“The Gatekeepers”: Victory is to see you suffer

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“The Gatekeepers” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:41, three stars out of four

The six men featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” all agree: the current political strategy in Israeli has been a failure, and the state needs to open constructive dialogues with Palestine and the other Arab states.

That those six men are all former heads of Shin Bet, Israeli’s internal security agency, the ones who have been implementing that strategy against the Palestinians, is striking.

Much like Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” Dror Moreh’s film is a sobering inside look inside history, at mistakes made and opportunities missed. In this case, it was the mistaken belief that Israel could occupy Palestine indefinitely, with a long-term permanent solution to be determined later. As one security head puts it, it was there job to keep Palestinian unrest at a “low flame” — 20 attacks per year instead of 20 per week — to give the politicians the breathing room they needed to pursue a solution.

But that solution never came. Instead, Moreh shows from the inside of Shin Bet how they saw the conflict got worse and worse — bus bombings on one side, targeted assassinations and interrogations on the other. It’s an endless cycle, with every victory only setting the stage for the next defeat. For example, Moreh tells the story of one “elegant” assassination against a Palestinian terrorist, in which a bomb was hidden inside the terrorist’s cell phone, and detonated remotely when he’s talking to his father. The bomb goes off, and one terrorist gets taken off the board. But then the others are enraged, and the attacks worsen.

“Gatekeepers” looks into several key incidents, including an incident in which two terrorists are beaten to death while in custody. (The Shin Bet head in charge at the time is cagey, telling Moreh he regrets that the incident happened — because a reporter was there and the story got out.) In addition to the interviews, Moreh uses a wealth of archival footage, from horrific images of terrorist bombings to eerily antiseptic satellite footage of a terrorist killed by a missile.

But perhaps the most dispiriting for the Shin Bet heads is when the agency also had to start contending with a far-right Israeli faction that wants to trigger a holy war by blowing up a Muslim shrine, the Dome on the Rock. And, in 1995, when a young assassin kills Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords, it’s a body blow to Shin Bet. Not only as an intelligence failure, but it’s a recognition that, as one head puts it, “we can win every battle and still lose the war.” One head quotes a Palestinian physician who tells him that, even as the Israelis use their superior firepower and intelligence, they can’t ever claim victory. For the Palestinians, he says, “Victory is to see you suffer.”

If there’s a ray of hope in the otherwise dispiriting history lesson of “The Gatekeepers,” it’s that these six men saw and know more about the situation than most, and they’ve come to the conclusion that peace is the only option.

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“The Host”: What’s gotten into you lately? A day-glo alien caterpillar?

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“The Host” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas. PG-13, 2:05, One and a half out of four stars.

Character actors ought to get a special rate when they’re required to make complete nonsense sound convincing in a movie. Even the silliest movie calls in a Stanley Tucci (“Jack the Giant Slayer” and the upcoming “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters”) or a Tim Robbins (“Green Lantern”) to try and peddle the ridiculous.

William Hurt ought to get triple the going rate for making “The Host” a little better than it ought to be, right from the prologue, in which we see a shot of Earth, as Hurt says, “The world had never been more perfect. But it wasn’t our world anymore.” Ka-ching!

The world, in the silly and drippy sci-fi romance based on Stephenie (“Twilight”) Meyer’s novel, is now largely controlled by aliens, little thingies that look like fibre-optic caterpillars. They burrow into a human’s body and control them; outwardly, the only sign a human has been “occupied” is that his eyes glow like the power button on my Dell, and he forgets how to use contractions.

Meyer’s books have always had something of a conservative streak lurking beneath their supernatural mash sessions (what’s “Twilight” but not an extended pro-abstinence metaphor?), and it feels a little more overt in “The Host.” The aliens’ idea of a perfect society looks a lot like a latte-sipping liberal’s, with no war, the environment “healed” and a suspicious amount of Volvos and VW beetles on the road. With its tale of “real’ humans fighting against a collective that thinks it knows best, “The Host” overlaps with those “one world order’ Christian thrillers that Kirk Cameron keeps starring in.

