Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Final word on 2015

Here I do my traditional sort of the best-reviewed films of the year, running them down in roughly my order of preference, with some clustering by type or subject.   In parenthesis, I offer comparison to the consensus calculated by the top Metacritic scores of 2015 (note how this differs from the critical polls I cite in individual reviews).  As you can see, my viewing is extensive but selective.  I don’t expect to survey so many of the “Top 100” in future years, as I return to programming film series for the Clark, and turn more retrospective in my reviews here, concentrating on career summaries of selected directors and performers.  Use search box at top left of page to find my reviews of these films, along with links to Metacritic overview and Netflix availability.

EXHORTATIONS (I urge you to see these):

Spotlight (#4)
Carol (#1)
45 Hours (#2)
Anomalisa (#7)
Inside Out (#3)
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (#9)
The Big Short (#55)
Room (#24)

RECOMMENDATIONS (I advise you to see these):

Brooklyn (#19)
Clouds of Sils Maria (#83)
Second Mother (#41)
Ex Machina (#87)
The End of the Tour (#42)
Love & Mercy (#65)
Mississippi Grind (#92)
Grandma (#100)
Diary of a Teenage Girl (#20)
Girlhood (#26)
Something Anything
Tangerine (#25)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (#10)
La Sapienza
Human Capital
Timbuktu (#6)
Phoenix (#16)
Blind (#36)
James White (#37)
Mustang (#49)
Breathe (#86)
Coming Home (#50)
Theeb (#66)
Eden (#47)
’71 (#32)
Creed (#44)
Bridge of Spies (#51)
Black Mass
Testament of Youth
Ricki & the Flash
I’ll See You in My Dreams
While We’re Young
Z for Zachariah
Pawn Sacrifice

APPRECIATIONS (you might find something to like in here):

Steve Jobs (#45)
Sicario (#54)
The Martian (#62)
Experimenter (#48)
About Elly
White God (#70)
Jimmy’s Hall
Duke of Burgundy (#22)
The Gift (#90)
Queen of Earth (#84)
Beloved Sisters
Far from the Madding Crowd
Paddington (#91)
Learning to Drive
Mistress America
Heaven Knows What
Welcome to Me
I Smile Back
Gangs of Wasseypur (#14)
Arabian Nights (#40)

EQUIVOCATIONS (you’re on your own with these):

The Forbidden Room (#35)
Mad Max: Fury Road (#15)
The Assassin (#71)
Son of Saul (#12)
It Follows (#38)
Hard to Be a God (#11)
Horse Money (#28)

Friday, September 02, 2016

"In Jackson Heights" & best of rest

Frederick Wiseman is a hero of mine, and convinces me that it could be worthwhile to live to the age of 85, if one were able to continue to turn out work of the caliber of In Jackson Heights (MC-81, FC #13, NFX).  His latest documentary has all the virtues of the institutional studies that he has been turning out for decades, but his latest is very much of the moment, embodying both antithesis and antidote to Trumpism.  Jackson Heights is a diverse multi-ethnic neighborhood in Queens, welcoming to communities marginalized elsewhere -- immigrants from Latin America and Asia, Muslims and Jews, children and seniors, LGBT people of all rainbow stripes.  In his trademark style -- running in excess of three hours, and eschewing narration, talking-head interviews, on-screen text, or any other explanatory material beyond editorial selection and sequencing – he paints a portrait of a place, and the manifold faces and stories that populate it.  From farmers markets to halal butchers, from madrasas to support groups of every sort, from beauty shops to discos, from politicians to musicians, from classes for cabdrivers to meetings of small business owners – in each venue, articulate spokespeople adumbrate themes, and evocative images drive them home.  Ominously, one undercurrent is the threat to diversity from gentrification.  Like all Wiseman’s films, this is a crowded canvas of human endeavor.

I’m still on my mad quest to see the Top 100 films of 2015, as ranked by Metacritic score, and here are the last few documentaries on the list, most available on Netflix streaming.  Dreamcatcher (MC-86, NFX) is reminiscent of The Interrupters in several ways, including the Chicago setting.  Kim Longinotto is not quite the filmmaker that Steve James is, despite her Sundance award, and the focus is narrower, but in both films reformed denizens of the mean streets go back out there to help young people avoid the same mistakes they made.  In this one prostitution, and in the other gang violence.  For 25 years on the job, Brenda was Breezy, but now she’s on mission to rescue girls from the life.  She visits schools and support groups, and drives around in the Dreamcatcher van, handing out condoms and advice to streetwalkers.  A dynamo, though damaged herself, she is profligate with her helping hand.  The subject is grim, and the lives depicted burdened with multiple dysfunction, but Brenda is a vital force and her story is inspiring, a testament to sisterhood and survival.

I do not understand the critical acclaim for Western (MC-89, NFX), which seemed pedestrian to me.  Its angle on vexed border issues between the U.S. and Mexico is different from Cartel Land, but not as fully realized.  This film from Bill and Turner Ross is about two sister cities, on either side of the Rio Grande, that have always had intimate relations, now threatened by storms from south and north, with drug cartel violence on one side and Washington’s mania for wall-building on the other.  OK, but unremarkable in my view. 

