Archive

4 stars

Filmed in the Amazonia region of Columbia in black and white, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra give us the life of a shaman, Karamakate, as a young and old man making the same journey, to find the rare plant yakruna.  The first trek is on behalf of a dying German ethnographer who has contracted a disease only the plant can cure; the second occurs 40 years later, as an American explorer seeks the plant for its rubber yield, a find that will aid the U.S. in World War II.  The young Karamakate is angry, as he points out the wreckage inflicted upon his home by the encroachment of the whites (essentially, the “rubber wars” of Chile and Peru, which resulted in the enslavement of some indigenous tribes).  In his second journey, he is wiser, resigned to complete a task unfinished in his youth.

This is heavy stuff with a strong reliance on Joseph Conrad.  Indeed, a Jesuit mission happened upon by Karamakate in his youth becomes a Kurtzian religious cult of a Jim Jonesian quality in the 40 years that passes.

The film drags a bit, but the back-and-forth keeps the pace quick enough.  The culture clashes are memorable and the political import, if not subtle, is fleshed out.  More importantly, save for a cheezy drug trip that feels more like Epcot than kissing the sky, the look of the picture is gorgeous.

A brilliant, haunting and meaningful re-creation of the 1966 University of Texas Tower spree shooting that melds old footage, modern day interviews, and animation, the last of which renders the victims, witnesses and heroes in a classic imprint. Gripping and poignant, without a hint of inauthenticity or exaggeration, documentarian Keith Maitland gets you into the head of the terrified people pinned to their spots by fear as well as those who overcame it and risked their own lives to save others and/or ascend the tower and kill the sniper. Maitland has said he opted for animation “to show the geography of the campus” after being told that actual re-creation would not be permitted, but the use of animation to show the interviewees in their younger guise adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of the event.

The film is stubbornly focused on the terrorized and refreshingly devoid of interest in the murderer, thereby avoiding the grotesque algorithm that revels in the psycho and makes everyone else a statistic. With the exception of a truly discordant and moronic “we have met the enemy and he is us” clip from Walter Cronkite, there isn’t a misstep in this picture. It was premiered for television on PBS Tuesday so it may still be available.

Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of the Broadway play is expertly cast, and his performance as the imposing and haunted patriarch Troy Maxon is both mammoth and intricate.  Washington’s turn is equaled by the performances put in by Viola Davis (as his long-suffering, devoted and stoic wife), Mykelti Williamson (as his mentally-impaired brother), Stephen Henderson (as his lifelong friend) and the rest of the cast.  August Wilson’s screenplay, adapted from his own stage play, crackles with raw and poetic renderings of regret, loss and anger.  As Maxon stalks his family and curses the sky from his tiny rowhouse backyard, he seems to become smaller and more vulnerable in each scene.  His ethos of “trust no one, owe no one” becomes more minimizing as the film progresses.

All that said, this tale of a familial Goliath negotiating his lost opportunity, youth and vigor, as well as his brutal past and his current-day demons, has a few slow spots, and while Washington’s direction is capable, there is no compelling reason to see what is essentially a stage play in the movie house.   Wait for DVD/streaming and enjoy.

A funny and wry comedy about an improv group in New York City that is splintered when one of its members makes it to “the show”, a stand-in for Saturday Night Live called Weekend Live. The elevation exposes fissures within the group, eventually sealing its doom . Nonetheless, through the process of promotion and disintegration, the members realize how integral the group is/was to their lives and how their involvement fits into their ambitions.

This is a sweet movie, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who also stars as one of the improv group members. Some of the drama is beyond the talents of the actors, almost all of them are immediately recognizable from some Comedy Central or other endeavor, and it is on occasion a little gooey. But, otherwise, this is good clean fun, bettered by a biting, almost cruel caricature of Lorne Michaels as the head honcho at Weekend Live.

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My own Star Wars experience goes something like this.  I saw the first film in the theater and like any 13 year old boy, was enthralled.  My father was captivated as well, because it harkened back to the serials of his youth.  By the time the next two films came out, I was in high school/early college, and I did not see them because I was too cool to go to a kiddie movie.  Fast forward to the late 90s, early 00s, and I have children.  I couldn’t wait to show them Star Wars and the two that followed, in anticipation of the next trilogy.  They were enthralled by the first three movies, and like most folks, bored by the mind-numbingly antiseptic and stupid second set.

Fast forward to last year, and the triumphant return of a Star Wars movie that is not in the hands of the animatronic George Lucas, and everybody cheers.  Sure, the movie was pretty much a replica of the first film, but it breathes life and marked the fact that the series had been wrested from the dolt Lucas.  So, rejoice!

