Film Reviews

Film Review: I Am Not A Witch


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.

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 for more information.

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

Film Reviews

Film Review: The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin)


In a crisp, neo-noir style that includes inspired cinematography, Kore-eda Hirokazu (Like Father, Like Son [2013]) bravely draws you into abandoned alleys of wrenching human worriments. Rest assured, there are no clear exits or easy answers.

In The Third Murder, Shigemori is a young lawyer called upon to represent a convicted killer who, after serving 30 years in prison, confesses to a new slaying. As Shigemori and his colleagues scheme to save Misumi from the death penalty, facts arise and stories change. Is the goal to find a resolution satisfactory to both the defendant and the plaintiff, or is it to find the truth?

The Japanese writer-director—in perhaps the film’s overarching theme—asks what the differences really are between the everyday imprisonments of life and the literal incarcerations of prison. Just how free are we? How just is it that we’re not totally free? And, as societal norms increasingly encroach on our liberties—especially under authoritarian power—at what point do hard-case individuals simply decide they would rather live behind bars?

So, Kore-eda’s biggest triumph in The Third Murder is his courageously mining the depths of the murderer Misumi’s motives. This mirrors attorney Shigemori’s tenacity and openness in seeking the truth. As you might expect, performances from all involved excel, with the co-leads particularly nuanced and engaging.

Takimoto Mikiya, who has worked with the director twice before, delivers cinematography with flashes of brilliance again here, and again empowers the story through well-imagined visual emphasis on the writer’s themes. Particularly effective and intriguing are the Misumi-Shigemori shots at the jail, where the actors’ kinetic reflections in the protective glass between them evoke the characters’ moods, comparing and contrasting. Images of their faces interact and overlap, sometimes overlaid nearly to the point of becoming one.

However, Kore-eda and Takimoto’s collaboration here feels less organic and viscerally thrilling than their work on Like Father, Like Son. There, they reached a higher level of visual storytelling, with the director displaying uncanny skills in blocking and timing, and the cinematographer capturing sublime images seemingly effortlessly.

This time around we have a film that’s not as tidy in its narrative flow. Certain symbols, such as crucifixes and a girl who is lame of a foot, come and go without much relevance or development.

The Third Murder sees Kore-eda Hirokazu expanding his cinematic language and drawing from new muses. We miss the tenderness of his deeply felt films on family. Already a qualified success with this courtroom-crime effort, though, his turn bodes well for future works, where we’re likely to witness his mastery in a greater variety of settings. And we won’t have to wait long; His Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters (2017) is scheduled for theatrical exhibition in Miami Beach this winter.

4 of 5 stars

Film Reviews

Film Review: The Day After (Geu-hu)


South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then [2015]) lays out, in his latest work, an enjoyably jumbled art piece that blends recent past, uncertain present, and relative future free of any flashback or flash-forward devices.

Bongwan is a 50-something owner of a small publishing house. Of late, he has taken to rising before dawn, but the nature of his sudden-onset insomnia is unclear at first. His wife is perplexed, while he seems to be taking it in stride.

The Day After incisively, insightfully deconstructs the love relationship, the sexual relationship, and the relationship of mere romantic intrigue, and Hong places these puzzle pieces side by side and interlocking. However, the resulting picture is no static image with all its parts in predictably proper order.

It’s more like a Picasso sketch in motion. Emotions are (sometimes hilariously) exaggerated. Characterizations twist and flow to and fro. Dialogue repeats and scenes feel out of sequence. Thus does the director perform the important artistic task of disorientation. He wants to keep the viewer off balance and wondering when, relative to previous scenes, the action is taking place.

But, while the filmmaker has created a playfully, pleasantly disarranged artwok, that is not the end, but the means. His fractured mirror here draws us in for a closer look. What sense can we make of these proceedings? What sense do they make to these characters? Doesn’t this all sound very familiar? These questions constitute the sweetspot Hong hits in this quasi-surreal story of love and quasi-love. Why are the questions that he asks us to ask so spot-on? Because, who among us— while experiencing relationships comparable to those of these characters—hasn’t asked themselves the very same things?

Hong brings to mind Luis Buñuel’s vanguard, thoroughly thought-provoking works. Black & white photography, repetition, discontinuous editing, and (to a lesser degree) characters who “inexplicably” remain in uncomfortable situations are all hallmarks of Buñuel’s magnificent masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962).

Black & white, of course, gives a film a more iconic, universal feel, while suggesting a certain timelessness in the story’s themes. In a movie like The Day After, color would bring unnecessary distractions to the eye and thus the mind. Parallels to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) also exist here, including the bumbling of an older man who has gotten in over his head with a younger woman.

Which brings us back to Buñuel and elements of his 1977 classic That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir). The director, of necessity, after an actress abandoned the project mid-production, cast a different actress in the same role and continued. The rare move turned out to be a brilliant one, as the “different person in the same role” effect substantially enhanced the film’s theme of repetitive, apparently masochistic behavior in a person’s romantic choices. Similarly, we see Bongwan having sometimes identical dialogues with his wife and with Changsook and Areum, two women who have worked for him. It’s the ages-old question: Do we keep dating (even marrying?) “the same person” over and over again?

In Bongwan’s behavior as a boss, there’s also more than a hint of the underhandedness which brought about the popular #MeToo movement. In such a context, Hong’s movie would have to be one of the most intriguing and wild commentaries on the topic.

This type of small-scale filmmaking fascinates as much as it satisfies, which is to say greatly. Credited cast and crew total only 11 people. So, The Day After is a shining example of quality over quantity, brains over brawn. It helps that the work is front-loaded with astounding talent in Hong and the lead actors Kim Min-hee (Areum) and Kwon Hae-hyo (Bongwan).

Kim’s range of emotions and the heights of intensity which she gamely scales provide not only ballast and momentum, but also many of the picture’s laughs and thrills. Kwon is similarly versatile, though his character is more staid, if confused and easily swayed. His performance is arguably as note-perfect as Kim’s, and I find myself champing at the bit to see them together again.

Fortunately, Hong has already directed the duo twice before (in Yourself & Yours [2016] and On The Beach At Night Alone [2017]). Having these two superb actors available to him must make the director’s life much easier. The trio’s collaborations in recent years—including The Day After which well rewards multiple viewings—offer plenty of plainly thrilling film art in small packages.

4 of 5 stars