Tag Archives: biography

Endless Poetry (Poesía Sin Fin)

[3 stars]

Endless Poetry picks up just about where Dance of Reality left off. In fact the overlap and reuse of actors and sets is so complete I thought I had started to rewatch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film and had to stop to be sure. However, it quickly veers as we follow the young Alejandro from his childhood home to Santiago. This next chapter of his life story is not about his parents so much as about his creative blooming.

Much like the last (and all of Jodorowsky’s) work, this is in his unique voice. While highly biographical and personal, it is also surreal and experimental. Not quite film and not quite theatre it flows along leaving you with incredible visuals, intriguing ideas, and moments of beauty set off by disturbing scenes of ugliness. Though I will say that this film seems to find the beauty in everything it sees, no matter how base or fouled.

As the title implies, this is the path by which our intrepid artist learns to see poetry in everything in life. It is a hopelessly optimistic approach, but not an unfair depiction of a young poet. It echos a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet) early work. The rich colors, the odd characters, the fantastical approaches to life. The bottomless ability to find the positive amid the disturbing. And, ultimately, the core belief that the human spirit can not only survive anything but also use it to create art.

This is a film you watch for the experience. What you take from it will change depending on when you watch it. It is a stunning piece of vision making it worthwhile even when the story itself is so personal to Jodorowsky as to be inscrutable. But, of course, you have to like that experimental theatre feel and approach.

Endless Poetry

BlacKkKlansman

[5 stars]

Undoubtedly, this is Spike Lee’s (Chi-Raq) best film since Do The Right Thing. Not because he is back on political ground, he never left it, but because it flows, it is human, and it is a masterful piece of storytelling that takes you from Point A to a Point B in unexpected ways. It is an hypnotic film that draws you in with its humor and, while never subtle, slowly turns the screws to leave you with that same self-reflective feeling Do The Right Thing managed way back when.

Certainly Lee’s trademark camera work and shots are present, but he holds them back for better impact than he has in the past. And his direction for the actors is subtle as he orchestrates the off-beat and nearly unbelievable tale.

In the lead, John David Washington (Ballers) floats perfectly through Stallworth’s story. Adam Driver (Logan Lucky) supports him well by his side and navigating his own complex history. As difficult as these roles were to play, Topher Grace (The Calling), Ryan Eggold (Lucky Them), Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings), and Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) deserve special notice. They had to navigate some very dark places with conviction and without allowing them to become caricatures; no easy task.

This film is rather female poor, which was a surprise. However, Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Ashlie Atkinson (One Dollar) each create fascinating, true-believers who are very much part of the story. As a surprise short bit, Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) sets the tone nicely if not entirely fits in the movie. There are many other performances to notice, but this would get too long to list them all. Suffice to say that it is a well heeled and directed cast.

But, unlike the also true Shock and Awe, Lee managed to find the personal stories in the tale and to talk to us openly and honestly, bringing home the point of his film. In fact, he baldly lectures and nods to our present day. Because he does, but within the strictures of the story he’s telling, it becomes wry, sarcastic humor rather than pure chest-beating exposition. I don’t know how he managed that, but it worked.

The movie has its flaws, but not many. Most of the concerns I had fled as the movie wrapped up and the reasons for many choices became clear. It is certainly an odd structure, but it is also a beautiful piece of architecture and a movie not to be missed. Make time for this film in the theater. It isn’t necessarily a big-screen flick, though Lee certainly knows how to frame things, but it does deserve your support and time. It isn’t a pleasant subject, but you get plenty of sugar with the medicine. That BlacKkKlansman is a true story only adds to the weird and scary wonderfulness of it all.

BlacKkKlansman

Same Kind of Different as Me

[3 stars]

This is not a subtle film. In fact, first time feature director and co-writer Michael Carney was as delicate as a sledgehammer at times. This isn’t to say that the story (a true one) isn’t insightful or effective, it is. It is just generally much more provocative than evocative.