Fighting these aliens, who favor white suits and shiny cars in the tradition of sci-fi aliens for generations of bad movies, is a ragtag human resistance. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is one of the still-humans; she’s captured by the aliens and has a squiggly new roommate implanted into her brain.

But this alien (named Wanderer, lately shortened to Wanda) hadn’t reckoned on Melanie’s force of will, and this turns into an internal tug of war, with Melanie’s angry thoughts and retorts to Wanda heard in voiceover. This might have worked in the novel, where dialogue can overlap seamlessly, but it’s a terrible decision for a movie, with the nagging Melanie coming across like the Great Gazoo to Wanda’s Fred Flintstone (“Don’t steal my boyfriend, dum-dum!”)

Melanie convinces Wanda to escape the aliens, and together Melanie/Wanda head to the resistance hideout in the desert, run by Hurt in full old-coot mode. (I mean, his name’s Uncle Jeb, he can’t help but be coot-ish.) The humans see Wanda’s glowing eyes and peg her as an alien, but eventually accept her into the camp because . . . there’s no movie otherwise? I honestly couldn’t figure that part out, or why Melanie insists that Wanda not tell the humans that she’s in there too.

The trailers show action-packed car chases and gunfights, but that’s just one extraneous scene. Most of “The Host” is a long, leisurely-paced hang in the resistance hang, as the humans learn to like and trust Wanda, and together Wanda and Melanie try and figure out how to reverse the alien infestation. Melanie reconnects with her old boyfriend, while Wanda starts flirting with another boy, which, since they’re in the same body, should make double-dating super awkward. Oh, and a bunch of aliens in shiny cars and helicopters, led by Diane Kruger, tool around the desert looking for them without much success. I guess nobody told the aliens how the satellites worked.

I like Ronan, and I feel a little bad that the movie requires to do so much frenzied arguing iwth herself, eliciting titters from the audience. Hurt is always fun to watch, and Niccol does have a distinctive visual style, best shown in the surreal image of a golden field of wheat growing  deep inside a cave.

But the source material is just too thin and mushy, with Meyer more interested in a tired love triangle than the narrative possibilities of the world she created. The aliens are kind of interesting — they’re not evil, and genuinely think they’re doing the planet a favor by occupying it. But the film is more interested in attractive teens getting all moony-eyed with each other (even if some of those moony eyes are glowing) and trying to start the inevitable franchise. Good luck with that; “The Host” is a movie about a girl with two minds, and it barely has one.

What’s playing in Madison theaters: March 29-April 4, 2013

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With the UW still on spring break, it’s a pretty dead weekend for movies around town. Things will pick up again during the middle of next week, but take heart — the Wisconsin Film Festival is less than two weeks away!

All week

The Host” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Having come to the end of her “Twilight” movies, Hollywood attempts to continue author Stephenie Meyer’s winning streak with this sci-fi film about aliens who control minds, and the ragtag group of hot teenage rebels fighting them. It’s adapted and directed by Andrew Niccol, which could be great news (“Gattaca”) or awful (“In Time”).

GI Joe: Retaliation” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Dwayne Johnson continues his successful strategy of jumping into sequels to movies he wasn’t in (“Fast and Furious,” “Journey 2 the Mysterious Island”) with this action sequel. Bruce Willis is also in there, and the shocking thing is that this is probably better than the last “Die Hard” movie.

Tyler Perry’s Temptation” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Tyler Perry’s temptation is that he can’t resist putting his name above the title. His latest is an attempt at “Fatal Attraction”-style romantic thriller about a woman who strays outside her marriage. Perry obviously wants to make a message about the importance of fidelity and taking marriage seriously — which is why he cast Kim Kardashian in a supporting role.

The Gatekeepers” (Sundance) — This illuminating Oscar-nominated documentary looks at the heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, as they tell the inside story of 40 years of counter-terrorism. It’s a fascinating look as well as a sobering reminder of how futile even a well-managed occupation ultimately is.

