Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.
In Search of Beethoven
The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.
Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely
now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each
case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.
The Lehman Brothers Trilogy
A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.
Van Gogh & Japan
A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost
140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese
art (trailer). He
learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His
interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme.
Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than
a showing here.
Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China
action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy
rain and fog throughout (trailer).
The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the
shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero
(Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a
pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does
win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the
leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like
yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you
enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers,
you’ll love this one!
This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so
close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and
personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief
period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career
and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair
amount of that music with you.
As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the
film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet
seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young
Jack Nicholson too).
In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has
eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of
health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many
others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.
Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as
recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times
with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without
Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped
him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the
group’s attempts to reassemble.
He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the
many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45
years, is compelling viewing. Jon
Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly
real portrait of a music star.”
Echo was dinged
for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you
see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to
Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was
fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed
in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after
Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been
married to Jan Dance.
Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly
the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential.
Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”
Twelve times since 1973, an international set of racing yachts
has taken to the ocean for a Round the World Yacht Race (first sponsored by
Whitbread brewery and now called the Volvo Ocean Race, under its new sponsor).
It’s dangerous work, with crews pitted against each other, the weather, and the
implacable seas. Until 1989, ocean racing was a man’s game, with women
unwelcome even in the galley. Only five of the 200 crew members on boats in the
race before 1989 were women.
But in that year, everything changed, as shown in the
riveting new documentary written and directed by Alex Holmes detailing the
voyage of the Maiden (trailer). Using 30-year-old
footage it includes film of the trip, comments by other captains, and excepts
from upbeat interviews with the Maiden’s
captain, Tracy Edwards. Interviews with her today reveal how frightened she
was. For a very long time, she couldn’t get a sponsor for the expensive venture;
even running the race was costly, with a land crew to meet and help them at
every stop. A lot was riding on her boat’s success.
No one expected them to do well against the 22 other boats
in the race. Everyone knew “girls” couldn’t sail such a demanding course. The
local Portsmouth punters took bets on how far they’d get—out of the harbor,
then back? the Canary Islands? No one expected them to finish the race’s first
leg, across the Atlantic to Uruguay, much less the entire race. The dismissive yachting
journalists and rival captains reinterviewed today have vivid memories of how
Edwards scuttled their assumptions.
The Maiden won the
most grueling leg of the race, across the far south latitudes, icebergs and
all, to reach Australia, then the shortest, around to a stop in New Zealand,
which required precision boat-handling. It wasn’t just the physical challenge
of controlling a 58-foot boat in heavy seas. It was a mental and endurance
challenge as well, especially for Edwards, who served as skipper and navigator.
For every member of the crew then and now, this experience
was the adventure of a lifetime. An uplifting journey for viewers too. Says Adam
Graham in the Detroit News, Maiden “ tells a story whose tidal waves
were felt far beyond the deck of her ship.” And you stay dry.
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 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.
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
critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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%.
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
Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet.
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
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%.