Plus: "Janeane from Des Moines" and "The Flat"
Here is a film with the aesthetic charm of a Czechoslovakian army-surplus field radio and the action of a tortoise race. Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play an engaged couple hiking the Caucasus Mountains with a Georgian guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). The trek unfolds in almost real time, with the camera trudging interminably alongside. Then something melodramatic occurs, causing the tourists to question their understanding of themselves and each other. Then, more walking. This effort strikes me as uninspired long-take landscape shots masquerading as minimalism, and an undernourished story straining for profundity. The fact that the camera is recording does not automatically render what it captures worthwhile.
With no more than a couple of paragraphs of dialogue, the film invites you to form your own ideas about why the characters behave as they do. But why expend more energy on the film than its makers did?
JANEANE FROM DES MOINES
The woman in the title role in this mockumentary about the Republican primary race in Iowa in 2011 is not from Des Moines, and her name isn't Janeane. Rather, the Los Angeles actor Jane Edith Wilson (born in Ames, Iowa) creates Janeane as a devout Christian and Tea Party conservative in search of the best presidential candidate among Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney.
Resembling a downwardly mobile Meryl Streep in her frumpy clothes, smudged glasses and disheveled hair, she is very convincing as she attends evangelical churches, a women's Bible study group and candidate appearances. The campaigners roll into town on gleaming buses, the media crowds around, and there is Janeane, always pushing her way to the front to quiz the pols. Soon enough, however, Janeane loses her husband, her job, their house and her health. As she tearfully begs candidate Romney to help save struggling heartland families like hers, news cameras soak it in, and Diane Sawyer wrings her hands about the scene on national television. Bachmann chats with Janeane over coffee, offering nonspecific assurances in response to questions about access to health care. This cinema demi-verité is a fascinating, discomfiting hybrid of real candidates and a fake constituent, but director Grace Lee's own politics and tactics are something of a muddle.
The search for the truth in the remarkable documentary "The Flat" begins in modern-day Israel. After the death of Grandma Gerda at age 98, her family begins cleaning out the apartment that's like a slice of prewar Berlin life. Among the gloves, shoes and books, it's a newspaper clipping about a Nazi in Palestine that most intrigues the family, and especially her grandson, Arnon Goldfinger, also the film's director.
Turns out his German grandparents, who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to Palestine, were close friends with a high official in the S.S. and his wife before -- and, more surprisingly, after -- World War II. Goldfinger looks for clues about how this relationship happened, interviewing his mother, family friends, experts and the charming daughter of Leopold von Mildenstein, the Nazi in question. There are startling revelations, family bonding, guilt and lots of people in denial.
The movie feels more like a thriller and a mystery than a documentary. Perhaps someday, someone will dramatize this astonishing story.
LEBA HERTZ, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE