The mockumentary Operation Avalanche asks and answers the question, "What if the CIA in the 1960s felt so driven to beat the Soviet Union to the moon that they aided two unhinged, fake documentary filmmakers in staging scenes for NASA?" Director, co-writer/actor Matt Johnson invents exactly this convoluted scenario with two Ivy League students recruited to find a NASA mole. 

Beginning in 1965, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams infiltrate the Apollo mission projects, surreptitiously hear that NASA fears they will lose the moon race, and plot and produce phony moon footage for Apollo 11 to transmit faking an astronaut walking on the moon. Several threatening developments add intrigue and danger, with another layer of complexity using shots from Georges Méliès' 1902 A Trip to the Moon, archival footage from the '60s, including of President Kennedy and Walter Cronkite, among others, and a subplot focused on Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." This mockumentary borrows unabashedly from a hodgepodge of sources, all in the service of a rather lackluster presentation indulging the conspiracy theories we've all heard.

Technically, Operation Avalanche opts for the now passé, immensely annoying handheld style. The camera zooms in to out of focus shots, then regains focus, think Blair Witch Project. The jittery camera pans and tilts past nothing of any interest. Numerous reaction shots quickly become grating instead of cute, with Matt Johnson in particular mugging to the audience, so reminiscent of television's The Office. All I wanted to do was insist cinematographers Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab get a tripod and keep the shots sharp and solid instead of headache-inducing movement.

Shot on grainy 16-mm film to imitate the 60s time period, this self-conscious style weakens the story's momentum. I must also add that imdb information describes director Johnson contacting NASA as a real documentary filmmaker and being allowed to shoot footage in the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and then included the film. This is completely unethical and an affront to honest documentarians. Operation Avalanche is a one-trick pony. At a Landmark Theatre.

 

 

 

Made in 1982 by German director Wolf Gremm, Kamikaze 89 opens with narration boasting a perfect 1989 Federal Republic of Germany. Richest country in the world, West German industry has solved all problems: everything is green, no pollution, no inflation or unemployment, no harmful drugs, and all entertainment and information is formulated and transmitted by one single combine. 

The ruthless president, known as "The Blue Panther," has only one enemy, Krysmopampos, a.k.a. the "spirit of evil." This state nemesis and other intellectuals worry that citizens have lost the ability to think and need their minds stimulated. Blue Panther calls in detective lieutenant Jansen and his assistant Anton.

Based on Per Wahlöö's 1964 novel Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, Kamikaze 89 stars the prolific New German Cinema director, writer and actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his last acting role. As Jansen, he and Anton, Fassbinder's real-life companion Günter Kaufmann, pursue the emerging corporate conspiracy behind bomb threats and murders, learning of a thirty-first floor secret department that hunts evil conspirators for the totalitarian, family owned conglomerate. 

Kamikaze 89 dramatizes a dystopian, camp future. Through exaggerated stylization it satirizes a dysfunctional, oppressive society. Co-screenplay writer and director Gremm uses deliberate, highly theatrical artifice to make his points, using all elements of art direction: costumes, décor, and lighting. Some scenes are bathed in red, blue or green light; Jansen wears a faux leopard skin suit throughout the film, and assassins cross dress in black lingerie. Anyone expecting a conventional narrative will have to look elsewhere, not this punk-inspired world. At an hour 45 minutes, the story does drags on too long, but it is also striking that the satire hits home even today. 

In German with English subtitles. Kamikaze 89 screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, October 14 through Sunday, October 16 at 7:30 p.m. each evening. 

 

Seeing a film that does not work can be as instructive as seeing one that does. Granted, a lot of people see movies because they don't want instruction; they just want entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that. That The Hollars does not meet expectations is worth a moment's exploration.

Can't be the cast. Gathered into fewer than 90 minutes are actors of sterling reputations, as comedians and tragedians. First of all are two women with screen cred: Mary Kay Place as a sister and Margo Martindale as the matriarch. Place is kept to a cameo, unfortunately, and Martindale is kept in bed, where she's plucking the coverlet. Still, she manages to exude humor and warmth. Anna Kendrick plays the pregnant unwife, but she connects rarely in the role.