What saves this film from just being a Lifetime installment is the cast and the truthful earnestness of its tale. Djimon Hounsou (Seventh Son) captures the real-life Denver and his situation emotionally and with conviction. If anything, his performance made this worth its bloated, nearly two hour length. And, as the couple that comes into his life, Greg Kinnear (Brigsby Bear) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) build a relationship fraught with reality and more than a little bit of idealism. In smaller, but important, roles Jon Voigt (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Geraldine Singer (Mudbound) add a different balance and storyline. The one truly odd bit in the cast is the son, played by Austin Filson. Filson is notable only for the fact that he doesn’t speak a single line the entire film even though his screen sister, Olivia Holt, has a plot thread of her own.

The message and insights of this story are important ones, particularly at this time in the country when we seem to have lost track of who people in need are and how they got there. I won’t go into the disturbing irony of that trend when we supposedly have such religious leadership. But an important message and good acting don’t always make a good movie. Not that this is a bad movie, but it’s just the wrong side of cloying for me, and is clearly aimed at a faith-based crowd. I stand by that description despite the fact that it takes one of the main characters literally to the threshold of a church and then keeps them entering. Faith is not a bad thing, but it brings a tone and level of unreality to it all, even if the base tale is true. And, certainly, it spurred an ongoing wave of good works (that somehow remain primarily in the background till the credits).

So, should you see this? Probably. It is a good check on your assumptions and a goose to your sense of possibility. In more practiced hands, this could have been a better movie, but as a message delivered with credible talent, it will hold you till the end. But know what you’re walking into and accept it for what it is and what it isn’t.

Same Kind of Different as Me

Woman Walks Ahead

[3 stars]

Woman Walks Ahead isn’t a great movie, but it dramatizes an interesting slice of history, especially given today’s politics. It also isn’t your typical Western, though it certainly retains a lot of the machismo overtones even with Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) as the main focus and star of the film. Working closely with Michael Greyeyes (Fear the Walking Dead), the two form the main spine of the story and hold it together well.

But, honestly, the most nuanced and interesting characters were really along the sidelines. Bill Camp (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) really steal this movie out from under the leads. Camp’s General is inscrutable and weirdly fascinating. And Rockwell seems to have found a niche for himself in Hollywood as a semi-redeemable asshole. He’s good at it, but I’m really hoping he isn’t going to get stuck in that persona. Also worth noting were Ciarán Hinds (Red Sparrow) and Rulan Tangen as a mixed-race couple a la Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.

Steven Knight’s (November Criminals, Peaky Blinders) script is intriguing and full of nice subtleties and historical bits that aren’t afraid of the realities. Despite that, what I realized was that I found myself reacting emotionally more to the events rather than to the characters themselves. My reactions were logical rather than emotional because I wasn’t identifying with the main characters. To me, this means director Susanna White (Parade’s EndNanny McPhee Returns) somehow bungled the execution. Chastain and Greyeyes have an intense and intensely quiet relationship. It isn’t that there isn’t tension between them, but Chastain, in particular, is so closed off that we never really get inside her head. Greyeyes has a few more moments, but again is often walled off.

As I said, this isn’t a great film, but it is an interesting one. Whether you think it was worth your time will be a combination of what you think of the actors and how much of the history you already know or think you know. The 1890s weren’t a pretty period for women or native Americans. If you you do make the time for this movie and want to keep it a true learning experience, pop in Wind River afterwards and find where it all leads and how little has changed.

Woman Walks Ahead

Everything is Illuminated

[3.5 stars]

This is a sneaky little film, and all to the good. Liev Schreiber (Pawn Sacrifice) pulls off a clever bit of structure that would often destroy a film in less sure hands. Here it works wonderfully. And given that this was his first attempt at both writing and directing, it is an even more impressive result.

Elija Wood (The Last Witch Hunter) is the only readily recognizable face in the film. He provides a great spine for the tale. An equally strong performance is from a face you may or may not recognize, Boris Leskin. The interplay of these two characters is part of the magic that Schreiber pulls off.

I don’t know how much of the story from the original book is true, but the impact forgives it any embellishments. If you missed this in the past, make time for this story at some point. Let its quiet pace and wry humor take you along to unexpected places and endings. It is powerful and, sadly, still very relevant in today’s world.

Everything Is Illuminated

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland