Minding the Gap directed by Bing Liu. 2018. Documentary.

Three young men, Liu, Zack, and Keire, are trying to grow up, become men, beginning as hyperkinetic teens devoted to skateboarding.  The footage of the skateboarding is elegant and fluid and shows the beauty of movement.   Liu, the director, is one of the skaters, and I wondered if he filmed while riding.   In Rockford, IL where they live, there is little employment that can keep them going and fed.

Zack has a pregnant girlfriend, Nina, who gives birth to Elliott, then leaves him because he is abusive and alcoholic.  Zack goes downhill rather quickly, and his alert baby is onto it.  Nina, the mother, claims she is a little girl.  The whole question of maturity hovers over each of these people who look like adults, but cannot demonstrate that they really are.  Zack’s mother left when he was two.  His father was not around.  It is not surprising that he abandons his family.  But it is disturbing to watch his deterioration before our very eyes,.

Zack and Elliot

Zack moves to Denver, leaving his son behind.  He works in a fast food restaurant.  His son Elliott has charisma and for a short time is the star of the movie.  He is just a pregnancy bump in the beginning, someone to be diapered, and then starts walking, talking, and learning how to be in the world, giving us a chance to appreciate the many years Liu spent filming his friends, how it adds depth to their story.

But the gist of the story is how these three young men, so damaged in their childhoods, are forced into becoming men before they are ready without the love that would prepare them to become loving in return.   They push away the pain of what they face in their troubled childhoods.  All three lived with extremely abusive fathers.  Liu’s mother was choked by her husband who also beat her sons.  He has a half brother who talks about his father being abusive.

“I don’t want to be alone.”  says Liu’s mother, trying to explain why she didn’t leave the man who was abusing her and her children.  It does not seem fair to Liu’s mother that he uses her as a subject when it is excruciating to both of them.  An act of masochism or sadism or could it be revenge? “But it hurts you?”  “Yeah.  But so did my dad.  And I loved him to death.”

What does it mean to be a man?  Working, taking care of your family, loving your wife, none of these things seem possible.  They all just want to be skateboarding.  It takes them out of their troubles.  The profile of the young men parallels the profile of Rockford and its hard times.

Keire at his father’s grave

The filmmaker gets close to each of the people – the three subjects—and their parents – and gets them to reveal their inner selves.   It almost feels like a violation of privacy.    Keire, who lives with his mother, rues having said something mean to his father just before he died. Keire’s mother tells Liu at one point that he is getting too personal, and needs to take a break.   Keire goes to the cemetery on Father’s Day in search of his dad.  Zack drinks constantly.  Keire who bonds with his brothers and his nephews, and keeps in touch with his mother seems in a much better place.  There is frank discussion about racism.

The filmmaker and one of the main characters, Liu

Men need positive role models to become successful.   It is tragic and predictable that Zack would abandon his young son, and beat his mother.“You can’t beat up women. But bitches need to get slapped sometimes.” says Zack.  What will Elliott become?  Who will he look up to ?  His father?  What will he make of this movie when he is old enough to understand it?

Keire moves to Denver, perhaps to join up with Zack.  We do not learn what happens to the child support suit pressed by Nina.

Bing Liu, director and skateboarder, has gotten very close to crossing a line documentary filmmakers sometimes are tempted to cross, that is, putting on the screen things that can come back and damage the subjects later.  But it is hard to look away.  It is all so real, so dramatic, and sad.

Keire and Zack

(Be warned that if you watch this on PBS – they keep showing ads on the lower left corner of the screen, and the channel promotion never disappears from the lower right side.  They also blank out the obscenities.)

 

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Rocket Man directed by Dexter Fletcher. 2019.

This gallery contains 7 photos.

With Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley as younger versions of Elton. The movie starts with the superstar entering rehab dressed in an outlandish red costume with cape, horns, and glasses … Continue reading

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Long Shot directed by Jonathan Levine, 2019.

with Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.

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Does everyone really curse as much as the people in Veep?  As the people in this movie? Can a man named Fred Flarksy (Seth Rogen) who wears a cheap teal sweatshirt zipped up to his chin and a badly soiled bicycle cap realistically date someone with high class and stature and style?

Compare this

with this

Taking a page from Veep and Vice, Long Shot follows the career of Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron)  whose road to higher office hits some bumps  along the way.

Fred Flarksy (Seth Rogen) holds his own in the company of the astonishingly beautiful Charlotte whose savoir faire in the political arena contrasts with his strident belief in his own ideas and political ethics.  Theron is convincing in her role, if a tiny bit more styled for the Hollywood runway than a diplomacy jag.

The movie is of the moment with its nods to mindful breathing and mini naps.  What a relief to watch two people puzzle out their affection for each other — and remain loyal to each other as well  as their political principles.

Since Charlotte is an advocate for the environment, part of the plot is about her wrangling an international treaty that protects bees, seas and trees, and how each of these ideas is threatened  by nefarious outsiders with money and influence.

The villain of the piece is a press mogul (think Rupert Murdoch) whose purchase of Fred’s paper impels him to quit his job in protest.  His joblessness leads to Charlotte hiring him as a “punch up” writer for her speeches, giving her more humor, and ability to connect with her audience.  Several sidekicks in the forms of handlers and bodyguards contribute to the humor.  Fred’s friendship with the one person he can call when he is feeling sad adds gravitas to the movie.

There are many funny lines but Seth’s speech writing does not provide them.    I think my favorite bits come from a tutorial for Charlotte on how to wave more charmingly.

O’Shea Jackson, who plays Fred’s best friend, with his hand on his heart. On either side of him, Charlotte’s handler and bodyguard

The movie seems to be about having the courage of your convictions even when you risk losing something important.  I did not buy the fairy tale ending when Charlotte gave up trying to play the game and won anyway.  But isn’t it nice to think so?

 

 

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Biggest Little Farm directed by John Chester

The filmmaker explores what it takes to have a diversified farm with fruit trees, sheep, pigs, ducks, and chickens, in an area of California just north of Los Angeles which is undergoing a drought.  This documentary follows John and Molly Chester who were living in a crowded apartment in the city and then decided to strike off, buy a farm, and because they are ignorant of farming, hire a consultant who becomes their guru. The tone is at turns reverent, resentful, sad, and wistful about the consultant.  The open questioning and admitting of ignorance about their undertaking made me question John and Holly’s intelligence. What else it took to establish the farm besides the idealism of creating a truly diverse farm using the old methods of natural fertilizer, pests control, and soil development are left unexplored.

The Chesters aim to have their farm reclaim land lost to monoculture.  Farming is hard, and full of natural enemies (coyotes, starlings, gophers, aphids) As the couple learn and observe over several years, they put their enemies to use.  The coyotes kill the gophers which are destroying their ground cover which is keeping the soil fertile for the fruit trees. Their ducks eat the snails that are damaging the trees.

Photography is always beautiful, perhaps too beautiful: how did they get those shots of the hummingbird at her nest?  The filmmaker’s original career as a nature photographer helps.

But I had so many questions:  How did they get the money to start the farm?  Why wasn’t there more discussion of the business of farming?  Did the ladybugs just arrive to feast on the aphids or did they buy hordes of them?  At first the story begins with the couple not having any money to buy the farm, then there were investors.  Is investors a euphemism for a rich uncle? Who really owned the farm?   Why did they call it Biggest Little Farm?  Is 200 acres a little farm?  Were their employees really that happy?  I was dying to hear from someone besides the filmmaker.  It was way too one sided.  A farm takes lots of people to make it work, and though a few people were singled out as helping, I don’t think enough credit was given to the many people who worked there.

Another problem I had was the cloying tone, beginning with the music, extending to the dog Todd who was inserted with his weepy blue eyes often and did not come across  for me I think the way it was intended.  I hated it when they said we had a baby, referring to the dog.

The movie is hopeful in that it demonstrates how the earth can be reclaimed with the right strategy and tons of work, but at times it was preachy with its endless voiceover.  Chester is the narrator and it is his story, so it is warranted, but I grew tired of the wordiness.

As someone who works a little piece of land with rather thin soil, I loved watching the transformation of the dirt from sandy dust to rich loamy earth that could grow anything.  But never mentioning money in a movie about what looks like an expensive risky enterprise seems disingenuous.  My favorite character:  Emma, the big fat sow.  She had real presence, and when she took sick, that was the one time I worried.    Emma just did her job of being a sow, and did not take on any other pretentious meaning.

 

 

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Wild Nights with Emily, directed by Madeleine Olnek, 2019.

With Molly Shannon, Susan Zeigler, Amy Steimetz

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As a straight woman who loves her poetry, I had assumed the sexuality of Dickinson to be beside the point, or as I had been coached since childhood, that of a frustrated spinster.  Scholarship pointed to a different story, that of a woman whose sexuality was hidden because of her preference for women, I still thought, I don’t care– it’s the poems that matter.