On the other hand, I found the similar ranking of Democrats (MC-89, NFX) quite justified, more engaging than a film about Zimbabwean politics has any right to be.  As with so many documentaries, Camilla Nielsson’s film is based on astounding access.  When the international community took issue with the tainted reelection of Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial president since independence in 1980, the two contesting parties agreed to cooperate on the process of creating a new constitution, first by outreach to the people themselves, and then by protracted negotiation.  We follow the personable lead negotiators for both sides through the three-year process, though Mugabe’s retention of power seems preordained.  Sad to say, but the Zimbabwean experience casts an unflattering light on America’s current political travail.

Laurie Anderson’s cinematic personal essay Heart of a Dog (MC-84, NFX, HBO) may blow your mind or may bore you to tears.  Results will definitely vary.  I liked it, but even at 75 minutes found some parts slow going -- certainly a many-layered effort, visually, musically, intellectually, narratively.  It’s largely a meditation on death, of her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, of her unloving mother, and implicitly of her recently-deceased husband Lou Reed.  It mixes her narration -- including shout-outs to Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead – with her music, and various sorts of animation and found footage, including her as a child.  Making frequent use of superimposition, through raindrops or snowflakes, as well as friezes of nature, the film is often witty and sometimes woo-woo.  It makes me more eager to see the part she will play in the imminent expansion of MassMoCA.

One well-received film that I liked even better than the critical consensus was Hitchcock/Truffaut (MC-79, NFX, HBO), though I have to confess partiality, on the grounds that Truffaut is my favorite director, the book of interviews being celebrated has long had a treasured place on my shelf, and the director of the documentary, Kent Jones, is a Pittsfield native and a friendly acquaintance of mine.  But there’s no denying that the film is very well put-together, so if the subject has any interest for you, I strongly recommend it.  Kent’s choice of Hitchcock films to analyze is different from my own list of favorites, but his visual analyses, guided by the masters’ own conversation, are always acute and informative.

There’s one more recent documentary that I should mention before it disappears from view.  She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (MC-80, NFX) is a memorable group portrait of second-wave feminists from the late Sixties on.  Mary Dore’s film shows, then and now, the collective that created Our Bodies, Ourselves; womanist writers, scholars, and critics; female Black Panthers and Young Lords; and others who comprised the woman’s liberation movement.  The historic footage is evocative of what I think of as my era, and the recent interviews fascinating as a record of the passage of time.

Oops, one more worthy doc I forgot was Twinsters (MC-81, NFX), about Korean twins separated at birth, growing up in LA and in France respectively, who happen to meet and connect through social media.  The girls are energetic and endearing, and so is the film, perhaps not as lightweight as it seems.

Okay, this is the last one for now, I promise.  I’ve had Levitated Mass (2014, MC-82, NFX) in my Netflix queue for some time, but a profile of Michael Heizer in the 8/29/16 New Yorker made me move it up, and then I saw that its streaming availability was ending soon, so I watched it immediately and was glad to do so.  Doug Pray’s film about the installation of the eponymous work of art at LACMA works on many levels, and I’ll look for the opportunity to show it at the Clark sometime.  The work was a 340-ton boulder that made a 100-mile, 10-night journey through 22 communities, from Riverside quarry to downtown LA, to rest atop a long concrete trench alongside the museum.  The picture takes in origin and destination, and most especially the journey itself, which became a public sensation.

I conclude with my own ranking of the best documentaries from the past year, compared in parenthesis to its MetacriticTop 100 ranking of all 2015 films(My similar listing of fiction films will be posted soon, and you can find my review, and further links for each film, by pasting title into search box at top of this page.)

DOCUMENDATIONS for 2015 (in rough order of my preference):

In Jackson Heights (#59)
Amy (#27)
Iris (#67)
Seymour: An Introduction (#34)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (#77)
Look of Silence (#8)
Black Panthers (#75)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Dreamcatcher (#25)
Salt of the Earth (#31)
Cartel Land
Democrats  (#18)
Winter on Fire (#60)
Finders Keepers (#72)
Little White Lie
How to Dance in Ohio
Twinsters (#53)
Heart of a Dog (#29)
Best of Enemies (#94)
Listen to Me Marlon (#21)
Going Clear (#61)
Western (#17)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2015 as deep as it gets

I’m certain never to see as many films released in a single year as the one just past, since I plan to revert to a more retrospective and thematic approach to my viewing and reviewing.  Once I’ve finished this round-up, I’ll post a listing of my hundred best films of 2015, in comparison to the Top100 Metacritic ratings.  Here I’ll group films by oddly similar MC ratings, though I will discriminate by my own opinion. 

There are films that arrive with a buzz or vibe -- or directorial track record -- that makes me avoid all reviews, so I can approach them with fresh and wondering eyes.  This was the case with two quiet mindblowers that have finally arrived on DVD, both of which would definitely reward repeat viewings.  For both, I recommend an initial innocent screening, to find out for yourself what is going on before the camera, behind the masks, beneath the surface, beyond what you can see.  Each will leave you with more questions than answers, enlarging in your mind long after the end credits roll.  Unless impervious to their respective appeals, you will find each achingly human, discovering humor in misery and a glimpse of spirit in the mundane.

45 Years (MC-94, FC #23, MC #8, NFX) denotes the anniversary that a comfortable British couple living in rural Norfolk is about to celebrate.  They are played by two old reliables, Charlotte Rampling and Tim Courtenay, who’ve done a lot more than survived since the Sixties, which period is evoked by music cues throughout.  The two leads alone are worth the price of admission, but that’s not all.  Andrew Haigh’s writing and direction is subtle but tight, everything is connected, and you have to stay sharp to see anything happen at all.  It takes an extraordinary gift to make the ordinary profound, and to insert a sense of suspense into the everyday.  Under a quiet surface secrets come to light, obsessions are unleashed, that shake the marriage to its foundation.  I am loathe to reveal any of what happens (or doesn’t) since it unfolds to an ending that many will see differently, or even find befuddling.  It seemed clear to me, but was not the end I wished for, which only made it seem more true to life.  Anyway – see it, and then we can talk.  And I mean that literally, since I think this would be a terrific selection for the Cinema Salon film club, supposing that screenings and discussions may resume with the reopening of the Clark auditorium in November.

Anomalisa (MC-92, FC #12, MC #7, NFX) would also yield an animated discussion, if possibly less suited to the demographic of the film club.  You really need some attraction to the depressive humor and twisted worldview of Charlie Kaufman to get into the spirit of this film, which is even weirder than usual.  The fascinating and explanatory backstory to the film is revealed in an exemplary DVD extra, but I advise you to find your way into its weirdnesses without a guide.  I’ll go so far as to divulge that the story began as a three-person audio play with sound effects and music, but I won’t tell who the three voices were (and are), or how they’re embodied in puppet animation (with co-direction by Duke Johnson).  Suffice to say that the character Lisa is an anomaly in several ways, making for a mordantly moving romantic tragicomedy, as well as a bizarre look at what it’s like “Being Charlie Kaufman.”  This is another film that makes the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary, to brilliant effect.  (For more detail without giving away too much, see Dana Stevens.)

I was strangely resistant to watching Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (MC-91, FC #30, NFX), even though I am a longtime fan of Jafar Panahi.  The first film he made after Iranian authorities put him under house arrest and forbade him from making any more was This is Not a Film.  To me it lived down to its title, and I thought the critical acclaim represented political rather than aesthetic judgment.  So I expected this latest to be another dutiful exercise in support of free speech.  Not at all -- Taxi is fantastic.  Fascinating, thought-provoking, witty and winning, it could have been called Everything is a Film.  Panahi is driving a cab around Teheran, with a camera mounted on the dashboard, and picking up characters for sequential vignettes.  We’re never quite sure, and neither are some of the characters, who might be a real passenger and who might be playacting.  Each is a telling episode, however, and somehow in 82 minutes the film adds up to a lot, from a genial portrait of Panahi himself to a miniature retrospective of his film career (and other Iranian Neorealist masterpieces), from a disquisition on the ubiquity of video recording devices to a sly satire on fundamentalist censorship.  Characters range from a DVD bootlegger to a bleeding accident victim trying to record his last will and testament via cellphone camera on the way to the hospital; from two bickering old ladies carrying goldfish in a bowl to Panahi’s ten-year-old niece (or should that be “niece”?), cute as button and sharp as a tack, making a film herself and debating documentary with her uncle.  It’s a hoot, as well as a mindbender, and courageous as hell .

Two very intimate films about a woman’s health issues received similar critical acclaim.  In Blind (MC-83, NFX), a Norwegian woman is losing her sight and maybe her mind.  In Eskil Vogt’s direction, it’s not clear what we’re seeing, whether it’s her surroundings or inside her head, what’s real or what’s imagined.  In her effort to keep her inner sight alive through memory, the woman writes her husband and some neighbors into a series of sexual and romantic fantasies.  Moody and mysterious in a Nordic vein, this film engages both the eye and the intellect.

In James White (MC-83, NFX), Cynthia Nixon plays the title character’s mother, who is dying of cancer.  She offers as strong a portrayal of a woman dying as Emma Thompson in Wit (a role Nixon herself played on stage), but the film bears the deep personal imprint of writer-director Josh Mond.  His eponymous surrogate is played by Christopher Abbott, but you get the feeling he’s acting out scenes directly from the filmmaker’s life, as he copes with the end of his mother’s life and the deferred beginning of his own.  The film offers no excuses for his self-pity and bad behavior, as it captures a world of Manhattan literati with immediacy of insight.  Short, intense, and pitch-dark, the film packs a wallop, though hard to watch.

Two totally different indie takes on the horror genre wound up with identical Metacritic ratings but diametrically opposed reactions from me.  The Witch (MC-83, NFX) is officially a 2016 release though it won acclaim at Sundance in 2015.  Ultimately marketed as a scarefest, this first film from writer-director Robert Eggers has more than chills in mind, as signaled by its opening title card, “A New England Folktale,” and its source material in the writings of Cotton Mather.  At the opening, a stubbornly independent man is being expelled with his family from Plymouth Plantation in 1630.  The gates of the compound close behind them as they set out into the wilderness, in search of a solitary homestead at the edge of the woods.  The film is effective at establishing period and place, and the acting seems convincingly historical, and histrionic as well.  Scary creatures live in the dark woods at the edge of civilization, and demonic forces infiltrate the family.  Eggers exploits some genre shocks, but develops a disturbing mood and a folkloric sense of the uncanny.

With It Follows (MC-83, FC #22, MC #14, NFX), I couldn’t follow either the film or the critical consensus.  If you do choose to watch this -- if the idea of a topical update on the neighborhood teen scarefest of Halloween appeals to you -- then it won’t be because of anything I have to say about this half-clever, totally-fake remake.

Another dissent to enter in passing.  I’m not going to buck the critical consensus on Son of Saul (MC-89, FC #14, MC #12, NFX), but simply register my own inability to watch it.  Maybe my worldview is too fragile to face up to such an intimate portrayal of existence in a Nazi extermination camp, or maybe my cinematic appreciation is too narrow to encompass this film’s predetermined minimalist approach.  There are very few films I do not finish once I start, especially those that come with raves from critics I trust, but there was no way I was making it to the end of this one.

From around the world comes a quartet of well-regarded foreign films.  Coming Home (MC-81, NFX) represents a homecoming for Zhang Yimou -- after his swerve into government-sponsored spectacle -- and a reunion with his muse, Gong Li.  Rather than swordplay and martial arts, he delivers a family melodrama in historical context, in a vein similar to my favorite of his films, To Live.  During the Cultural Revolution, a longtime prisoner escapes and tries to return home, where a daughter he barely knows betrays him to the authorities, to curry favor for her dance career.  A few years later, he is finally released and returns home, but now his wife (Gong Li) no longer recognizes him.  Undaunted, he does everything he can to restore her memory.  Well-acted Sirkian melodrama with an overlay of political parable, Coming Home satisfies on several levels.

Theeb (MC-80, NFX) is rather like Lawrence of Arabia from an Arab perspective.  First-time Jordanian writer-director Naji Abu Nowar centers his story on a Bedouin child who gets caught up in the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule during WWI.  His style echoes the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but it is the performance of Jacir Eid in the title role that really warrants attention for this folkloric tale, which visits four desert water wells, symbolic sites of anarchistic conflict among tribes, rebels, bandits, and imperial authorities.  In the rendering of landscapes as well as faces, Theeb warranted its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

As did the Turkish entry Mustang (MC-83, NFX).  Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, but highly distinctive in its portrayal of five endearing teen sisters who are imprisoned at home when their emerging sexuality threatens social norms.  A minor indiscretion on the last day of school lands the orphaned girls in lockdown, to be married off in short order by their gruff uncle and kindly but old-fashioned grandmother.  Lively and funny, despite the girls’ outrageous fate, this spirited film is as much a celebration of sisterhood as a condemnation of patriarchy.

More teen girls in Breathe (MC-78, NFX), one shy, awkward, and asthmatic; one sexy, mean, and crazy; each beautiful in her own way.  This French film is likewise directed by a young woman, Mélanie Laurent, and marked by extremely winning performances from young actresses.  When the brash newcomer at school befriends the less social girl, their bond becomes too tight to survive.  This depth of intimacy is risky all around, such suffocation is bound to end in betrayal and damage, in this inside view of the throes of teenage angst.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Oscar & I choose "Best Picture"

Most Oscar nominees arrive on Blu-Ray disk after the awards are announced, so I’m typically late to see them, but this is the rare year when I’m happy to second the Academy’s anointing of Best Picture.  Here I offer my belated commentary on the nominees. 

Spotlight (MC-93, FC #7, MC #2, NFX) definitely earned the award -- important in subject, well-judged and well-made across the board, combining truth and art to tell a real story, explaining while entertaining, documenting while fabulating.  Where to start?  I guess one has to start with director and co-writer Tom McCarthy, who must have set out to atone for his role as the bad Sun reporter in season five of The Wire, by showing exactly what a good reporter does.  He brings “truth of place” to the film; perhaps that’s the proper definition of a phrase I’ve never quite understood, mise-en-scène.  Next, the familiar and admirable cast – Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel MacAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and others – are all highly authentic in their roles.  As are the city of Boston, the newsroom of the Globe, the neighborhood juxtapositions and class distinctions.  Most authentic of all – the job of reporting, what it looks like, what it feels like, as an investigative team delves into the cover-up of pedophile priests by the Catholic Church.  The film portrays journalism as not glamorous, but driven by purpose.  And its purpose is the same as that of the characters of the film, to shine a spotlight on an abuse of power by a big institution preying on vulnerable individuals.

The Big Short (MC-81, FC #40, MC #18, NFX) is almost as good at revealing systemic institutional mendacity, but plays more as a revel than a cautionary drama.  Adam McKay’s film does a good job of explaining the financial crisis of 2007, but lays the glamour on thick, and humor as well, riffing freely on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller of the same name.  Need a definition of some arcane acronym? -- this film will stop and deliver it through a beautiful blond in a bubble bath sipping champagne, or a celebrity chef making a stew out of old fish, or a pop star at a roulette table.  Plenty of glamour and humor from the cast as well:  Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and all the rest, with all but one of the leads a fictionalized composite of the originals in the book.  The movie is somehow anarchic and cogent at the same, eliciting laughs as well as righteous anger.  Reality is freely embellished, but never ignored.  Departures from fact are explicitly flagged by direct-to-the-camera commentary.  You get the feeling that this is how the housing and bank crash actually happened, just funnier.

Hmm, a story about a kidnapped teenager being kept in isolation for years, raped repeatedly and raising a child alone in small garden shed?  No wonder I did not gravitate to Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed novel,  Room (MC-86, FC #35, MC #11, NFX), but when her screenplay was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and embodied in the Oscar-winning performance of Brie Larson, whom I’ve admired since Short Term 12, I was drawn in, and mightily impressed by the result.  Excellent as Brie is, she is overshadowed by the central role of Jacob Tremblay as the five-year-old boy through whose eyes most of the film unfolds, and the love between them is the beating heart of this film.  I won’t say more about what happens, because if you don’t know the story already, I advise you to approach it with innocent eyes.  Moreover, I urge you to have confidence in the sincerity and sensitivity of all the people involved, and not avoid the story as unpleasant.  The last half-hour is a little too rushed to fully convince, as if trying to cram in too much of the book, but otherwise this is an exemplary adaptation of a difficult book, with dimensions far beyond its “woman and child in jeopardy” horror movie aspects.

