Old Film Reviews
Navigation
Journal Archive
Wednesday
Apr132016

CIMMfest No. 8 (April 13-17, 2016)

Karolyn and I look forward to CIMMfest (the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival) every year. Usually she gets me a pass as one of my birthday presents (April 14, nudge, nudge, wink, wink). However, this year we'll be on the road during the fest. We're headed back to Clarksdale--for the second time this year--for the Juke Joint Festival, then it's on to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. Before we hit the road, I wanted to recommend two films playing this year's fest. Both are treats for music lovers.

Bill Evans/Time Remembered

This is a pleasure for jazz aficionados, a stirring, haunting film devoted to the great pianist/composer. As one rememberer puts it, Bill Evans, hunched over in communion with his contemplative, dreamlike piano, told stories in his playing. Particular catnip for connoisseurs: the sections covering Evans's time playing with the Miles Davis Sextet, particularly the world-historic, cool-walkin' "Kind of Blue" sessions in 1959. We hear the beautiful "Flamenco Sketches," based around Evans' signature modal sound (it's based on his Peace Piece"). Like Satie, this music somehow feels both still and in motion at once, evoking time and space, the turning of the earth. Particularly well-selected photographs capture the jovial spirit of Cannonball Adderly one hears in the grooves of "Kind of Blue." Photographs of Evans's girlfriend Peri Cousins, for whom he wrote "Peri's Scope," are as vivid and unforgettable as stills of a Golden Age actress. We also get glimpses of the storied days of the Bill Evans Trio, with bassist Scott Lafaro and drummer Paul Motian, and their legendary two-week stand at the Village Vanguard in 1961. We learn about Evans's loving bond with his brother, Harry, though his story ends sadly. (Bill wrote "Waltz for Debby" for Harry's daughter Debby, who is interviewed in the film remembering her dad and her uncle). Evans's life was more marked than most by tragedy. The dapper man became a selfish junkie, while still remaining a musician's musician. Making a good music documentary is the art of editing, even moreso than in most films. One must start with good interviews, then chop and stir them evocatively into good performance footage and photographs. Bruce Spiegel has made a well-turned picture in this mold. His film sings and illuminates, and we get to hear plenty of Evans's beautiful piano. Tony Bennett, interviewed in the film, calls his collaboration with Evans his favorite of his career, and leaves us with something Evans once said to him, words he tries to live by: "Search only for truth and beauty."
   
Bill Evans/Time Remembered screens on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. at the Society for Arts, 1112 N. Milwaukee Ave.
 

The Smart Studios Story

This celebratory, sometimes exhilarating film about Smart Studios, and the Madison, Wisconsin musical community for which it was a hub, is something of a portrait of a generation. As someone who was there puts it, the movie chronicles "an innocent time." It reminded me a bit of my youth in 80s southeast Ohio, when I'd load the drums up and go and make some noise in a barn or basement with friends with guitars. We'd tape it on a boombox. This film follows some guys who started pretty much like us, Butch Vig and Steve Marker. Smart Studios more or less got its start in these guys' basements in 1979, when they were fumbling around trying to record Spooner, the band for which Vig played drums. From these roots, they founded Smart in 1983. We get a wistful, evocative look at the Madison scene in the 80s, the clubs, the characters, the WORT deejays, and bands like Die Kreuzen and Killdozer and the Tar Babies. This was a midwestern version of the underground, the zine counter-culture, the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock. Of not waiting for some gatekeeper to say you're good, but just getting out there and making something. Smart Studios, this "ugly little brick building" on East Wash street, was the clubhouse. Vig became known as the guy who could find the Beatles in your unhinged garage band. Then everything changed and nothing changed. In '90, Smart recorded the demos for Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Smashing Pumpkins' "Gish" and Vig, suddenly and unexpectedly, found what he did for love had taken him to the top of the charts. In the film, he seems modest and non-plussed about being the man who helped shepherd tuneful, relatively raw guitar-bass-and-drum music into the mainstream, the kind of music me and my friends dug in the 80s. (Imagine if the Replacements had a Vig). Even after becoming a star producer, he seems to have stayed himself--just a Midwestern guy. After recording hundreds of guitar-bass-and-drum records, he put his next project together with an ear toward something fresh. This was Garbage, formed in 1993 with their old pal from Spooner, Doug Erickson, and fiery Scottish lass Shirley Manson, both interviewed in the film. Vig played drums, Marker played guitars and keys. The guys spent much of the 90s touring with Garbage, and Smart continued apace, losing some of what made it special after a remodel installed new, professional boards and equipment. Thus, we come to 2010 and...not its fall, exactly. It's more like, as Dave Grohl says, everything has its season, and the season for Smart Studios had come to its end. As more than one witness says, it really never was about money at Smart, just about "reaching out for some kind of connection," as the rousing "New Wave" by Against Me! (played over the end credits) puts it...or even, as someone else puts it, just sending out a youthful 'fuck you' to the world from an angry kid in a basement, like Cobain or Corgan. They just happened to reshape the music industry in their image in the process, this bunch of kids kicking out the jams. The pictures features interviews with everyone from Pumpkins Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, to Donita Sparks of L7, to the very last intern Smart Studios ever had. Director Wendy Sheridan was there--she worked at Smart for 18 years. Deploying the basic "verse-chorus-verse" structure of the music doc (talking-head interviews, zooms into photographs, performance footage, a little animation), she has made something catchy and inspiring out of it. Something that, should it reach them, might inspire the next generation to go out and do it. Kind of, come to think of it, like what Vig and Marker did with Smart Studios.

The Smart Studios Story kicks off CIMMfest on Wednesday, April 13 (tonight!) at 7:30 at the Music Box Theatre, 3722 N. Southport. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Wendy Schneider. That'll be followed by a concert at the Metro by the 90s bands Catherine and Negative Examples, featuring former members of the Tar Babies. 

Check out the CIMMfest website for more information on these two films and the rest of what promises to be a full lineup of stimulating experiences on screen and stage.

