The Farewell

This lovely new film written and directed by Lulu Wang starts with that staple of family dramas, assembling the clan (trailer). In this case, a woman’s sons and their wives and children are returning to Changchun, China, from Japan and America on the pretext of a family wedding, but in reality because the family matriarch, Nai Nai, is dying. Though widely dispersed, they are united in a conspiracy to keep that truth from her as long as possible.

All except Billi (Awkwafina). She immigrated to America with her parents at age four and has adopted this country’s attitudes toward personal autonomy. This secret is too big, too consequential, too awful to keep. So, when her young poleaxed-looking cousin moves up his wedding to a Japanese woman as a ploy to get the family together, Billi is discouraged from attending. She doesn’t have the poker face necessary to maintain the deception. She goes anyway.

And what do families do when they get together? They eat! Over a series of meals, including the eerily familiar wedding reception, the food serves as a distraction when discussions become too intense and personal. Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is lively and charming, and the mutual love between her and a devastated Billi is beautifully portrayed. They tell her she isn’t sick, and that’s the attitude she adopts. And, really, she manages the family and the wedding minutiae with energy. The family keeps trying to take on various tasks, but she’ll have none of it.

I especially liked the portrayal of Billi’s parents, her stunned father (Tzi Ma) and chilly, no-nonsense mother (Diana Lin), as well as the poor Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara), gamely participating in everything without understanding a word.

The movie delves deeply into cultural differences and, by exploring them in such vivid detail, establishes bona fide universals. Given the subject matter, you would not expect this film to have a nice dose of comedy, but it does. Families closely examined almost always do, in the midst of whatever chaos surrounds them—painful wedding toasts eliciting surefire groans.

Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, nails it when she says Wang has “made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés.” See it!, then go out for Chinese food. You will be in the mood.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 99%; audiences 88%.

Echo in the Canyon

In the brief musical moment of 1964-1967, Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills was the place to be. It was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers, the vanguard of rock music’s California sound. And it was the pilgrimage destination of choice for British bands like, oh, The Beatles. Across an ocean and a continent, the two nation’s young musicians inspired each other. Meaningful lyrics, tight harmony, the 12-string . . .

Andrew Slater’s documentary about this era is a mishmash of different parts (trailer). Yet it manages to provide enough music and tickle enough memories to create a pleasing whole. It has  a modern-day concert recreating some of the music and coffee-table discussions about the concert; historic documentary footage of performances, television appearances, and in-studio recording sessions; current-day interviews with a good number of aging principals; and unexplained snippets of a 1969 French movie set in Laurel Canyon, Model Shop, mysteriously appear. As to the last, give Slater credit for an inventive, if baffling, bit of cinematic free association.

Handsome, low-key Jakob Dylan is the film’s interviewer and concert performer (along with Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Beck). What’s so refreshing about Dylan is that when he asks one of the aging rock stars a question, he shuts up and listens to the answer. His singing voice isn’t great, but it’s plenty good enough, and with the concert’s songs featuring younger performers and today’s musical styles, it brings the music to a new generation.

The best parts of the film are the interviews and 1960s (mostly black and white) video clips of the original folk-rock stars in action—jamming at home, in the studio, on stage, and on television. The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys. OMG, the hair, the clothes, the polyester. But The Sounds are what blow you away again.

Wonderful interviews about the experience of living in and visiting Laurel Canyon with many stars, including: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty (in his last film interview, pictured with Dylan, above), Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. David Crosby explained that people are wrong when they say creative difference caused him to be booted from the Byrds. “I was kicked out because I was an a——” (an insight borne out by the preview for a new documentary about Crosby, shown prior to Echo).

This joins the group of excellent rockumentaries like The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet from Stardom, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ ratings: 93%; audiences, 91%.

Rocketman

Think back—how many popular music star biopics have you seen that follow this arc: sincere artist’s unexpected (if inevitable) rise from obscurity to massive success, addiction to alcohol/drugs, shaky career trajectory, painful rehabilitation, ultimate triumph? Don’t any ascending stars watch these movies? Maybe it’s a comment on the how young people perceive their invulnerability. Or on filmmakers’ affinity for formula.

