Only the Lonely

Tabu, a Portuguese film from a few years back, is unapologetically art-house: black-and-white, layered with meaning, no spoken dialogue in its second half; it incorporates some features of F.W. Murnau’s 1931 silent film, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Miguel Gomes’s film starts with a short prologue, the tale of a man whose loss in love set him wandering the world in sorrow and loneliness. Part 1 (“Paradise Lost”) concerns three women in modern-day Lisbon: a social activist, her elderly neighbor, and the neighbor’s caretaker. The neighbor, Aurora, is lonely and embittered; at times she treats her caretaker like an indentured servant. She is also in declining health, but before she dies she sends for an old acquaintance, Gian-Luca, who narrates Part 2 (“Paradise”). This takes us to Mozambique during the days of revolt against Portuguese colonialists. Young Aurora (Ana Moreira) and her husband run a plantation; Aurora is also a crack-shot big game hunter. A young crocodile Aurora keeps as a pet wanders off. In searching for it, Aurora meets young Gian-Luca (Carloto Cotta), who is starting a nearby tea plantation. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the two become lovers, or that the Mozambique story ends badly.

It’s a diverting, puzzling film, with plenty to argue about. What does the crocodile symbolize (if anything)? Does the film ignore the horrors of colonial rule? See it with a group of film buffs, and discuss afterward over dark-roast coffee.

Tabu (reviews)
Directed by Miguel Gomes
Written by Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo
Language: Portuguese
Running time: 118 minutes
DVD release date: October 29, 2013

* * *

The Kindergarten Teacher, set in Israel, shows the title character becoming increasingly obsessed with one of her students, a six-year-old boy who seems to be a poetic prodigy. What spoiled the movie for me was that I never found the child credible. When seized with inspiration, he would pace rigidly back and forth, reciting a new poem, start to finish, without stumbling or correction. The poems may as well have issued from his mouth on ticker-tape. And they seemed impossibly subtle and adult (although the director claims that the poems used in the film were actually written by himself at around six years of age); they didn’t fit with the child’s behavior when he was not spewing poetry.

In Your Eyes gives us two young adults, Dylan and Rebecca (Michael Stahl-David and Zoe Kazan), on opposite ends of the country who suddenly realize they can communicate telepathically and feel one another’s experiences. Of course they are attractive; of course they fall in love; and of course one is imperiled, and the other must fly to the rescue.

The film, using a script written by Joss Whedon in 1992, got its festival premiere in April 2014, so it’s a little unfair to compare it with Sense8, which came out a year later. I’m going to be a little unfair, because I saw the film after seeing the Wachowski series. The film is pretty weak stuff. At one point Dylan says he’s figured out why the two are psychically connected: “Why not?” Sometimes you can get away with hanging a lantern on a story’s flaw, but here it’s like putting dressing-room lights in a latrine.

Now for another go at Apichatpong Weerasethakul: This time I had a look at his Cemetery of Splendour (as it is spelled in the film). A school is being built over an ancient royal burial ground, and Thai soldiers at the site are conking out, Sleeping-Beauty style. A few women who claim to be supernatural beings explain that ancient, buried kings are draining the soldiers’ energy so that they can carry on their squabbles.

Normally I am fine with fantasy films, but this director’s movies just don’t move me; I don’t respond correctly. In this film there is a scene where a group of visitors in viewing the sleeping soldiers, arrayed on cots. One of the actors playing a sleeping soldier gets an erection. The visitors play around a bit, all but literally hanging a lantern on it. Critics say this shows the director’s great sense of humor. I think it mars the story; it was time to call “cut” and let things calm down. (Okay, maybe the scene could play over the closing credits.)


Another Russian Conspiracy?

When it comes to Russia and Ukraine, is there no end to scheming? The latest insult has been the Russian theft of Crimea, but one Ukrainian artist thinks he has found a plot even more outrageous, going back to the Soviet era.