“Like Someone in Love” (Sundance) — After filming “Certified Copy” in Italy, legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami moves to Tokyo for this drama about a call girl and the three men in her life. My review is here.

Wednesday

Casablanca” (Sundance) — Come on, it’s “Casablanca,” only one of the most quoted (and misquoted) movies of all time. If you know it only by reputation, check it out — it’s actually a highly entertaining melodrama, full of colorful characters, intrigue and a wounded romanticism. Not only is it a great film, it’s a good one, too.

The Fade” (Union South Marquee Theatre, 7 p.m.) — This intriguing-sounding documentary looks at a week in the life of four barbers, all either African or of African descent, in America, Britain, Ghana and Jamaica. Free!

Thursday

Lincoln” (Union South, 6 p.m.) — I expected another “War Horse” from Steven Spielberg, a gauzy paean that was as much a monument as a movie. Instead, I found “Lincoln” to be incredibly engrossing and even suspenseful, about a man living at the intersection of myth and mortal, idealism and pragmatism, and trying to pull off an audacious political masterstroke. Free!

“Like Someone in Love”: Tokyo as a gleaming city of exteriors

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“Like Someone in Love” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:49, two stars out of four.

In his new feature, “Like Someone in Love,” expatriate Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami aims to put the viewer in the shoes of his characters.

Literally. The opening scene is shot from the viewpoint of someone sitting in a restaurant, fielding phone calls from a jealous boyfriend, exchanging chitchat with a friend at the next table. It’s only after a few minutes that we see whose eyes we’re looking through — a Japanese college student named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) who moonlights as a call girl.

The implication, I suppose, is that the men in her life don’t really see her, but the women they wish to see in her. Her pimp, who looks like an overworked banker, sees her as a commodity to be used. Her boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) sees her as an idealized, faithful supplicant, and of course flies into a rage upon realizing that isn’t true.

The third man she meets in the film is a customer, an elderly professor named Takashi (Tadashi Oduno). He sees Akiko as more of a surrogate granddaughter than a prostitute, preferring to eat and converse with her. When she heads for the bedroom, he seems to crumple quietly inside, his self-created illusion punctured.

Kiarostami returns several times to this first-person perspective with other characters, but the problem with “Like Someone in Love” is that, while we can see the world through their eyes, we rarely access how they think or feel about it. They remain frustratingly opaque, slipping into broad stereotype (kindly old man, angry young man, hooker with a heart of gold) rather than deepening.

Coming on the heels of last year’s dazzling and confounding “Certified Copy,” Kiarostami’s new film feels  like a bit of a step down. Having escaped his native Iran when the mullahs were cracking down on artists and filmmakers there, Kiarostami seems to have entered a new period as a “world director.” “Certified Copy” was set in Italy, “Like Someone in Love” in Tokyo.

The best scenes in the film use Tokyo, such as a long wordless taxi ride where the cool exteriors of the city glide by as Akiko looks on. But the film is all exteriors; where “Certified Copy” explored the deep, contradictory mysteries of the human heart, there doesn’t feel like much going on beneath the surface here.

After skimming along these surfaces, “Like Someone in Love” ends with a moment of sudden, shocking violence. It  doesn’t feel organic, more like Kiarostami figured he had to end his film somehow, and this jarring choice was as good as any. “Like Someone in Love” feels like a minor effort, an exercise in style rather than an experience.

Wisconsin Film Festival preview: “Sister”

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“Sister” screens at the Wisconsin Film Festival at noon Saturday April 13, at the Union South Marquee Theatre, and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, at Sundance Cinemas. Advance tickets are available for both screenings. Visit wifilmfest.org for tickets and other information.

At first, the boy looks like any other on the ski slope. Decked out in a snow suit, his skis thrown over his shoulder, making chit-chat about the conditions on the slope. He could be the  youngest son in any wealthy and European family spending the holidays in the Swiss Alps.

