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Summer Checklist

Three Dog Nights

With the dog days of summer upon us, the movie theater seems more like a smelly kennel than a traditional refuge from the scorching heat. (Hey, Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, ever heard of air conditioning? Oh, and straighten out that crooked screen while you’re at it.)

But it’s not just exhibitors who have gotten lazy. Below, we look at the recent, worst-ever works by two indie icons who have somehow grown maddeningly complacent. The third dog is a wildly overrated debut from a filmmaking duo who (mistakenly) assumed their self-important autobiographies would make for two hours of compelling cinema.

Thankfully, there was a cool breeze preceding all of this; a refreshing splash from Under the Silver Lake. It’s now available via Amazon Prime, so the a/c controls will be in your own hands.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino gave us fair warning that he was capable of dropping his dirty business on the rug. The first half of The Hateful Eight (2015) and its cleverly placed intermission promised a smart, irreverent, neo-Western classic. But, in the second half, we watched the director mindlessly chew up his own film, like Fido destroying his owner’s favorite slippers.

Like many Tarantino fans upon seeing previews of his latest, I thought “Tarantino turning his camera on Hollywood itself… Sounds good.” Wrong. It feels more like he simply wanted the easiest path to completing the “9th film from Quentin Tarantino” (Is he now more focused on quantity than quality?) I couldn’t find a single moment (in its two hours and 45 minutes) that showed any writer/director inspiration. Who would have guessed that the director of Jackie Brown (1997), Django Unchained (2012), and so many other memorable movies could squander Leonardo DiCaprio in a lead role?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing short of an embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the 60-something old dude sitting by himself, guffawing at every measly visual gag. I was embarrassed for the three stoners nervously giggling while looking at each other for approval. These are the folks who are making this Tarantino self-parody his most profitable project to date.

If you’re like them, by all means, go see it. Maybe you’ll feel that, finally, there’s a Tarantino movie that’s not challenging in the least. Finally, you might get why so many people like his movies, because now he’s done you the favor of pre-masticating everything. Here’s an art film with the art removed for mass consumption. And if you think images of Brad Pitt sniffing and tasting dog food, plopping it out of a can into his dog’s bowl, could be hilarious, you’ll have a wonderful experience. Tarantino repeats them four times.

The Film Critique rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the summer of 2019 was less of a disappointing disaster than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that’s not much of an endorsement. “What were they thinking?” seems to be this season’s motto.

One can hardly blame the Akron-born-and-raised auteur for loving the zombie genre. In its early incarnations (if you will) there’s a lot to love. The AMC television series The Walking Dead, though, beat the genre to death (ironically), and The Dead Don’t Die feels like a moderately humorous epitaph.

Even from the hand of a massive talent like Jarmusch, the filmic “love letter” comes with a substantial risk of skewed perspective in the ode. (See also this year’s Maria By Callas.) Unsurprisingly, the movie is plenty enjoyable in its dialogue, deadpan humor, and acting. The mini-ensemble of Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, along with Tom Waits, almost saves the proceedings. Ultimately, however, Jarmusch caves to the pressure of providing zombie action instead of respecting the pressure to deliver something of greater artistic merit.

The brilliant stroke from Jarmusch is the purposely stunted, self-referencing dialogue that both works as a tribute to B-movie horror and provides genuine comedic notes.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: The two most intriguing things about this film involve decisions made by people other than the filmmakers. Namely, the funding of the production and the glowing reviews. What one member of the filmmaking duo (writer/co-lead Jimmie Fails) did do in advance of those decisions really explains a lot: He made himself into an Internet star.

But let’s get one thing clear right away: Fails does have some important things to say and unusual ways of both seeing and saying them. Among them are the definition of “home,” what it means to “own” something, and the marginalization of Black history, even in liberal strongholds like California.

The problem is that The Last Black Man in San Francisco (as written by him, as directed by co-lead Joe Talbot, as acted by both of them and a mostly misguided supporting cast) is a second-year student film with a $4.1 million budget. Take away the pretty cinematography, first-rate production design, and professional editing, and what’s left is raging sophomorism. In the age of crowdfunding—through which Fails raised the first $75,000—this is something of a new normal.

It’s hard not to assign most of the blame to the movie’s U.S. distributor, the usually dependable A24, which released Under the Silver Lake (2019, see short review below), The Spectacular Now (2013), and Oscar Best-Picture winner Moonlight (2016), among other fine films. Without A24 or another large distributor, Talbot & Fails’ debut would have made its splash at Sundance—as it did, not a tremendous feat these days—and would have taken its rightful place on DVD and streaming services. The (albeit brief) theatrical run of The Last Black Man in San Francisco can’t be justified, and most critics know it.

