Jazz on a Summer’s Day


C’mon, Satchmo, blow that horn!

(1959) Music Documentary (Kino LorberLouis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Giuffre, Big Maybelle, Art Farmer, Jo Jones, Eric Dolphy, Buck Clayton, Willis Conover, Max Roach, Danny Barcelona, Patricia Bosworth. Directed by Bert Stern

 

In 1958, jazz had reached a turning point. Men like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were starting to get into middle age and beyond. They had dominated the jazz scene for 20 and 30 years, but there were some New Turks on the horizon, guys that were taking jazz into exciting new directions – guys like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

The Newport Jazz Festival, the nation’s oldest and some would say, most prestigious, didn’t seem to have gotten the word, judging from this beloved Bert Stern documentary. Stern, a New York fashion photographer, was motivated to take snapshots at the Festival which after what is euphemistically termed a “turn of events,” decided to make a film about the experience of a day at the Jazz Festival.

It was a bold idea – many believe that this was the first concert film in history, but it was evident that Stern was in over his head. His taste tended towards the more traditional jazz (and to be fair, so did the programmers of the Festival) and despite the presence of such luminaries as Davis, Sonny Rollins and Ray Charles, only a brief snippet of Monk’s Sunday morning performance of Monk’s blues – about a minute’s worth – made the final cut.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the performances here. We watch in awe as Mahalia Jackson, quite likely the greatest gospel singer ever and certainly the best of her time, belt out the Lord’s Prayer with such conviction that its hard not to be moved even if you aren’t a believer. We see vocalist Dinah Washington giving an impassioned performance on “All of Me,” but taking the time to step away from the microphone and help out Terry Gibbs on the vibes.

We are surprised to find Chuck Berry, literally the architect of rock and roll, prowl the stage nervously on “Sweet Little Sixteen,” gradually warming to the crowd enough to do his duckwalk. We are mesmerized by pianist George Shearing, whose excellence was never acknowledged properly, as he takes charge of “Rondo” like he owns it. We are delighted by vocalist Anita O’Day, resplendent in a little black cocktail dress, heels so high she can barely climb to the stage, elegant gloves and a preposterous sunhat scat her way through “Tea for Two,” and deliver a rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” that the Harlem Globetrotters never envisioned.

For most, though, the main attraction is Armstrong. He is not even at the top of his game here; by 1958 his best days were behind him and although he was still the consummate entertainer, he had long since settled for being an entertainer rather than an innovator. Still, when he takes to his trumpet there were no equals back then or now, and his charm and distinctive vocals bring a smile to even the most COVID-weary face.

The music is spectacular and the vibe is carefree. It is a joyful celebration of summer, as we see beachgoers and other revelers, with periodic shots of sailboats (the timed trials for the America’s Cup U.S. try-outs were ongoing that July 4th weekend as well). There are even a college jazz band driving through town in a beat-up old jalopy playing Dixieland. It was a different time, and there is certainly an air that the world was our oyster then.

Stern, as a fashion photographer, had an eye for faces and he concentrates very much on those in the audience; some rapt, some bored, some dancing (particularly during the Berry sequence) and some getting pleasantly smashed on Rheingold beer. And nearly every hand has a cigarette in it.

This is very definitely a time capsule piece, and it is fitting that the Library of Congress selected it for preservation nearly 20 years ago. What you’re seeing now, should you choose to find this on Virtual Cinema (see link below), is a 4K restoration that retains the vibrant colors and great sound of the original.

Older readers may wax nostalgic over the depiction of the time of their youth; younger readers may titter at the fashion, hairstyles and the essence of suburban smugness wrapped up in the civility of privilege. One thing that isn’t dated, though and that’s the music. It is timeless and amazing, the kind of music that demands respect no matter the age of the listener. One can lament the absence of the jazz greats I mentioned; also absent were Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, Joe Turner and Ray Charles. You can’t please everybody, but there is much here that make this movie absolutely precious. Stern would never direct a movie again, but he made his only film a good one.

REASONS TO SEE: Some absolutely breathtaking musical performances. A snapshot of an era when jazz was just beginning to evolve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit dated at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Other than depicting a lot of people smoking (how that generation didn’t completely die off from lung cancer I’ll never know), this is perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stern donated his raw footage and outtakes to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in exchange for them paying $50,000 in outstanding storage fees and shipping costs from the archive in Spain where the film had been languishing.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Star Light

Epicentro


The color and chaos that is Havana.