And then we see him duck furtively into the chalet, into the locker room where skiers’ backpacks are kept. He rifles through the bag quickly, efficiently, and when comes across food, cookies or sandwiches, he stuffs them into his mouth like a starving man.

So begins “Sister,” a thoughtful and quietly wrenching drama from director Ursula Meier, one of several new Swiss films playing at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival with assistance from the Consulate General of Switzerland’s Chicago office.

The boy is Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), and he isn’t a tourist. He lives in town in a grubby housing complex with his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux). Louise is in her early 20s, but is basically a child, spending her days chasing after unsuitable men, and then relying on 12-year-old Simon to pick up the pieces.

In fact, Simon is the one keeping them afloat through petty thievery and cons, stealing skis and goggles off the slopes and then selling them to the next batch of tourists who come into town. He’s cynical and streetwise — young Klein gives an amazing performance — but his sister is his weak spot. He’s hopelessly devoted to her, even if its her irresponsible ways that keep them from getting out of that filthy little apartment.

Meier very deftly shows the two worlds of this Swiss resort — the rich tourists who blithely sail in and out, reveling in the beauty of the Alps, and the working-class townies who live below, oblivious to the mountains, focused on making just enough money to live on. Separating the two worlds is the gondola, which Simon rides to “work” each day, and becomes a symbol for the yawning gulf between rich and poor. Gillian Anderson, of “X-Files” fame, has a small role as a wealthy mother who Simon briefly cons, and as much as Simon wants to steal from her, it seems more important for him to have her affection, to be treated, briefly, like someone who belongs there.

Back at home, the relationship with Louise is much more volatile (and contains secrets we don’t learn until late in the movie). Louise is helpless, until she finds the next man she thinks will take care of her, and then all but ignores Simon. In one heartbreaking scene, Simon offers her a fistful of his ill-gotten euros if she’ll just cuddle with him for one night. It’s hard to know whether it would have been worse for her to take the money, or refuse.

But these two people are a family, somehow, and “Sister” ends with a beautiful, wordless final shot that symbolizes their bond, always linked, never quite connecting.

DVD review: “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXVI”

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In their day, the snarky ‘bots of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” took their fair share of hits from respectable movie lovers, who didn’t like the idea of somebody making a living making fun of the works of others. If you were a film purist who couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a movie presented in the wrong aspect ratio or, heavens, colorized, the notion of having the screen image partially obscured by three silhouettes pointing out how the leading man looks like Jeff Conaway would be unbearable.

But now that the show’s long gone, and Shout! Factory has been putting out four-DVD boxed sets like the current “Vol. XXVI” with regularity, it strikes me. Suddenly, a series that made fun of bad movies has now become the primary source of preserving them.

Think about it. Is there any way, without the “MST3K” stamp of disapproval, that anyone would have released the cheesy ’80s flick “Alien from L.A.,” starring a squeaky-voiced Kathy Ireland, on DVD? Or the  ’50s sci-fi film “The Mole People,” assembled from meaty chunks of stock footage? Or the wan Italian James Bond ripoff “Danger!! Death Ray” Or the Bert I. Gordon not-bad swords-and-spells epic “The Magic Sword”?

Nope. But they’re all here in this collection, affectionately riffed upon by Joel, Mike and his bots. The fact that the show set such an amiable tone from the get-go, rarely getting mean as they cheerfully skewered one lame special effect or bad performance after another, has added to its longevity. You can appreciate these films for what they were, even if you wouldn’t dare try and sit through them without a “MSt3k” commentary track. Of the four, “The Magic Sword” is my favorite, just classic Joel (“Must . . . get . . . to . . . crappy . . . special . . . effect!”) “Alien From L.A.” is initially fun but the movie is just so bad it becomes a slog to get through, even with the jokes.

“Shout! Factory” has been beefing up the extras on these discs as well. “Alien From L.A.’ includes a rather sheepish and apologetic interview with director Albert Pyun, who laments that he didn’t have CGI at his disposal back in the ’80s, and that the film was apparently used to help launder money out of the country. Well, at least somebody made money off of it. “Magic Sword” has a rather flat interview with Gordon; the opportunity to really do something fun and interesting with Gordon’s entire B-movie oeuvre, from “The Amazing Colossal Man” to “The Giant Spider Invasion,” seems to have been missed.

