A United Kingdom


A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante

 

We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

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Fences


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

(2016) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, Benjamin Donlow, John W. Iwononkiw, Cecily Lewis, Tra’Waan Coles, Theresa Cook, Cara Clark, Connie Kincer, Teri Middleton, Kelly L. Moran. Directed by Denzel Washington

 

“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” muses a character in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” There’s truth to that but Fences actually posits a third option; some people build fences to barricade themselves against a life that has done nothing but disappoint them.

Troy Maxson (Washington) was once upon a time a great baseball player. Unfortunately for him, he was a great baseball player during a time when only white men were allowed to play in the major league. By the time Jackie Robinson opened that door, Troy was already forty years old and that ship had sailed. Now in his fifties, he lives in Pittsburgh working for the sanitation department, riding on the back of a garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Henderson). The truck drivers are all white and Troy is trying to become a sort of Jackie Robinson of garbage truck drivers, although truth be told he never thought much of ol’ Jackie.

He does have a home of his own, a castle with a tiny yard around which he’s fixing to build a fence. His wife Rose (Davis) is a heroic partner; she manages to smooth her husband’s rough edges and endures his petty rage with the patience of a saint. Much of his rage is directed at their son Cory (Adepo) who is a fine athlete in his own right, attracting attention of college football coaches for his prowess on the gridiron.

This does not sit well at all with Troy, no sir. He creates obstacles for his son to keep him from finding that success in sports that he himself was denied. Rose tries to keep the peace between the two men but the tensions are escalating. Troy’s musician son Lyons (Hornsby) from a different mother – back before Rose and Troy were a thing – also has Troy’s scorn, but Lyons has managed to get away. It seems that Troy’s tender side is reserved only for his wife, Bono and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Williamson) who fought in the war and ended up with brain damage.

Troy can be a charming storyteller but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. We discover things about Troy that are less than savory, things even Troy won’t talk about and Troy often talks about his days as a young criminal going down the wrong path until Rose straightened him out. Rose endures everything, all the stories, all the tantrums, all the frustration but there comes a time when Troy does something that Rose cannot endure and all of a sudden those fences seem much taller and insurmountable than they ever have before.

The late playwright August Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, the sixth in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle. Wilson had ambitions of taking the play to Hollywood and in fact wrote a screenplay based on his own work but unfortunately passed away before it made it to the big screen. Once Washington got the rights to film this, he utilized the script (with a touch-up from producer Tony Kushner) which stays fairly faithful to Wilson’s original work.

That’s a double-edged sword. Some of the monologues don’t sound like real people speaking and give the movie a kind of stage-like feel. The claustrophobic feel of the yard and the house are functions of the pressing frustrations of Troy’s life but they also contribute to that feeling of watching a stage play rather than a movie. Really though that’s the film’s only flaw.

The movie is well-acted from top to bottom with Oscar-level performances by Washington and Davis, both of whom are almost shoo-ins to get nominations when they are announced tomorrow morning (as of this writing). Washington’s Troy is cocky, angry, sexy, engaging and equal parts bully and provider. He has given up some of his less savory ways but not all of them and he ends up threatening everything he built for himself because of it.

As good as Washington is, Davis is even better. Her performance has been called a supporting role and I suppose in some ways it is, but if we’re going to be honest Rose is one third of the focus here and in that sense she is part of an ensemble. There’s a confrontation between Rose and Troy, some of which is seen in the trailer, that is as riveting a scene as you’ll see this year or any other. Her frustrations of enduring her husband’s endless posturing, his anger and his refusal to take any accountability for his own shortcomings boils over and her anger is so palpable she is literally shaking as tears stream down her face.

It should be mentioned that Williamson’s performance here is very reminiscent of his work in Forrest Gump and may be even better. Gabriel is a damaged soul but child-like. Troy is his protector and Gabriel looks up to him with faith that is touching if misplaced. Williamson should get at least some consideration for a Supporting Actor Oscar although that might not happen in a very strong field in that category this year.