But this movie puts the lie to rest. Using authoritative sources, it demonstrates how Emily Dickinson attempted to get published, but was spurned by the male editors who deemed her subjects too vague or her rhymes not complete, or that she just was not ready for publication.  Since Molly Shannon is on the other side of 50, it is hard to stomach the men’s rejection of her work for the reason that she just is not ready.

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Higginson editor of the Atlantic, explains to Emily that she is not ready to get published

This movie is a good antidote to the gloomy treatment of Emily Dickinson’s life in A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies).  In that movie we had to suffer through, after a promising beginning, Cynthia Nixon pretending to have multiple seizures, at length.

In Wild Nights, humor is inevitable — this is Molly Shannon after all– but none of it is gratuitous, and some of it hard earned by the self aggrandizing  Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), Emily’s brother’s mistress, as she takes more than her share of credit for publishing Emily’s work posthumously.

All of the characters play their parts especially well.  Sue (Susan Ziegler), Emily’s adored and adoring lover, captures the nuances of the next door sister in law, as she receives many love poems, and spurns her husband’s advances.  Directorial choices create a story that gives full credit to the genius of Dickinson’s work, her family history, and patriarchal restrictions.

with sueinbedIs it Olnek’s gender that makes her treatment of her subject so much more sympathetic than Davies? The costumes and sets may not have been as lavish but the soul of the subject demands more wit which is in ample supply.  I found myself laughing out loud at times.  How delightful to have a movie about a writer not be boring or solemn about the writing process.  Olnek shows Dickinson in all her complexity including her generosity to children as she sends down by rope a basket of ginger cookies to the waiting children on the grass.

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Would you like me to buy you another dress? asks Sue of Emily

I don’t know if I can be objective about this subject since I am such an ardent fan of Dickinson’s work.  But I really appreciated the genuine feminism at the core, and I look forward to seeing more of Olnek’s movies.

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They Shall Not Grow Old directed by Peter Jackson, 2018.

a documentary about World War I with film footage from the Imperial War Museum and voice interviews recorded by the BBC.

 

On the 100 year anniversary of the armistice in 1918, the Imperial War Museum wanted to commemorate the event with a film, so they asked Peter Jackson to use the footage available.

Peter Jackson at his monitor

Jackson claims that he did not know what the movie would be about (!) – of course it is about the war– but what would be its narrative arc?

The rank and file men who bore the burden of the horrendous battles on the Western front tell the story:  how they enlisted as an act of patriotism, of camaraderie, as a lark, that they were all in this together, they needed to get the job done, let’s sign up and go after the people who are against our great country.  Most of the men were mere boys– lying about their age or not held to the 19 year old cut off.  There was a lot of enthusiasm, even though no exact reasons were given.  A news item with a headline: Don’t forget Belgium — flashes across the screen without any further explanation of why the war started.  I think I learned more about the reason why the British joined the fight from Downton Abbey than from this movie.  Because the movie is front the men’s point of view, not historians’, we learn that Germans instead of soccer opponents were suddenly transformed into mortal enemies.

Crowds of men are inducted, have their hair cut, are outfitted with one uniform to last four years, one razor not sharp to begin with, one toothbrush used more to polish the buttons on their jackets than to clean their teeth (their teeth look pretty bad).  These specific details make the men poignantly human as they embark on a perilous task.

Training exercises transform undisciplined boys out on a lark into professional soldiers.  As the boats make their way to the front, the tone changes.   The film, up until now in black and white, is in color and the movement takes on a vividness missing in the black and white.  Masterful editing stitches together the narratives  of the soldiers — over 100 are credited — telling the story to match the colorized footage of the trenches, with the sounds of the bombardments, mines exploding into poisonous mountains of shrapnel, the ghastly yellow of mustard gas, all the atrocities that would lead to over 1,000,000 casualties in Britain alone.

We witness the horses killed, the men lying unburied, the rats that came to feast on the corpses, the unlivable conditions of climbing through mud that swallowed some of the men alive.  The cameramen capture one scene after another from hell as closely as they are able to get to it, but not so close that they ventured into No Mans Land where so many died.

