Django (2017)


Django Reinhardt doing what he does best.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Under the Milky Way) Reda Kateb, Cécile De France, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mireté, Johnny Montreuil, Vincent Frade, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois, Esther Comar, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, Hugues Jourdain, Hono Winterstein, Etienne Mehrstein, Levis Reinhardt, Nestle Sztyglic, Ulrich Brandhoff, Clémence Boisnard. Directed by Etienne Comar

 

Django Reinhardt was one of the greatest jazz guitarists – jazz musicians of any instrument in fact – of all time. His music has helped define the music of France in the decades since he burst onto the club scene of Paris in much the same way as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry defined American music.

Django (Kateb) is really a pretty laid back guy; before a big concert in Paris in 1943 he is late arriving because he’s too busy fishing in the Seine. Once he gets there, he captivates the crowd with his virtuoso style, fingers dancing over the fretboard in his unusual style (he didn’t have the use of two fingers on his left hand after his hand was burned in an accident as a young man, so he had a peculiar three finger style). We are reminded that this is occupied Paris with all the Nazi uniforms in the audience and a stern admonition of “No Dancing.”

Django is married to Naguine (Palya) who is devoted to him; his mother Negros (Merstein) also lives with him. Django was born in Belgium to Romani (what some would call gypsies although that’s a politically incorrect term these days) and the gypsies, along with the homosexuals and of course the Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis. One of Django’s fans is Louise de Klerk (De France) who as it turns out is part of the French resistance and she warns Django that the Nazis are rounding up the Romani all over the country. She admonishes him about a German tour he’s about to undertake; he responds that he doesn’t care who’s in the audience so long as they respond to his music.

Soon Django’s apolitical stance is put to the test as it becomes clear he needs to get his family out of France and that his protection because of his international stardom wouldn’t remain for much longer. He heads to a Romani encampment near the Swiss border and his perceptions of politics are changed forever.

Kateb took some intensive training to learn how to duplicate Reinhardt’s distinctive style and he looks pretty authentic on-camera. Oddly, a modern jazz group dubs the sound of Reinhardt and his Paris Hot Club Quintet; neither the on-camera musicians nor Reinhardt are heard on the soundtrack which seems a little odd that in a movie about a great musician we never actually hear his work.

Kateb is a fine actor and he does a decent job here but he isn’t given a lot to work with. There’s little character development for anyone else around me, including the fictional De Klerk (who for the purposes of this film was also his mistress) and the very real Naguine. The music is amazing but you’re never given the opportunity to care about the people playing it.

Mostly we get a generic World War II suspense piece that has elements of Casablanca (not a bad thing), music documentary (not a bad thing) and Schindler’s List (still not a bad thing) but never quite pulls together as a movie that grips and excites the viewer. I don’t feel like I know anything more about Reinhardt than I would if I just listened to a couple of his albums.

On the positive side, the filmmaker does call into focus the persecution of the Romani people which other than the Jews suffered the most in terms of the number of dead. There is a chilling but moving photo collage of the missing that is the last image shown in the film and a fitting memorial for those who died. Django no doubt would have approved.

I don’t think he would have approved of this movie which lacks the passion that he consistently displayed in his music. Certainly the musical sequences are dynamite and there are also some really nice camera shots in the film but overall, you would profit better by downloading some of his songs onto your playlist and giving them a listen.

REASONS TO GO: The music is incredible. Some of the cinematography is spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is surprisingly pallid and uninspiring. The soundtrack could have used some actual recordings of Reinhardt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the fictional novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Battle of the Sexes

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Hearing is Believing


The joy of music.

(2017) Music Documentary (Gravitas/Foresight) Rachel Flowers, Dweezil Zappa, Keith Emerson, Jeanie Flowers, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, Andy Radford, Dan Flowers, Ian McDuffie, Frank Cavenee, Taylor Eigsti, Ellis Hall, Brian Hutchison, Vaughan Flowers, David Pinto, Benny Chong, Larry Tuttle, Joy Cavenee, Mari Kawaguchi, Leo Medina, Cynthia Gonzalez. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Maybe once in a generation (if you’re lucky) comes a musical prodigy who has the ability to be a game changer. That person for this generation might just be Rachel Flowers. An absolutely lights-out pianist, she is able to hear a song once and then play it, possessed of true perfect pitch. She is also similarly skilled on a multitude of instruments, including guitar and flute. She is an amazing composer, working in a variety of styles and genres including pop, progressive rock, jazz and Latin. She is, in short, the real deal.