This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year. The source material is extremely powerful, examining family dynamics, rivalry between father and son and the frustrations of a life that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. The setting brings racial inequality into the story but it is more of a background issue; this is about a family that is relatable to any who had a stern taskmaster for a father, or a mother who held things together. Those kinds of archetypes are very common in the African American community but they are also universal. My own father had some of Troy’s characteristics; a frustration that the life he envisioned for himself didn’t happen and there was a rivalry between us that at times made me believe that he would rather see me fail so that his own failures were somehow less painful. The thing that separated my father from Troy Maxson however was that he very clearly loved his children and would do anything for them, including work himself to death for them, and he was also able to express that love although perhaps not in ways that would be found acceptable today. He did the best he could in the times and culture he lived in and sometimes that’s all we are really able to get. The fences that keep the demons out are also the fences that can keep families together…or tear them apart. This is one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Washington and Davis are electrifying. A middle class African-American family of the 1950s is nicely captured. Wilson justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this; it is a play/film that truly makes you think.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit stage-y.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language, some domestic violence, a little bit of suggestive sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The five adult actors from the 2010 revival of the August Wilson play reprise their roles here; it went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Strad Style

Loving


A loving couple.

A loving couple.

(2016) True Life Drama (Focus) Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Alano Miller, Winter Lee Holland, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, David Jensen, Michael Shannon, Matt Malloy, Jennifer Joyner, Quinn McPherson, Dalyn M. Cleckley, Brenan Young, D.L. Hopkins, Keith Tyree, Coley Campany. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 

At one time in our history, interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states of the union. Those who supported such laws often cited the Bible about how God never meant the races to intermix. This is living proof that the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Richard Loving (Edgerton) is a hardworking construction worker in rural Virginia, a town called Central Point. He lays bricks to build homes. He also has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), a woman of African descent. The feeling is mutual and he gets her pregnant. Richard is over the moon about this in his own stolid way; he proposes marriage and she accepts. However, in order to marry her, he’ll have to drive to Washington DC where interracial marriages are legal. The couple returns home to live with Mildred’s parents.

Five weeks after the ceremony, Sheriff Brooks (Csokas) and his deputies kick down their door and arrest the couple who had been sleeping soundly in their bed. Richard is bailed out but Mildred is kept several days as the obsequious county clerk refuses to allow anyone to bail her out until after the weekend. The couple engages a lawyer (Camp) who is acquainted with Judge Bazile (Jensen) who is hearing the case. He agrees to drop the charges – if the couple leaves the state of Virginia immediately and vow not to return for 25 years.

The Lovings are willing to comply but life in Washington DC (where they’re staying with a member of Mildred’s family) is a far cry from the peaceful rural life they loved. Homesick and without anywhere to turn, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General who refers the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is assigned to lawyer Bernie Cohen (Kroll) who knows that this could be a landmark case – but it will require much sacrifice on the part of the Loving family.

The case is an important one, one that was used as a precedent in striking down recently the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex marriages. There is certainly a modern parallel to be made here but director Jeff Nichols wisely chooses to play that aspect down. He seems to prefer making his point quietly and subtly.

There is no speechifying here, no grand courtroom arguments and no stirring orchestras highlighting moments of great sacrifice. Mostly, Nichols portrays Richard and Mildred as ordinary folks who just want to be left alone. They are thrust into the national spotlight somewhat unwillingly; they never set out to be civil rights symbols but they certainly had to be aware that they would become one. We aren’t privy to that side of them however; what we see is the couple going about their lives while coping with what had to be immense pressure.

Negga’s name has come up this awards season for Best Actress honors and she’s almost certain to get a nomination for the Oscar (although she will have an uphill battle against Natalie Portman’s performance In Jackie which is currently the odds on favorite to win the award) . It is Mildred’s film and mostly seen from her point of view. A shy and retiring sort, she is by necessity the spokesperson for the couple; Richard is so taciturn that he is almost surly. Negga plays Mildred with grace and dignity, and at no time does she ever give a hint of feeling sorry for herself, although Mildred had plenty of reason to.