Yet, the movie sits happily on Metacritic with an aggregate rating of 84 out of 100. This matters, because the degree to which a critic wants to like a film and feels the need to advocate for the filmmakers should not factor into their rating of the work. Off the record, reviewers and industry insiders will confirm that this is precisely what happened, 50 times over in this case.

I love young filmmakers, too. The voices of Black and LGTBTQIA writers, directors, and actors should be heard—must be heard. If their work is to be highly rated, however, they mustn’t be relieved of the responsibility of making good work.

The Film Critique rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Under the Silver Lake: Thanks to the bizarrely talented David Robert Mitchell (It Follows [2014]), my first summer in Milwaukee was not a total wash cinema-wise. The latest work by the Michigan-born writer/director features Andrew Garfield as an adrift, unambitious 30-something drawn into a crazy L.A. maze by a naked neighbor and a fleeting femme fatale.

Mitchell’s signature is atmospheric, dreamlike mystery with surprise visual and plot twists. The Los Angeles arts and party settings lend themselves well to all aspects of his storytelling, including his breezy-yet-carefully-considered camera angles and movements. From Garfield on through to the extras, on-screen talent here is a treat.

The kinetic, vividly colored neo-noir of Under the Silver Lake satisfies deeply, as you accompany Garfield’s Sam through a freakish labyrinth of serial dog murders, edible psychedelic party invitations, and a wise, homeless monarch played by The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★★☆

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Non-Fiction (Doubles vies)

Livre la France!

by Andres Solar

This latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, 2016) sees him decreasing visual scope in favor of up-close characterizations. The result is unapologetically light fare in the manner of second-tier Woody Allen, including a middle-aged, neurotic, “floundering” author named Léonard who’s also fond of philandering.

Rather than thrusting a typical love triangle on viewers, Non-Fiction eases them into the corners of a love pentagon. Two smart men: the author and his longtime editor. Three smarter women: the author’s live-in girlfriend, the editor’s wife, and the editor’s lover. A good-looking bunch, they drink espressos and wine and hold forth about literature as art and commodity.

Assayas is among the most intriguing contemporary directors in the world, not so much for what he has done, but for what he hasn’t. He’s a disciplined filmmaker, almost to a fault. Aside from his clear concern with modernity, he reins in temptations to stylize, favoring formality.

His camera moves thoughtfully, à la latter-day Robert Altman in their inquisitive, strolling pans and medium-angle-to-close-up transitions within a single shot. An example of this would be an angle showing a man (from waist up in semi-profile) standing at the front desk of a hotel. He puts his wallet on the counter, and then the same camera dollies in on the wallet. (No cut.) In Non-Fiction, we also see the results of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) Altman-like tendencies. He delicately pushes the camera in or dollies out to begin many sequences, which effectively guides the viewer towards (or away from) the character who is more (or less) significant or compelling at that time.

The characters here are fully formed and inspired, and the performances of the ensemble cast are the best thing about this movie. No actor in it is less than excellent. Guillaume Canet as editor Alain Danielson and Vincent Macaigne as Allen-esque author Léonard Spiegel hit all the right notes individually and all the correct, complex chords together. As Selena, wife to Alain and mother to their children, the ever-wonderful Juliette Binoche is wonderful yet again. Anyone else in that role would have diminished the film by a third. The great standout here, though, is Nora Hamzawi as Valérie. She sportingly inhabits her witty character—a sharp political operative and live-in girlfriend to Léonard—with charm, intuition, and strength.

So where does it go wrong? The screenplay includes way too many references—especially in extended segments of dialogue—to “the digital age,” the demise and/or resurgence of print publishing, e-books vs. print vs. audiobooks, and so on and so on. Valérie uses two smartphones and a tablet computer, so there are at least two scenes where she’s fumbling with cords or feels stressed out that a battery has gone dead, etc., etc. These are the low-hanging fruit Assayas would do best to avoid.

What he risks most in his last three films (including The Clouds of Sils Maria [2014] and Personal Shopper) is gaining a reputation for stories in which the conflicts reflect what some crudely call “White-people problems.” Of course, not only would he have plenty of company in that pigeonhole, but the argument would be mostly unfounded. At a deeper level, most moviegoers will find much to relate to in his oeuvre.