However, I did enjoy the 15-minute documentary on the “Mole People,” which told the backstory on how the film was slapped together, including the insight that censors of the era wouldn’t allow mixed-race couples to live happily ever after, even if the races were human and alien! The “Death Ray” disc also includes an interview with Mike Nelson, who tells how he went from “MST3k” to the new Rifftrax, with side forays into movie reviews and novel-writing. Nelson said the only job he’s coveted but never had was when he worked at TGIF’s and was never promoted to line cook.

UPDATED: 31 sellouts at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival

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“Who just bought the last two tickets for the WI Film Fest’s screening of ROOM 237?” one festival fan tweeted last week. “This dude right here is who. #Nanny #Nanny #Boo #Boo.”

Man, those Wisconsin Film Festival fans are a cutthroat bunch.

As of Monday morning, 31 films in this year’s festival (running April 11 through 18) have sold out all or some of their screenings. Here’s a list of all the sellouts, including alternate times for those films that do still have advance tickets available.

Tickets are on sale through wifilmfest.org and at the festival box office on the first floor of Union South.

56 Up” — all three screenings are sold out. One of the subjects of the doc, Nick Hitchon, will be speaking at the Saturday screening only.

7 Boxes” — The 5:15 p.m. Friday show and 9 p.m. Tuesday shows are both sold out.

All the Light in the Sky” — 4:45 p.m. Sunday sold out.

Augustine” — 7 p.m. Thursday (April 18) sold out, tickets remain for 9:15 p.m. Tuesday.

Beyond the Hills” — 5:45 p.m. Sunday sold out.

“Breakfast with Curtis” — 11:30 a.m. Saturday is sold out, but tickets remain the 12:15 p.m. Friday show.

Consuming Spirits” — 2:15 p.m. Saturday sold out.

“Dear Mr. Watterson” — 9 p.m. Monday sold out, but tickets remain for 4 p.m. Sunday.

Dragon Inn” — 11:45 a.m. Saturday sold out.

Either Way” — both screenings sold out.

The End of Time” — 11:15 a.m. Saturday is sold out, but tickets remain for 12:30 p.m. Friday.

Flicker” — 7:45 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Monday are sold out, but tickets for 12:15 p.m. Friday remain.

I Am Divine” — 9:30 p.m. Friday sold out, but tickets remain for 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

“Key of Life” —  7 p.m. Wednesday is sold out, but tickets for 1:30 p.m. Thursday remain.

Kon-Tiki” — 6:30 p.m. Sunday sold out

Lore” — both screenings sold out

M” — 7:30 p.m. Saturday sold out

Much Ado About Nothing” — 9 p.m. Thursday sold out

Only the Young” — 7:45 p.m. Friday sold out, but tickets remain for 4 p.m. Sunday

Phase IV” — 11:30 a.m. Saturday sold out

Pretty Funny Stories” — 5 p.m. Saturday sold out

Radio Unnameable” — 6:45 p.m. Saturday sold out, but tickets remain for 5 p.m. Friday.

Renoir” — 1 p.m. Saturday sold out, but tickets remain for 2 p.m. Thursday

Room 237” — 6:30 p.m. Wednesday sold out

Short Films From Wisconsin’s Own” — 2 p.m. Sunday sold out

Stories We Tell” — 6:45 p.m. Thursday sold out

Tiger Tail in Blue” — 7:15 p.m. Sunday sold out.

The World Before Her” — 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday both sold out

This is Martin Bonner” — 6:30 p.m. Saturday sold out, but tickets remain for 2 p.m. Sunday

Unfinished Song” — 5 p.m. Saturday sold out

Winter Nomads” — 4:30 p.m. Thursday sold out, but tickets remain for 12:30 p.m. Friday