Edgerton has much less dialogue to deliver although he has maybe the most emotional scene in the movie when he breaks down when things are looking their bleakest. Richard was not a very complicated man and certainly not a loquacious one; he just wants to be left alone, but he realizes that he can’t have the life he wants in the home he’s always known if something isn’t done and so he simply allows those who have the savvy and the education to get things done to guide his steps, although he clearly isn’t always happy about it.

The overall vibe is very low-key; there are few scenes that are loud and I don’t mean just in volume. Mostly Nichols keeps things quiet and simple. He resists the urge to portray the couple as heroic in the traditional sense; they were heroic simply by saying “we only want to love each other and build a life together.” They weren’t activists, they weren’t firebrands and Nichols prefers to stick to history here. Some might even call them dull.

But they were heroic nonetheless. Many thousands of people who have married outside of their race owe their freedom to do so to Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them are deceased at this point so there’s no way to know what they thought of this portrayal of them; something tells me that had they lived to see this movie, they probably would have wondered what all the fuss is about. This is an outstanding movie that portrays the kind of people that I think should truly considered American heroes. Heroes don’t always run into burning buildings or run onto battlefields; sometimes a hero is the one who simply says “this isn’t right” and sees things through until real change occurs. The Lovings certainly did that.

REASONS TO SEE: A story with reverberations that make it timely even now. Understated but powerful performances from Negga and Edgerton elevate the film. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.
REASONS TO MISS: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nichols, Edgerton and Shannon previously combined on Midnight Special.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Loving Story
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Allied

Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

The Dressmaker (2015)


Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

(2016) Drama (Broad Green/Amazon) Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Hayley Magnus, James Mackay, Julia Blake, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne, Mark Leonard Winter, Olivia Sprague, Darcey Wilson, Rory Potter. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

 

There is an old Chinese proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold. Personally, I like my revenge hot in a spicy oyster sauce, but that’s just me. In any case, the point is that vengeance is something best left to ferment awhile.

The tiny rural Australian town of Dungatar is the kind of place where not much ever goes on. It was doubly so in 1951. That is, until Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) stepped off the bus in the dusty streets of the town. She walked over to where the town’s team was playing in a rugby match. Wearing a stylish red dress, her lips slathered in cherry red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from a holder at a rakish angle, she made for a sight that the town had only glimpsed in fashion magazines.

The more so because there were whispers that she had murdered a young boy named Stewart Pettyman (Potter) and while nothing was ever proven, had led to her being exiled from the town in disgrace. Her mother Molly (Davis) went quietly mad and became something of the town codger. Most of the town has turned its back on the both of them, particularly town counselor Evan Pettyman (Bourne), Stewart’s father. However, there’s no doubt that Tilly is a talented dressmaker and when Trudy Pratt (Snook) underwent a radical transformation from Plain Jane to va-va-va-voom thanks to a makeover and a Tilly original creation, soon the ladies of the town were flocking to Tilly to get their own haute couture from the former pariah.

Also lining up to see Tilly is rugby star and neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth) who has his eyes on Tilly but must woo Molly first in order to get her blessing. However, Tilly believes she has a cursed cloud over her head and when a new tragedy befalls her, she threatens to fall apart but her mum, realizing there’s only one thing she can do for her daughter before her own time is up, comes up with a plan to get the most delicious revenge for her daughter – and perhaps redemption for herself.

Based on a book by Betty Ham, this Aussie flick was the second highest grosser of 2015 in its native land and the eleventh all-time as of this writing. It’s received little to no fanfare here in the States and in some ways that’s not so bad; it allows you to experience the twists and the turns of the plot without expectation. Unfortunately, it’s bad in that a lot of people haven’t really heard much about this movie and it’s a shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Winslet is one of those actresses who elevates bad movies into good movies and good movies into great movies. She is a force of nature here, dominating the screen almost effortlessly. Davis, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, holds her own and even Hemsworth, who has always been something of a pretty boy, uses his easygoing charm to his advantage. Weaving, who I’ve always enjoyed as a terrific character actor, shines here as a cross-dressing cop.