Returning to the picture’s concern with the silliness of the information age, it’s a well-worn topic in 2019, and presented here plainly, as purely self-evident, it fails to strike any real comedic notes. The oft-repeated attempts almost frame the characters as irrevocably petty. It feels at times that the whole movie will stall out in a whirlwind of aimless philosophizing. Fortunately, much of this is mitigated in the second act. From that point on, the comedy comes with much less effort, and the movie in general find its footing.

A nominee for best-feature gold in competition at Venice and Miami, Non-Fiction leaves you feeling you’ve enjoyed a good film, but not a great one. It’s a crisp twist on the Assayas aesthetic and an intelligent dramedy that leans towards wry humor. The writer-director’s works, Non-Fiction included, gently transport while superficially sizzling with vitality. They possess the treasured quality that Ingmar Bergman liked to call “alive.” But as to the circle that will contain the year’s best, expect this one to sit at the periphery.

The Film Critique Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Screen Dream

by Andres Solar

What cinephile can possibly resist a bonafide, direct-from-Cannes sensation? In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Guizhou-ren writer/director Bi Gan’s 2018 Un Certain Regard selection, no one is excepted from devastating yearning and the hopeful, haunting dreams it spurs.

Luo Hongwu is a stoic, 40ish, former casino manager returning to Kaili, China (his and Bi’s own hometown) for his father’s funeral. After 20 years grinding in the gambling world abroad, he finds himself longing for the life and people he loved in his youth. More specifically and most intensely, Luo pines for Wan Qiwen, his lost love of many summers ago.

He starts in on an ad hoc investigation to find out where Qiwen might be today, and along the way we learn that he’s a somewhat hardened person, willing even to brandish a gun as an exclamation point. So Bi balances Luo’s rough-hewn personality with the titular “journey into night” where the protagonist will face his deep desires and vast vulnerabilities.

Enter the celebrated 59-minute, multi-scene, long take—perhaps cinema’s most accurate ever visual depiction of a dream. As Bi now pumps hydrogen into the film’s mysterious wings, it becomes both a thrilling display of startling realism and a swirling montage that feels like it’s emerged from your very own REM sleep.

Ultimately, even though there do exist probably a dozen other movies (not a whole lot in the panoply of cinema) that deal with dreams on a more emotional or impressionistic plane, this sequence is satisfying and richly rewarding. Bi seems to invite you to the fun with a title card that asks you to “join the protagonist” in putting on 3D glasses at the same time Luo does, in a scene where he goes to a movie. Though a technical marvel of virtuosic cinematography and lithe, adroit directing, it always feels—more than anything else—like a genuine product of Bi’s imagination and vision for the story.

Among cineastes and academics, much will be said about Bi Gan’s long take for a long time to come, and rightly so. Which is why I’m okay with saying little more about Long Day’s Journey Into Night than It is a masterful achievement by miraculous talents. And the whole trip is an awfully good time.

4 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)

Steal A Way Home

by Andres Solar

It’s natural to hear of a Cannes Palme d’Or winner and to think, “Okay, what makes this film so special?” Shoplifters, the 2018 big prize recipient, written and directed by Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu (Like Father, Like Son [2013]), is a three-strand braid of excellence. The first consists of the director’s strength of sensitivity, with which he crafts moments of exquisite human tenderness. The second strand is the filmmaker’s finely crafted, wholly real-feeling family, richly detailed in their functioning and dysfunctioning, in and out of their overcrowded abode. The third is the writer’s compelling story of this financially poor, cobbled together family that refuses to give up on life and love.

The plot centers more or less on Osamu and Nobuyo, a married couple living in a rented space in Tokyo. The husband Osamu tries to maintain a job, but is injured. He’s an expert shoplifter and general thief, anyway, and that’s his true chosen profession. Nobuyo works at a laundry service and also does her share of pilfering. They share their home with four others of varying ages and sundry talents in cons, dayjobs, and scams. Kore-eda seems to have written into the film the ways in which the characters bring money to the household for one primary purpose: to show how little it all matters in the bigger picture.

In fact, as the tale unfolds, we see clearly what else each family member brings into the household and to each other. One of the director’s finest feats here is presenting a picture of poverty that’s not always ugly and not always pretty. It’s complex, and Kore-eda manages the intricacies perfectly.