What makes the 21-year-old musician’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she has been blind since she was a baby, having been born prematurely and developing retinopathy which caused her retinas to detach repeatedly until eventually her parents had to accept that she would be blind for the rest of her life. She lives with her mom Jeanie in a modest home in Oxnard along with her little brother Vaughan who seems a typical well-adjusted teen who admits that he lives in the shadow of his sister and then the film proves it by going virtually the entire rest of the film without him appearing on camera.

The documentary follows Rachel essentially for two years as her impressive YouTube videos garner her  notice from various music industry folks who begin to help her – some directly, some not – but she begins to get a following. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t already well-known; by the time she was 11 she’d been on 60 Minutes twice. However, until recently her notoriety wasn’t really translating into income to speak of as the small family lived hand-to-mouth, surviving on Jeanie’s paychecks.

She does get the blessing of some pretty impressive musicians, including jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, keyboardist Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) who seemed to hold a special place in Flowers’ heart – she performs several of his songs during the movie – and fellow blind prodigy Stevie Wonder.

She leads off the film performing the Walter Murphy disco-era pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” serving notice that not only is she into classical but she’s into pop in a big way. The movie follows her from an appearance at a local concert hall in Oxnard to a Las Vegas stage with Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his father Frank (some of the most difficult and demanding compositions of the 20th century) to performing in her church and an impromptu performance at a big box store trying out a variety of keyboards on sale in front of admiring shoppers.

Rachel is an engaging presence, smiling broadly whenever she is playing music (for the most part; for more somber pieces her expression is more serious) and charming all with her humble demeanor and her infectious giggle which you will either be annoyed by or look forward to depending on your tolerance for girlish giggles and she giggles a lot. She is clearly a talented performer but also her original music ranges from haunting to joyful. She is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and I can’t imagine that she won’t be getting multimillion dollar offers from big players in the coming months.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its subject. I haven’t seen DeStefano’s other documentaries but I sure hope they’re better than this one. He obviously adores his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are treated to multiple scenes of musicians and admirers praising Rachel effusively. It isn’t that she doesn’t deserve it but her music speaks for itself; we don’t need to hear people endlessly remark on how talented she is. We all know it.

To make matters worse, DeStefano packs his film with cinematic ephemera that do nothing to really give us any sort of insight into Rachel herself. We see her at a self-defense course for the blind with other blind folks but as we see person after person practicing their techniques I began to fidget and wonder what on earth any of this has to do with the woman or her music. Occasionally Rachel talks about her creative process and how she expands on snippets of melodies that pop into her head, but we don’t get a sense of how she tackles the act of creating music overall.

The concert footage is extensive, giving us a chance to listen to entire pieces of her music which is a nice touch; so many music documentaries go for more is more, giving us 15-30 seconds of a song before going on to the next one. Not so here and it’s a good thing; really the best way to get to know Rachel Flowers is through her music. I say that because that’s essentially the only way we get to know Rachel Flowers here; the filmmaker does a poor job of showing us who this woman is.

That’s too bad because you will want to get to know her better once you hear her music. Something tells me that the director got so close to her subject that he lost objectivity and as a result made some poor directing decisions. I love the music of Rachel Flowers; I can’t say I can recommend the documentary about her as wholeheartedly. See it for the musical sequences which are enthralling but be aware that this is a severely flawed presentation that might send you scurrying for YouTube to watch more of her performances. That might be a much less frustrating way to encounter her.

 

REASONS TO GO: Rachel Flowers is an exceptional musician and extremely likable person. The extended concert footage gives you more than a snippet of a song to enjoy.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is ragged; there’s way too many cinematic non-sequiturs and extraneous footage. There is a little bit too much fawning going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flowers will be playing at a tribute concert to the late Keith Emerson in Birmingham, England on July 28th with, among others, Rick Wakeman of Yes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Transformers: The Last Knight

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

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

Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver

Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears

On the Road


Bella Swan, you're all grown up!

Bella Swan, you’re all grown up!

(2012) Drama (Sundance Selects) Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Danny Morgan, Marie-Ginette Guay, Steve Buscemi, Joe Chrest, Terrence Howard, Coati Mundi, Michael Sarrazin, Ximena Adriana, Tetchena Bellange, Kim Bubbs, Tiio Horn, Giselle Itie, Giovanna Zacarias. Directed by Walter Salles  

The classic Jack Kerouac Beat Generation novel On the Road has literally been in development for decades. Nobody really knew quite what to do with the book. It finally got made and was released in late 2012; was it worth the wait?

Young Sal Paradiso (Riley), a stand-in for the author, meets Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) – who stands in for Neal Cassady – through mutual friends. Sal, grieving for his father and a writer stuck in a horrible case of writer’s block, is instantly taken by this young man who is full of life and not especially concerned with convention, rules or…well, anything that gets in the way of him having a good time. Charming and literate, Dean and his 16-year-old wife Marylou (Stewart) serve up alcohol, sex and marijuana with equal enthusiasms. When it’s time for Dean and Marylou to head back to Denver, Sal is invited to come visit.