The movie lampoons our obsession with fashion as well as small town insularity, both of which have been done elsewhere but here at least are done stylishly. The problem here is that there are too many styles going on; there’s a kind of American western tone (Moorhouse herself calls the film “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”) as well as a kind of noir mystery (particularly near the end of the film as we find out what really happened to Stewart Pettyman) as well as an Edward Scissorhands­-esque ode to non-conformity, romantic comedy in the developing relationship between Tilly and Teddy and even a little family drama as per the relationship between Tilly and Molly.

I found myself liking the vibe here. I’ve never been what you’d call exactly fashion-conscious so I found that aspect of the film amusing. I also liked the relationships between Tilly and Molly as well as between Tilly and Teddy. The denouement of the film when Tilly takes her revenge is absolutely classic and worth all the extraneous material. You may favor the noir as I did, or the rom-com, or the offbeat stuff or some other aspect but I’m reasonably sure you’ll find something about this film to like. I know I found quite a bit.

REASONS TO GO: The acting here is extremely good, particularly from Winslet and Davis. As dramas go, this one has some pretty funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many undercurrents here.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Moorhouse has directed in eight years; she has two children with autism and spends most of her time off devoted to them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Micmacs
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Audrie & Daisy

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith


Watching the world go by - and photographing it as it does.

Watching the world go by – and photographing it as it does.

(2016) Documentary (Lumiere) Carla Bley, Steve Reich, Sy Johnson, Dan Morgenstern, Bill Crow, David Amram, Phil Woods, Harry Colomby, Steve Swallow, Freddy Red, Ben Ratliff, Sam Stephenson, Charles Harbutt, John Morris, Harold Feinstein, Robert Northern, Chuck Israels, David Rothman, John Cohen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Carman Moore, Vicki Goldberg. Directed by Sara Fishko

Florida Film Festival 2016

From the 50s into the 60s, New York City was legitimately the center of the universe. It almost glowed with a creative vibe, with poets, writers, photographers, musicians…everything was happening in New York. It was an exciting time to be alive.

That era is gone, although New York continues to throb with artistic activity. However, nobody can deny that the era I referred to was something of a golden age. In a small loft on Sixth Avenue, jazz musicians would come and jam and hang out in the apartment of Hall Overton, a Julliard instructor and composer of classical music who was discovering jazz. Folks like Zoot Sims and Thelonious Monk were regular visitors and painter Salvador Dali would drop in from time to time. Young musicians like Carla Bley and Steve Reich (ho would eventually become a noted composer) also were regulars.Next door, acclaimed Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith documented everything, not only in photographs but also on audio tapes.

Smith was already a former war correspondent and currently a successful photographer for Life with his photo essays winning awards and acclaim. However, his obsessive and compulsive tendencies led him to leave his suburban home and family for a dilapidated building in the Flower District not zoned for residential use. There, jazz musicians would gather for all night jams without fear of waking the neighbors.

The footage here is not just of Smith’s incredible photos, although they are the centerpiece, but there is also film footage from the era as well. While the extraordinary talents that were making music in the loft made for subjects that span time, for me part of the fascination is Smith’s use of his window as a kind of peephole into the lives of those on the streets below as he documented people going about their business, unaware that their image was being preserved forever. People simply going about their day doing mundane things…I don’t know why, but that kind of thing creates a connection for me that spans across the decades and makes the era relatable. Maybe there are pictures of you and I somewhere that we don’t know about, in an era even more obsessed with documenting everything than Smith was.

But mostly, the attraction are the musicians. Smith went to great lengths to make sure he captured everything, installing microphones everywhere, even drilling through the floor into the loft above to capture rehearsals and jams. When discovered, there were more than 40,000 negatives and 4,000 hours of audio tape recordings ranging from the banal to the sublime. Monk spent two weeks in Overton’s apartment arranging the music that would eventually become The Thelonious Monk Orchestra Live at Town Hall, one of the most iconic works of the jazz legend’s career.