Rocketman, which covers Elton John’s early career, has those elements. Blessedly, it is not that movie (trailer). Writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher have accomplished something much more interesting and creative.

In the opening scene, Elton John (played brilliantly by Taron Egerton) strides down an empty hallway in full sparkly devil bodysuit, cape, cap, and horns and plunks himself in a chair at an AA meeting. “I know how this goes,” he says and enumerates his many addictions. The group leader’s probing returns him to his childhood where he picks out tunes on the piano by ear. Back in the support group, in costume, he wrenches off the horns.

He’s taken back to other earlier events, and each time he return to the group, another piece of his outrageous costume is gone. Clearly, he’s stripping off the trappings of his onstage persona to get to the man underneath. So much more effective—and emotionally resonant—than the overhead shots of poor Ray Charles writhing on his rehab bed. (I love a great metaphor!)

When John is finally able to embrace the sweet child he was, well . . . Whatever process the real-life John went through, it worked. He’s been sober for 28 years.

This movie doesn’t set out to be chronologically precise biopic and is not limited by that form. It’s a musical, with toe-tapping dance numbers and bracing energy. The filmmakers weave in Elton John’s songs with their remarkable lyrics where they fit in the development of the character. The friendship between John and his forever lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is an emotional core of this story. Other relationships may implode or fade, but Taupin, whom John met thanks to a complete fluke, has been with him for fifty years.

The film does not deny audiences the considerable pleasures of the Johns/Taupin music, which Egerton delivers with enthusiasm. Plus there were probably blood-soaked feathers on the floor as people fought for the job of costume director, which ultimately went to Julian Day.

Do yourself a solid, see it!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 91%; audiences: 88%.

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

The Mustang * Woman at War * Beirut * Rembrandt

The Mustang (2019)

Mustang, horse

Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).

The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.

There’s a special prison program (in place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”

The parallels between the confinement and anger of this mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters. But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .

Woman at War (2019)

This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.

The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.

She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From this point, carrying out one last adventure before  flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.

Beirut (2018)

Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated into civil war (trailer). In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund Pike seems to have her head on straight.  He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%. 

Rembrandt (in theaters 2019)

This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of recent films on Caravaggio and Van Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was “An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you can find a screening near you.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet. 

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.

They Shall Not Grow Old

New Zealand director Peter Jackson has accomplished something of a miracle. At the behest of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, he and his team have created a documentary about World War I using archival footage—scratched, faded, juddery—and restored it nearly to today’s standards (trailer). The process achieves more than improving watchability, it brings these soldiers to life.

When he received the assignment, Jackson didn’t know what the film would be, his brief was simply to “do something creative” with the film archive in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice last November 11.

He and his team melded the restored film with the voices of men who had served, interviewed by the BBC decades later. They went to war as ordinary soldiers, they were young (ages 15, 16, and 17, many of them), and their reminiscences of the war were quite different than what their officers’ would have been. This isn’t a movie with battle maps and arrows, strategy and tactics. It’s not about the unique or memorable incident. It’s everyday survival. Mud and lice and rats and cigarettes. I cried.

Stick around for the post-movie feature about how the film was restored. The before-and-after examples of changing the timing, fixing over- and under-exposures, how sound was added, and the colorization are fascinating. Their devotion to detail pays off. Speaking of paying off, the film has broken box office records for a documentary, and Jackson himself took no fee.

This isn’t a movie about heroes. It’s about everyday lads doing the best they can in the worst circumstances. In the most important sense, they’re all heroes.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 92%.

Oscar and his Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

It’s become increasingly easy to see the Academy Award-nominated short films—animated, documentaries, and live action, and I’ve enjoyed them a great deal.

The documentaries generally give an in-depth examination of some small aspect of life or interesting person, usually overlooked and often a moving testament to the human spirit. (I’m thinking about the former prison inmates taught to staff a high-end Cleveland restaurant in last year’s Knife Skills or Joe’s Violin from 2017.)  

