Slalom


The ski slopes can be their own kind of prison.

(2020) Sports Drama (Kino Lorber) Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maira Schmitt, Axel Auriant Blot, Melle Tistounet, Gaspard Couder, Maxence Clément, Victor Senegas, Alice Berger Sabbatel, Catherine Marchal, Fred Epaud, Dominique Thomas, François Godart, Michael Vander-Meiren, François Briaut. Directed by Charléne Favier

 

The relationship between an athlete and their coach is one driven by trust. In recent years, we have heard – to our horror – of youth coaches who have taken advantage of their positions of authority to gain sexual favors from those in their charge. It is not a pretty story.

Lyz Lopez (Abita) is a 15-year-old girl with enormous potential to make the French ski team. Her single mom (Combeau) works far away, leaving her alone to study at an exclusive private school where she is trained by Fred (Renier), a slalom champion who has retired from the sport. Fred is, at first, demanding and autocratic, but soon turns gentle and supportive as the unconfident Lyz starts to win races and, more importantly, believe in herself. The relationship between Lyz and Fred grows closer.

It is cringeworthy when we see Fred touching Lyz in places I would not want my teenage daughter to be touched by her coach; nor would I want to have her grilled about her menstrual cycle, as Fred does to Lyz. But we all know where this is heading; so, too, does Lyz, I believe. And she’s okay with it, at first, as she enjoys the attention of a charismatic, attractive older man but when the house of cards begins to tumble and the inappropriate crosses the line into abuse, it threatens to destroy both coach and athlete.

Although there are scenes of sexuality, this is not a sexy film. As we watch Fred groom his victim for later sexual conquest, we recoil and see Fred, perhaps, as a monster, although there are signs that Fred himself is a wounded soul, even more so than the vulnerable Lyz. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, however.

The movie hinges on the performances of Abita and Renier. It is no surprise that the latter delivers; he is, after all, a veteran of several Dardenne Brothers films and has a history of charismatic performances. However, Abita is a relative newcomer who lit up the screens in Genese and shows that she is likely to be one of the most important actresses in Frances for the next several decades with her performance here. It is subtle, nuanced and rarely goes in for unnecessary histrionics. She is absolutely note-perfect here.

So too is the cinematography; the ski sequences are breathtaking as the camera is right there with Lyz on the slopes, giving the audience a feeling as close as possible to flying down a mountainside without first having to strap on a pair of skis themselves.

The subject matter is handled matter-of-factly and although most will tend to see Fred as a monster (and he is), there is more than one dimension to the character which makes the role somewhat heartbreaking. If you’re looking for a nice, neat, Hollywood resolution at the end of the film, you are likely to be disappointed. What you WILL get, however, is an outstanding, sober and quietly damning look at how easily authority is abused.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing and occasionally deeply disturbing. Ski footage puts the viewers on the slopes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the teen angst material seems forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, nudity, sexuality, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film (after several shorts and a documentary) by Favier and is based on her own experiences as a young athlete.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downhill Racer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Oak Room

Test Pattern


Hospital waiting rooms can be worse than what sent you there.

(2019) Drama (Kino Lorber) Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, Ben Levin, Amani Starnes, Caroline Bloom, Ronald Woodhead, Becki Hayes, Joseph Rene, Katy Erin Donna Morrell Gafford, Jason Michael Hawkins, George Oliver Hale, Kay Salem, Kally Khourshid, Melissa Jo Bailey, Molly O’Leary, Amanda Joy Erickson. Directed by Shatara Michelle Ford

Sexual assault has been a widespread issue in this country for some time, but it has come into more focus since the advent of the #MeToo movement that brought to the attention of how many women were affected by sexual assault on social media. I remember watching in shock, horror and near-tears as family members and friend after friend posted #MeToo on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, indicating that they had survived this most personal and cowardly of attacks.

Part of the problem is that the media tends to be overly salacious of the crime, rarely giving it the sober, stark treatment it deserves. With the advent of more women settling into the director’s chair, the time seems right for that issue to be addressed.