Just as the first two films in this survey make a pair of sorts, so do the following two, about young women trying to find a place and an identity under trying circumstances.  Brie Larson has a harder passage through isolation than Saoirse Ronan does in Brooklyn (MC-87, FC #18, MC #5, NFX), but the latter is equally effective at making inner struggle visible.  She plays Eilis (whom I learned from the movie to pronounce Ale-ish, after reading Colm Toibin’s book in all ignorance), a girl who in 1952 reluctantly leaves her older sister and mother behind in Ireland to pursue an opportunity that opens up for her in America.  And she in turn gradually opens up to her titular new home, and to a devoted Italian boy who falls hard for her.  Then a family tragedy takes Eilis back to Ireland, where unexpected new possibilities arise for her, forcing her to choose between staying where she’s from or going back to Brooklyn.  Both the star and the film are lovely and emotionally expressive, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay also warms the novel up a bit.  Director John Crowley captures a fond but clear-eyed retrospect on the past, which pairs nicely with Carol, as stories about NYC department store shopgirls in the Fifties.  I was prepared to see through this film after reading a single dismissive review, but wound up watching it through tears and smiles.

I feel more ambivalence about Steven Spielberg than any other major director, but Bridge of Spies (MC-81, FC #20, MC #25, NFX) falls mostly on the positive side of the ledger.  Spielberg is unquestionably a consummate filmmaker, but to me seems to have a shallow, sentimental worldview, with more drive to entertain than to understand, less commitment to truth than to a good story.  He marshals vast talents to create a cinematic otherworld, then populates it with puppets, sometimes letting the strings show.  On the other hand, he frequently works with actors who have the stature to cut the strings and go their own way, notably in this case, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.  Spielberg effectively conjures the era when the Cold War was at its height, in telling the story behind the swap -- on a dark, frigid Berlin bridge in 1962 -- of convicted Russian spy Rudolf Abel for downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (plus an American student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as it was being erected).  Told mainly from the point of view of the Hanks character, the straight-arrow lawyer picked to represent Abel, who comes to appreciate the stoic integrity portrayed by Rylance; he’s later recruited by the CIA to arrange the swap.  Spielberg’s movie magic works in making us a root for a Russian spy, as well as the lawyer’s devotion to due process, in a plot strand with plenty of contemporary relevance.  Where he fails is in the plastic replica of his own birth family, which he inserts into so many of his films, with Amy Ryan wasted as the lawyer’s wife, and mother of their three utterly generic children.  Still, in mood and setting this is a masterful film, marked by two superlative performances.  Stevie’s bag of cinematic tricks reliably conjures life out of projected images, and when my sentiment is in tune with his, preeminently with Lincoln, I am happy to believe in his act.

The Martian (MC-80, FC #44, MC #13, NFX) represents a lot of effort and expense without a lot of effect, aside from special effects.  My god, the stars! – though aside from Matt Damon, they don’t get much to do.  And the SFX! -- the surface of Mars looks terrific, space ships have never looked glossier or sexier, and the same goes for NASA facilities on earth.  Director Ridley Scott certainly knows his way around a blockbuster.  But to me this film smacks of propaganda for a space program to which I’ve never lent credence or support.  It’s fun to see a lot of familiar faces in small roles, but not a lot of characterization is offered, though there are plenty of jokes and amusingly appropriate disco music.  The scientific problem-solving -- amplified from Apollo 13 -- is the most appealing part of the movie, but the political and international setting is thin to the point of transparent.  I can’t deny this sci-fi is engaging to watch, infinitely more entertaining than Interstellar, but I can’t help wondering about the waste of resources involved, and the unexamined calculations of this movie.

The down-and-dirty problem-solving of Leonardo DiCaprio - as a mountain man of the Rockies in the 1820s - is the best part of The Revenant (MC-76, MC #22, NFX), besides the always-magical cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki.  But director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has never engaged my interest, despite back-to-back Oscar wins.  In his films, there is spectacle aplenty, with bravura flourishes, but ultimately little substance, and shallow insight into character.  Despite the unfulfilled storytelling, the acting is good across the board.  DiCaprio might have deserved his Oscar, if only for what he had to suffer for his art, playing an indigenized guide to a fur-trapping company, who is mauled by a bear and left for dead.  Bad-ass Tom Hardy and carrot-topped Domhnall Gleeson seem to be everywhere recently, always delivering quality performances.  The special effects are wondrous, whether grizzly attack or bison stampede.  But the story is a simplistic revenge fantasy, less sophisticated than the similar but far-superior Jeremiah Johnson of 1972, or even the psychologically complex Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s.  The scenery is magnificent, but there’s a wised-up grubbiness to this tale of endurance, which keeps me on the outside, barely enduring the film.  Despite its basis in historical fact, the story seems made up, and the sense of period more fabricated than lived in.  Still, those vistas…

What can I say?  What causes some people to sit up and take notice -- makes me fall asleep.  And vice versa, no doubt.  I could barely keep from dozing off during the nonstop vehicular collisions and fireballs of Mad Max: Fury Road (MC-90, FC #3, MC #1, NFX).  I stayed awake long enough to take in some of the aspects that won this genre film an Oscar-nom as “Best Picture,” but remained quite immune to its charms.  I am happy to say that I have never seen anything at all of Mel Gibson as Mad Max, and wish I could say the same about this series re-boot, though I’ve come to expect interesting character work from Tom Hardy.  I derive some amusement from Charlize Theron’s perpetual and futile attempts to look ugly – here, cut off my arm (as well as my hair), bloody my face, drain my blood, beat the shit out of me!  I guess the trick is to make live action look like a comic book, and CGI effects look as real as real could be.  In the Metacritic compilation of Top 10 lists, more critics anointed this pile of something as best film of the year than the next three vote-getters combined.  Apparently, partisanship is as rife in film as in politics, and I’m clearly on the opposing side.