Which brings us to Rogue One, a prequel to the 1977 debut of the series.  As you likely know, in that first film, the rebel alliance must stop the Death Star, and the iconic figures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia take on the task.  Rogue One gives us the story of how the alliance was able to get the plans to do exactly that.

Now, to my introduction.  When I watched Star Wars with my Dad, it was exciting and engaging and even spine-tingling because I was 13 years old.  It also had the added bonus of speaking to my father through nostalgia encased in a rip-roaring yarn.  So, he didn’t have to sit through an insipid child’s movie.

But now, an entire industry and ethos has grown around Star Wars, and the series has had to deal with an unexpected but incredibly lucrative development – the emergence of an audience who demand that same feeling they had when they were 13 years old, in perpetuity, until the day they die or are kicked out of their parents’ house.  And that is a hard row to hoe.

Now, you can’t put the failure of the horrible Lucas trilogy on the demands of the arrested development audience.  Those films were execrable, to anyone, anywhere.  And as noted, last years’ coming out party had to merely not suck.  And it didn’t.

Rogue One, however, is a little better than not sucking.  It is a rip-roaring yarn but, in an effort to keep the interests of the 36 year old man living in his parent’s basement surrounded by his collectibles, it gives him all the normal elements but in a dirtier, darker package.  Space looks more like Blade Runner and Alien than the gleaming, clean world of the earlier films.  Moreover, one of our protagonists (Diego Luna) is a rebel spy and, if necessary, a cold blooded killer of the innocent (it is a sharp rebuke to Lucas’s fey re-imagining of the shoot-first cad Han Solo when Luna mercilessly puts down a friend who may jeopardize the mission) .  The other lead (Felicity Jones), is an embittered castaway, neutral on the issues of the day.  Together, they embark on a decidedly dour suicide mission that is deftly handled by director Gareth Edwards.

There are problems.  Jones’s transformation from cynical to heroic is clumsy and way too fast.   The first half is slow.  Forrest Whittaker and Mads Mikkeslen, as, respectively, the father-figure and father to Jones, are thin characters.  And the idea that information is still held in what essentially are super floppy disks in the future is weird.

Still, I liked this film and respect the attempt to please the kiddies, the geeks and the critics all at once.  It is vulnerable to attack on all sides, but it does a fair job at a difficult task, giving folks iconic moments, gritty semi-realism, and winking nods to characters and circumstances that die-hard fan know are forthcoming.  I am particularly thrilled at something truly and wonderfully surprising that happens at the end which I cannot share.

A charming film, with surprisingly substantial performances by Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory).  The year is 1944 and Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a patron of music in New York City.  She also has aspirations to perform and her singing voice is, well, it is what it is.  Through the protective machinations of her husband (Grant) and the support of her young accompianist (?) (Helberg), she gives rare public performances, until she squirms out of her protective bubble . . . to Carnegie Hall.

I got down on Streep after two lazy and insufferable performances (the execrable Ricki and the Flash and the loud, gaudy August: Osage County), but she’s back on her game here, infusing in Foster Jenkins a gusto and vulnerability that justifies the latitude she is given by those around her.   The filmmakers portray Foster Jenkins as wholly ignorant of her shortcomings (history suggests she may have been in on the joke), but the decision pays dividends in the creation of greater empathy for her character.  Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) has a way, even in this somewhat broad comedy, of finding the little moments that connect characters, tapping into the hardest of hearts.  A beautiful, simple scene where Helberg and Streep play piano together is one of several such moments.

By the way, Foster Jenkins suffered from syphilis, which I immediately studied (i.e., “Googled”).  I was aghast to learn of its prevalence.  From Essays in History:

Around the turn of the twentieth century, syphilis was a public health disaster in the United States of America. Because of the lack of official reporting of cases to public authorities, estimates of its incidence are difficult to obtain; however, the figure has been estimated conservatively at ten percent to fifteen percent of the general population from about 1900 to 1920, although its occurrence was presumed to be higher among men than women.

 

An uplifting and engaging documentary about a Welsh barmaid and her two dozen working class pub clientele who decide they are going to kick in 10 pounds a month to back a racehorse. And by “back”, I mean, purchase the mare (who had a racing history of “last”, “eighth” and “pulled up”), purchase the semen, inseminate the mare, raise the foal, and then hand it over to one of the more premier training stables – Sandhill – the owners of which are naturally skeptical but happy for the monthly fee. The horse, Dream Alliance, is, of course, loaded with charm, and he leads a racing life ready-made for a Hollywood film, which I cannot believe is not in production as we speak.

This is a very nice, sweet, beautifully filmed documentary. It hits the class clash a little hard, and it could have included a little bit more about how racing in Great Britain works (for example, the damn horses don’t have a gate – they just take off in a gaggle – and there are hurdles on the straightaways!), but these are minor nits.