Friday
Apr082016

Nina Simone on Film: Two approaches

Two documentaries have appeared within the last year or so about Nina Simone, musical genius and rebel. Both appear ahead of Cynthia Mort's feature Nina, with its controversial casting of the relatively fair, beautiful-by-European-standards Zoe Saldana as Simone. Many have taken this as the final insult, and it certainly seems at least the final irony. Maybe Saldana will give a great performance: while Nina has been in the can for a couple of years now, it is only now being released, later this April. A priori critques have pointed out that Saldana had to don makeup and prosthetics in order for the movie to grapple with what was, after all, the existential truth of Simone's life, which was that she lived in a land where her skin was "too dark," her nose "too wide."

First, Karolyn and I popped over to City Winery to see a special screening of The Amazing Nina Simone by Jeff L. Lieberman, an independent, personal project made with the participation of Simone's bothers (most prominently Sam Waymon, who also played organ in her band). It's an absorbing and passionate, yet frustrating, tribute by Lieberman, who wrote, directed and produced. His film celebrates the great freedom singer, and his focus is on the 60s, her greatest years. City Winery has a tremendous sound system, and the music sounded great--as did the grain of that bracing, beautiful voice. (And the wine we ordered was quite nice, as well). Sadly, the film was projected on two rather tiny, faraway screens. Bigger screens when you show films, please, City Winery, so we in the back needn't squint. 

The next day, I had a look at What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus, a relatively big-budget production streaming on Netflix, and made with the cooperation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. She does not appear in Amazing, nor do Simone's brothers appear in What Happened?  

Both tell the story of the life behind the music, well-encapsulated by Claudia Roth Pierpont in her fine article in the New Yorker of August 2014, A Raised Voice.

This was a life, and these were times, full of so much pain. So much violence and torment. As Simone famously told Dr. King the very first time they met: "I'm not nonviolent."

But it began as the story of Eunice Waymon, a gifted young girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933.  A special teacher changed her life--her piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. Eunice called her Miz Mazzy, or “my white momma.” She instilled in Eunice a life-long love of Bach and her dream of becoming the first great black classical pianist (a dream dashed when, years later, she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia).

"Yet as rare as the little girl’s musical gifts," writes Pierpont in an acute observation, "is the way that, in that time and place, those gifts were encouraged."  

Both films are good and worthy. Any project devoted to honestly grappling with the subject of Nina Simone--the amazing, amazing Nina Simone--is one that is manifestly worth doing, and worth your time. These pictures both do that job, and do it in good faith.

Still, it must be said that Garbus' What Happened, Ms. Simone is the better film. It's not just a matter of a bigger budget, but of fashioning the material into something dramatic and cinematic. In terms of the prose of the two films, The Amazing Ms. Simone is relatively prosaic compared to What Happened. Bound and determined to march us briskly through Simone's entire life story, Lieberman is a good storyteller, and yet as the facts accumulate, his approach begins to feel slightly didactic. 

On the other hand, Lieberman's film feels more personal. This is his baby.

I do think Lieberman does a better job than Garbus/Netflix of handling a key incident in Simone's life: as young Eunice sat down to give a piano recital at the age of 11, she noticed her parents being shuffled to the back of the hall to make room for a white couple. She refused to play until they were reseated in the front row. In Lieberman's film, the story is told by Nina's brother; in Garbus, it is dramatized, fleetingly. The way the scene plays in our imagination is more vivid.

A key interview in both films is Al Schackman, a guitarist with a lovely touch who played with Simone for 40 years. From the beginning in the late 50s, Simone and Schackman had an uncanny, wordless communication; onstage, it is something to see. Their bond was forged in the crucible of the 60s. Both films include footage of them playing the song she'd written in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, "Mississippi Goddam," at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. It was March 25, 1965, and they are together there in the spotlight, sending the protest song out into the pitch-black, violent air of the night.  

Both films explore what it might feel like to be free, to live without fear, but What Happened? affords us more glimpses of those moments when Simone lived out what that might mean--and those moments occurred onstage. "I had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free," she once said. When she sings, we see joy, we feel freedom. These are the times we glimpse that galvanic smile. ("Galvanic smile" is a turn of phrase I liked in a recent short story by Kevin Canty in The New Yorker: I immediately thought of Simone). Her fierce dignity is contagious. I think of the footage of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" performed at Morehouse College in 1969 in What Happened. Students--young women--sing along, their faces beatific. 

For me, the revelatory part about seeing Lieberman's The Amazing Nina Simone with a live audience was when we got to "Four Women." When she hit that number, a section of the audience erupted in cheers. Wow, I thought--that one truly speaks to people, to this day. Strangely, I don't recall the song being featured in What Happened. Nor, come to think of it, do I recall the Netflix production including one of my favorites, her truly scarifying version of Brecht/Weill's "Pirate Jenny." It's in the Lieberman: it sent shivers up my spine when it came over the City Winery sound system.

Lieberman's approach is interview-heavy: he touts the fact that his film includes over 50 interviews. These are mostly good and interesting. However, herein lies the crux of the problem. Often a performance is just gaining steam when someone interrupts. You can't show the whole thing, true, but we're often left wishing for just a bit more. When, late in the film, we see her play some breathtaking piano, in footage from a late-period concert--her gifts had partially been restored, after she finally got some helpful medication--it comes as a surprise when the moment is not immediately interrupted. 

(Lieberman does gets points from me for including a shot, if only for an instant, of Julie Delpy swaying to "Just in Time" from the end of Before Sunset.  It will always be my favorite use of Simone's music on film. I get gooseflesh now even thinking of it.)
 
What Happened? allows Simone to speak for herself. It may be a slicker production, but Simone's charm and charisma blaze. We hear her music for good stretches, and much of the story is actually told by Simone herself, in well-recorded radio interviews and private tapes, smartly edited. The Netflix production had the advantage of being able to look through her journals and notes, as well. 

 

Hers was a life more shadowed than most by darkness, and opportunities for sensationalism abound. In her later years, hope went missing as she was consumed by mental illness and rage and loneliness. Great friends like Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes were gone, MLK was gone. One of the a priori critiques of the upcoming Hollywood biopic is that it appears to focus on her erratic, wild behavior during these years.

Both documentaries mainly veer away from the sensational, though What Happened? perhaps rather lingers on the twisted psycho-sexual, co-dependent relationship between Simone and her husband/manager Andy Stroud. Stroud was not interested in the revolution: he was interested in making a buck. Still, his discipline kept her in shape to perform and got her to the stage of which she'd always dreamed--a concert at Carnegie Hall, in 1963. He was also in the habit of beating her up, and worse. What Happened? features interview footage of the man. Their daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, tells us that after her parents broke up, she eventually settled in to live with her dad after a disastrous sojourn with her mother in Liberia, where Simone was in full-on "mommy dearest" mode. Of her mom and dad, she reckons they "were both crazy." "I love physical violence," Simone once wrote in her diary.

Now, this is one kind of truth, but it's not the truth of why people love Nina Simone. That truth can be found in her records and live performances, where she could be gentle and loving, as well as terrifying and exhilarating. I tend to agree with Lieberman that, as he put it in the Hollywood Reporter, such things are distractions from Simone's "phenomenal musical accomplishments and civil rights stands," the way "she became an international symbol of freedom, pride and artistry."

So, see both of these films. They tell one hell of a sad story, yes, but when she sings, the truth of the life force keeps breaking through. At such moments, the story couldn't be more uplifting. And that's why you shouldn't stop with these two versions of her tale. Do a deep dive on YouTube, watch Nina Simone sing and play in full concerts and live clips. You'll come away with soul and spirit charged. 

Wednesday
Mar232016

Doc10 (April 1-3, 2016): A preview

There’s an exciting new nonfiction festival coming up in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre over the weekend of April 1-3. I’m talking about DOC10, the inaugural film festival of Chicago Media Project, which bills itself as the “premier Chicago non-profit organization supporting social impact media.” Its self-proclaimed mission is to create and distribute media that will "trigger social change." 

For their first film fest they've hand-picked 10 films, all completed in the last year or even more recently, and all of which will be getting their Chicago premieres over the weekend. I have had a chance to review five of them. Each is something special.

The fest's cornerstone is new work by heavyweights of the form. While I did not, at press time, get a chance to preview the new one from Werner Herzog, Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, I was able to review the wonderful last film from cinema verité legend Alfred Maysles, In Transit

Actually, it occurs to me that by bringing together such philosophically opposed work—Herzog is famously an opponent of cinema verité, instead calling in his famous “Minnesota Declaration” for an "ecstatic truth" which can only be reached through "fabrication and imagination and stylization"—the fest makes good on its promise to "present the full spectrum of current nonfiction filmmaking." 

Also on the slate is the new film from Barbara Kopple, forever enshrined in documentary/labor-struggle history for Harlan County, USA. She returns with a music documentary, MISS SHARON JONES! Though it was unavailable for preview, I look forward to it. I love a good music doc, and Jones seems like a great subject for one.

As I watched, a theme emerged--reinvention. The idea that you go somewhere else, become someone else. We tend to think of this as an American dream. However, like all the best films, the pictures at DOC10 really tap into something universal. 

Check out the Music Box's website for showtimes.

In Transit

Here is the final film by legendary "direct cinema" pioneer Albert Maysles, who was once called "the best American cameraman" by no less than Jean-Luc Godard, and who died last year at the age of 88. (Maysles shared his last directing credit with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usai, and Ben Wu.) Here, he takes his camera aboard the Empire Builder train on its three-day journey from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. Rolling across the country, we feel a sense of freedom emerge. Yet the land is not romanticized or mythologized. Its natural beauty is simply observed, quietly, as was the custom for Maysles, a lifelong proponent of the “fly on the wall” approach. Inside, the camera moves from story to story. Quietly interwoven, they create a tapestry of Americans at turning points in their lives. There is a senior who is just returning from meeting the daughter she gave up for adoption some 40 ago, and tells a harrowing tale of a narrow escape from her abusive husband. A young man is on his way to his girlfriend, surprised by how head-over-heels in love with her he finds himself. A bit of suspense is generated by the presence of a pregnant young woman, who may go into labor at any moment. A mother and daughter huddle together: one says to the other, there’s just the two of us, looking out for each other. They must have known the camera was on them, and yet it feels so private. Only a cameraman like Maysles could have recorded this kind of privileged moment, and it vindicates his self-effacing approach all by itself. (76 m)

Sonita

Sonita dreams of being a rap superstar like her heroes, but her path to fame is strewn with even more obstacles than most. Having fled the Taliban, she is an Afghan refugee living in Tehran. Adhering to Afghan tradition, her mother is bent on selling her as a bride. “All Afghan girls have a price,” she says. In response, Sonita makes a visually shocking protest video for her supercharged rap, “Bride for Sale,” performing in a bridal veil, her face bruised and battered. Like the most urgent rap, her song makes us feel like everything is on the line, and for her it really is. Or is it? Sonita often wears an unlikely smile, which does not go unnoticed by some of the people trying to help her. As one woman avers when Sonita is out of earshot, if someone is really in trouble they don’t smile like that--prompting another to reply, do you think she’s acting? (There is, in fact, a performative aspect to even the scenes with her mother). In fact, after some initial demurrals, the director herself, Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, gets involved unabashedly in the proceedings. She even helps to arrange the events she is putatively capturing. And you know what? More power to her, I say. Maghami helps Sonita plot her escape to the United States. This involves traveling back to Kabul to retrieve her birth certificate, with no guarantee she will get back out. The irrepressible Sonita is a character I will not soon forget, and her movie is an invigorating feminist broadside. (71 m)

Missing People

This absorbing film by David Shapiro seems, at first glance, to be the story of a middle-aged woman, Martina Batan, who hasn’t slept well since 1978, when she was 18--the year persons unknown murdered her teenage baby brother. We soon learn that this haunted woman is an accomplished art dealer by profession. Back in the halcyon days of punk, she moved to New York City and reinvented herself. The story follows two strands: in one, she hires a private investigator to re-open her brother’s case. In the other, she tries to gain mainstream acceptance for a late outsider artist named Ray Ferdinand, whose ultraviolent art chronicled the demimonde of New Orleans street crime. Something in his work speaks to her. We meet his sisters, initially wary of Batan's interest, who indicate their brother's own relationship to street life was some combination of acting and deft manipulation of signifiers, as well as an all-too-real drug addiction. A surprise turn late in the film shifts the meaning of the idea of “missing people,” and causes us to think about leftover pieces to the puzzle that is the past. If the picture that emerges is more troubling than never knowing at all, is it more of a mercy to forget, or to remember? (81 m)

Hooligan Sparrow

"If anything happens to me, please come looking for me." This chilling line is spoken directly into the camera by director Nanfu Wang. She throws herself right into the fray in this gripping look at women’s rights activists in China. Hooligan Sparrow is the sobriquet of a brave women’s rights activist who is also something of a performance artist. She famously went to work in a brothel herself, offering sex for free in a bid to publicize exploitation of women and children—to offer herself in their place. Nanfu Wang joins Sparrow and other advocates on a journey to Hainan Island, where scandal is brewing. A principal and a government worker were caught shepherding six young girls into a hotel room. This is the appalling situation in China: school officials present kids to government officials as bribes. Almost immediately, the crew gets in trouble with the secret police, but Sparrow refuses to be silenced. You can kill me, she says, but you can’t kill the truth. This documentary can be as scary as a “found footage” horror film, but Nanfu Wang’s footage has had to traverse many more than the usual hurdles on its journey to reaching us. As she puts it, when you are repressed and defenseless, the only thing you can do is to document the atrocities. (Human rights lawyer Wang Yu, a key member of Sparrow’s brave crew in this film, was arrested in July. She remains imprisoned.)(84 m)

Uncertain

I have a lot of affection for Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands's lyrical film, which takes us down to the bayou of Caddo Lake and the teensy town of Uncertain, Texas (pop. 94). We first see it at night, and the insects are roaring. We glide through the swamps in the early morning mist. Uncertain is “mother’s nature’s favorite place, as one local observes. “It's heaven, and home, and a little bit of hell.” It’s also dying. Caddo Lake is being choked by vegetation, a creeping crud straight out of a sci-fi film. We get to know a few denizens. An ex-felon with a dry sense of humor is obsessed with hunting a wily wild hog with “a head like a horse,” Big Ed. He pursues Ed by night with a single-mindedness usually reserved by Ahab for Moby Dick. We meet an aimless, affable kid, a very funny guy. With nothing to do, he struggles with drink, until he determines to get out of dodge and start a new life in Austin. An African-American senior citizen, a fisherman, glides through the bayou and hangs out with locals at the bait shop, where they look after him. It turns out he has a dark event in his past, just like the boar hunter. Each of us struggles with a dark second face, the enemy within. This moving film is about healing and the hope that, as one man puts it, the good we do in life will outweigh the wrong. (82 m)

Friday
Mar042016

CEUFF roundup: Five more reviews 

Following up on my previous report, here's my capsule takes on five more films playing at the 19th Chicago European Union Film Festival, March 4-31. Do check the Siskel's website for more information.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her own Words

Stig Bjorkman’s moving documentary (Sweden, 2015) engages most when it lives up to its title and draws from Bergman’s own diaries (as read by Alicia Vikander). Her voice is so vivid that we are slightly disappointed when the film resolves into a conventional talking heads documentary. Still, given the decision to see her through her four adult children’s eyes, it makes sense to talk to them. (Other formidable guests include Sigourney Weaver, Liv Ullman, and Jeanine Basinger.) Along with her journals, Bergman recorded much of her own life on film. She got this habit from her father, who instilled in her the importance of memories, and of photography as memory. We see some sad memories, such as her days of unfair ignominy due to her controversial marriage to Roberto Rossellini. We see happy memories. Her kids fondly recall idyllic childhood summer days at the villa in Santa Marinella, and mom’s happy life with her third husband on his Swedish island, Dannholmen. (They would often visit.)

This documentary includes a moment I will never forget: a young woman sits in front of a camera. It is her screen test for Selznick. Radiant, warm, she allows every emotion to play over her face. Suddenly she smiles, and the world lights up. Her eyes fall on the camera; she’s looking right at us. What is this feeling, I asked myself? Then, I realized: oh, it feels like falling in love. And we all did.

As a child, Bergman looked through the lens at her father. Later, she looked out at us. Always, the lens was a channel for her love. She knew all her life that, as she said, “I belong to the make-believe world.” This film contains some of the sadness of life, but much more of the joy. (115 m) ***1/2

Liza, the Fox Fairy

Entertaining as all get-out! It’s a sexy black comedy by Karoly Ujj Meszaros (Hungary, 2015). The time and place is 1970s Budapest, but in pop-fantasy form. Monika Balsai is a delight as a lonely nurse looking for love, for whom real life cannot measure up to her favorite Japanese romance novel. David Sakurai is a hoot as the ghost of a bespectacled Japanese pop star from the 50s. Wearing a striking green suit, he entertains her as he haunts her apartment. Turns out he’s actually Death, who can appear in any form he wants, and he’s trying to seduce her—to get her to commit suicide, so they can always be together.

Actually, this movie is practically a musical-comedy. Ambruj Tavishazi, billed as Erik Sumo & His Fox Fairies, invented its delightful pastiches of 60s-style Japanese pop. (“Dance Dance Have a Good Time” is my new jam.)

Death’s plan is to make her believe she is a fox fairy--a creature from Japanese mythology, doomed to kill the thing it loves. Accordingly, he causes horrible—and horribly funny--“accidents” to befall any of her potential suitors. The deaths attract the attention of the police, including a delightfully poker-faced sergeant (Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas), unflappable no matter how much abuse he takes. He’s intrepid and, though she doesn’t notice, steadfast in his love. Based on the play Liselotte és a május by Zsolt Pozsgai. (98 m) ***1/2

Summertime (La Belle Saison)

Catherine Corsini’s drama (France, 2015) is watchable yet familiar. In 1971, a provincial farmer’s daughter, a gay woman (Izia Higelin), moves to the big city, Paris, and falls in with a group of militant feminist pranksters. She’s swept up in the heady times, electrified by the lively debates. Much of this material feels received, rather than lived.

She becomes smitten with one of her fellow activists (the sunny Cécile De France), and her fiery, forceful kisses make this comrade recognize herself, reluctantly at first, as a lesbian.

When her father has a stroke, she must return to the farm. Her girlfriend soon joins her; now she is the fish-out-of-water. The women have a good summer outdoors, working the farm hard, enjoying each other’s bodies in the sun-kissed countryside. Still, the daughter fears discovery of their passion by her conservative community, where feminism is not even a thing, much less lesbianism. Will she choose her lover, or the farmer’s life?

The movie is at its best when it feels like it is discovering itself, instead of replaying scenes from other films. The lovers’ spats feel melodramatic, even tired, but there is a sharp, painful scene between the girlfriend and mother (Noémie Lvovsky) that feels true, that hurts. The story accumulates tenderness as it goes, and its two leads are charming and natural. Hegelin’s visage is open and dewy, and she has a big, disarming smile. De France registers strength and vulnerability. We may think we know whose heart is more endangered, between the guileless farm girl and the one from the big city, but Corsini refuses to develop her characters quite as expected. (101 m) **1/2

Francofonia

The word “documentary” feels too prosaic for this imaginative, elegant phantasmagoria (France, 2015) about the Louvre. A personal essay, it’s strange and mischievous, subterranean and yearning, sometimes thrilling. It’s by Aleksandr Sokurov, who famously made an entire feature film in one unbroken shot in the Hermitage Museum’s Winter Palace (“Russian Ark,” 2002).

Essentially, the film explores the relationship between the Louvre and war, through the lens of the German occupation and administration. We zero in on two figures, a German and a Frenchman: Count Wolff Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) was charged with documenting and conserving the cultural treasures of occupied France. Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) was director of the Louvre during occupation. The two men struck up an uneasy relationship--ironic, yet civil. Neither wished for a sequel to WWI, and monuments, art, and culture destroyed.

Sokurov’s stately, fluid camera floats above the streets of Paris and through the grand halls of the Louvre, where we encounter the ghost of “Marianne”: the national symbol of France (Johanna Korthals Altes). Espousing her mantra “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” she meets Napoleon himself (Vincent Nemeth). He also wanders these halls, the man who transformed the Louvre into an official museum—and a repository for his war trophies.

Sometimes the theme seems to be the soul of Europe. Sokurov interrogates the past, calls upon those who sleep most deeply. They cannot awaken.

Floating through the room with the Assyrian treasures, the winged bull with the cuneiform between its legs, I was taken back to my own time stirring time, strolling through the Louvre. “Messages from 700 BC summon strange feelings,” Sokourov murmurs. The membrane between past and present is porous. We meet a happy-looking sculpture from 9,000 years ago.

This description barely scratches the surface of a film brimming with urgent ideas. (88 m) ****

Lolo

I am such a sucker for Julie Delpy. Now she’s made a straight-up comedy (France, 2015), and it’s very funny--cheerfully frank, even vulgar. I’d characterize its humor as black and blue, by turns. She plays a sex-starved, insecure woman, successful at her career (directing TV commercials), unsuccessful at love. She’s yearning for “genuine romance.” On a spa vacation in the southwest she has a torrid affair with a local (Dany Boon). When he moves to Paris, promoted for inventing new trading software for banks, they get together. Her pampered 19-year-old son (Vincent Lacoste) regards him a “hick from Biarritz,” and hatches increasingly diabolical plots to get rid of him. The kid is a real pill--a sociopath, actually--yet she regards him as “the future of humanity.” The movie makes much hay of the fact Delpy is 45 years old--same age as me. Thus, she carries a lot of baggage I recognize, and some which I might not get, as a man. I liked the relationship with her best friend (Karin Viard), who says something like, 25 years and it’s always the same thing with you. This comedy is as light and enjoyable as a bubbly apertif, albeit one spiked with a truly dark twist. While the movie is no stylistic breakthrough or great leap forward in Delpy’s directorial career, it’s a pleasure from beginning to end.  (99 min) ***1/2

 

Key to ratings:


***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Thursday
Feb182016

20 Films at the 19th Chicago European Union Film Festival (March 4-31, 2016)

 

I was able to examine 20 films, from 19 different countries, playing at the upcoming 19th Chicago European Union Film Festival, which runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center from March 4 through 31. The fest seems particularly relevant at a time when the right-wing in Europe contests the very notion of a European Union itself. Many films opened a window on working-class life: this is a portrait of a European Union still reeling from the fallout from the debt crisis, which manifests as unemployment and the overall sense that money's too tight to mention. Still, many of these films revolve around acts of fellowship, even in the face of harsh economic times. I noticed a theme of the ongoing danger of Balkanization--of seeing others as subhuman--in all the forms it takes. It struck me, as well, how many of these films are very personal works. In the majority of cases, these directors wrote, or at least co-wrote, their films.  Here's my take, listed more or less in the order in which I watched them. I've placed an asterisk by the ones I especially liked.  Check the Siskel's website for showtimes.   

The Girl King

Malin Buska gives a lusty performance as Kristina of Sweden, nonconformist and lifelong lover of books and art, in this briskly-edited biopic from Mika Kaurismaki (Finland, 2015). This tragic tale builds a rousing head of steam after finding its legs. The only heir to the king, whip-smart, proto-feminist Kristina was crowned at the age of six and began to rule when she turned 18 in 1644. Cheerfully blasphemous, she would rather bandy sabres with her suitors (Lucas Bryant, Francoie Arnaud) than marry them. Presently, she falls in love with a young apple-cheeked maiden (Sarah Gadon). After corresponding with her hero Descartes (Patrick Bauchau) about matters of the heart, she brings him to court. In a squirmy scene, he carves the pineal gland out of a cadaver’s skull, positing it as “the root of the emotions.” Tre Konor castle is just one dramatic, colorful setting for palace intrigue and steamy affairs. (102 minutes)

*I Don't Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman

Marianne Lambert's documentary (2015, Belgium) is an illuminating look at the work and life of a true original, who died last year by suicide. Seeing it in conjunction with "No Home Movie" is poignant and revelatory. It marshals clips from her best-known film, "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels," as well as less celebrated works like "Je Tu Il Elle" (1975), with its frank scenes of lesbian sex; "Les Rendezvous d'Anna" (1978), starring Aurore Clement (who is interviewed); "A Couch in New York" (1996), a rom-com starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche; and "Sud" (1999), which trains a camera down the road over which white supremacists dragged a black man to death. Akerman confides, movingly, that she later felt slightly guilty about “Dielman”’s youthful critique of her mother's homemaker existence, for leaving no room for the side of her mother that took piano lessons after escaping from Nazi Poland. (68 minutes)

*No Home Movie

The final work from Chantal Akerman (2015, Belgium) interweaves interviews with her ailing mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, with footage of the undulating hillocks of the desert of Israel, taken from a train. "Mommy, tell me a story," Akerman says, by way of attempting to get her dying mother to stay awake. Her very long takes acquaint us with the geography of her mother's apartment. Akerman is interested in tensions, both spatial and rhythmic, and textures. Visual textures--hard reflective surfaces; the blacks and splashes of color her digital camera finds in shadows and windows; the masking effects of walls and other vertical forms. Aural textures--the roar of the wind in the desert rushing over her mic, the hum of the seashore, the thrum of the train. The film is a moving quest for identity, especially when seen in conjunction with "I Don't Belong Anywhere." (113 minutes)

Therapy for a Vampire

A droll vampire farce (2014, Austria). Writer/director David Ruhm ("'El Chicko' - der Verdacht," "Der Umweg,"  "The Escape") imagines two intertwining couples in 1932, "somewhere near Vienna." One is human: a spunky, trousers-wearing woman (Cornelia Ivancan) and her boyfriend, a painter (Dominic Oley) who works for a certain iconic psychoanalyst of the day (Karl Fischer), transcribing the doctor’s patient’s fantasies into sketch form. The other couple happens to be vampire: a count who appears in the analyst's office seeking treatment (Tobias Moretti)--and who comes to believe that the painter's girlfriend is the reincarnation of his long-lost love--and his vain, amoral wife (Jeanette Hain). Enraged at not being able to see her own reflection, she retains the painter to paint her visage. Complicating the Jeunet-like scenario is the count's ghoulish henchman (David Bennent), also smitten with the painter's girlfriend. The witty script is a spoof of Freudian theory. (88 minutes)

Family Member

A moving, timely story from Cyprus (2015), this drama by writer/director Marinos Kartikkis (“By Miracle,” “Honey and Wine”) is anchored by a sensitive performance from Yiola Klitou as a mother trying  to hold onto a middle-class existence along with her husband (Christopher Greco), teenage daughter, and prepubescent son. The mini-mart they own is feeling the pinch: for customers, money’s too tight to mention. So when her father dies, she makes the decision to keep his death a secret so they can keep collecting his pension. Trouble arises when the Social Security office wants to meet dad. Desperate, they enlist an old man they catch shoplifting (Fivos Georgiades) to play him. As he begins to fill the role, helping the kids with life lessons, he becomes beloved, and we learn his tragic tale. The film is humane and understated, with deep reserves of feeling under a surface of quiet desperation. (104 minutes)

SHAB- To My Little Turtle

Directed by Martin Bonnici, this is a beautiful sun-drenched short from Malta (2015). As the sun bursts over the Mediterranean, a happy elderly man (Joe Cortis) and woman (Cettina Scicluna) bask on the edge of a bluff. Then she is gone, and he never finished building the steps to the heavens she wanted. The man enlists his grandson to help him finish the steps, partly as penance for crushing the boy’s mouse, Bruce, after catching Bruce jeopardizing Grandma’s china. It's a tearjerker, but undercut by the vinegar of that kind of misguided violence, ironically borne of love--the boy’s dad pushes his own father down for putting his boy at risk by the cliff’s edge. In just a few minutes, we get a sense of three generations of anger, and love, passed down the line. (14 minutes)

*Hearts Know * The Runaway Brides

On one level, Kris Kristinsson’s curious documentary-drama (Netherlands, 2015) is an invigorating music film, a survey of traditional music from around the world (chants from Iceland, gnawa from Morocco, religious galing music from Indian Tibet, ximbomba from Spain, koto music from Japan, Bach from Germany). On another, it is a storehouse of gorgeous, mysterious imagery, a fantasia on freedom--of women casting off their chains. 19 actresses portray runaway brides, while ordinary people spin stories interpreting her reason for running. A universal trope, from Thailand to Bulgaria, South Africa to Ethiopia, the runaway brides make an inherently dramatic image, in white or red. The stories are revealing of the various cultures, including Kristinsson’s own tale of the tumultuous marriage of his Dutch father to his Icelandic mother. Some may be frustrated that the through-line is thematic rather than narrative, but once you’re on its wavelength it's joyful and exhilarating. (72 minutes)

*Home Care  

Writer/director Slavek Horak's debut feature (Czech Republic, 2015) is very funny, a droll comedy/drama about a compassionate, gentle home-care nurse looking after the characters populating a rural village (Alena Mihulova). After a comic-cum-tragic motorcycle accident involving a "frog underpass," she learns she has pancreatic cancer and only has half a year to live. Comic-cum-tragic is, in fact, the tone, and it’s a deft interplay. Vivid performances include Bolek Polivka as her selfish bear of a husband, full of joie de vivre, and Tatiana Vilhelmova as the friend who counsels New Age remedies. In a way the film is about women (nurturers) and men (selfish). She learns to be a little less nice, a fun twist. Its gentle moments of irony don't startle so much as make you chuckle. I won't forget this bemused, beatific, open-faced woman, always game, who is happy so long as she has made others happy. (87 minutes)

Free Entry (One Day of Betty)

 Yvonne Kerekgyarto's feature is a pleasure (Hungary, 2014), a story about friendship in which two teenage girls take in a Lollapalooza-like music festival in Budapest, the Sziget, of which we get plenty of essentially documentary footage. Luca Pusztai plays the shy, introverted one; Agnes Barta her outgoing friend. The teens' peregrinations and vicissitudes involve the usual: boys, alcohol, pot. I had the sinking feeling we were in for a cautionary tale, and nervously awaited the inevitable trouble. And there are some near misses—including a drunken fall in the river, vividly filmed, that certainly could have been fatal. Yet in the end this story says something less fashionable, but refreshingly truthful: that youthful “gin and sin” experiences can be just pleasurable, and getting away with them is part of the fun of being young and growing up. I enjoyed this sweet portrait of the bond between the two girls.  (70 minutes)

Glassland

Writer/director Gerand Barret’s intense feature (Ireland, 2014) was awarded a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and while it’s a bit indie-drama-by-the-numbers at times, it’s well-observed. It is full of tender, if melodramatic, touches, the story of a cab driver (Jack Reynor) in economically depressed Dublin, a good guy in a not-so-good world. His life revolves around caring for a mother committing suicide by drink (Toni Collette), playing video games with his man-child best friend, and visits with his younger brother, who has Down's Syndrome. Barret has a tendency to go for it: his direction coaxes raw performances. In one scene of a heated argument in a car filmed from the backseat, the camera even bounces with the car. The cabbie needs money to get his mother into detox before her liver goes out, which leads to a truly suspenseful finale which hints artfully at a side of the underground economy so dark that the camera swings away from it. (93 minutes)

*Sunset Song  

Set in Scotland in the years before WWI, Terrence Davies's exquisite, soulful, painful adaptation of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (UK, 2015) is a feast for the emotions and the eyes. Davies's prayerful compositions, with their palettes of diffuse candle light, are worthy of the Dutch masters, every shot a still-life. Agyness Deyn is the warm-blooded, reflective, gangly daughter of a monstrous farmer (a scary Peter Mullan: who else can rage and roar, yet still register such rough tenderness and soul?). After his death, she enjoys a happy life with her kind husband (Kevin Guthrie)--there is an enchanted scene in which Deyn sings a wedding song. In fact, the film brims with stirring songs and the music of language and voices.  However, as if in a bad dream, after being conscripted her husband transforms into a monster himself. Davies is an auteur in the classical sense, an heir to Ophuls and Ford. You can almost see his elegant longhand written across the screen. Time is always receding, as the clocks tick-tock in the parlors, while the land is a constant. She is one with it, in its beauty and harshness, from first scene to last, with an uncanny sense that the strut-and-fret of humans across its stage is but a moment, already receding. By the end we've had a picture of a whole woman, a rare thing. (136 minutes)

*Aferim!  

A brutal, unforgettable, beautiful vision from director Radu Jude, who co-wrote with Florin Lazarescu (Romania, 2015). With a fine sense of irony it takes on the subject of Romani (or "gypsy") slavery. The setting is Wallachia, 1835, and the plague is on the land. Two rather comic characters--a blustering, pedantic constable, unduly fond of aphorisms (Teodor Corban), and his pubescent son (Mihai Comanoiu)--cross the country on horseback, searching for a runaway gypsy slave (Toma Curzin), accused of stealing from the boyar--though his real crime, it emerges, is diddling his wife. Marius Panduro’s black and white photography is gorgeous. In an absurdly humorous way, the characters are philosophical about police brutality, racism, and subjugation of women. In one scene, a priest lets loose with a diatribe against various ethnic groups so drawn out it becomes comic. The boy, following his instinct for compassion, almost convinces his father to release the slave. When the constable attempts to put in a few words on the slave’s behalf, asking for mercy, the boyar’s cruel justice is disturbingly unshakeable. (106 m)

*The Fencer

An uplifting, old-fashioned feel-good movie, Klaus Haro’s drama (Estonia/Finland, 2015) is the story of an exacting, sad-eyed teacher (a soulful Märt Avandi, looking a bit like a Byzantine icon). In the early 50s, he turns up at a rural school in Estonia and creates a fencing program, though Stalinist-hack bureaucrats regard the sport as “a vestige of feudalism.” Meanwhile, he flees a secret in his past. (When that pounding comes at the door, it means one thing: secret police.) Though his girlfriend (Ursula Ratasepp) begs him never to return to Leningrad, he resolves to bring his rag-tag crew, complete with an adorable little girl, to the big city to compete at the All-Soviet fencing tournament, where they are wildly outmatched. Well, what do you think is going to happen? Formulaic but irresistible, the film contains echoes of everything from "Mr. Holland's Opus" to "The Karate Kid." While it's cut from quite familiar cloth, I don’t complain when the resulting suit is this well-made. (94 m)

Forbidden Films

This thought-provoking documentary by Felix Moeller (Germany, 2014) examines “explosive” films, figuratively and literally: movies made in Germany during the Third Reich (1933- 1945), Kept in a reinforced bunker because the old nitrate stock could go up anytime, the films’ ideas are just as inflammatory. Some are vulgar propaganda. Others are well-made entertainments, and in some ways all the more insidious. In today’s Germany, 40 movies remain prohibited except for special screenings and showings. We watch removed scenes and attend banned film fests in Germany, as well as France and Israel (where, ironically, these materials are not proscribed). The post-film debates are as lively as you might imagine. Should works like Veit Harlan's "Jud Suss," Erich Waschneck’s “The Rothschilds,” Karl Ritter's "Stukas," Wolfgang Liebeneiner's pro-euthanasia "I Accuse," Gustav Ucicky's anti-Slavic "Homecoming,” and Fritz Hippler’s “The Eternal Jew” be banned? As a free speech guy, my strong opinion is, of course not. They must be available for examination and criticism. Still, we hear from all kinds of voices, from scholars to directors to ex-Neo Nazis. (94 m)

Modris

Writer/director Juris Kursietis' absorbing drama (Latvia, 2014) tells, in a realist key, the inexorable story of an almost nonverbal teenager with a pugilist's face. On the cusp of turning 18, he is pulled towards prison by poor decisions, bad luck, and bureaucracy. That passive tense is appropriate to this character. In an opening scene, the camera pulls back to establish the town, grey, cold and drab: these are his parameters. While he is a talented Banksy-style graffiti artist, he’s aimless. Trouble follows him. He sells his mother's heater to get money to play the slots, and, fed up, she has him arrested. His peregrinations include a half-hearted search for his father, who has been in his life only as myth--his mom says he's in prison. He stumbles upon moments of cruelty, but also beauty and grace--a choir, a country/western dance (where we get to hear "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in Latvian). However, these can neither faze nor save him. He takes the world as it comes, until it all becomes a bit much. (97 m)

*Wondrous Boccaccio

A pleasure, written and directed by Paoli Taviani and Vittorio Taviani (Italy, 2015), this is a playful, vivid adaptation of a handful of tales from Boccaccio's Decameron (1353). You know the basic scenario: it’s Florence in 1348, the days of the Black Death. A group of young men and women hole up and, to pass the time, they tell each other stories. Some are comic, some tragic, some just dirty jokes. The tale about the pet hawk broke my heart. Memorable imagery: ginger women in white robes frolicking in the water; an homage to Velazquez's "Las Meninas"; colorful robes evoking Rafael's frescoes; portraits of the actresses evoking Titian. The dramatic score is by Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia. It’s been a long time, but I remember Pasolini's Decameron as earthier, more sexual. But then, the Tavianis take on an entirely different batch of tales. (There are 100 to choose from, after all). We humans don’t change fundamentally down the centuries, and this film is forgiving of what we are. My favorite line could also be its motto: "Try and enjoy yourselves as much as you can."

*Koza

This hushed, taut boxing movie by Ivan Ostrochovský (Slovakia, 2015), who co-wrote, seems designed to drain away every romantic Hollywood boxing trope. There is no score, the fights are shown from one stationary camera angle (when they are shown at all), and even the training sequences do not inspire. Rather, when the titular bull-headed character, a washed-up pugilist (Peter Baláz) whose name means “goat,” runs across wintry fields in parallel with the truck driven by his cynical trainer (Nikola Bongilajová), what registers is exhausted doggedness. (In this movie, the truck is actually more of an arena for the action than the ring.) He’s gone back into the ring to scrape up a few bucks for his wife's abortion. The decision not to manipulate the audience in any way--to let us decide what we make of this man--is admirable. Problem is, he has so little personality that my initial reaction was "not much." Curious, though, how draining the film of all drama does not lead to a drab experience: in the days that followed, I kept thinking about the film. Ostrochovský has real style. There are some startling images, from the unforgiving scale of the Carpathian mountains to the intimacy of the human face. He uses a distorted lens to put us right up in the “goat’s” almost fun-house mug. Draining the picture of all heroism has the odd effect of making this boxer, if not heroic, at least admirable: a loser who won't let nature’s unsmiling bleakness crush him. (72 min)

*The Measure of a Man

 

The heart of this absorbing realist drama, directed and co-written by Stéphane Brizé (France, 2015), is the soulful performance by Vincent Lindon as an unemployed, middle-aged family man trying to make ends meet. The unfairness of working-class life is here, but so is real happiness. It was a pleasure to see the loving family dynamic with his wife and profoundly mentally retarded son. His eyes ache with quiet desperation and worry. He is trying so hard to be patient. He is a good man, with dignity. Because he needs to provide for his family, he will bow, though we see what it costs him—but just so far. He's been part of lost labor fights in the past. He lands a job as a stop-loss security agent at a Costco-type department store, using his eyes and the store’s surveillance cameras to spot shoplifters in the act, then stand in the backroom while they are dressed down. (The camera mounted to a ceiling track that shuttles around the store makes a pretty cool tracking shot, aesthetically.) These are working-class people like him: in one case a man has tried to steal meat because he can't afford to pay for it. Nothing particularly melodramatic happens, just daily assaults on dignity that Brizé holds so long it becomes painful. The ending is at once heartbreaking and heartening: a choice for dignity. (88 m)

 

The Prosecutor, The Defender, The Father And His Son

Written and directed by Iglika Triffonova, this earnest drama (Bulgaria, 2015), based on a true story, is set at the International Criminal Tribunal, where Miroslav Deronjic is on trial for presiding over the massacre of Muslims (and others) at Glogova in ’92, during the Bosnia War. Triffonova’s ear for dialogue is a bit tinny, and her aesthetic could perhaps best be described as “television.” In fact, for better and for worse, this feels a bit like Law & Order: SVU goes to Europe. Acting quality ranges across the board, though Romane Bohringer and Samuel Fröler are both fine in the key roles of the prosecutor and defender, respectively. Treated as a pawn by both is a young man, a witness for the prosecution, who claims he was swept up during the war by a Serbian paramilitary group, and witnessed the defendant preside over the massacre. In 2002 the defender tracks down the boy’s parents, villagers who had assumed their boy dead (father is a Christian, mother is a Muslim), and persuades the father to come to the Netherlands with the promise of getting his boy back--though his real agenda, of course, is to clear his client. It’s a troubled, serious film about a system in which “truth” and “justice” seem to recede the more they are pursued--not least for the prosecutor and defender, both of whom chase them in good faith. It has a thoughtful subtheme about fathers and sons. The procedural format keeps it engaging, from the hills of a Bosnia to the streets of Amsterdam. (96 m)

*Chevalier

This very funny, sometimes startling comedy directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece, 2015) puts us on a private luxury yacht with six middle-aged men on a scuba-diving vacation in the Aegean. One night, over a candle-lit dinner, they decide to play a certain devilish game: a contest to prove who is "best in general." Just best, at everything: walking, breathing, sleeping. They will ruthlessly criticize each other, the way they dive, clean, eat; their bravery, manners, relationships with women, etc., adding points or subtracting demerits. The winner will wear the ring bearing the signet of the “chevalier,” a true knight among men. In its shocks, the film is like what Yorgos Lanthimos might come up with if he made a comedy, which makes sense--Tsangari produced Lanthimos’s startling "Dogtooth,” and her co-writer here, Efthymis Filippou, also co-wrote that picture. Actually, I remember Tsangari and Panos Koronis, who plays one of the divers, from their turn as a cheerfully contentious couple in that wonderful al fresco dinner-party scene in "Before Midnight." Tsangari films the interiors of the boat beautifully. Her camera style, lighting and blocking recalls Assayas. She has a nice natural way with actors, eliciting droll performances from the six, especially a very physical turn from Makis Papadimitriou as a long-suffering baby brother. The contest becomes more and more absurd. We get an eyeful when the characters take their critique of each other’s manhood--and Tsangari her satire of "bigger man" ego contests--to its logical (and graphic) conclusion.  (104 m)