Produced initially as a ten part series on WNYC radio, the producer of that series made the transition to documentary and wisely lets most of the material speak for itself. However, there are some fairly dry passages that feel more like an academic lecture than a film. But all in all, this is a fascinating look at a bygone era and at the luminaries who provided an entire city – and the world – with its energy and creative vibe.

My mom and dad met in New York City during that era and lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side briefly in the late 50s, moving to the suburbs shortly after I was born in 1960. My dad is gone, but my mom still speaks very fondly of that place and that time. Judging from what I saw here, I can see why.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival footage of a glorious era. There’s a temptation to close your eyes and just listen to the music.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a seminar than a film.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Smith’s material from this period currently resides at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Road
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mad

Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)


Ain't no mountain high enough.

Ain’t no mountain high enough.

(2015) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkű Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna. Directed by Ciro Guerra

 

The journeys we undertake aren’t always the journeys we intend to make. We see ourselves as searching for something, but it isn’t always what we’re searching for that we’re destined to find.

This black and white masterpiece is the story of Karamakate, a native of the Amazonian rain forest who as a young man (Torres) removed himself from his tribe after white Imperialists, on the hunt for rubber, essentially massacred most of them. When a German scientist named Theo van Martius (Bijvoet) arrives at his hut, asking for help in locating yakruna, a plant with reputed medicinal qualities that might save him from the disease that is killing him. Karamakate, with a severe mistrust of whites, is disinclined to assist but Theo’s aide Manduca (Migue), also a native, implores the shaman Karamakate gives in.

Forty years later, an aged Karamakate (Bolivar) encounters another scientist, this one named Evan (Davis) who is searching for yakruna to gain knowledge rather than for any professed self-interest. By this age, the shaman is less aggressive in his dislike for Europeans and agrees to accompany Evan on the journey to find the plant, although he believes Evan already knows where it is – because Karamakate has begun to forget.

This is a movie that takes its cues from such disparate sources as Apocalypse Now!, Fitzcarraldo and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Joseph Conrad would most certainly have approved. The journey into the jungle is one that filmmakers and writers have been fascinated with for a long time, of civilized men venturing into places where no modern civilization exists. We’ve often seen these movies through the viewpoints of the outsiders; here, we are seeing the story of one of the natives, one disillusioned with the world that is changing into something that he realizes will destroy his people and his culture – even the eternal jungle itself.

He chose to film this in black and white, and forego the vibrant colors of the rain forest. Some might think he’s absolutely nuts for doing this, but I think it’s a brilliant move. By going black and white, he brings the film to its own essence and refuses to dazzle us and distract us with the vivid colors of the Amazon. The waters become murky and as ink; the shadows deepen and the light becomes more vivid. We are left instead to ponder the journey itself rather than the scenery.

Memory is another theme to the movie, as Karamakate grows older he is unable to interpret the glyphs on the side of his hut, or remember things like where the last yakruna is growing. There are various encounters that lead the filmmaker to posit that the cultures of the Amazon are forgetting themselves as the incursion of Europeans into the delta have driven cultural memory out in the insatiable urge for exploitation and profit.

The acting, much of it by natives of the Colombian rainforest, is natural. We never get a sense of people playing roles as much as people inhabiting them. The mesmerizing script is the story here as we see the results of colonialism, toxic to the Europeans as it was to the natives albeit not in the same way. The movie is based on the diaries of two real life explorers of roughly the same era as depicted here. The only misstep is a psychedelic sequence (the only color sequence in the film) near the end of the movie. It doesn’t really add anything and seems to be more of a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick than anything else.

This is a powerful movie, one that takes you on a journey into the heart of darkness and populates it with taciturn forest dwellers, brutal priests, broken slaves and messianic madmen. This Oscar nominee really didn’t get the kind of buzz that other movies, backed by bigger studios, received but it deserved its place at the table. Definitely one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A haunting and powerful treatise. Gorgeous black and white photography. Treats natives with respect.
REASONS TO STAY: A psychedelic sequence near the end (the only color in the film) is ill-advised.
FAMILY VALUES: Some aboriginal nudity, a little bit of violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Columbia to make the final nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apocalypse Now!
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: A Space Program