(2020) Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Leonis Arango Salas, Oona Castillo Chaplin. Directed by Hubert Saupier

 

Cuba is an island 90 miles off the Florida coast that has an inescapable pull on the American imagination. Some see it as a tropical paradise that was corrupted by communism and Castro; others see it as an island Utopia stubbornly standing up to the US and capitalism despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, their main trading partner throughout most of the second half of the 20th century.

Austrian documentary filmmaker Saupier has a tendency to go to small countries trying to chart courses in changing times and environments (as seen in such films as Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come as Friends. Here he sets his sights on Cuba, but this is no travel documentary. You won’t find Rick Steves narrating it.

This is cinema verité in its purest form; Saupier spends time with apparently random people he meets, including young schoolchildren (whom he dubs “The New Prophets” and spends the bulk of his time with), apparent sex workers and some European tourists. Through the film, we see the Cuban point of view which is, to be honest, largely shaped by anti-American propaganda (as ours is, if we’re being honest, shaped by anti-communist propaganda). They look on America’s war with Spain in 1898 not as liberation, but an invasion. Only their beloved Fidel Castro would be able to toss the invaders out with jaw firmly set and “never again” on the lips (during filming, Fidel Castro’s passing was announced on television and we see a Cuban family’s reaction).

It’s hard for me to look at Cuba with an objective eye – my father was Cuban and fled that country during the revolution. He had participated in a raid on the Presidential palace with pro-Castro forces and would have been arrested had he stayed. He was sorely, bitterly disappointed when Castro announced that Cuba would be a communist country and never forgave him for it. I look at the images here – of the tides battering the breakwater in Havana harbor with dazzling plums of spray, the crumbling apartments and streets, the color and warmth of its people – perhaps all of these things are cliché images of Cuba but apparently, they are valid.

Saupier opines that Cuba was at the epicenter of three elements of America’s colonial aspirations; the slave trade, colonization and globalization of power. It was the first place in the world that the American flag was raised outside of our nation. We see abandoned sugar processing mills which once supplied Coca-Cola, and Chryslers and Cadillacs from the 1950s that are still running nearly 70 years later despite a lack of access to replacement parts.

Some are going to listen to the children and some adults making extremely anti-American remarks and will think that this is also the viewpoint of the film. I honestly don’t think so; these kids have been indoctrinated. All people are to a certain extent; we see Cuba through a certain lens just as they see us through a certain lens. That lens is rarely reality on both sides; we see things that fit our point of view. One of us sees a communist country falling apart; another sees American imperialism in action. Neither side is completely wrong.

Saupier doesn’t really comment on anything but lets people say their peace. The problem was that is that it doesn’t make for cohesive filmmaking; this is more dream-like, or more to the point, a hyper-reality but not necessarily your own reality.  And still the waves crash into the breakwater, inexorable. All countries are battered by time, even our own, even Cuba. Wax and wane, that is the fate of nations. Cuba is no different, and as we see her at a crossroads – where tourism seems an easy way out but not one necessarily embraced by its people – one wonders what must surely come to the face of this beautiful island that once fancied itself a Utopia – and maybe still does.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some beautiful and powerful images here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find it anti-American, although it’s not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The destruction of the USS Maine which precipitated the 1898 Spanish-American War is still debated today. While most scholars agree the cause of the explosion was a fire in the coal room, there are those who believe it was set deliberately in order to get the United States into a war against Spain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cuba and the Cameraman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)


“Tell me about your dreams…”

(2018) Drama (MenemshaSimon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Christoph Bittenhauer, Gerti Drassi, Rainer Woss, Thomas Mraz, Martin Thaler, David Altman, Tobias Ofenbauer, Erni Mangold, Tom Hanslmaier, Robert Seethaler, Angelika Strahser. Directed by Nikolaus Leytner

 

Figuring out who we are is one of the most difficult tasks that we undertake during our lifetimes. Many of us still haven’t got a clue even into our advanced years – and it’s well-nigh impossible for someone just starting out in life. Life is confusing even for the brightest and most experienced among us.

 

Franz (Morzé) is a bit of a dreamer. He lives in a bucolic Austrian village on the shores of Lake Attersee. It is 1937, and things in Europe are changing rapidly. Franz is 17 years old and lives with his mother (Fritsch). Franz has discovered girls, and spends much of his time swimming in the lake. He particularly likes to see how long he can stay submerged, but one day as he is enjoying the peace and quiet of the bottom of the lake, he sees flashes in the sky and realizes a thunderstorm is approaching. The one place you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm is in a lake, so he quickly emerges from the lake, high-tailing it for home and passing his mother on the way. She’s preoccupied with her lover giving her what-for against a tree; the lover finishes and decides to take a quick dip before the storm arrives. Not a good idea; a chance lightning strike in the lake punches his ticket for the express train to the afterlife.

Mama can no longer afford to feed her growing boy, so she sends him to Vienna to apprentice with another former lover of hers, Otto Trsnjek (Krisch) who lost a leg in the war and currently runs a tobacco store on a side street in the capital. At first, the two guys react to each other warily, but Otto is a kindly sort who is willing to sell his products to anyone – Jews, Communists, everyone – except Nazis, who come in looking for the party newspaper which Otto refuses to sell.

One of his customers is none other than the legendary father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud (Ganz) who comes to the shop to get his cigar fix. Franz is fascinated by what he does and determines to have Freud help him overcome his inability to find somebody to love. Freud, for his part, says ruefully that he is as confused about love as Franz is.

Things are going from bad to worse in the Austrian capital, but for Franz there is a saving grace; the beautiful young Bohemian Annezka (Drogunova) who works as a dancer in a cabaret and who seems to have lots of boyfriends. However, she and Franz hook up although when he gets serious, she backs away, leaving him bitter and confused. That’s the least of his worries, though, as the Nazis tighten their hold on Austria, people whose behaviors are disapproved of are whisked off of the streets, never to be seen again and prudent Austrians are finding someone with a swastika arm band to protect them – or make a hasty exit for less fraught environs.

Freud, as a Jew, is particularly vulnerable but he is not eager to leave his home. It falls upon Franz, who has become friends with the aging doctor, to try and convince him to leave before it’s too late. Franz is being forced to grow up quickly as he takes on more responsibility at the store and continues to pursue Annezka. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get by.

Watching movies about the ascension of Nazi Germany are doubly disturbing in these days of rioting, pandemic and increasingly authoritarian posturing by the current administration. The parallels seem inescapable and it’s likely the filmmakers are fully aware of that. Some may find it extra-disturbing.

This was one of Ganz’ final films (it is the final Ganz film to be released in the United States) and his performance is heart-wrenching. He plays Freud as a gentle man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, not at all the way most of us picture him. Morzé is handsome enough in the lead role, but his performance is pretty bland for most of the film, and by the time the character shows signs of growth the damage is done. Krisch does a good job as the kindly Otto, and Russian actress Drogunova adds a dash of sensuality to the movie.

Freud’s psychological theories are on display throughout the film, as we are treated to Franz’ dreams which are full of symbols; submersion, spiders, isolation, mother bonding, and so on. Some of the dreams have rich imagery, but Leytner relies on them a bit too much. They interrupt the flow of the story and obfuscate what’s going on.

The movie is based on a novel by Richard Seethaler, which was a massive best-seller in Germany. There is a literary quality to the film which is a little more common in European films but which mass American audiences tend to shy away from. We are invited to psychoanalyze Franz, although to be honest as the movie starts he’s basically genitals with legs and with not a whole lot of responsibility or ability to see beyond his own immediate needs. That changes as the movie goes along, but the effect is at least at the beginning akin to the emperor not wearing any clothes.

The movie might have benefitted from less time spent on the dreams, although some of the dreams are actually kind of fascinating. Still, they do tend to get in the way of the best part of the movie – the story of Franz’ maturation process as he discovers that the things that were important to him as a boy matter less to him as a man. It’s a lesson that not all of us actually learn.

The movie is currently playing as a Virtual Theatrical Experience. Among the Florida theaters benefitting from this pandemic-centric VOD delivery are the Tampa Theater, the Tropic Cinema (Key West), All Saints Cinema (Tallahassee), Corazon Café (St. Augustine), Pensacola Cinema Art, and the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Click on the link below to buy your tickets to benefit those theaters or others closer to where you might live.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganz is magnificent as Freud. Some interesting dream imagery.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story meanders quite a bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity, sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book Thief
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happy Death Day 2U

Guest of Honour


This party is about to be toast.