Inspired photocompositions in collaboration with cinematographer Hosono Haruomi include several instances of people talking to each other through thick panes of glass. As in The Third Murder (2018), the filmmakers make beautiful use of angles where you see both the back of a character’s head and their face (reflected in the glass) in the same shot. The technique differs from similar angles using actual mirrors, in both the transparency of the glass (which can vary depending on the desired effect) and in the related interaction with another person who’s physically on the other side. In scenes here, where a sex worker talks with a client in this manner, the stilted nature of the relationship is enhanced by the pink glass partition.

The dozen-or-so moments of thrilling cinematography are distributed evenly throughout, but there’s a heck of a story to be told, and Shoplifters is no mere photographic display. What it is is a profoundly felt tale of wide-ranging, ever-changing family dynamics. Every note struck by every actor rings spontaneous and true. Moments of happiness, heartbreak, and humor weave in and out with consummate naturalness. In this sense, Shoplifters stands as a work of realism both quintessential and unusual. Maybe even in a league with Bicycle Thieves (1948)?

It is true that a motivated person will find a family of one kind or another, and that’s at the core of Kore-eda’s story. As much as homo sapiens has brought an ignoble reputation upon itself, its perdurable—even pitiful—sociability remains endearing. Even redeeming.

5 of 5 stars

Categories
Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Maria By Callas

The Diva Callous

French professional photographer Tom Volf, in his documentary debut, falls for the temptation of “letting the subject tell the story” (hence the title of the film). The task is easier to imagine than it is to accomplish, and by his unwavering devotion to the subject’s perspective, he loses everyone else’s. We are left with a sort of myopia that, contrary to the director’s intention, puts the object of his obvious affection in a harsh, incessant light.

For one, Maria by Callas betrays the soprano’s intermittent loathing of her career as an opera singer. Asked in an early interview about her motivation, she immediately goes to “destiny,” adding that she “would have gladly given it up at any time.” She confesses that she knew little else but singing from the age of 13 to 40. So, for the first two acts, we see Callas, not as an artist visited by muses, but as a singing laborer who was put to work by “destiny”—a euphemism for her mother.

From a tender young age, it was impressed upon Callas (mostly by her mother) that what she had that was special, and that she could offer the world, was her voice. In a fairy tale, that might lead to only good things. In real life, it says, “Never mind your heart. Never mind your mind. Develop your vocal cords.” This is the great tragedy hidden within this film, and it’s a part of the story that Volf seems unaware of, or perhaps prefers to ignore.

Yet, it ties into the most rewarding sequences—the ones later in the documentary and later in Callas’ career—where she exudes an internal light and a glint finally appears in her eyes. Why the change? Though Volf might not like to acknowledge it, her comfort in her own skin comes when she has broken free from singing (and become free of her close friend and sometimes lover, Aristotle Onassis).

We focus on these internal struggles, because of the choices Volf made. His obsession with the diva isn’t the main problem. It’s that, for at least the first hour, he expects—demands—that you share his fascination. This he indicates through clip after clip (vintage footage) of Callas doing nothing but exiting cars and smiling coyly at the camera. It feels like dozens of times, over and over. There can be no other message: “Isn’t she amazing!?”

If the chanteuse seems self-absorbed, part of the fault lies with the filmmaker. Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words is the full title, and Volf is unrelenting about it. The result might be different if his subject were a fantastic storyteller, but he should know that she’s not nearly that. It couldn’t be clearer that his decisions were clouded by his infatuation.

By my estimate, ten minutes of the two-hour runtime is enjoyable and/or enlightening. Callas mentions her fondness for Romantic-period composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and a vintage clip of her singing one of his arias shows her really giving herself to the music. Musically, it’s her finest moment in the film.

It happens that I am a fan of opera, and I have never been drawn to Maria Callas’ voice. This documentary did shed some light for me on why that is. As I mentioned earlier, she was thrust into a singing career while missing some of the nurturing of a healthy childhood. Besides the resulting, underlying resentment within her, she sounds overprotective of her heart.

Her voice’s center of gravity seems located above her chest, resulting in a throaty quality. Most often, her emphasis and phrasing sound like they come from her neck upward. It’s a brusque, dry tone that matches her predominant moods and personality traits as depicted here.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Maria by Callas is a documentary steeped in music. Fans of opera or instrumental classical music won’t find much to delight over. If anything the poor-quality featured recordings underscore the jarring qualities of her voice. The bulk of what Volf presents feels like (looks like, sounds like) tabloid fodder. To enjoy this movie, you have to buy into the cult of celebrity, with all the silly beefs, breakups, makeups, rumors, “styles,” “fabulous” comebacks, Kennedys, Onassises, blah, blah, blah.