The Russian Woodpecker gives us Fedor Alexandrovich, avant-garde filmmaker and oddball. As a child, he was whisked away from Kiev in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and the memory of that dislocation rattles him as an adult. Perhaps the strontium-90 in his bones has added to his eccentricity, somehow. At any rate, around the time of the Euromaidan protests, he decides to travel to the Chernobyl area to try and find out why the disaster occurred. And there he beholds the Duga, a mothballed radar installation, rising like a continental dreamcatcher over the Ukrainian forest. When it was being operated by the Soviets, the Duga blasted out electromagnetic waves that interfered with shortwave all over the world. Its ten pulses per second produced a rattle that earned it the name given to the documentary.

Alexandrovich digs into the history of the Duga, and soon he develops a theory–absurd? barely plausible?–that connects it to Chernobyl’s meltdown. All he needs is one bit of evidence….

And suddenly, afraid, he wants nothing more to do with his theory.

The artist, of course, is a stand-in for the nation and its paranoia in the shadow of a voracious bear. Add this to the catalog of films ably portraying post-Soviet central Europe.

The Russian Woodpecker (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Chad Garcia
Languages: English and Russian
Awarded the World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary, at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival
Running time: 80 minutes
DVD release date: July 26, 2016

The Big Surprise

November 8, 2016. The day the animated film Sausage Party was released on DVD, and the day America elected its first female President.

OK, one of those things did not happen. And, its non-happening felt like the other thing, sorta.

The doc 11/8/16 compiles impressions of the election from people in sixteen locations across the country, ranging from a fringe candidate in Vermont to a homeless guy in Hawaii. (None from Texas, alas.) It divides into three sections. Morning introduces the subjects as the polls open; Afternoon captures vignettes from the day while people are casting votes; and Night watches our subjects watching the election results.

Many of these people had (or felt they had) significant stakes in the results: a Sikh cab driver from Queens, who thought all Muslims (and people who looked like Muslims) could be deported by Trump; a Dreamer in San Jose, who also faced deportation; and a West Virginia coal miner, who knew Clinton would shut down his industry. I confess to three favorites: Tom and Gina, Massachusetts small-business owners who felt oppressed by Obamacare (Tom wore a dark blue Make America Great Again hat, which he puckishly threatened never to take off); Hana, a Kent State student all-in for Clinton; and Calene, a Utah housewife who volunteered for McMullin (a third-party conservative) because she couldn’t stand Trump but couldn’t bring herself to support Clinton.

There are other interesting characters, including an exonerated death-row inmate, voting in his first election. Because of the large number of subjects, you may want to watch the film as I did: Morning; Afternoon; Morning (again, to refamiliarize with the characters); and Night. A nice little bit of history.

11/8/16 (reviews) (official site)

Directed by Duane Anderson; Don Argott & Sheena M. Joyce; Yung Chang; Garth Donovan; Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker; Vikram Gandhi; Raul Gasteazoro; Jamie Gonçalves; Andrew Beck Grace; Alma Har’el; Daniel Junge; Alison Klayman; Ciara Lacy; Martha Shane; Elaine McMillion Sheldon; and Bassam Tariq
Running time: 104 minutes
Languages: English, with some Spanish, Panjabi, and Urdu
Streaming on Netflix since November 3, 2017

Crazy Love

For those seeking a non-chemical alternative to psychedelic drugs, there are the films of Bill Plympton. Cheatin’ is a fine example.

In this wordless animated film, Ella is a lovely young woman who meets Jake, a hunky mechanic, and the two crash into love. They devote themselves to one another, until one of them is led to believe that the other is cheating on the relationship, which leads to revenge cheating, which leads to all sorts of chaos involving a fantastic reality-shifting machine. Said machine is hardly out of place in this movie. Early on there is a hilarious extended set piece in a bumper car ride which leaves the laws of physics in a crumpled heap. We also get a couple of cameos by one of Plympton’s beloved manic dogs.

But along with this looniness there’s a lot of heart. These lovestruck lunkheads deserve better than what the universe is dishing out for them. They suffer real heartbreak, and the viewer can’t help but root for the two to find their way back together. In the nuttiest way possible, of course.