(2019) Drama (Kino-LorberDavid Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Rossif Sutherland, Tennille Read, Tamara Podemski, Gage Munroe, Alexandre Bourgeois, Gage Munro, Arsinée Khanijian, John Bourgeois, Sugith Varughese, Hrant Alianak, Seamus Patterson, Isabelle Franca, Joyce Rivera, Juan Carlos Velis, Alexander Marsh, Sima Fisher, Sochi Fried. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Atom Egoyan is well-known among cinematic connoisseurs and hoity-toity critics alike. During the 90s, he turned out several wonderful movies that bespoke a talent for layering dense plots and exploring the inner pain of characters in imaginative ways. Over the past few years, however, his films have lost their sharp edge, and while he’s maintained his reputation, critics continue to view his new films with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

Like many of his films, his recent movie was spotlighted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, something he has done so often he might well be known as “Mister TIFF.” Here, we meet Veronica (De Oliveira), a comely high school music teacher, discussing the funeral of her father with a patient priest (Wilson). As she tells Father Greg about her dad, it turns into a therapeutic ride into the past for her.

Her Dad, Jim (Thewlis), wasn’t the easiest man to get to know. “He made a lot of odd choices,” she confesses and so he did. A man who dreamed of owning a restaurant but ending up as a health inspector instead, he combs the restaurants around Hamilton, Ontario, looking for code violations, measuring the temperature of meat, combing the out-of-the-way spaces looking for vermin droppings and spoiled food. He seems to be a nice enough guy, though – he even took care of Veronica’s pet bunny Benjamin while she was in jail (cue vinyl record scratching sound).

It turns out Veronica had been in jail for abusing her authority as a teacher with a minor, despite the fact that she didn’t do the crime – and everyone knew she didn’t do the crime. She insisted, however, that she be jailed for it and serve the most stringent sentence available. Why would she do something like that? What secrets in her pasts and in her father’s compelled her to such a stand?

It all gets explained and as with many Egoyan projects, it takes a number of unexpected twists and turns, involving a high school boyfriend of Veronica’s, a music teacher, a skeezy bus driver, fried rabbit ears (apparently that’s a thing), a dead mom and dreams that didn’t work out the way they planned. This plays a little bit like a whodunit, only we all know who did it. Like all of Egoyan’s work, this film doesn’t lack for things going on.

Sometimes it feels that way, however, with endless montages of Jim investigating restaurants and Veronica conducting band performances. It feels like in trying to tell a complex story, Egoyan got caught up in the minutiae and eventually became lost within it. There are flashbacks a-plenty, and even flashbacks within flashbacks for good measure. At times, it becomes difficult to manage just what time period is being examined, as the story takes place (more or less) over a 15-year period.

The performances are good, with De Oliveira playing the guilt-ravaged Veronica with a kind of resigned world-weariness, Thewlis as rock solid as ever and Alexander Bourgeois channeling a young Leonardo di Caprio as the object of Veronica’s guilt, or, at least, apparently so. Not everything is as it seems, which is usually a good thing.

But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. In the hour and forty-odd minute run time there’s an awful lot stuffed into the mix, and after awhile the average viewer might feel like their heads are going to explode, but still Egoyan is a good enough director not to let it get completely out of hand. He benefits from some nifty cinematography from Paul Sarossy, although the Philip Glass-influenced score by Mychael Danna is often intrusive.

The movie is currently available in Virtual Cinematic form, benefiting independent theaters across the country. For Florida readers, the theaters that are currently running the virtual screenings include the Enzian Theater in Orlando, the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the MDC Tower Theater in Miami, the Corazon Café in St. Augustine, the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, and the Pensacola Cinema Art in Pensacola. Click on the theater name to go to the Kino Marquee link for that theater; for those readers outside of Florida, click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link for a list of theaters elsewhere.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully autumnal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down in minutiae.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual situations and a small amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanijian  who plays the Armenian restaurant co-owner, is married to Egoyan in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sweet Hereafter
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fighting With the Family

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song


Denise Ho lights up New York.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino-LorberDenise Ho, Jeffrey Ngo, Victoria Hui, Janny Ho, Margaret Ng, Anthony Wong, Henry Ho, Harris Ho, John Tsang, Jelly Cheng. Directed by Sue Williams

Hong Kong has been in the headlines a great deal over the past decade. The Umbrella Protests of 2014 illustrated that the promises of Beijing to allow Hong Kong to self-govern once the city went from being a British colony to be returned to Chinese control in 1997, were complete falsehoods. Following a law that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, further protests erupted last year.