Making matters worse, when the filmmaker finally gets around to music, he chooses to furnish subtitles with the footage of Callas performing leading roles. The verbiage, verging on banal as it is in most operas, adds nothing but annoying distraction. If, in regular conversation, words communicate only 10 percent of the message, how much information can they possibly provide on top of the action on stage, the sets, the singing, and the full orchestra playing? “The love lasted only one day. The love lasted only one day. Love!” Only the type of person who would whine, “I can’t understand what they’re saying” could be pleased.

Nor does Volf deal particularly well with the issue of enlarging images from original Super 8 film. I understand going for a gritty or unfinished look, but do we really need to see the word “Kodak” zip across the screen 50 times and sprocket holes all over the place? It’s not even a novel style, really.

Finally, another unintended consequence of the “in her own words” approach when the subject died in 1977: If you’re going to make a documentary, now you’ve locked yourself into archival footage only. Volf adds in a (mostly unconvincing) narrator to read from Callas’ letters, diaries, and the like. This style isn’t inherently bad. Here, though, it feels like you’re stuck in a superfan’s musty attic, and you know that he’s not letting you out until he shows you every last photograph and yellowed press clipping related to his obsession. It’s stuffy and claustrophobic. There’s concern about mold spores and air quality. Is it getting really warm in here? I’m sweating. And the nostalgia’s making my head spin.

2 of 5 stars

Categories
Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Monrovia, Indiana

Children of the Corn

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman delves into the heart of the “heartland”
by Andres Solar

“In thee, O Lord, do we put our trust in days long past,” says a member of Monrovia’s Masonic lodge, reading an invocation at an induction ceremony in director Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. The prayer goes right to the foundation of this small Corn Belt community. Almost nothing is brand new or challenging, and history (the proverbial “days long past”) is king.

The Boston-native Wiseman’s wise, sprawling portrait of rural America even includes footage of a high school class on the school’s own… history of athletics (?), I suppose would be the name of it. Here, the director contrasts a middle-aged, male teacher’s extended excitement about a teen basketball player from 30 years ago with a shot of an unapologetic yawn from a female student.

So, as we take this trip to south-central Indiana, we are rewarded with humorous fragments like that, and always with something upon which to meditate. Like the still photographer who captures images that pique their curiosity—though they might not know exactly why—Wiseman shoots first and asks questions later. That there is something to the footage is enough, and there always is.

Things that you just don’t hear in the city, like “This is a place that could benefit from some population.” Declared by a growth-and-development leader at a town council meeting. We attend a handful of these gatherings of uptight locals, and the absurdity of some of the proceedings is ponderous. Wherein they deal with questions like, “Who’s responsible for building the missing piece of road into and out of the new development?” and “When is a fire hydrant not really a fire hydrant?”

In producing and directing over 40 feature films to-date, Wiseman (Ex Libris: The New York Public Library [2017]) has become a specialist in demonstrating that no place on Earth is boring. His holistic, patient, expositionally quiet approach allows any conflicts, curiosities, quirks to emerge organically.

We witness the values of a White town of less than 2,000 people: fear of God, fear of encroachment, football, football history, the local high school, tribalism, White males over 40. Also, apparently, since the invention of the internal combustion engine, Monrovia has never been the same—or different. The murmur of a gasoline motor or the clatterracket of a diesel is never more than a minute away.

Partly because the community is so grounded in the past, and partly because the director chose not to shoot inside any homes, Monrovian citizens sometimes seem on auto-pilot. There’s a “going through the motions” demeanor with some, and with others a mild confusion, like “I don’t know what to make of this… situation, sermon, carnival, etc.” It adds up to a lack of soul, not in the filmmaking, but in what Wiseman depicts. We do see some joy, on the faces of a couple of gossiping teens, and we admire the spirit of the tractor auctioneer: “C’mon, let’s sell some combines!” he shouts, thus earning the “Most Boisterous Character” award.

At another council meeting, about the road to the new development of “151 homes,” it’s fascinating how some of the members talk about their fear of Black people moving in, using code words exclusively. “Negative police runs” really means “rising crime.” “Population density attracts…” really means “Black people will move in.” “Had an effect on our schools” really means “desegregation.” This is pro-level dog-whistling, folks!

One thing that can definitely be said about Monrovia, Indiana is that they don’t talk openly about race in public when a camera’s rolling. Now, the question is: Why are these “ordinary citizens” seasoned experts on how to sound perfectly innocent while they discuss keeping Black people out of their town? Generation after generation of training in the skill?

