The river, the railroad, the pier and the mountains: Some notes on the picturesque village of Piermont, New York

April 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 25, 2015

A few times a year, my parental unit, the parental unit’s dog and I will pile into a car and drive to Piermont, a picturesque New York village on the western shore of the Hudson River a few miles north of the New Jersey border.

The community was originally known as Tappan Slote. In 1839, residents renamed the place Piermont after its most prominent, and newest, manmade feature — a roughly mile-long pier extending toward the deep center channel of the broad Hudson.

The pier, built in 1838, was meant to serve as the eastern terminus for the New York and Erie Railroad. Upon its completion in 1851, the line was the longest in the nation. Passengers and freight could transfer to boats for a 20-mile river cruise to New York City.

Once new laws authorized the Erie railroad company to operate in New Jersey, the brief era that some historians call Piermont’s glory years was bound to end. Passenger trains soon began traveling along lines that bypassed the community, which allowed them to save time on their journey to New York City.

Freight trains continued loading and unloading at the pier, but even this ended by the close of 1861. The railroad’s repair shops and other facilities were abandoned; ultimately, they were destroyed by fire.

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Interview with an accused murderer: Thanks to numerous missteps, the based-on-a-true-story movie ‘True Story’ falls flat

April 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 24, 2015

About a third of the way into the new movie True Story, there’s a short but eerie scene in which journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) asks his girlfriend, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones), to look at a pair of manuscripts.

One is a book of notes Finkel took during his most recent reporting trip, a journey to Africa. The other is a 40-page letter, written by an accused murdered named Christian Longo (James Franco), which recounts much of his life, including the aftermath of the vicious slayings with which he is accused.

Finkel recorded his observations in a notebook using a pen, while Longo put pencil to legal paper. And yet both men have interrupted their fields of verbiage with doodles. The two very different texts are undeniably, and uncannily, similar.

The effect is eerie. Sadly, director-screenwriter Rupert Goold and scripting partner David Kajganich never really tie this short but unnerving scene into the rest of the film. The failure is emblematic: This is one of several effective but isolated moments that hint at the better movie that True Story could have been but isn’t.

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‘Woman in Gold’ movingly portrays the quixotic quest by a World War II refugee and her attorney to correct a Nazi injustice

April 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 21, 2015

The new feature film Woman in Gold poignantly tells the true story of a World War II refugee and her lawyer who sue to recover a famous portrait of her aunt decades after it was confiscated by Nazis.

The woman at the heart of the story is Maria Altmann, the daughter of a prominent Austrian Jewish family. Simon Curtis and Alexi Kaye Campbell — it’s the second full-length movie feature directing credit for Curtis, following My Week with Marilyn and numerous TV movies, and the first writing credit of any kind for Campbell — intertwine scenes from Altmann’s earlier life in Vienna with those of Altmann and her attorney, new father Randy Schoenberg.

The titular woman in gold is Adele Bloch-Bauer, whom famed artist Gustav Klimt painted in 1907 in what became an iconic work. As we learn, even this apt and seemingly innocuous title has political implications. (Klimt, incidentally, also painted a second portrait of Adele as well as additional works for the Bloch-Bauers.) The legal battle begins in 1998 when, after the death of Maria’s older sister, Luise, the younger woman finds letters from the late 1940s that her sibling had exchanged with an Austrian lawyer in a futile attempt to recover stolen family property.

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A thin tan line: ‘Tell Spring Not to Come This Year’ shows the seemingly endless struggles of an Afghanistan army unit

April 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 18, 2015

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, the new movie that made its North American debut this month at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, shows the travails of a unit in the Afghanistan National Army.

To make the film, co-directors Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy embedded with a battalion in the army, which began taking full responsibility for national security in 2014. Thanks to McEvoy, who formally served the United Kingdom in Afghanistan as a liaison between the British and Afghanistan army, the pair had unique access to a group of soldiers and their commander. The men in their film, despite being well-meaning and willing to serve and sacrifice for their nation, struggle to bring security and stability to a land with few national institutions.

At times, Tell Spring Not to Come makes Afghanistan’s deficits seem achingly clear. A caption in the film informs the audience that Afghanistan had never had an official national military until the Western powers that invaded the country in 2002 helped form one the following year. (I found that quite startling.) Early on, an officer gives a speech to his troops about some young soldiers, evidently on leave, who were pulled from their homes and killed by Taliban fighters. Later, as the unit is about to deploy to a combat zone, a soldier tells his commander that the men aren’t afraid, but they are upset about not having been paid for the past nine months.

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Old? Yes. Old-fashioned? Hardly. Albert Maysles profiles a one-of-a-kind New Yorker in ‘Iris’

April 16, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 16, 2015

Before the audience gets a glimpse of Iris Apfel, the subject of Albert Maysles’ recently released documentary, it hears her.

More precisely, the audience hears the bangles and necklaces Apfel wears as they gently click against one another.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the late Maysles prepares us for our first look at the nonagenarian featured in Iris. If the aesthetic of this unlikely fashion icon could be summarized in one sentence, it would be, Nothing succeeds like excess. She seems to be wearing no fewer than three different necklaces and half a dozen bracelets at any one time, and her trademark oversized glasses all but openly dare the onlooker not to gawk.