This documentary of one of Hong Kong’s most outspoken pop stars who has become a pro-democracy fixture in that country was released just a day following a repressive new Chinese law that essentially criminalizes the protests in Hong Kong which seriously threatens the pro-democracy movement. It also comes out at a time when our own country is rocked by protests calling for racial equality and an end to police brutality. Although unstated by director Sue Williams, the parallels Between the protests in Hong Kong and in the United States is unmistakable.

Williams does a very good job of showing the progression of events that led to the protests still occurring in Hong Kong. In parallel, the film examines the career of Ho; how she was born to two schoolteachers in Hong Kong who moved to Canada when she was eleven; how her education in Montreal primed her for a future of thinking for herself. She returned to HK in 1996 to compete in a singing contest which she won; the grand prize included a dress worn by Cantopop legend, the late Anita Mui who would eventually take Ho under her wing. Although some of the advice she got was a bit problematic (“you’re a girl, you need to wear dresses” which Ho did early on in her career), she speaks of Mui, known as “The Madonna of the East” and who sadly passed away of cervical cancer in 2003, with great reverence and affection.

But Ho had to go her own way and after breaking away from Mui to start her own solo career, she slowly let go of the trappings of pop stardom; her popularity, however, was indisputable and she regularly sold out stadium shows with her big-scale concerts, full of dancers and elaborate costumes and sets. Ho realized that wasn’t her and she began to change; her songs had always had a bit of revolutionary to them, and she found herself in sympathy with the protesters once they began to arise. After coming out, she found that tour sponsors were pulling out, significantly L’Oréal which bowed to pressure from the mainland Chinese government, not their finest hour.

Once Ho became aligned with the protests and indeed, became something of a spokesman for the movement, she was banned from performing in China, and her records were no longer sold there; when you consider, as her Music Director (and brother) Harris Ho comments, that the bulk of her revenue came from the Chinese market, it became very difficult for Ho financially. She began performing in smaller venues in Hong Kong and throughout Asia, including a show in New York which is shown here. When about to sing a song about Montreal, Ho visibly breaks down, unable to sing because of her strong emotional attachment to that city.

While we get some interviews from fellow activists and some brief snippets from family members, and of course from Ho herself, there isn’t what you’d call a ton of insight into what makes Ho tick. While we hear a lot of her music with the lyrics helpfully translated, the translations – onscreen in a cursive font – can be hard to read. Her progression from pop diva to activist, though, isn’t really examined very thoroughly so it becomes somewhat jarring when it occurs.

Overall, though, the movie does a good job of explaining what’s going on in Hong Kong and why it is important to the rest of us. It gives us an overview of Ho’s career, but that seems almost secondary to her status as an activist although her music very much reflects her views judging on what I heard and read. While this is going to appeal much more strongly to Cantopop fans it is nonetheless a worthwhile viewing for those interested in Hong Kong.

The film, released on Virtual Cinema by Kino Marquee benefits independent theaters, including the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida and the Coral Gables Art Cinema near Miami. To benefit either of those worthy establishments, just click on their names; for a list of other cinemas outside of Florida benefiting from virtual screenings, click on the link below where it says Virtual Cinematic Experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a good deal of background information about what led to the protests in Hong Kong. Ably displays the activist’s passion and emotion.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the lyrics are difficult to read.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of violence from the protests.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2012, Ho became one of the first Cantopop stars to come out as LGBTQ publicly. Many of her fans, however, had already figured it out due to clues in the lyrics of her songs.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Prodigy

Tommaso


Meet Tommaso.

(2019) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Lorenzo Piazzoni, Alessandro Prato, Alessandra Camilla-Scarci. Directed by Abel Ferrara

 

Self-portraits can be extremely revealing; they can also be the product of an ego run amok. When art imitates life, you never quite know what you’re going to get; unflinching honesty, or fawning self-aggrandizement or something in between.

Tommaso (Dafoe) is an American ex-pat living in Rome with his much younger wife Nikki (Chiriac) and his three-year-old daughter DeeDee (Anna Ferrara). He is six years sober after years abusing alcohol, drugs and anyone unfortunate enough to be in his orbit. He is working on a sci-fi script about a man living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who learns to love again, attends regular AA meetings, and runs drama classes when he’s not being tutored into learning the Italian language. He seems to dote on his daughter and is deeply in love with his wife, even though sex with a toddler in the house is nearly impossible.

Cracks begin to show in the façade; the more we learn about Tommaso, the more we see that he has a dark side that wasn’t entirely due to the drugs and booze. We also begin to understand that we are seeing events through Tommaso’s lens; not everything we see is real. He sees his wife with another man and soon becomes paranoid to the point where his wife begins to draw away from him. Tommaso has always been a womanizer; he begins to come on to one of his students who isn’t exactly against the idea. However, as much as he regrets the mistakes he’s made in his life and as open as he is to discussing them, he certainly isn’t above repeating them – or making all-new mistakes.

Dafoe as Tommaso is at the center of all the action here and Ferraro couldn’t have put his film in better hands. Dafoe is an actor who seems to be getting better with age, and while he doesn’t have the mystique of a Pacino or De Niro, he is every bit as good. Tommaso is one of his best performances ever, manic and soulful, good-hearted and yet demonic. Through Dafoe, Ferrara is able to ruminate on the nature of happiness and what it means to make yourself a better person – and how truly difficult that is.

Unfortunately, the choice to make this an internal point of view means that we never know if what we are seeing is real, or a dream, or madness. In one shocking scene, Tommaso imagines seeing his daughter crossing the street and getting hit by a taxi. It turns out that was a paranoid delusion, but was it? Maybe the scenes thereafter where the daughter lives are the illusion.

When Dafoe ends up crucified (an obvious nod to The Last Temptation of Christ), I really had to question if this wasn’t a vanity project after all. I’m no psychiatrist but imagining your cinematic avatar in a Christ-like pose seems to be a cry for years of therapy at the very least.

The movie goes off the rails near the end and by that point I was wishing that the film had not been quite so long. Ferrara is a gifted director and maybe this is his way of baring his soul and making amends. I don’t know. But I’m not sure if I’m up to giving absolution after two hours of mea culpas. I’m not sure anybody is, these days.

REASONS TO SEE: Dafoe continues to turn in magnificent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat pretentious and self-absorbed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as a fair amount of sex and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife and daughter of Tommaso are played by director Abel Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Embraces
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Serenity (2019)

The Grey Fox


Bill Miner, at your service.

(1982) Western (UA Classics/Kino-Lorber) Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson Timothy Webber, Gary Reineke, David Petersen, Don Mackay, Samantha Langevin, Tom Heaton, James McLarty, George Dawson, Ray Michal, Stephen E. Miller, David L. Crowley, David McCulley, Gary Chalk, Isaac Hislop, Sean Sullivan, Bill Murdoch, Jack AckroydDirected by Phillip Borsos

One of the great Westerns of the last 50 years is one that is often forgotten; Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox. It hasn’t been available to stream or view at home for a while, but the good folks at Kino-Lorber have given the film an all-new 4K restoration and it looks possibly better than it ever has. I admit that I hadn’t seen it in decades before re-watching it a few days ago.

It’s based on the true story of Bill Miner (Farnsworth), also known as the Gentleman Bandit, who committed a string of stagecoach robberies in the West. Caught, he was sentenced to prison in San Quentin which he served for more than thirty years before being released in 1901. The movie picks him up here, trying to adjust to life outside of the life of crime he’d always known and not really succeeding at it. Stagecoaches are not really in vogue anymore and robbing banks is not really Bill’s style.  An innovator in his time (he is for real credited with being the first to utter the command “Hands Up!”), he has entered a new century to find that the world has passed him by.

One evening, he goes into a movie theater and sees The Great Train Robbery, the 1903 Edwin S. Porter film that was only eleven short minutes long, but it would change Miner’s life. Why, here was a line of work he could get into! He sets out to do just that, but a botched attempt in Oregon leads him to British Columbia where he settles down in the small mining town of Kamloops under an assumed name. He puts together a team including the volatile Shorty Dunn (Hobson) and the consumptive Louis Colquhoun (Petersen). He also meets a feminist photographer named Kate (Burroughs) with whom he begins a romance that give him the thoughts of maybe, finally, settling down.

This is a beautifully shot movie; hopefully, once theaters reopen, your theater that shows revivals will book this for at least a one night screening. It certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen, but the 4K restoration makes the film look incredible even on much smaller screens.

But as beautiful as the film looks, the main attraction here is Farnsworth, who up to that point had been a stunt man for three decades as well as playing small roles for a decade, although he had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1979 for Comes a Horseman. This was his first leading role and it established him as an actor of tremendous skill. He would continue to act – including another Oscar nomination for a lead role in David Lynch’s The Straight Story – until he passed away in 2000.

The movie combines elements of the gritty 70s westerns with the grandeur of the westerns of the 60s, making it thoroughly entertaining. The romance between Bill and Kate is endearing and the chemistry between Farnsworth and Burroughs is genuine. The movie is available here in Florida, benefiting three theaters locally; the Enzian here in Orlando (here), the Corazon in St. Augustine (here), and the MDC Tower in Miami (here). Those readers out of state can click the photo above which will take them to a list of theaters that are also presenting the film; choose one of your liking. Purchasing the film at any of these three sites will benefit the theater in question, so feel free to purchase a movie that the entire family will enjoy at the same time benefiting independent theaters who need all the help they can get. It’s a win-win situation.

REASONS TO SEE: Farnsworth’s signature role. Beautifully shot. Has all the elements of an old-fashioned Western. Interweaves old movie footage in skillfully.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little too low-key for hardcore Western fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is widely considered to be one of the ten best films ever produced by Canada.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Last Laugh

Capital in the 21st Century


The geometrics of poverty.

(2019) Documentary (Kino-LorberThomas Piketty, Kate Williams, Suresh Naidu, Bryce Edwards, Rana Foroohar, Joseph Stiglitz, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama, Lucas Chancel, Faiza Shaheen, Paul Mason, Simon Johnson, Paul Piff, Gabriel Zucman, Gillian Tett. Directed by Justin Pemberton

 

Okay. So it’s not exactly news that there is a massive disparity between haves and have-nots in this country, and the middle class – once the backbone of American prosperity – has been shrinking at an alarming rate until, now, it barely exists. In this country, to quote Midnight Oil, the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

And in case they haven’t, economist Thomas Piketty presents it very clearly for them hear. Base on his bestselling book which may be the biggest selling economics book since Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, the book and the movie it is based on explains why the rich get richer and how the deck is stacked against the rest of us. It is a moment in time where that has been displayed clearly by the coronavirus; it infects everybody regardless of the size of their bankbook, but the poor, who haven’t been able to afford decent health care, have been hit disparately harder than the wealthy.

Piketty warns that the conditions that gave rise to Marxism are returning again, with a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, social mobility becoming nearly impossible and nationalism and fascism both on the rise. The baby boomers may be the last generation to reasonably expect to have a better life than their parents; it is nearly impossible to do now – unless you are part of the one percent.

Piketty leads a parade of economists, historians and sociologists in interviews that show how the privileged classes manipulated the hearts and minds of the poor, demonizing any sort of program that would actually help them – including breeding a mistrust of education – and creating a stigma over any social program, linking it with the dreaded socialism *shudder* which is, of course, anti-American, right? Welllllllll…

New Zealand-based director Pemberton laces the film with plenty of pop culture references, from a hit song by Lorde to clips from The Grapes of Wrath and Elysium. In one of the more fascinating sequences, UC Irvine professor Paul Piff details an experiment in which two students were randomly selected to play Monopoly. A roll of the dice gave one player the role of the rich player, and the other the poor player. The rich player was given hella advantages, including more cash to begin with, the ability to roll two dice at a time (the poor player could only roll one) and more income every time they passed Go ($200 to the poor player’s $100). An interesting thing happened; the rich players grew arrogant and cocky, attributing success to superior game play rather than the nearly insurmountable advantages they were given. Gordon Gekko opined that greed is good and maybe it is (although evidence says no), but it is certainly ingrained in nearly all of us.

