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%.

Big Screen Music: Amazing Grace

Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.

Amazing Grace

Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history.  Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).

Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.

I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.

At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 90%.

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. 

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%.

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical StrangersReviewer Bilge Ebiri in The Village Voice says, “The best way to experience Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers is to do so without knowing a single thing about it.”

The makers of the trailer must have felt much the same way because (uncharacteristically), they didn’t give away much of the story (trailer), except to focus on the surprise reunion of 19-year-old triplets, separated at six months of age, and adopted into separate homes. They find each other by a fluke. The whole idea of “separated at birth” is vaguely sentimental, because in it is the notion that siblings eventually find each other. That there’s a happy reunion. In this film, that’s just the beginning.

I can only agree with Ebiri in saying, see it. It has surprising depths. It will leave you shaking your head, first at the power of coincidence, then everything else. Says an aunt, “When  you play with humans, you do something very wrong.”

Plus, you have the pleasure of seeing interviews with veteran journalist Lawrence Wright.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 87%.

See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.

RBG

The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

(photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license)

Do whatever it takes to see the short documentary films nominated for Academy Awards this year! All five involve thought-provoking situations and introduce you to some remarkable Americans.

Traffic Stop (Kate Davis & David Heilbroner for HBO, 30 minutes)
The filmmakers gain access to police dashboard camera footage showing a white Austin, Texas, policeman aggressively subduing a black woman stopped for speeding. He loses it. She loses it. The woman, Breaion King, is an elementary schoolteacher, and we see her in the classroom and in her dance class, and learn what kind of person she is. I wish we had the same 360° picture of the officer. Even so, it’s complicated, with tons of subtext. (See it here.)

Edith + Eddie (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights, 29 minutes)
This film should be marketed as a cure for low blood pressure (trailer). The filmmakers were recording a charming pair of 95-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, newlyweds just as their lives fell apart. A daughter living in Florida finagled a court-appointed guardianship for her mother, and the guardian—paid out of Edith’s estate—demanded that the elderly woman be flown to Florida against her will “for evaluation.” The guardian concluded without seeing Edith that she was not safe living in her own home with her husband. (More about this hair-raising issue here.)

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, 40 minutes)
In this extraordinary film portrait, artist Mindy Alper describes her struggles with mental illness and her commitment to pursue her art. Both through her art and in fascinating, surprisingly upbeat interviews, she communicates in a unique way. She has had a succession of gifted teachers to support her artistic development, and the film shows preparations for a gallery show of her work. One piece, a large papier-mâché portrait of her therapist, brought tears to my eyes for the compassion and love it shows. (See the documentary here.)

Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon for Neflix and the Center for Investigative Reporting, 39 minutes)
Huntington, West Virginia, is the epicenter of U.S. heroin drug deaths, and this film (find the trailer here; view the film on Netflix) shows three heroic women fighting for the community. Jan Rader, a nurse and EMT, attends five or six overdose cases almost daily. Thanks to Narcan, not all are fatal. The city’s drug court is presided over by judge Patricia Keller, both compassionate and no-nonsense. Her goal is to get people back on track, whatever way she can. Necia Freeman started her “brown bag ministry” to help women selling their bodies for drugs. All three are amazing rays of hope in a devastating situation. (More about West Virginia’s epidemic here.)

Edwin's, restaurantKnife Skills (Thomas Lennon, 40 minutes)
The Cleveland restaurant, Edwin’s, and its culinary training school were started by Brandon Chrostowski (see the documentary here). He had early brushes with the law and used a judge’s second chance to turn his life around. Edwin’s hires former prison inmates and trains them for jobs in the kitchen and front-of-house. It trains about 100 ex-prisoners a year, who are taught the fine points of haut cuisine and learn about wines and cheeses. This kitchen is not three guys with a microwave, it’s chopping  and deboning and saucing and plating, and the workers mostly love it. So do Cleveland diners. Oh, and recidivism rates among Edwin’s trainees? Extremely low.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

Kedi

Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).