Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Reflections on the death of Bertrand Tavernier

   I’m waiting.
   For the end of the pandemic? Of course. For a society in which every police officer tries to diffuse tension without reaching for a weapon? That, too. 
    Along these lines, I admit that my wishes for the movies have diminished. During more than 40 years of reviewing, hope — that most essential of critical elixirs — has dimmed.
    Of course, good and even great movies still find their way to viewers. Talented, dedicated people continue to reinvigorate the movies. But those of us who once believed in the primacy and unparalleled intimacy of this form of artistry and storytelling, who applauded the rise of the great national cinemas, and who continually discovered directors whose work we couldn’t wait to see and digest, well ... times just ain’t what they used to be.
    The reasons for all of this have been made clear elsewhere and I needn’t elaborate them here, but I can’t help but think that missing the excitement movies once generated isn’t simply a matter of old-fart nostalgia for the idealized enthusiasms of youth. 
     About that youth: The movies had always been a preoccupation for many of us, but in the late 1960s and throughout much of the 1970s, they seemed to be talking in a new way, telling us that the way we saw the world wasn't entirely crazy. We felt that something almost magical had happened; suddenly, the movies belonged to us -- or at least we thought they did.
    We also felt as if we were helping to create "cinema culture" -- by appreciating it, thinking about it, reading about it, arguing about it, and  creating a language of common references. And, yes, that culture included lots of junk, although we thought we better than to conflate enjoyable junk with the best the movies had to offer.
    In short, we went to the movies -- at least once a week and sometimes more if we could play hooky from whatever jobs we happened to have by weaseling an extra hour for lunch.
    In a time defined by deracination and fragmentation of nearly everything, it has become almost impossible even to find a suitable definition for the word “culture.” 
    Talking about “cinema culture,” for example, might be more a wish than a reality. 
    Somewhere in your work life, you’ve probably encountered discussions of “corporate culture.” Yes, we know what it means, but — at the same time — the notion that business values and workplace standards can be thought of as “culture,” tends to push the word into the world of money, success, group behavior and ambition.
    All of this brings me to the recent death last month of the Bertrand Tavernier, 79, the French director and irreplaceable champion of film history, not only saddened me but left me feeling that the ranks of those who care about and protect film culture have suffered an irreparable loss. 
   It will be more difficult now to hope.
   One of my treasured experiences was listening to Tavernier talk about the films of the pioneering Lumiere brothers. Tavernier persuasively argued that the Lumiere films (the 1896 on-coming train that supposedly shocked viewers out of their seats, for example) were not simply the result of pointing a camera and shooting “ordinary” life. They were, Tavernier argued,  considered constructions of the screen’s earliest film narratives.
   Tavernier began as a film critic. He had an enviably empathic yet sharp view of the cinema. I’ll never know as much as he did. I say this less as an admission of the considerable limits of my knowledge than as a tribute to his. 
   Many years ago, I saw Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country (1984) at the Telluride Film Festival. Like many of Tavernier’s films, it was neither shockingly adventurous nor norm shattering. Tavernier told a story about an artist gathering with his family on a picturesque Sunday while also assaying family relationships on the eve of World War I. 
   No, it wasn’t a groundbreaking movie, but it was so beautifully realized that when it concluded, I turned to the person next to me, hoping to find a moment of shared affirmation. She was an older woman who had, as I remember, been married to a cinematographer. 
   We exchanged a look of acknowledgement: We had shared something neither of us ever would forget, deep satisfaction and regard for a movie. 
    Nothing further needed to be said. The moment was perfect. Words might have destroyed its exquisite delicacy. I never saw that woman again.
     I interviewed him twice, heard him speak on several occasions, and admired his work and his mind, but I can't say I knew Tavernier. I did know that he loved and lived movies.
     There are all kinds of movie love. I’m sure you know people who insist on telling you how much they love movies. They do, of course. Taking them to task for not loving the way you do is bit like criticizing a friend's choice of a spouse, a display of blatantly poor taste.
     But for me, Tavernier serves as a model of real movie love, a love that finds its expression by situating itself in the evolving chain of visual storytelling, a love that made Tavernier the kind of filmmaker about whom one often could say his work was "beautifully realized."
      Tavernier had many accomplishments. I wish I had been able to tell him that among them -- and by no means among the most significant -- was teaching me something about what it means to find satisfaction in a movie and how to appreciate the rare and beautiful moment in which it occurs.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Freeman wasted in a dismal thriller


  Dismal and misbegotten, Vanquish begins as if it wants to tell the story of a corrupt former police commissioner (Morgan Freeman) who resides in an alarmingly modern home and who must live out his remaining days in a wheelchair as the result of a shooting.
    But writer/director George Gallo has other things in mind. As it turns out, the movie's most important character is played by Ruby Rose.  She's Victoria, a former assassin who Freeman's Damon helped to get out of jail.
    Not surprisingly, Victoria wants to begin a steadier, less-lethal life, mostly for the sake of her young daughter.
   Damon insists that before Victoria can start anew, she must “hit” a series of targets. So, he kidnaps her daughter, refusing to release the child until Victoria completes her tasks.
    Damon uses body cameras to watch Victoria at work. He also presides over a ring of corrupt police officers who have enriched him and themselves.
    In style and atmospherics, Vanquish tries be sleek, modern, and wearily cynical, an ode to a female warrior who uses her foul trade to free herself from it.   
     But forget all that, Vanquish is what a late acquaintance who happened to be a highly skilled collector used for items he rejected.
    "Crapola,'' he would say, a word not recognized in many cinema-study course, but still ... 
    Anyway, let’s shift gears: 
    Years ago, Pauline Kael wondered whether Freeman hadn’t become American’s greatest actor.   
   Beginning with his appearance as a New York pimp in Street Smart (1987), it was clear that Freeman had a rare gift for mercurial mood shifts, as well as a charismatic presence that could be used to suggest either imminent danger or comforting consolation.
   His deep, mellow voice could convey trust and reliability in commercials and also was put to use in Driving Miss Daisy (let’s skip the discussion about the retrograde nature of the material) and even in Million Dollar Baby, a movie that earned him a best supporting actor Oscar.
   Every actor's career is a mixture of choice, chance and any number of other variables over which the actor has little or no control. 
    At 83, Freeman deserves a signature role that puts his talent to full use, that lets him soar. And we need it as much as he does, which is another way of saying the movies need it, too.
   Perhaps Hate to See You Go, a movie about an aging blues musician that IMDb lists as in pre-production, will give Freeman that role, one that long will be remembered after Vanquish has disappeared.

Celebrating the work of an American original


     It's nothing short of awe-inspiring to realize that Bill Traylor, who died in 1949 at the age of 95, was born in enslavement and, during the course of his life, made use of the materials around him to establish himself as an important American artist.
    Traylor mostly worked as a share cropper but he also drew, developing a unique style that influenced many of the artists who would follow in his wake -- even, in my estimation, the now-venerated Jean-Michel Basquiat.
    A white artist names Charles Shannon "discovered' Traylor in 1939 when he saw him creating his art on a Montgomery, Ala. street, often drawing on pieces of cardboard. 
    But recognition for Traylor occurred mostly after he passed away, and in 2018, the Smithsonian honored Traylor with a major retrospective.  
     Director Jeffrey Wolf introduces us to Traylor's deceptively simple style, to the interpretive flashes that distinguish his work and to its historical importance as one man's chronicle of life in the Jim Crow South.
    Interviews abound -- talks with Traylor's grandchildren among them. But Wolf also allows Traylor's work to speak for itself.
    Writing in The New Yorker in 2018, Peter Schjedahal offered this appraisal: "Traylor's style has about it both something very old, like prehistoric cave paintings, and something spanking new. Songlike rhythms, evoking the time's jazz and blues, and a feel for scale, in how forms relate to the space that contains them, give the majestic presence to even the smallest of images. Taylor's pictures stamp themselves on your eye and mind."
    Wolf's documentary allows that stamping to continue, doing justice to both Traylor's life and his art, which --at least at some junctures -- became indistinguishable.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Catching Up: 'Slalom' and 'City of Lies'