The live action films explore myriad stories of the human condition—last year’s film about the deaf child who wanted to learn sign language—including lighter moments, such as the absurdly funny 2017 Spanish film, Timecode.

Not this year. The Academy process resulted in nominees of almost unrelieved bleakness. We skipped the documentaries (on racism, Nazism, dying, and the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe). The only film with a hopeful message was about young women in India trying to overcome the stigma of menstruation. That they needed to was discouraging enough. Maybe these films were truly outstanding, but the topics (except the last) are well-worn.

We had a similarly dubious assessment of the live action shorts nominees, noting the heavy “children in peril” theme, but made a last-minute decision to see them anyway. It would be a job of work to decide which was most depressing (links below are to trailers):

  • Madre (Spain) – the mother of a six-year-old has a shaky phone connection to her six-year-old son abandoned by his father and alone on a beach somewhere, he can’t tell her where. Great acting by Marta Nieto as the distraught and helpless mother. Director’s Notes.
  • Marguerite (Canada) – an elderly woman in failing health and her compassionate caregiver. Sweet acting, but breaks no new ground.
  • Fauve (Canada) – two children enter an abandoned, forbidden mine. Quicksand figures in. All I can say is, Why?
  • Skin (U.S.) – a heavily tattooed redneck, though a supportive father, lets his racism run rampant, which goes badly in an unexpected way. (Casting against type, FYI, the actor playing the dad is a ballet dancer.) Interesting, well-acted.
  • Detainment (Ireland)  – the most controversial of the films, it’s about a 1993 British case, in which two ten-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old. The script is based on the police’s taped interviews with the boys. The actors playing the children and their parents do a remarkable job. It wasn’t easy for the detectives, either. The mother of the slain boy campaigned to have the film withdrawn from Oscar consideration because she hadn’t been interviewed for it; however, director Vincent Lambe wanted the actual police interviews to speak for themselves. The case has raised questions about the proper handling of juvenile defendants. In a chilling note, viewers are informed that the last two tapes from the interviews were deemed to disturbing to be heard by the jury and have never been revealed. Tough to watch but a strong contender.

Photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license

Oscar’s Foreign Language Contenders 2019

Only three of this year’s Oscar longlist for best foreign language film have made it to Princeton so far, at least that I’ve seen: The Guilty, Cold War, and Roma.

My favorite so far is the riveting Danish thriller, The Guilty. Alas, it didn’t make the final list of nominees, so it may be hard to catch.

Nevertheless, don’t miss a chance to see Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (trailer). Danish policeman Asger Holm is assigned to answering emergency calls until he goes to court on some unspecified matter. He deals rather cavalierly with a man who calls complaining that a woman stole his laptop and wallet, once Asger figures out the man is calling from the red-light district and the woman was an Eastern European prostitute. But then the calls turn serious and he works desperately to rescue a kidnapped woman. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the camera almost never does. You hear what he hears and know what he knows. As he frantically tries to figure out how to rescue her, the suspense is almost unbearable. Jacob Cedergren as Asger is brilliant.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 90%.

The Polish nominee is Cannes Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s romance Cold War (trailer), which begins in the 1950s. The romance is doomed, though, because Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a breakout role, can’t decide what she wants. Scenes of the communist-sponsored cultural performance troop, in which the peasant Zula’s lovely singing voice is discovered, are energetic and entertaining. She begins an on-again, off-again affair with the troop’s sophisticated conductor, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that over the next few decades is mostly off, to the regret of them both. Full of great music of many types and shot in lovely, deep black and white.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences 84%.

The other nominees are two films of a type Indie-Wire calls “poverty-row melodramas,” Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan), winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) which won the Cannes Jury Prize. In addition, there’s Roma (Mexico), sweet, but not great, in my opinion, and Never Look Away (Germany) from previous Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in which the Nazis take on “degenerate art.” You know, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and their ilk. That one’s on the “coming soon” board.