Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Thursday, April 15, 2021
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.
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.
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
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.
Thursday, April 8, 2021
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.
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
These cowboys ride and tend horses. In the evening, they crack open a few beers, sit around campfires, and exchange stories.
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.
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."
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.
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.