Renesha (Hall) is a beautiful, successful African-American woman working for a large corporation in Austin. However, she feels some dissatisfaction with the corporate lifestyle in general. On a girl’s night out with her friend Amber (Bean) and others, she meets up with Evan (Brill), a slightly sh*tfaced white young man who works as a tattoo artist and has no ambition whatsoever, but taken by the beauty and intelligence of Renesha, he works up enough liquor-fueled courage to get her number and call it. The two end up going out together, and sparks fly.

They end up moving in together. Evan convinces Renesha to give up her corporate job and follow her passion; she takes a job with the Humane Society. He works at home, creating his own tattoo studio. Things seem to be going really well.

Then on another girl’s night out, Renesha and Amber meet up with a couple of young white men who ply the two with drinks. Renesha wants to go home, but Amber convinces her to stay and drink and consume cannabis-laced edibles. It becomes clear that the boys have added a different drug to the mix as both Amber and Renesha become nearly unconscious.

When Renesha wakes up, it is in the bed of one of the white boys in a hotel room. She is dropped off – dumped – unceremoniously in the middle of the road near her house. Evan, out of his mind with worry, insists on taking Renesha to the hospital and having a rape kit done. Renesha would much rather take a long hot bath and go to bed but Evan is adamant. And their long, painful journey continues.

Ford has a definite voice and a definite style here; she begins the film at the moment of the sexual assault, giving us the point of view of Renesha – very dreamlike and confusing, before cutting away to the night she and Evan met. It is a bit confusing at first – you wonder if she’s meeting up with the man who’s about to rape her, but soon it becomes clear that it is not. Ford tells the story without sexualizing it; she doesn’t linger on Renesha’s body or show much of what transpires. If I have an issue with the sequence, the lead-up is a bit lengthy, although I think Ford is trying to make a point that the two African-American women were being groomed for sexual assault by two sexual predators who probably had done something like this many times before without consequence. There are guys like that out there, who think that this is natural, okay behavior – the ends justify the means.

There is also the subtext of the relationship with Evan. His behavior before the sexual assault seems sweet, but there is something going on below the surface; Renesha changes everything from her hair to her body – she adds dozens of tattoos, all Evan’s work – as well as her job and her residence. It can be argued that Renesha wanted a change to begin with, but it feels somewhat like she’s being manipulated and as women tend to do, seems to be trying to please the man she’s with perhaps to an extent that might be crossing the line into abuse. Certainly, Evan’s behavior after the assault reflects that he has an abusive side and may have all along.

There is also an indictment of the healthcare system as Evan hauls the unwilling Renesha from hospital to clinic looking for a rape kit to be performed and meeting obstacles all along the way, from systemic failures to incompetence. One is also left to wonder if Renesha had been white would she have been treated differently. Ford leaves no doubt as to how SHE feels.

Ford has the luxury of a terrific actress in the lead role. This is definitely Hall’s film and she runs with it. She’s one of those actresses who can communicate as much with a single glance as she can with a page full of dialogue. She has a good foil in Brill who has a role that is a bit mercurial and perhaps thankless, but he’s not the perfect boyfriend – which is a good thing – but he’s not an absolute jerk – which is also a good thing.

The one thing that really holds this movie back is the ending. It is abrupt and unsatisfying, feeling almost like Ford had just had enough of the story and packed things up. I don’t think the movie would have worked with a neat, tied-with-a-bow ending that resolves everything – the subject matter is far too complex for that. Still, the ending was so disappointing for me that my rating came down a full point to a point and a half because of it. That’s a shame because up until the last few minutes of the movie this was a movie whose praises were worthy of being sung but while I still recommend that you see the film, be aware that there is a caveat involved.

REASONS TO SEE: Hall delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending kind of just peters out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sexual content and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Ford.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I May Destroy You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Own the Room

Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares)


For those trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States, the trip can be hell.

(2020) Drama (Kino LorberMercedes Hernåndez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Virela, Ana Laura Rodriguez, Armando Garcia, Laura Elena Ibarra, Juan Pablo Acevedo, Xicoténcati Ulloa, Jessica Martinez Garcia, Maria Luisa Juårez, Ricardo Luna, Juliéta Rodriguez, Iker Valadez Urtaza, Susan Korda, Jorge Escalante, Cynthia Franco, Carlos Valenzuela, Bertha Denton Casillas.  Directed by Fernanda Valadez

 

Immigrants from south of the border have been demonized to the point of ridiculousness; not everyone who comes into the country from Mexico is illegal, not everyone that comes into this country is a criminal, not everyone who comes is illiterate. Most are just ordinary folks trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree with that instinct.

But this isn’t a film about them. It’s not easy or dangerous to migrate from Mexico’s interior to the United States, and uncounted numbers of those who try to get to our border never arrive. They are kidnapped, robbed, raped and often murdered. For their families, it is as if they disappeared off the face of the earth.

Magdalena (Hernandez) had bid goodbye to her teenage son Jesus (Varela) and his best friend Rigo (A. Garcia) who were heading to Arizona where they hoped to find work. But months have gone by and no word from either boy, nothing to say they’d arrived, nor a sign that they had returned. Magdalena and Rigo’s mother Chuya (Ibarra) go to the authorities hoping to get some word, but the authorities either can’t or won’t help. Finally, begrudgingly, they are shown a book full of pictures of corpses that have been recovered – and to the horror of both women, there is Rigo. However, there’s no certain proof that Jesus shared the same fate as Rigo. So as any good mother would do, Magdalena goes off in search of her son, trying to retrace his steps.

It is a dangerous journey, with corrupt officials, cartel killers and unscrupulous coyotes who would murder her in a heartbeat, but doggedly she tries. She gets some help along the way; a sympathetic receptionist at a hostel for migrants; another mother named Olivia (A.L. Rodriguez) who had been searching for her missing son for four years without any sort of word, and lastly from Miguel (Illescas) who had made it to the promised land and spent several years there, only to be captured and deported back to Mexico. Now he’s hoping to reunite with his own mother, but there is no guarantees he will find her.

This is a unique look at the issues facing Mexican migrant workers; the looming threat of violence that hangs over every step of their journey and in fact has insinuated itself into all avenues of Mexican life, as well as the inability of those sources that would ordinarily aid them to provide any sort of protection or assistance. Valadez tells her story simply and starkly, without a lot of frills although there are a few and when they show up they are kind of jarring.

One thing Valadez and cinematographer Claudia Becerril have is a good eye; the shots are exquisitely framed and photographic effects are often utilized to illustrate subtle points (a flashback of the day Jesus informed Magdalena he was leaving is shot through a dirty glass window, giving a kind of faded patina to everything – but Jesus himself remains in sharp form, as if Magdalena’s memory is beginning to fade). There is a little bit of Catholic mysticism here as well that shows very late in the movie and almost comes out of a different movie into this one.

The performances are naturalistic. Most of the cast and crew here are women, which is something to celebrate; this is definitely a mom-centric film and any mother’s heart is going to ache for the women here as they wait interminably for word of their missing loved ones. Despite a modest budget, the technical proficiency of the movie stands out. The movie is often gripping and while it never has the emotional catharsis an American version might make of it, there is a quiet dignity that may change a few viewpoints about the Mexican people…in a perfect world. In the world we live in, however, stories like this are all too commonplace and too many Americans seem to think that those who disappear deserved what they got. That’s the truly messed-up aspect of all of this.

REASONS TO SEE: Quietly suspenseful. Very powerful in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Norte
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Willy’s Wonderland

The Reason I Jump


The diversity of humanity can leave one breathless.

(2020) Documentary (Kino Lorber Jordan O’Donegan (narrator), Jim Fujiwara, David Mitchell. Directed by Jerry Rothwell

 

Raising a child requires patience. This is especially true for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. They are often unable to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, some to the point that they are essentially non-verbal, requiring different means of expression. A young 13-year-old Japanese child named Naoki Higashida wrote a book, detailing what goes on inside his head and why he will jump up and down, seemingly for no reason (it’s to self-soothe).

The book has become something of a revelation for parents with autistic children who are unable to or have difficulty communicating. The film, which uses a voice actor to narrate passages from the book, visits five kids in similar situations from around the world. Amrit, in India, communicates using drawings and paintings to illustrate not only what her daily routine is, but how she experiences the world.

In England, Joss (the son of two of the producers for the film) battles memories of past traumas that feel current to him; for example, when his father goes to pick up a pizza for dinner, he has a meltdown in the car with his mother, insisting that there is no more pizza – until his dad appears, pizza and sodas in hand. His mother’s patience and loving reassurances are heartbreaking.

In America, close friends Ben and Emma communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. They are surprisingly articulate – at one point, Ben says (through the alphabet board) “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.” Finally, the film shifts to Sierra Leone where the parents of Jestina (the youngest child depicted here) face an almost insurmountable barrier of misinformation, superstition and fear (some autistic children are put to death there) as they try to bring a greater understanding of who these kids are and what they are capable of to villages who may see them as being demonically possessed.

The film does its best to replicate the overload of sensory input that those on the spectrum encounter every day, and at times this is effective. The passages from the book are illuminating and are effectively used, and when Higashida admits “I don’t pretend for a moment that everything I’ve written applies to all autistic people,” we are reminded that just like all children are different, so is every case of autism. What might be successful in one case may not be in another and while we get a sense of the loyalty and diligence that parents of kids on the spectrum have to possess, it can be daunting for those who aren’t directly affected by autistic family members or friends to see what these kids and their families go through every day.

Does the movie provide the same kind of eye-opening revelations that the book does? I don’t think so, no. There is an approximation of what Higashida is trying to get across and while we see more viewpoints than just his own, we also end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed. And that might be what Rothwell is trying to get across, but I don’t think that is the whole of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. Still, the movie might be an effective tool for those who are less experienced with autism and how it affects both the children and their parents, and that can’t be discounted either.

REASONS TO SEE: An often-compelling glimpse inside those who are unable to communicate.
REASONS TO AVOID: Requires some patience to get through.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won an audience award for documentary features at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notes on Blindness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Night in Miami

The Changin’ Times of Ike White


Ike White, striking up a 70s rock star pose.

(2019) Music Documentary (Kino Lorber) Ike White, Lana Gutman, Greg Errico, Stevie Wonder, Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Goldstein, Deborah White, Rico Fanning, Daniel Vernon, Monalisa White, Bruce Jackson, Carole Michaela Reynolds, Baron Ontiveros, Alvin Taylor, Angelique Stidhum.  Directed by Daniel Vernon

Some films need to have a detailed description of the plot. Others actually benefit from having the viewer know as little as possible going in. This is one of the latter types of films.

The basics: Ike White was a talented songwriter and musician whose 1976 album Changin’ Times garnered him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and the admiration of Stevie Wonder. But Ike White didn’t have the usual route to a record release; he recorded the album while in prison for the murder of a shopkeeper.

During the course of a convenience store robbery, the 86-year-old store owner was shot by White who claimed that the shooting was an accident. Nonetheless, the 19-year-old Ike was convicted and sent to prison for life. Ike escaped from prison life with a small portable keyboard, a guitar and a harmonica which he played whenever he could. Legend has it that while cleaning the execution chamber, he would take breaks playing his guitar – while sitting in the electric chair (a nice story, but the electric chair was no longer in use by the state of California by the time Ike was incarcerated).

Word got out to producer Jerry Goldstein who arranged for a mobile studio to be driven to the prison, along with a couple of supporting musicians and a trio of female backup singers. Goldstein’s teenage secretary Deborah became so enamored of Ike that she married the guy and had a daughter by him. His music came to the attention of Stevie Wonder, who arranged for a high-priced lawyer for Ike who got his sentence commuted and Ike was a free man after 14 years.

But here is not the happy ending you’d hope for, but perhaps the realistic twist you’d expect. Ike continued to make bad decisions once out of prison, getting involved with drug use. Deborah left him, reconciled, left him again, reconciled again and finally left him for good. Shortly after that, Ike disappeared. That’s where the story gets weird.

Documentary filmmaker went on the hunt for Ike and found him – singing in Las Vegas lounges under an assumed name, married to a frowsy blonde Russian woman (who also doubled as his manager) and surprisingly eager to discuss his convoluted story. And that’s where the story gets really weird.