Cheatin’ (reviews)
Directed and written by Bill Plympton
Running time: 78 minutes

* * *

Stretch is the story of a limo driver (Patrick Wilson) who owes big money to his bookie. He hopes to earn the money quickly by driving a hypereccentric billionaire (Chris Pine in thick facial foliage) around L.A. The film is deeply in love with its own cynicism. If you don’t slap your knees delightedly at the sight of three call girls in blackface, this movie may not be for you. I bailed after 40 minutes.

This Could Be a Movie

A couple of recent documentaries could be remade, shot for shot, with actors, and the results would be 90% of the way toward satisfying narrative films.

Debra Granik is certainly familiar with narrative film, having directed and co-written Down to the Bone and Winter’s Bone. One of the actors in the latter film was Ronnie Hall, on whom Granik has trained her documentary lens in the film Stray Dog (Hall’s nickname). Hall is a “type”: biker, white beard, Vietnam vet tattoo on his arm, owner/caretaker of multiple dogs; he manages a trailer park in Branson, Missouri. He is proud to be a veteran but troubled by what the war taught him about himself; he’s also an empathetic counselor to other vets. Three-quarters of the film acquaints us with Hall and shows his everyday life; the last quarter follows his wife Anita as she visits her two sons in Mexico and tries to bring them to Missouri and (hopefully) a better life. All very touching.

Western captures a key period in the history of two towns separated by the Rio Grande. For years, Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, lived peacefully with virtually no boundary between them; people and livestock passed freely between the U.S. and Mexico. But then drug wars picked up along the border, and it was only a matter of time before cartel violence reached this particular river crossing.

The film focuses on two characters: Martín Wall, a cattle trader, and Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass. Wall is trying to raise a young daughter and stay in business while border crossings are restricted–he is in the U.S. but his supply is in Mexico. Foster, a natural politician with a white mustache and a cowboy hat, struggles to keep the mood peaceful and the outlook positive when things get dicey.

Both documentaries feature drama but neither leans into it. Rather, they serve as portraits of people and places. They benefit from good timing and interesting personalities, and they make full use of those benefits.

Stray Dog (reviews)
Directed and written by Debra Granik
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: September 26, 2017

Western (reviews)
Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
Running time: 93 minutes

A Farewell to Fairy Tales

I have never been a teenage girl, but I Believe in Unicorns feels like an authentic visit to the mind of a very specific one. Davina (Natalie Dyer) is a Berkeley-area sixteen-year-old, with friends at school and a disabled mother at home. One day her eyes fall on Sterling (Peter Vack), a dreamy older boy–he smokes, has his own wheels. Soon Sterling is serenading her on his guitar, singing about unicorns because he knows Davina loves unicorns. And soon enough the two of them are on the road, road-tripping in his rustbucket. And life is a dream of young love, until it isn’t, and Davina is achingly reclaimed by reality.

The film is from Davina’s point of view, and it’s remarkable how the deeper Davina falls under the spell of romance, the more the world outside the young lovers simply drops out of existence.

The story is punctuated from time to time by fantasy sequences in stop-motion animation, usually involving a unicorn. The herky-jerky crudeness of the animation seems to reinforce the immaturity of the mind imagining it. If you are looking for a well-made film with a relentless point-of-view, this will do.

I Believe in Unicorns (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Leah Meyerhoff
Running time: 78 minutes
DVD release date: January 19, 2016


Remember the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008? So much wrongdoing, so little punishment. A small Manhattan bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was the only institution to face criminal prosecution; the bigger boys were untouchable. Abacus must have looked like an easy target, but the little bank unexpectedly put up a stout defense. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, tells the story. Documentarian Steve James puts us in meetings where the family owning the bank works out its legal strategy.

To be sure, a loan officer at the bank had broken bad, among other things demanding kickbacks from borrowers. When the bank found out, they fired the loan officer and provided evidence of his wrongdoing to the authorities. The DA used the files handed over to accuse the entire bank of criminality.

The film paints a picture of an immigrant family standing up for itself, and a prosecutor stumbling badly in going after them. For better or worse, it’s a gripping vignette of 21st-century American justice.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Steve James
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: September 12, 2017; recently televised as an episode of PBS’s Frontline, streamable for free here