While there are some solutions offered – many of which were put forth by Elizabeth Warren during her Presidential campaign last year – they are unlikely to be enacted by politicians who are largely in the pocket of the super-rich. I would have liked to have seen the same kind of analysis given to the solutions as there was to the problems, which aren’t exactly breaking news. For those who believe that the rich are superior to those who don’t have money, there is the specter of the French Revolution – which is what happens when people have nothing to lose. We are rapidly getting to that point not only here in America but all over the world. Those who refuse to learn from history, after all, are doomed to repeat it, often to their great regret.

The movie is currently available through Kino-Lorber’s virtual cinema program which benefits local art houses. Although the Enzian currently isn’t one of them, Floridians wishing to check out the movie and benefit local art houses have four to choose from; the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, the Coral Gables Art House in Miami and the Tropic Cinema in Key West. Click on the picture for more information.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly sober explanation of how we got to where we are.
REASONS TO AVOID: There isn’t a lot of analysis of where we go from here.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely not for the young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by Piketty, which has sold more than three million copies worldwide to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Freakanomics
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Darling Vivian

Bacurau


A town like no other.

(2019) Action (Kino LorberBárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Rubens Santos, Wilson Rabelo, Carlos Francisco, Luciana Souza, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Buda Lira, Clebia Sousa, Danny Barbosa, Edison Silva, Eduarda Samara, Fabiola Liper, Ingrid Trigueiro, Jamila Facury, Jr. Black, Suzy Lopes. Directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho

 

In the northeast corner of Brazil is the sertão, the Brazilian version of the Australian outback. It’s a region rarely seen in Brazilian cinema which tends to focus more on urban wildernesses, with an occasional detour into Amazonian rain forests. There are plenty of interesting stories to be had in the sertão as well.

In this bone-dry dusty environment lies the small village of Bacurau. Taking place a few years from now, the town has recently been squabbling with local authorities which have dammed up their water supply, forcing them to have water delivered in tanker trucks. It is in one of these that Teresa (Colen) rides into town for her grandmother’s funeral.

At the funeral, the town doctor Domingas (Braga) goes on a drunken rant berating Teresa’s grandma, but like many of the townspeople she’s on edge; in addition to water being cut off, their cell service has ceased. Soon, they also notice that the town can no longer be found on GPS maps. Then, there are sightings of mysterious UFOs and an entire family turns up massacred. Strange visitors show up from the city to go dirt biking in the wilderness. And who are those strangers in the hunting lodge outside of town?

Things are about to get ugly in Bacurau, and they call on outlaw Lunga (Pereira) to help defend the town. The strangers, white tourists from America and the UK, are planning on hunting the most dangerous game and Bacurau – sold out by their mayor Tony Junior (Lima) who despises the town anyway – is their game preserve.

The look and feel of the film owe a lot to John Carpenter and more to the point, Sergio Leone. You could well call this Once Upon a Time in Brazil. Although the score is more electronic in nature, you can almost hear the strains of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack.

This is a glorious mash-up of a variety of styles and there is a charmingly offbeat feel to the movie. Bacurau is full of real characters but none really so off-kilter as to undermine the film. This is definitely an ensemble piece because although they seem to be setting up Teresa as the central character, she isn’t really the lead. Equal time is given to reformed outlaw Pacote (Aquino), Lunga, Domingas and a few others. It does take a little while to get going but once it does, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

Ostensibly set “a few years from now,” the movie is very much an allegory on modern Brazil and definitely a hate letter to ruler Jair Bolsonaro and as much so for foreign corporate interests who come in, utilize the country’s vast natural resources and leave nothing for those who live there.

But this isn’t just social commentary. This is also satisfyingly entertaining, even at times, zany. You can’t help but root for the citizens of Bacurau just as you can’t help but enjoy this fun – with a message – flick.

PLEASE NOTE: This film will be available on Enzian On-Demand starting today. A portion of the online streaming rental will go to the Enzian. Members should definitely take advantage of this; see a great film at home and benefit our beloved Enzian. Go to this page for more information on EOD, or here to stream the film and benefit the Enzian.

REASONS TO SEE: Off-beat in a good way. Has a charmingly retro feel to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The collected works of Sergio Leone.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Irish Story: This is My Home