Germane to romance

German literature in general, and German Romanticism in particular, is terra incognita to me (might have something to do with coming of age in the immediate wake of two World Wars), but chance has led me that way lately.  First there was an essay in the New Yorker that asked the question, “What’s great about Goethe?”  Then Amour Fou (MC-68, FC #48, NFX) leapt from a library shelf into my hand, with writer-director Jessica Hausner looking at the life and death of Heinrich von Kleist, from the perspective of the woman who died with him in a notorious suicide pact.  This is at the opposite emotional pole from Mayerling, for example; portrayed with dry wit in the spare, formal style of Eric Rohmer’s Kleist adaptation, The Marquise of O.  The precision of the framing creates a cage around the characters, who recite their lines in a stiff manner that reflects the rectilinearity of the social milieu, and the pastness of the past.  Rather than rising to surges of romantic feeling, this film hews to historical facts, but examines them with a feminist sociological eye for the absurd.

From that film, I was directed by a review to Beloved Sisters (MC-66, NFX), and found it absorbing and quite lovely.  If I knew anything about Friedrich Schiller, I might object to the liberties this film takes with his life, turning the author’s relationship with his wife and her sister into a ménage a trois.  But in my ignorance of historical fact, I was much more taken with how writer-director Domink Graf went to school on Truffaut, repeatedly echoing two of my favorite films, Jules et Jim and Two English Girls.  Whatever the fabrications of the story, a slice of German literary life between 1788 and 1805 is rendered with impressive authenticity at nearly epic length.  And the sisters themselves – oh my!  Played by Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius, they command our attention with their blue eyes and emotional intensity.  (I’d say remember the names of these actresses, but that is hard to do; think of heart-leaping beauty and the wisdom of Confucius.)  Goethe (and Weimar Classicism) figures only on the fringes of this romance, appearing from behind or in long shot, as if he were Mohammed and no image allowed.  The previews on the DVD, however, led me to the next film.

For the German title, apparently untranslatable – Goethe! (beware of film titles with exclamation points!) – American distributors clearly chose Young Goethe in Love (2011, MC-55, NFX) to call up memories of Shakespeare in Love, for costumed hijinks with a literary veneer.  Lots of lusty embraces out in nature, galloping horses, bouts of drink and drugs, and of course the bonnie lass who inspired The Sorrows of Young Werther, which made Goethe a continental celebrity at the age of 25.  Actually I found Miriam Stein quite piquant as Lotte Buff, but the actor playing Goethe was too puppy-ish to represent the universal Germanic genius, even as a stripling.  That said, I rather enjoyed this film for its evocation of Germany in 1772, and for its Classics Illustrated comic book version of a literary classic that I will never get around to reading.  But if you want to see romantic poets cavorting like rock stars, I would refer you to Coleridge and Wordsworth in Pandaemonium (1999), if you can find it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Still deeper into 2015 films

After the Oscars comes the season when last year’s prestige productions arrive on DVD in a rush.  I’m still holding off comment on the Best Picture nominees till I have seen them all (spoiler: Spotlight truly was the best of the bunch), but there are many other critical faves to cover.

In Carol (MC-95, FC#1, MC #3, NFX) the feel for place and period - New York in the early Fifties - is as sleek and soft, lush and thick, as Cate Blanchett’s mink coat.  In this adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, directed by Todd Haynes, she is the title character, a well-to-do New Jersey housewife in town to get a Christmas present for her preschool daughter.  The young sales clerk who waits on her is played by Rooney Mara, admirably channeling Audrey Hepburn.  You could say that sparks fly, but on a slow-burning fuse.  Carol is divorcing her husband -- even though he’s Kyle Chandler -- and after a subtle mating dance, suddenly Carol and Therese are off on a cross-country road trip, where they might well cross paths with Humbert and Lolita.  Their love affair, scandalous for the time, threatens Carol’s custody arrangement, so hard choices are in order, exquisitely rendered by Cate and Rooney.  The associative force of this film is strong and classic, evoking Sirkian Fifties melodrama, and calling up for me the mood of one of my all-time favorites, The Apartment.  Every aspect of the production is carefully considered and mutedly beautiful.  I can’t think of a film from last year that I admired more, though I’m not quite ready to anoint it my best of 2015.

Sicario (MC-81, FC #47, MC #15, NFX) has many worthy elements, but in sum they do not deserve your attention, unless you have a thing for dark drug-smuggling thrillers (and if you do, I’d point you in the direction of the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land).  This title is Mexican slang for “hitman” and there are several candidates for the eponymous role.  Our eyes and ears into this hellish cycle of border violence – criminal and governmental, with blurry lines between the gangs on either side – is Emily Blunt, a good-soldier FBI specialist in hostage situations, who is recruited as a blind for two nefarious operatives (CIA? DoD?) with obscure objectives, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro.  Director Denis Villeneuve inflects Zero-Dark-Thirty-ish elements with moody and arty touches, as well as deep ethical ambiguity, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the desert landscape a palpable force in the story.  This is a good-looking, well-acted, pulse-pounding action film that wants to be something more, but doesn’t really escape its genre.

Suffragette (MC-67, NFX) is a notch above Masterpiece Theater in the vein of British historical drama -- for production values, cast, and gritty realism.  The script seems somewhat manufactured, however, and Sarah Gavron’s direction, though competent, does not discover added dimension.  This film depicts a moment before WWI when the movement for woman’s suffrage - goaded by official resistance turning violent - switched from words to deeds, from peaceful petitions and marches to incendiary bombings and provocative actions.  Though the focus is on a fictional character, a gradually-radicalized laundress played by the reliably-appealing Carey Mulligan, other characters are more historical, such as the leader played by Helena Bonham Carter, with a cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst.  Suffragette dramatizes neatly enough a pivotal point in the still-ongoing stuggle for women’s rights, but hardly digs deep into its characters or the full implications of their actions.   

Trumbo (MC-60, NFX) seems cut from the same cloth – worthy historical drama, good cast, decent production values, but still missing some element of engagement with character or theme.  Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from his appearance before HUAC in 1947, through his prison sentence for (well-deserved) contempt of Congress, and his pseudonymous Oscars (including script for Roman Holiday), to the reappearance of his name in the credits for Spartacus.  Cranston is first-rate, but Helen Mirren nearly steals the show as Hedda Hopper, his adversary and spokesperson for the “loyal anti-communist” community of Hollywood.  A lot of familiar faces do well by their roles, though some, like Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, are sadly underused.  Jay Roach’s film leans more to self-satisfied preaching than to honest soul-searching, but the backstage view of the movie business is quite entertaining.  

For Steve Jobs (MC-82, MC #27, NFX), Danny Boyle’s direction is too razzle-dazzle and Aaron Sorkin’s script too rat-a-tat, but Michael Fassbender in the title role carries the day (Cranston and Fassbender were both nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but I’d give the nod to the latter).  He is supported adeptly by a nearly unrecognizable Kate Winslet, as the “work-wife” who keeps him sane and almost human, plus Jeff Daniels as the Apple CEO who was ally and then adversary of Jobs.  Also convincing are Seth Rogan as Woz, Apple co-founder, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a menschy Apple engineer (he played Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo). The three-act structure is too theatrical and too simplified (but the editing too complicated), as each part revolves around a product launch -- the Mac in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and iMac in 1998 – and requires each character to come back on stage in turn, along with Jobs’ ex-girlfriend and the daughter he first disowns, then embraces, then alienates.  Though this portrait of a tech-age titan falls well short of The Social Network, it’s still worth seeing.  As is the nearly simultaneous documentary by Alex Gibney, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (MC-72, NFX); I watched them back-to-back and now the films blur a bit in my memory, but together they give a more rounded portrait than either separately, though neither really solves the enigma of its subject, or the implications of his career.

I might be inclined to dismiss The Danish Girl (MC-66, NFX) as the performance of a performance of a performance, but then, there are the performers.  I don’t go as wild as some do for Eddie Redmayne, but he is certainly right for this role.  I am, however, totally on the Alicia Vikander bandwagon, and was happy to see her win an Oscar for what was her third best performance of 2015. His performance is all about external gestures, hers about internal emotions.  It’s the story of a painting couple in 1920s Copenhagen, living a mildly bohemian life, while the man gradually realizes his womanhood and seeks radical surgery to confirm it. Every aspect of the production is tastefully, even artfully done (I loved the interiors copied from Hammershoi paintings), but for me it failed to engage on any but a surface level.  Except of course for Ms. Vikander, whose gaze I find bottomless.

Better you should watch the first film of this young Swedish actress, readily availability on Netflix streaming.  Lisa Langseth’s film Pure (2010, NFX) tells the story of a troubled young woman, who stumbles upon classical music as way to bring order and beauty to her disordered life, to save her from the suicidal fate of her promiscuous mother.  She bluffs her way into a job at the Gothenburg concert hall, and into an aspirational affair with the conductor, which can only lead to disappointment and further consequences.  This film has merits beyond Alicia as Katarina, but doesn’t really need them.  There are faces that the camera loves, that reveal every blush of emotion, every flicker of thought – hers is such, self-evidently from her first film.  And with her dancing background, every movement is beautifully articulated (as in Ex Machina).  Sorry if I seem smitten, but you should see for yourself this emerging star from the constellation of Ingrid Bergman.

Similar in theme and in Netflix availability, also written and directed by a woman, Marya Cohn's The Girl in the Book (MC-68, NFX) tells another story of a young woman seduced and exploited by an older creative type.  Emily VanCamp plays a 29-year-old assistant at a Manhattan publishing house, her father an obnoxious high-powered agent, and her boss not much better.  They both involve her with an author, with whom she has a difficult history.  In flashbacks, Ana Mulvey-Ten plays her as a young teen, whom the author mentors with dubious motives, turning her into his most famous character, “a female Holden Caulfield.”  I liked both these actresses, and enjoyed the setting within the NY publishing world (much more plausibly portrayed than in Showtime series The Affair).  Meanwhile, the elder Alice meets a paragon of normality, who may or may not end her streak of bad luck with the men in her life.  This film is hardly unique, but still authentically its own thing, made with Kickstarter passion.