A transporting film, sporting an easy sense of humor, Wiseman’s existential exploration of rural America is as thought-provoking as it is insightful. It’s an observational, unusual documentary that rewards the discerning viewer especially.

In the end, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been to this town. It feels like a weekend visit to Monrovia, but exactly how the editor-director fits it into just under two and a half hours is remarkable for its subtlety. One sees so much in so little time, that it seems like some clever sleight of hand, but the artist’s special sense of time feels real.

When Wiseman takes you somewhere—a diner, a wedding, a street fair—he always takes a look back at the place when you’re leaving. That is part of what makes the experiences feel complete, thereby giving the impression that you entered, saw and heard what was to be seen and heard, and then left. Repeated dozens of times, the sense is that you really have visited a lot of places and seen a lot of people. The insights you gain as you go are of the rarest kind.

4 of 5 stars

Categories
Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Hale County This Morning, This Evening

 by Andres Solar

After being run through the Internet’s grotesque, churning, stainless-steel pigeonholing machine (see “framing” below), this highly sensitive documentary gets described as “a movie about how black people live in Hale County, Alabama.” Or, cringingly worse, simply a “black film.” It’s difficult to think of anything more frustrating and disappointing than efforts to segregate the arts. The truth is that this is a work about Black folks and it’s for everyone. It is the latter, or I don’t know what is.

Except in moments when he allows a child in a shot to play with the lens, or during a casual interview in a car, Hale County This Morning, This Evening cinematographer-editor-director RaMell Ross and his camera seem wholly invisible to the subjects, even in the closest closeups. Sometimes eerily so. As a member of the community in which he filmed—and as a basketball coach at nearby Selma University—Ross’s wide access is understandable. The height and depth of his access, as well as his uncanny photographer’s timing, though, speak to his considerable talents.

Those also include a remarkable, uncommon sense of space, a lyrical style of editing and, of course, an eye for images which he captures like a master painter. Though it could be called a photographer’s film or, more accurately, visual poetry & sound art, the kinetic energy and power of Hale County… ought not to be underestimated. It’s cinematic through and through.

Gently guiding you into a position of meditating observer, Ross eschews nearly all conventions of a documentary. He does employ a couple of established techniques of general film language, like the match cut and the L-cut for sound (when the sound from one scene carries over into the next one). Other than that, it’s a new way to see the world through cinema, and it could not be more effective. From this vantage point, we get to know the stoicism of the people, their moments of sheer joy and sorrow (explained and unexplained), and our own.

Early on, Ross poses a question via title card: “How do we not frame someone?” This, one might think, is counterintuitive for a cinematographer-director whose job it is, ordinarily, to think about how to frame everyone in his photocompositions. But Ross seems to have kept his question top of mind throughout shooting and editing. The idea being that, as an artist, when you “frame” someone, you might also frame them in the other sense of the word: set them up for something they didn’t do or, more often, make them out to be someone they’re not. In other documentaries about poor or middle-class people, the edges of the frames might show a ten-foot-high chainlink fence or some lousy housing. Here, notice exactly how the filmmaker goes about not framing, and how he finds deeper truths that way.

As with all great art, there’s a spirituality to Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It offers the finest, most immediate insights on a people and on being human. What’s more, it offers healing for the soul and for humanity. I’d like to think that a double feature of Hale County… and Moonlight (2016), screened for all 350 million people in America, could wipe out racism for good. If only, somehow, we could all rise up and experience that.

4 of 5 stars

Categories
Film Reviews

Film Review: I Am Not A Witch

BY ANDRES SOLAR

The eminently sharp and fully fascinating Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni works cinematic wonders in her first feature I Am Not A Witch, which is the realization of her curiosity, humor, and vivid visions. However, it is anything but ostentatious. It impresses through an easy-flowing, matter-of-fact montage of intelligent and splendid visuals, through its central allegory, and through characters and dialogue of bracing hilarity.

In real life, some contemporary cultural clusters in Africa believe in witches and witchcraft, and these have been subjects of Nyoni’s studies, particularly in the Gambia. Her film’s conflict emerges with a minor accident during a woman’s daily chores. She sees a child standing alone nearby on the dirt road, and the woman immediately makes up her mind: the little girl must be the cause of the trouble, and she must be a witch!

Through the small town’s avid superstitiousness, the child’s (the main character’s) reputation as a witch grows. The great sociological observations in the film center on how she copes with  private business interests and public government entities trying to capitalize on her new persona.