Besides correcting the color, Jackson who made his name directing the Lord of the Rings,  has corrected the jerky speed of the old celluloid.    Something about the old black and white films distances it from us, makes us aware not only how long ago it was, but how rudimentary the technology was.  Jackson’s masterful work brings the lads in close, makes us care about them, these dutiful  boys growing old so fast, with their great intentions turning into fear, horror, and hope of survival.

The red flowers seemed colorized a bit too much — as if the symbol of the poppy as a remembrance of the peace that came in 1918– was present all around them if they would only have noticed.

How sad it is to watch the footage of the horses — and the men’s regret at their fallen friends.  Dogs that appear are lavished with affection.  The British joke with their German prisoners who seem to bear them no malice and trade caps with them.

Because the cameramen could not film the actual hand to hand battles, Jackson uses cartoons from the era, something I am not sure is completely successful, but does give another image from the era, one full of crude stereotypes of the enemy.

After the movie was over, Jackson invites the audience to stay for another short film which explains the process of restoring the film, how they even lip synced some lines which were read by actors, and the song Rinky Dinky Parlay Voo was sung by academics.    Everyone in the theater stayed, transfixed by such a restoration of significant history.

Carrying casualties

Jackson’s personal interest in the war came from his grandfather’s participation as a soldier who enlisted, was wounded, discharged, and then re-enlisted.  His injuries contributed to his rather short life — dead by 50.  Jackson implores the audience to ask their own families if they had any involvement in the war.  But I thought, how strange, all of my family that would know are long gone, and I am over 65.  So who is he appealing to? It is enough to have this profound record of what it was like to be a pawn in an international catastrophe.

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Grass directed by Sang-soo Hong, 2018.

In Korean with English subtitles, with Min Hee Kim.

A young woman sits in a cafe eavesdropping on the other customers.  She sits quietly in the corner, typing on her laptop computer.  The other customers have serious conversations about their lives, and there are not one not two but three suicides under discussion.  Or is it one suicide, played out three different ways?  The main idea is that people need each other, and are made up of very strong emotions, and the people who share them blend into each other in a big disharmonious mess.

atcafe

Some of the customers, none of whom has a name, scream at each other.  We don’t learn exactly what happened to precipitate the melodrama, but that is the point.  The observer in the corner, the fly on the wall, has to figure that out for herself because she is writing a screenplay, or the screenplay is about a screenplay.

the eavesdropper

The black and white photography of the main actors is crucial.  Each couple is framed in a medium closeup with individuals in profile, except on occasion when the camera moves away from the two, and focuses in on one.  In one of the conversations a woman does the lion’s share of the talking, and the man we only see from behind his right ear.  This could be irritating in less than sure hands, but Hong has cut his teeth on this kind of close observation.  Only at the very end did I grow tired of the slightly out of focus shot of the surrounding area around the cafe where most of the action takes place.

rightear

Min Hee Kim who plays the eavesdropper is a remarkable actress.  She just keeps drawing you in, making you wonder who she really is.  The simplicity of the screenplay, where she is mostly just observing , and writing her thoughts on what she is overhearing, is enough.  But when she leaves the cafe and hangs out with her brother for a moment, and is antagonistic to his fiance, we learn more about her temperament, and we seem to be exiting the world of the screenplay and entering real life.

irritatedbybrother

I have grown tired of movies that are a bit too long.  The ease of filming with digital technology, compared to cinematography with film, has drawn filmmakers to shoot too much, to include scenes they should have edited out.  This is one thing I loved about this movie: its brevity.  Brevity stands in for discipline, for including only the things needed to tell the story, not that there is a story yet, but the movie is about someone trying to make sense of the world around her.

The soundtrack however, was really bothersome.  In the cafe, one patron notes that the owner who is never seen but remarked upon for his good manners and gentlemanly behavior, likes to play classical music.  Unfortunately, the songs used are often those used for famous ballets, and distracted me from the main scene playing out in front of me, and made me visualize the great ballet dancers I have seen perform to this music. I remembered Peter Martins, and Baryshnikov, and Suzanne Farrell, dancing.  Then Pachelbel’s Canon would play. Or some other chestnut so loud that it practically drowned out the dialogue of the actors.

talking suicide,upset

But I came away thinking highly of the director, and his muse, the actress, who I had last seen in Claire’s Camera, with Isabelle Huppert.  There were many similar scenes in that movie, of two people, just sitting across from each other, talking to each other about things that really matter.  How unusual and profound is that. There are so many people walking down the street, gazing into their phones,  that this movie was a welcome relief, and reminded me of how important it is to reach out and really connect.

 

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