We get to hear Ike’s story from those close to him, and from Ike himself. He is full of all sorts of stories, but he is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. The more the film unravels, the more untrustworthy he proves to be. The movie heads off into directions you don’t expect it to take, complete with some jaw-dropping revelations and one very massive change in the narrative about halfway through which may leave you wondering what next – and where the movie can possibly go from there. Trust me, it’s not over by a long shot and even when the final credits roll you might be still wondering just what the heck you saw.

Vernon wisely leaves it to the viewer to reach their own conclusions, and not all those conclusions are going to be charitable. White was undoubtedly a superior musician and maybe at one time in his life he might have had the talent to be a difference-maker, although listening to his music later on you might wonder if it was all a con. No, not all of it was but there are plenty of revelations here that may leave you feeling dizzy in a good way. Undoubtedly, he was a chameleon who floated through life, never showing the same face to anyone.

I can’t say that you’ll really get to know Ike White ub any of his other guises by watching this. He remains an enigma to those who knew him best and a 77-minute documentary isn’t going to give you much more than surface impressions. I don’t think you’ll ever meet anyone quite like him, though.

If you’re tired of the typical obscure artist music documentary, this could well be what you’re looking for. It’s not typical of anything and like any great documentary, it doesn’t always lead you to where you expect it to. It might make you sad, it might make you angry, it might even leave you feeling like you’ve glimpsed genius, but it won’t leave you bored.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your usual music documentary. Takes some sharp left turns. Occasionally so surreal you may wonder if it really happened.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a little steam near the end and feels a bit incomplete in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sensuality, drug content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Test and the Art of Thinking

Nationtime


Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, addresses the convention.

(1972) Documentary (Kino-LorberSidney Poitier (narrator), Dick Gregory, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Richard Hatcher, Amiri Baraka, Bobby Seale, Charles C. Diggs, Harry Belafonte, Phil Cohran, Ben Branch, Walter Fauntroy, Byron Lewis, Queen Mother Moore, Richard Roundtree, Owusu Sadukai, Wali Siddiq, Al Freeman Jr.. Directed by William Greaves

 

1972 was a part of some momentous times. The Watergate scandal was just getting underway while antiwar protests were in full bloom. The National Organization of Women was pushing the ERA, while Black Power was beginning to manifest itself in political terms.

To that end, they put together a convention that met in Gary, Indiana – home of the Jackson 5 (whose family was in attendance at the convention). Many leaders in politics and entertainment met to discuss things that mattered to the African-American community. The convention was captured on film by acclaimed documentary filmmaker William Greaves. On the mind of those speaking was disenfranchisement of the African-American community (despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act five years earlier, still fully half of eligible African-Americans had not yet registered to vote), police brutality, and an ongoing war. Does any of that sound familiar today?

Two of the political leaders of the African-American community had been assassinated – Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, but both of their widows spoke at the convention. Comedian Dick Gregory showed his insightful political humor and Isaac Hayes performed as only he could. Poetry by Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes was read by Harry Belafonte, but the star of the show in many ways was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose fiery speech was meant to galvanize his audience – and it did. It was almost like a sermon, with call and response – “What time is it?” “It’s nationtime!” – and a powerful indictment of the system that was by design denying African-Americans equal opportunities – again, a depressingly familiar situation. Jackson intoned that both parties had failed the African-American community and he advocated founding a new political party of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and white allies to take a run at the established parties and deliver to the people the opportunities they deserve. One can’t help but wonder if the idea isn’t just as valid now as it was then.

There has been some improvement over the years – for example, in 1972 there were only 13 Black members of Congress when, by population, there should have been 52. Today, there are 56 which is closer to the percentage of population that African-Americans make up. There has also been an African-American president, something not even considered by the Gary convention, at least not on camera. And speaking of on-camera, I would have liked to have seen more of the women of the community get camera time but it is the men who dominate. It was a different time, and certainly were a similar convention to take place now, I imagine whoever was chosen to document it would give African-American women more exposure.