This artwork feels timely, in that it’s an empathetic experience. The young girl’s trials provide a baseline of innocence which contrasts with crazy (almost literally) and corrupt adult society. The result is an unusual emotional depth. Her curiosity, rebelliousness, sadness, and wonder draw you into her world.

The satire here doesn’t dwell in the realm of dream-like magick surrealism, as in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance Of Reality (superb, 2013), but rather in an absurdist realism that’s just as effective. Nyoni’s symbology is big and bold, consistent but intermittent. Her depictions of society’s foibles, perfectly and purposefully exaggerated, are nevertheless grounded in the droughted dust or green grasses of the agricultural villages. The writer-director possesses a refreshing vigor, and she lampoons with satisfying gusto.

Yet, guided by a most sensitive, humanistic heart, Rungano Nyoni gently stirs a bold brew that includes ancient ingredients of fine storytelling—a serious moral, supernaturalism, and absurdist comedy—and serves intoxicating chalices of brand new, searing, scalding satire. Her Zambian-universal, feminist fairy tale is stunningly magnificent and it’s one for the ages.

Thinking about how thoroughly unpredictable this movie is, I remember (oddly enough) the words of the fabulously talented, late writer-director Doris Wishman (Hideout In The Sun, 1960). I can almost hear her raspy voice and thick New York accent: “It’s very difficult to be original.” She knew of what she spoke, and she would have delighted in Nyoni’s wildly original work.

I Am Not A Witch is such a rich, rewarding film for the viewer, and there’s so much to explore, that a one-line summary really doesn’t do justice. Just know that it’s a heck of a lot of fun, even as it calls for inspection of, and introspection on, deep-seeded, vexing (not hexing) societal afflictions.

5 of 5  stars

In English & Nyanja with English subtitles

Now playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

Categories
Film Reviews Restorations

New Restoration Review: Wanda (1970)

by Andres Solar

Barbara Loden (1934-1980), the North Carolina-born stage and film actress perhaps best known for her role in the award-winning Splendor in the Grass (1961), wrote and directed one feature in her life. Wanda, in which she also plays the title role, has been beautifully restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and distributed by Janus Films for theatrical exhibition.

Though Loden appeared in two Hollywood movies and several television series, when she took her turn at the helm she eschewed the prevailing Tinseltown techniques. “I really hate slick pictures” she once told the New York Times. And it shows in the alternately (sometimes simultaneously) tentative and jarringly rapid zooms, mostly in. Though the sequences move along nicely, the editing is jagged. It’s all part of the character and charm of Wanda, and Loden’s point-and-shoot sensibility is a perfect fit for the plot and themes.

Set in the old coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania—known locally as “the Coal Region”—the film begins on the anthracite mounds of towns like Ashland, Scranton, Lansford, and Centralia. Scranton is the hometown of Vice President Joe Biden who famously described it as “hard-scrabble.” Even when coal was booming—its decline started in the 1950s—life was no breeze.

Shot on 16mm, produced on a budget of $115,000, and featuring loose, improvisational dialogue—Wanda is a work of tremendous grit and integrity. Yet there’s a dreamlike lightness to it. Loden herself seems to be floating through it; a leaf blowing in the wind.

Her Wanda Goronski drifts into and out of the lives of various and sundry characters after a divorce in which she consents to giving custody of her two small children to their father. Untethered, now, to her home and family, and despite her lack of resources, she’s unconcerned about who will pay for her next beer. One of the writer-director’s flashes of brilliance was making Wanda almost utterly unconcerned with anything. In only a day, she becomes both enviably free and dangerously vulnerable.

But she’s a serious person, not a giggling, happy-go-lucky drunk. Wanda is smart and self-confident. Loden created and positioned the character such that we can observe and examine her twists and turns without the distraction of digression. So that we can answer for ourselves, “What can happen when a person goes adrift with few reservations about it?”

Wanda is a true wonder of American cinema. Barbara Loden gave us a scintillating snapshot of our country in a thematic context no less than this: personal liberty. In an unforgettable work of art, and in rarest fashion, she gradually reveals the dynamics and the limits of freedom and consequences.

If you stumbled upon it at two in the morning on an arts channel, within a minute you’d ask yourself, “What is this strange movie?” A few minutes later: “This is crazy. I love it!” There’s never a dull moment in Loden’s rough-hewn, crackling, fiery masterpiece. It’s a unique, ever-effective, sometimes obliquely comical blend of character study, socioeconomic observation, and caper story.