It takes some time for Sal to get together the gumption and funds to go – even in postwar New York there aren’t a ton of jobs – but he finally does. He rides busses and hitchhikes across the pre-Interstate America and eventually gets there, only to find that Dean is cheating on Marylou with Camille (Dunst). Sal heads back, stopping briefly to pick cotton and have an affair with Terri (Braga).

Later, after Sal has returned to New York, Sal and his mother (Guay) are visiting Sal’s sister and her husband for the holidays in North Carolina when Dean turns up with Marylou and friend Ed Dunkle (Morgan) and offer to drive Sal and his mom back up to New York in exchange for a place to stay for the night and a meal. Sal’s staid sister and family aren’t quite sure what to make of the intruders.

After getting back to New York and spending some time partying, Sal decides to accompany the three back to Denver. On the way they stop in New Orleans to pick up Ed’s wife Galatea (Moss) and to visit Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Adams). They continue crisscrossing the country and as they do Sal noticed that women are getting left behind quite regularly both figuratively and literally not only by Dean but by all of them (the lone exception is Carlo (Sturridge) who is gay and is one of those left behind by the bisexual Dean). After a disastrous trip to Mexico in which Sal contracts dysentery, at last he will see Dean for who he truly is – and find inspiration in the process.

In all honesty I’ve been less a fan of the writing of the Beat Generation and more of…well, admirer isn’t quite the right term. The Beat writers were full of bullshit, but it’s an honest bullshit, a young man’s bullshit. This is a movie about self-fulfillment in all its forms. I have to admit I haven’t read the book; okay, I might have but it was so long ago that I don’t remember it and so it adds up to the same thing.  Therefore, I’m not really the one to evaluate whether the spirit of the book was captured so we’ll leave that as a N/A for now.

Salles, who is no stranger to road movies having directed the Che Guevara quasi-biopic The Motorcycle Diaries has a firm hand here and allows the allure of the road to shine through; the endless stripes passing by through landscapes mostly desolate but wonderful in their emptiness. However, keeping in mind that the movie runs about two hours give or take, that can only sustain a film so much.

The characters here are so incredibly self-involved that it’s difficult to find a lot of sympathy for the lot of them. Mostly they’re about indulging whatever hedonistic pleasure grabs them at the moment, and Dean is the mainstay in that regard. For Dean, friends and lovers are to be exploited, discarded when the need for them diminishes or when boredom sets in. He wants to meet people who have something to say that isn’t the usual postwar pabulum of pandering prattling polemic, empty of soul and emptier of head. That’s all well and good but what does interesting companions really do for you if you make no connection to them?

Admittedly the relationship between Dean and Sal is the centerpiece here in that there is more or less a relationship of mutual respect and debauchery but in the end Dean uses Sal just as thoroughly and just as despicably, maybe even more so than the others. Hedlund gives the performance of his career thus far in capturing Dean’s natural charisma and sensual charm that attracted both women and men to him like moths to a flame. Riley, a British actor who’s turned in some really incredible performances in his young career, is solid here as the yin to Hedlund’s yang, and to my mind it’s a generous move because by not shining quite so bright he allows Hedlund’s glow to be more noticeable and the movie benefits from it.

You can only take so much self-indulgent behavior and there’s really a whole lot of it here. There’s an amazing amount of smoking and drinking, not to mention a ton of sex and drug use. I don’t begrudge anyone who partakes in any of those things but it’s a bit more boring to watch than you’d expect.

This is a generation that is not unlike the 20-somethings that are out there right now; people trying to find their own way in a world that doesn’t really get them much, so they are forced to reinvent the world to fit their view. I can commend the ballsyness of the strategy but it doesn’t always make for good cinema unless of course these are your people too.

They aren’t really mine. There just isn’t any appeal in watching people indulge their most hedonistic and basic whims while forgetting to make any connection to other people. It’s an ultimately empty and meaningless pursuit. Life is about connections, not so much about carnality. It’s a lesson that the young learn as they get older, although some never learn it at all.

Some will look at these characters and see heroes bucking the system and living life on their own terms. I see people who screw their friends over and whose only concern is having a good time. One must grow up sooner or later (you would hope) and to be honest, watching this is like watching children acting out. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – sorry if that means I fail the coolness test.

REASONS TO GO: Some good performances, particularly from Hedlund. Captures the allure of the road and the essence of the era.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters far too self-indulgent to connect to.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sex, swearin’ and smokin’ of weed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Francis Ford Coppola originally bought the rights to the novel in 1979 and has been attempting to get the film made since then.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100; the reviews are lukewarm at best.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Neal Cassady

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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