Apfel’s homes seem to be bursting with clothing and knickknacks, all as vibrant and whimsical and over-the-top as her outfits. And yes, I meant homes: Iris and her husband, Carl Apfel, founded Old World Weavers, an enormously successful textile business that, among other things, contributed to White House design projects under nine presidents. They also, we later see, have an enormous warehouse stuffed with castoff treasures.

Personality-wise, the brassy Apfel seems to be almost as in-your-face as her clothing and decor. And yet, Iris succeeds because Apfel has an inimitable, undeniable charm.

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‘Deep Web’ questions the case against an alleged online drug impresario with libertarian leanings

April 14, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 14, 2015

Deep Web explores a variety of issues about the Internet and how it may shape our lives in the future. But Alex Winter’s new documentary is at its best by far when it dives into the prosecution of a man who became notorious for his links to an online drug market.

That individual is Ross Ulbricht, now 30, who was convicted in February on federal hacking charges. (His sentencing is scheduled for next month.) When he was arrested in 2013 at a San Francisco library, his laptop was linked to administrative functions of the covert Silk Road website, which sold all manner of illegal drugs.

Deep Web, which is narrated by Keanu Reeves, acknowledges that Ulbricht at the very least was one of the operators of the Silk Road and may actually have founded it. But the documentary raises serious questions about decisions made by law enforcement agencies, the prosecution and the judge in the case.

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In music, escape: Palestinian schoolgirl singers seek acclaim in ‘Sad Songs of Happiness’

April 12, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 12, 2015

Constanze Knoche’s 2014 documentary, Sad Songs of Happiness, chronicles the journey of a handful of Palestinian girls and their singing instructor as they participate in a European music competition.

The story here is told simply and clearly. A few interviews with the three most prominent girls, Rita, Hiba and Tamar, are sprinkled throughout, but mostly we see the youngsters working with their teacher, attending school, talking with their families and, over the last third or so, taking part in the contest.

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A group of socially awkward teenagers and adults learn ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ in Alexandra Shiva’s sweet new documentary

April 11, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 11, 2015

How to Dance in Ohio is a touching new documentary about a group of high-functioning autistic teenagers and young adults who are getting ready for a formal dance.

Director Alexandra Shiva spent about three months filming psychologist Emilio Amigo and his counselors, their clients and the clients’ families as they geared up for their party. She focuses on 16-year-old Marideth, who’s happiest sitting at home with her computer, and young 20-something friends Caroline and Jessica, who are struggling respectively with her first year at community college and her job at a bakery.

In many ways, Jessica is the heart of the movie. She talks with her parents and a social worker about becoming more independent, but at times, she’s keenly aware of her limitations: She wants to move out of her family’s home, but she’d prefer to have a roommate. After showing us several awkward moments at the bakery, Shiva follows Jessica into a tense meeting with the business’s owner. The young woman bursts into tears during the conversation; afterward, while eating lunch alone, Jessica wishes that her mother was there.

Later in the movie, Jessica’s face crumples when she learns that Tommy, the young man she’d hoped would be her date to the dance, has already asked another to go with him.

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‘Towboat run deep’: ‘Barge’ shows the work and banter of the men who move the goods that fuel and build America

April 11, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 11, 2015

Barge, Ben Powell’s documentary about life aboard a Mississippi tugboat, offers a rare and unusual glimpse of the industrial transportation network that powers the American economy.

The movie tracks the crew of the M/V Mary Parker as they push barges from Rosedale, Miss., to New Orleans and back. The tug’s captain claims at one point that everything every American touches was either conveyed by barge or had a component that was. The petroleum and other chemicals that fuel our cars, build our roads and make plastics of all kinds; the fertilizers that spur crop growth; the food that results — all travel up and down American rivers, the captain claims in a rare moment of expansiveness.

The crew are handsomely rewarded for their work, which involves alternating six-hour shifts (one on, one off) for a month at a time. A deckhand can make upwards of $100,000 a year, one crewman says.

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The impressive, impressionistic and incomplete ‘Tiger Tiger’ showcases the largely unknown habitat of one of the world’s best-known predators

April 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 10, 2015

George Butler’s new documentary about large wildcat conservation in India and Bangladesh, Tiger Tiger, is a beautifully shot film about a little-known ecosystem and the predator that rules it. Unfortunately, I think the film will likely leave the viewer with a number of questions.

Some of those queries run along sadly familiar lines: With only about 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild, will the species survive into the 22nd century? What kind of steps can nonprofit organizations and government agencies take to deter often poor and hungry villagers in tiger habitats from poaching the animal, given that tiger skin and bones are worth a literal fortune on the black market?

One can’t hold it against producer-director Butler for not answering these questions; after all, they’re ones that some of the finest minds in wildlife conservation have struggled to answer for decades.

But I did find myself somewhat baffled by a few smaller issues that could easily have been clarified with a handful of on-screen titles. At one point, conservationist Alan Rabinowitz visits a sick “sub-adult” female tiger that was caught after wandering into an Indian village. Was this the same animal that we later see being tranquilized and captured by a crowd of people in a frightening montage? And was that the same animal that we subsequently see being released from a government patrol boat?

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