The film is very much set in its era, with the buzzwords of the time and the radical politics of the time both very much in evidence. It might be a little quaint to see the huge afros and cringe-worthy fashion of the era in evidence, but the film also evokes the rage that was simmering in the community – the riots in Watts and Detroit were fresh in everyone’s mind. Sadly, that rage continues today as African-Americans still must protest unfair treatment by the police, a general lack of opportunity available in African-American communities compared to white communities, and as David Austin so eloquently put it, Fear of a Black Nation. The movie dramatically shows that while there has been some change for the better, there is still a very long way to go. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to remind us of that in these volatile times.

REASONS TO SEE: An important, powerful historical document. Jesse Jackson’s speech is a real fire breather.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Greaves was a prolific documentarian with over 100 films to his credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trial of the Chicago 7
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Resusterhood

Martin Eden


Brave workers, unite against the evil bourgeosie!

(2019) Drama (Kino LorberLuca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Marco Leonardi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecci, Autilla Ranieri, Elisabetta Valgoi, Pietro Ragusa, Savino Paparella, Vincenza Modica, Giustiniano Alpi, Giuseppe Iuliano, Peppe Maggio, Maurizio Donadoni, Gaetano Bruno, Franco Pinelli, Anna Patierno, Lana Vlady. Directed by Pietro Marcello

 

2020 has given us not one but two films based on novels by Jack London, the Harrison Ford-led Call of the Wild and this one. They couldn’t be two more different films.

The titular Martin (Marinelli) doesn’t toil as a longshoreman in Oakland as was the case in the original 1909 novel, but as a sailor in the Mediterranean. When he saves a young boy from a beating on the pier, it turns out that the boy is the scion of a wealthy family, the Orsini clan. Their comely daughter Elena (Cressy) is well-educated, intelligent, witty and an angelic beauty. She falls for the ruggedly handsome Martin much to the dismay of her bourgeois family.

Martin is equally smitten but realizes that any kind of relationship between the two of them is impossible so long as he is poor. He determines to make his fortune as a writer, and as a writer he follows the dictum to write what he knows. Unfortunately, what he mainly knows is rage against the machine, as he becomes slowly more radicalized. He moves from menial job to menial job, scraping by, while his writing career goes nowhere. He perseveres and Elena hangs in there, but as Martin finally finds success, he changes and slowly the thing he wanted most begins to slip away, furthering his rage.

There is an epic quality to the film as we watch the arc of Martin’s life, his involvement with intellectuals, with the wealthy Orsini family and with radical socialists who seek to make sweeping changes in Italy. Much of what Martin communicates in the second half of the film is half-screamed as he rails at socialists whom he sees as doomed to fail, but more so at capitalists who exploit people like himself. Soon, all he has is that anger.

Marcello, better known for his documentaries although he has an excellent narrative feature (Lost and Beautiful) on his resume, has a good eye. He intersperses archival footage of turn-of-the-century Italy as well as faux archival footage of a magnificent sailing ship which seems to be a metaphor for Martin’s success…or ambitions…or dreams; take your pick.

The movie is extremely well-acted as Marinelli does his best to make a character who slowly becomes consumed with fury likable and relatable and, for the most part, succeeds. Cressy is luminous and radiates intelligence; in many ways, she’s a more interesting character than Martin is although his story is a tragic one.

I suspect conservative-leaning readers may shudder at the thought of a movie that looks at socialists but they are not romanticized in the least. However, it doesn’t sugarcoat the snobbery of the Orsinis. Painting both sides as equally non-admirable. London wrote the novel as a means to reconcile his success (the novel was written after the bulk of his most successful novels had made London a wealthy man) with his socialist leanings. I don’t know if London had an inner uncontrollable rage that characterizes Martin (at the time he wrote it he was suffering from the kidney disease that would become nearly unbearable in the later stages of his life) but certainly there’s a lot of Martin Eden in Jack London, and vice versa. Success comes with its own measures and they don’t always have to do with the size of the paycheck.

REASONS TO SEE: A lyrically photographed tale that is epic in scope and feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turns into a socialist polemic at times as Martin becomes more unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the novel led to speculation that London’s death may not have been accidental.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Linda and the Mockingbirds

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