Next, bring on the men: Sharlto Copley is brother Ron, the great Richard Jenkins is the blubbering dad, Don; Randall Park is the stoic doc, Charlie Day is the nurse, Josh Groban is very good as the new husband, and John Krasinski is the other brother, the bewildered John. Krasinski also directed the film from a script by James Strouse, who wrote The Winning Season.

That film had some unpredictables, but The Hollars has only the most predictable of plots. Mother has a tumor, Father is losing his business, Brother spies on his ex-wife, Other Brother won't commit. Occasionally, Strouse's dialogue forms peaks, especially in the fight scenes between Ron and Don and Ron and John. Mother's list of symptoms is oddly funny too. But largely there are not just valleys but whole calderas of incipient eruption.

At least, Strouse resists making sport of the family's name -- like the family Fokkers in that franchise. The Hollars fails but not miserably. It has its moments and its good intentions. So why doesn't it work? Talk amongst yourselves.

 

 

The title of Werner Herzog's latest documentary is the most romantic aspect of it, but it reveals Herzog's approach. Unlike in most of his documentaries, such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog stays on his side of the camera, insinuating himself but rarely. And that's a good thing.

Lo and Behold begins with October 29, 1969, when the first connection to the world wide web was made from the Stanford Research Institute. The word "lo" appeared instead of "log," thus, Herzog's Biblical allusion in his title. He calls the nicked word "succinct" and "prophetic" and likens this instant in tech history to when sailors on Columbus' ships glimpsed land. 

According to scientists who remember, such as Ted Nelson and Danny Hillis, the message was sent when the directory of members was slim as onion skin. Today, a director of everyone on the Internet would be 72 miles thick.

Herzog covers the connections of the Internet by chapters, including "The Dark Side," a story of the Catsouras family, who had to endure seeing a picture of their daughter and sister go viral after she was decapitated by her own hand. Her mother calls the Internet the antiChrist, bearing the spirit of evil. Herzog also interviews people who are allergic to the Internet and must move to places without cell towers or live in a Faraday Cage. He covers computer addiction with survivors and artificial intelligence with practitioners.

He considers, too, "The End of the Net" and "Earthly Invaders," that is, hackers. Hacker King Kevin Milnick proclaims that people are the weakest link in security systems. He proves it with his own anecdotes.

Lo and Behold, a geek flick, approaches incomprehensibility at times for the un-nerdy, but it raises good questions, like why obsession with sci-fi in the 1950s included flying cars but not a hint of the Internet?

 

 

For comparative purposes, Snowden should show on a double bill with Citizen4. That way, audiences could discuss the differences between a documentary take and a feature film version of the same story. Audiences could concentrate on that instead of worrying about politics. But the story of Edward Snowden is a political story.

Writer/Director, Oliver Stone's take embraces Citizen4 from the very beginning with filmmaker/ journalists, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, nervously waiting for the sight of the man who made public the truths about the National Security Administration's recordings of Americans' lives. When Edward Snowden walks through the hotel lobby, he is fiddling with a Rubik's Cube, the kind of toy that engages the genius' mind. Watch that cube: it comes around again and again, both as symbol and as storage secret.

Director Stone wrote the script for Snowden. He based it, in part, on the biography by Snowden's Russian lawyer. He shot it largely with digital cameras, which, heretofore, he has used for documentaries. Stone shows the interviews among Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald, and a reporter from The Guardian, well played by Tom Wilkinson. He alternates those with scenes from Snowden's life in the military, with the CIA, and with his geeky girlfriend, a pole dancer/photographer, played well by Shailene Woodley. Stone follows Snowden as his conservative politics shift from negative to positive, while staying true to patriotism as he defines it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stays true to the Snowden character as revealed in Citizen4. The supporting cast -- Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, and Zachary Quinto -- is led brilliantly by Melissa Leo, ever maternal as Poitras. "Snowden" is definitely an Oliver Stone movie, for it asks the audience to question and seek.

 

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