from Soviet oppression, were forced to work in German labor camps.

They needed a hiding place as well and wound up competing with Jews for meager resources. Nicola, who has spent years exploring caves, says that the Jews who survived for so long in them achieved a feat that astonishes experienced cavers like him.

While many fascinating stories emerged from those caves, No Place on Earth gets bogged down in a series of clumsy recreations. None of the survivors shot any film in the grottos, and most simply carried what they needed to live. Keeping a photographic record of the events was probably impossible.

The problem with the recreations is that the images are murky, hard to follow and do nothing to flesh out the scenario. Because events took place at night and caves are in short supply of natural or artificial lighting, all that seems to happen in these sequences are dark blurs.

While Hollywood lighting would only result in images that are clear but unconvincing, these reenactments aren’t nearly as edifying or as informative as simply listening to the Sterners simply tell their own stories. Having immigrated to Canada, the two now speak perfect English, so any embellishment of what they have to say is wasteful. In addition, it might have been intriguing to find out more about how Nicola eventually met the cave survivors. His search is just as fascinating as the story he uncovers.

The final moments in No Place on Earth indicate the potential the rest of the film had. It’s undeniably moving to see the Sterners, who have outlived their tormenters by decades, gleefully returning to Ukraine with Nicola to see their old hiding places. These folks are pretty entertaining in themselves, so it’s ironic that adding additional material makes No Place on Earth seem less cinematic. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/05/13)

Haiku
No Place on Earth

Caves in Ukraine hide
vivid stories that deserve
more thorough study.


 




Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com


 

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