Upon viewing, the cineaste will note: “She did that way before the Coen brothers!.. Oh, this feels like Tarantino… Wait, did Alexander Payne get that from Loden?” And on and on down the list. Both directly and indirectly, Wanda deeply influenced what we today call American independent cinema.

In groundbreaking, DIY style, Loden created a work akin to great, self-taught Southern artists like Howard Finster (1916-2001) and Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007). The latter—in Fayette, Alabama—made his own paint, mixing dirt and cola, for example, for the dark colors he used often in backgrounds. Out in Summerville, Georgia, Finster fashioned fantastical paintings and objects in a style that almost completely lacked the dimension of depth and often included simple seraphim and other heavenly beings. In her white dress and daisy-covered headband, Wanda herself could be mistaken for one of Finster’s whimsical angels.

5 of 5 stars

The new restoration of Wanda (Barbara Loden/USA/color/1970) sees its Miami-area premiere on Friday, September 14th at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Check www.mbcinema.com for more information.

Categories
Film Reviews

Film Review: Gabriel & the Mountain

by Andres Solar

The story Brazilian filmmaker Fellipe Barbosa wants to tell is an excellent one. But it’s one better suited to verbal storytelling—at a bar, a memorial service, or even a lecture hall. A feature film is much too big a medium for it.

It’s the true story of the director’s friend, Gabriel Buchmann, to whom the film is dedicated in the opening title card. Barbosa tells of his college-freshman-age pal who embarked on a year-long adventure to “see the world” with more than a fair share of brio and hubris in tow. As the film depicts in its first scene, the trip doesn’t end well. Much of Gabriel and the Mountain is what you might expect from a director who is too close emotionally to his subject.

At the outset, Gabriel is presented as a Christ-like figure. The children of the Kenyan village where he is staying run towards him, smiling and wanting to touch him. They cheer the mzungu (White person). He pays his local hosts and travels “sustainably” as a “non-tourist” (his own words). Someone truly immersed (also his word) in a culture wouldn’t feel the need to boast about it. At dinner, asked by a daughter of his host to sing a song from his homeland, Gabriel does, and then, ever so “thoughtfully,” he asks the child to sing a song, too. These moments are saccharine and they feel bogus and forced.

Barbosa’s intermittent honesty about his late friend’s foibles is the most refreshing thing in the film. When the director is in that mode, the bittersweet stumbles of Gabriel are unflagging. As an expression of the writer-director’s anger at his compatriot, the sequences where the man behaves foolishly are admirable. Yet, Barbosa’s manipulative efforts to get the audience to love his friend like he does—especially noticeable in the first act—while sweet and certainly understandable, do not make for good cinema. Tonally, then, the film is scattershot.

João Pedro Zappa (Gabriel), a moderately experienced television and movie actor, struggles with the tone throughout, except in the climactic final scene where the dramatic notes are fairly obvious. It’s telling that these are the most emotionally effective and subtly powerful minutes.

But Barbosa, who previously directed one narrative feature and one documentary—and here delivers something in between the two—flatly hangs Zappa out to dry in about a dozen scenes. The film plunges into “comically bad” territory, mostly during sequences where Gabriel interacts with locals. Though, last year, Gabriel and the Mountain won the France 4 Visionary Award at Cannes, I could almost hear the notoriously tough audiences there heartily booing these awful scenes.

And, again, any ridicule must be tempered out of respect for a young director and his young friend. The youthful exuberance of both filmmaker and subject can be forgiven, while also noting that Barbosa is almost 40, not 20.

The director’s production strategy was a clever one, though it lacked imagination. He simply retraced the last 70 days of Gabriel’s trek through eastern Africa, documentary-style, adding a handful of actors to the cast of African non-actors who play themselves. The physical settings lent themselves to some beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, cinematography, but artistically the pictures are little more than what you’d see in any well-shot documentary on the region.

Experiencing Gabriel and the Mountain is an exercise in ambivalence. What cannot be circumvented, though, are the privileged places from which its story comes. How many mature adults, never mind recent high school graduates like Gabriel, can afford to take a year-long trip around the world? What’s more, he—and to some extent the film itself—shows the typical obnoxious behavior of the privileged and immature Westerner.

The film asks that we suffer a fool, which is to share in Barbosa’s own suffering. In the end, because of the filmmaker’s honesty and because of Gabriel’s heightening humanity, all is forgiven in this peculiar—if complex, fascinating, and marginally lovely—tribute.

3 of 5 stars