Considering the onslaught of new releases in theaters and on streaming outlets, it's almost impossible to keep up. So, from time-to-time, I'll be running a feature called Catching Up. In it, I'll take a look at movies that I didn't review at the time of their release.

Lyz (Noee Abita) is a 15-year-old who's training to be a competitive skier. To advance her career, she attends a rigorous training facility in the French Alps. Lyz quickly develops under the tutelage of the school's ski instructor (Jeremie Renier). Director Charlene Favier carefully depicts the relationship between Lyz and a tough trainer who believes Lyz has championship potential. Renier's Fred takes a keen interest in Lyz's physical attributes: everything from weight to menstrual cycles. It's part of what he deems necessary to develop a high-caliber skier, and he goes about his work with business-like efficiency. Lyz's confidence grows but her relationship with Fred shifts. His interest in her eventually becomes sexual, allowing Favier to explore the dynamics of a relationship based partly on power.  The older Fred draws young Lyz into his world, inviting her to stay at his quarters and using the word "we" when he refers to her achievements. Favier's dizzying camera follows Lyz through her event -- the slalom -- but the heart of the story lies in showing how a relationship between student and mentor can be perverted. Credit Abita with a performance that embodies Lyz’s ambition, as well as her confusion when a coach betrays her trust.

City of Lies

Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker headline City of Lies, a police procedural that takes yet another look at the murders of rap artist Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.) and Tupac Shakur. The movie has been around since 2018 and just now is finding its way into release. Working form a book by journalist Randall Sullivan, director Brad Furman tells a story about corruption and cover-up in the Los Angeles Police Department. Depp portrays Russell Poole, a former detective who can't abandon his obsession with Wallace's murder. Whitaker plays the journalist who prods Poole to share his story, which Theo movie presents in sometimes confusing fashion. Poole finds himself at odds with the LAPD because he believes corrupt members of the department were involved in Wallace's murder. Much of the dialogue between Depp and Whitaker amounts to exposition -- albeit delivered in the language of the streets. Furman begins the story when a white undercover cop (Shea Whigham) shoots a man, later identified as an undercover cop,   during a road rage incident.  All of this takes place against a backdrop tainted by the Rodney King beating and the LAPD’s Rampart scandal. Whitaker does what he can to create a character of interest opposite Depp's equally solid portrayal of a loner whose path to the truth has been blocked at nearly every turn. Overall, City of Lies seems more intent on wallowing in LA grit than in finding a powerful through-line for its two stars and the large cast that surrounds them.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

'Voyagers' travels a familiar route

    Once again, humanity faces extinction.
   In the year 2063, Earth's resources have been irretrievably depleted. As a result, a project to colonize a far-off planet begins. 
   The difficulty: It will take 86 years for the crew to reach humanity's potential new home. That means the colonists probably will be the grandchildren of the original crew, which is composed of 33 test-tube babies who, when the movie reaches the depths of space, all have become teenagers.
   Only one adult (Colin Farrell) makes the trip, a volunteer who feels compelled to protect the crew until it reaches its destination.
   Surviving on a spaceship for 86 years requires that the crew drink a substance called The Blue, which dulls their aggressive impulses and also inhibits their ability to experience pleasure. The designers of the voyage worried about what might happen should 30 hormonally charged teenagers be left to their own devices.
     It takes director Neil Burger, who also wrote the screenplay, a while to reach the story's pivotal moment. Two of the crew members (Tye Sheridan and Fionn Whitehead) learn about The Blue's effects.
     They stop drinking it and Whitehead's Zac begins seeing the ship's medical officer (Lily-Rose Depp) in a new light.
     It's hardly surprising that trouble looms. Nor is it much of a shock that none of the movie's characters achieves stand-out prominence. 
     Anyway, the story relies on a trick as old as Lord of the Flies,  putting a group of young people into an isolated situation, stripping them of ordinary stimuli, and trying to discern something about their essential nature. 
    Farrell doesn't display much personality as the adult in the room. It hardly matters because the movie ultimately belongs to the young actors who are pushed into a scenario that poses questions about how lies can be used to promote fear by those seeking power. Sound familiar?
    The possible arrival of an alien further amps up the stakes, which never seem especially high, and, truth be told, there’s only so much visual imagination that can be applied to the interior of a spaceship. 
    It doesn’t help, either, that all the crew members dress alike.
    After his initial bout with rebelliousness, Sheridan's Christopher matures, allying with Depp's Sela. Whitehead supplies the villainy as a young man in whom adolescent rebellion, hormonal turbulence, and envy fuel aggression.
   Can these young people control themselves for the sake of accomplishing something good; in this case, the continuation of the species?
    Intermittent moments of tension can be found, but the movie's desire to see what happens when characters are freed from restraints never feels dangerous, edgy, or fresh enough to find new life.
     So, yes, Voyagers is like Lord of the Flies -- only without the buzz.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/9/21 -- 'Moffie,’ 'In the Earth,’ and ‘The Truffle Hunters’


When we think of South African injustice, we naturally (and appropriately) gravitate toward the apartheid era's cruel oppression of black South Africans. Moffie, a movie about a young gay man trying to survive the brutalities of South African military life, takes a harsh look at part of the system that supported apartheid, the military. It's not easy to look at the film without wondering why we should care about the struggles of one white man in a country that committed so many larger sins. But as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that the two oppressions (hatred and fear of blacks and hatred of gays), though hardly equivalent, are bred from some of the same wellsprings of intolerance. Director Oliver Hermanus's carefully directed feature focuses on Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), a gay man who's been inducted into the army during a time when South Africa fears of communist aggression and potential black uprisings was especially heightened. The sergeant who trains the recruits (Jacques Theron) specializes in humiliation and makes his beliefs clear: The recruits are the final barrier between civilization (white) and barbarism (black). During his training, Nicholas befriends a recruit named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) who's also gay but whose unwillingness to conceal his sexuality lands him in a mental institution. Hermanus explores the meaning of manhood in South Africa’s military culture in revealing ways, all the while reminding us that we're watching kids being asked to risk and possibly lose their lives or suffer the lingering consequences of taking the life of another. 

In the Earth

British director Ben Wheatley mixes eerie atmospherics, graphic jolts, and a pandemic backdrop to create In the Earth, a story about researchers who encounter a variety of horrors as they conduct their work deep in a remote forest. Wheatley doesn't make much of the pandemic, opting instead to concentrate on what happens in the woods. Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) set about their business, which involves trying to find a fellow researcher who has gone missing -- or some such. They do this after being told about an inhospitable creature called Parnag Fegg that's part of the forest's lore. It doesn't take long for the duo to run into trouble when a mysterious force ransacks their camp. A reclusive loner named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who lives in the woods offers help but eventually proves as big a danger as any paranormal forest phenomenon. The whole business feels a bit forced with Wheatley serving up some wince-inducing images, one involving amputated toes. In an escape attempt, Martin and Alma encounter the missing researcher (Hayley Squires). She also seems helpful and unlike Zach, appears to be sane. Or is she? Wheatley effectively sustains a menacing mood and the soundtrack echoes with spooky blasts and moans. But when In the Earth concludes, we’re left wondering whether we've  watched anything more than another "midnight" movie that’s better at creating a world than in finding something telling to do with it. 

The Truffle Hunters

I've always been a sucker for narrowly focused movies that bring us into worlds governed by obsession -- or something close to it. Such is the case with The Truffle Hunters, an engaging documentary from directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. The truffles referred to in the movie's title grow in northern Italy. They are sniffed out by dogs that lead their human partners to their bounty. These white truffles, by the way,  sell for lots of money and are part of a trade governed by merchants and connoisseurs who seem far removed from the rough rural life lived by the truffle hunters. One hunter -- an angry poet -- has given up the hunt because of the greed that he says has consumed a once noble pursuit. Consider him a truffle purist. Dweck and Kershaw introduce us to a group of idiosyncratic elders, men whose strongest relationships seem to be with their beloved dogs. Aurelio, for example, treats his dog Birba like a real partner, the companion that keeps him from solitary loneliness. Another hunter ignores his wife's admonitions and goes truffle hunting at night, a presumably risky endeavor. Without forcing any conclusions, Dweck and Kershaw explore the conflict that can arise between traditionalism and commercialism. Those with favored hunting spots don't share them with others, but their lives take us off the beaten track of familiarity, as much a source of the movie's pleasure as the contemplation of having one’s pasta enhanced by expensive slivers carved from rare truffles. 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

A story about real urban cowboys


     These cowboys ride and tend horses. In the evening, they crack open a few beers, sit around campfires, and exchange stories. 
    Cliches, of course, but they assume new meaning when you realize that the cowboys in question maintain their lifestyle in the streets of North Philadelphia.
    In some respects, Concrete Cowboy can seem dismayingly familiar, mostly because the movie has been built around standard coming-of-age tropes. 
    The story: A frustrated mom sends her uncontrollable son (Caleb McLaughlin) to live with his tough-love father (Idris Elba) who happens to be an ex-con.
    Although director Ricky Staub's drama hardly can be considered groundbreaking, the movie derives freshness from its setting and from the inclusion of real-life members of Philadelphia's Fletcher Street stables.
    Elba, who also served as one of the movie's producers, creates a stoic but caring father, and McLaughlin embodies the confusion of a troubled kid with lots of anger.
     Once deposited with his father, McLaughlin's Cole takes up with a drug-dealing cousin (Jharrel Jerome), a character who sharpens the clash between street hustling and cowboy values.
     Much of the movie deals with Cole's indoctrination into horse culture, an initiation that includes mucking stalls and other dirty work. He also bonds with a difficult horse, becoming the only human the horse will tolerate.
     Before seeing Concrete Cowboy I knew nothing about these Philadelphia horse enthusiasts.  When the real cowboys are swapping stories or talking about the derivation of the word "cowboy," the movie most clearly shatters the formula that sometimes burdens it.*
*Concrete Cowboy is a Netflix film, viewable at www.netflix.com/ConcreteCowboy

A bereaved family gathers: Comedy ensues


   A post-funeral Jewish comedy, Shiva Baby mixes ethnic stereotyping, fluid sexuality, and a young woman's uncertainty about her future in ways that don't always mesh. But mismatched ingredients may be the point of director Emma Seligman's comedy.
   Shiva Baby bounces the frustrated energies of its characters against the cramped walls of the small house in which most of the movie takes place. Fortunately, there are enough laughs to keep you from screaming.
  Rachel Sennott plays Danielle, a New York college senior who's earning extra money by carrying on a sex-for-cash relationship with a slightly older man (Danny Defarrari). 
  To please her parents, Danielle attends a shiva for a departed family member. There, she makes a surprising discovery.  Not only is Defaarari's character at the same shiva, he's married to a blonde shiksa (Dianna Agron). To top things off, the couple has a baby.
    For Danielle, the occasion -- a gathering to mark the period of mourning and comfort the bereaved -- immediately turns fraught.
    Danielle's parents are sharply drawn, perhaps overly so. Fred Melamed plays Danielle's mostly clueless father. Danielle's stronger mother (Polly Draper) nags at the daughter she clearly loves. She also tries to steer Danielle away from a childhood friend (Molly Gordon) with whom she has had a fling. 
    The comedy revolves around what the characters don't know and what they know but refuse to acknowledge, a good basis for farce although Shiva Baby over-relies on close-ups and jokes about the mourners' obsession with food tend to be repetitive. And, at least in my view, the movie's stereotypes sometimes morph into wince-inducing caricature.
     Draper, Sennott, and Gordon give the movie's best performances. Draper's humanity undercuts her character's more stereotypical traits. Sennott conveys the deep confusions of a perilously ungrounded woman, and Gordon allows honest intelligence to break the surface of cliche.
    So, I'd sum up this way: If Seligman were a chef, I'd say she hasn't created a totally satisfying meal but she succeeds in bringing many of the movie's ingredients to a rolling comic boil.

Oscar nominated shorts for 2021

    This year's crop of Oscar nominated short films (animation, documentary and live-action) struck me as mostly worthy. I'd recommend seeing all three programs, although you're bound to find that some of the films resonate with you more than others.
   Rather than provide a sketchy rundown of the 15 short films that make up these categories, I'm going to comment on four that struck me as special.
  A word of caution: I'm not making predictions about what might win an Oscar. I'm reacting to the films I watched.
   I'll begin with animation, a category that seems to have risen to special distinction this year. For me, the animated shorts provided a cache of creativity and artistic expression -- and also of feeling. 
   An example: Michael Govier and Will McCormack top the list of emotional entries, offering an animated look at a couple that has lost a child in a school shooting.  No, this isn't Disney.

     But for me, the best-in-show-award goes to Genius Loci, a 16-minute French film in which time and identity seem to vanish as director Adrien Merigeau offers a survey of modern French art styles. The movie states its theme -- chaos is everywhere -- as it follows a character named Reine into what might be a world of fluid identities. Metamorphosis prevails as images transform from one thing to another   and flux is represented by a constant flow of motion.  I'm not sure I totally got Genius Loci, but it has a substantial "wow" factor. Some animation can be described as "artful," some as "arty." 
Genius Loci goes one better. It is art. 

     Same goes for Opera, a nine-minute animated short so dense that the eye doesn't know where to land. What normally would be a drawback turns Opera into a stunning visual cornucopia. The camera moves down a huge triangular structure through layers of different activity with multiple possible meanings available on every level -- political, religious, carnal and more. 
      Director Erick Oh  bravely tries to find a means of expression that embraces an entire human system.

    This year's documentary nominees contained one film that stopped me in my tracks, director Skye Fitzgerald's Hunger Ward. Set amid the chaos and destruction of contemporary Yemen, Hunger Ward deals  with the rampant malnutrition that has seized the country. 
    We're talking about starving children who have been impacted by six years of civil war and war with Saudi Arabia. You may have to visit Google if you want to know more about conflict in Yemen. Fitzgerald’s focus on human suffering remains inescapably tight.
    Full of harrowing images, Fitzgerald's documentary shows us children who are starving as a result of war and global indifference. Not for the faint of heart, Hunger Ward tempts one to look away from the screen but also makes clear our obligation to bear witness. 
    I found the experience so disturbing that I can't really evaluate the film. All I can say is that I won't soon forget it.
    So, the live-action category:
    Most of the films in this category stand on equal footing, but if I had  to highlight a single entry it would be White Eye, a film that reflects the political and human complexities of life in Israel. Director Tomer Shusan tells the story of an Israeli man who believes he has found a bicycle that was stolen from him. An Eritrean worker whose visa has expired becomes the suspected thief in a drama about problems that admit to no easy solution.
    Please don't misunderstand: By focusing on the films that most affected me, I'm not suggesting that the other films lack merit.
    Here's a complete list of all the nominees:
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens, I Love You
Best Documentary Short Subject:
A Concerto is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
A Love Song for Latasha
Best Live-Action Short:
Feeling Through
The Letter Room
The Present
Two Distant Strangers
White Eye