Speaking of girls in books (and in movies), who could be more of one than Cinderella (MC-67, NFX)?  It certainly sounds superfluous for Disney to do a live-action remake of its animated classic, and do so without revisionist irony, but rather literalist sincerity.  But then there’s direction by Kenneth Branagh, costumes by Sandy Powell, and set design by Dante Ferretti, so you can expect a ripe visual spectacle.  Excellent acting too, by Lily James and Richard Madden as Cinderella and the prince, but moreover Cate Blanchett as the stepmother, and Derek Jacobi as the king.  On one level, I didn’t need a straight retelling of this fairy tale, but on another, even with CGI embellishments, this film seems a vindication of traditional movie pageantry over the modern magic of animation.

Michael B. Jordan played memorable characters in two of my all-time favorite tv series, The Wire and Friday Night Lights, so I’m happy to see him become a leading man in the movies.  Creed (MC-82, FC #28, MC #17, NFX) is bound to be his career breakthrough, as he and his sculpted pecs convincingly embody a light heavyweight boxer, in this afterthought to the series of Rocky films.  I saw the first two or three of those, and it’s pleasant to see this film play off them, not least in Sylvester Stallone’s reprise of the Rocky role.  Boxing films make up a genre all their own, with stories as predictable as Greek tragedy or afternoon soap operas, so don’t expect any surprises out of Ryan Coogler’s film, but it’s competently made and well-performed, with a compellingly different angle on the traditional story, as you would expect from the director and star of Fruitvale Station.  I liked the urban feel for Philadelphia, with several scenes shot in my brother’s neighborhood.  But honestly, I hope Michael B. is not trapped into playing this character again and again.

Does Chi-Raq (MC-77, FC #41, MC #28, NFX) work?  Depends on the work you’re looking for.  Is Spike Lee’s latest film a shapely aesthetic object?  Well, no, it’s a mess, and has ambitions beyond its reach.  But is it amusing and impassioned?  Eclectic and daring?  Calculated to entertain and enrage in equal measure?  Yes, that it is.  Like Lee’s School Daze and Bamboozled, it’s a radical minstrel show that uses song and dance, jokes and jive to make a strong argument about racial politics, and sexual politics as well.  From hip-hop to slow jams, it celebrates black music and culture, while documenting the shocking truth that since 2001 there have been more gun murders in Chicago than American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  Based on Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, and told largely in verse, it tells of the revolt of women against the senseless carnage of gang warfare by the strategy and slogan, “No Peace, No Pussy.”  The cast is graced by Samuel L. Jackson as the rapping Greek chorus, John Cusack as a radical priest on a crusade, and Angela Bassett as the leader of the women’s protest.  But the focus is on Nick Cannon as one of the gang leaders (an unrecognizable Wesley Snipes is the other) and Teyonah Parris as his lady, the firebrand Lysistrata.  Call it one of Spike’s more effective provocations.

I’m more a “Love & Mercy” than a “Fuck tha Police” sort of guy, but I could appreciate the anger and aspiration embodied in Straight Outta Compton (MC-72, NFX), as well as the contemporary relevance of thirty-year-old music.  Never a fan of hip-hop, let alone “gangsta rap,” the story of N.W.A. (“Niggaz Wit Attitude”) was mostly news to me.  Almost as interesting as Brian Wilson, to follow these young men into the recording studio.  Less so, however, to follow them into their booty palaces, and the personal conflicts of success.  This is definitely the authorized version of the group’s history, following standard music business tropes (white businessmen ripping off black artists), but the young cast makes it all quite watchable, notably Ice Cube being played by his own son.

The Fellini-esque style of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (MC-64, NFX) is familiar from his Oscar winner, The Great Beauty, but while the earlier film overcame my class-based resistance to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, this one does not -- despite elements that won me over, including intermittently sharp writing and winning performances from long-familiar faces, such as Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Jane Fonda.  I appreciated the setting in the Swiss alps, but the denizens of a posh resort spa did not interest me much.  For every well-turned scene or dialogue, there was also some empty posturing, supercilious attitudinizing, or pictorial excess, not adding up to much in the end.  I watched the spectacle without pain, but without engagement either.

I happened to come upon a DVD of In the Heart of the Sea (MC-47, NFX) at a public library, and picked it up without consulting Metacritic, which could have warned me away.  I had heard good things about the book, and it’s set in the era I’m obsessed with, in a seafaring genre that usually appeals to me.  But you know what, it’s not very good.  It wastes talented actors, has a poor sense of period or locale, and devolves into formulaic and chaotic action/adventure.  The weak frame of the story has Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville interviewing Brendan Gleeson, as the last living survivor of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by an enraged leviathan.  For me the most entertaining moment in the movie comes when Melville sets off for home, “Pittsfield, Massachusetts,” to write Moby Dick.  Shipboard relations and the shipwreck itself are not well-directed by Ron Howard, but there are a few visual effects that work.

If you found the male stripper extravaganza Magic Mike more entertaining than you might have guessed, do not imagine that Magic Mike XXL (MC-60, FC #38 (!), NFX) is more of the same, only bigger.  It’s simply trashier in every respect.  Even if down and dirty is your thing, this is dirtier and a bigger downer than you expect.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

My latest documendations

At 86, Frederick Wiseman is still going strong, turning out his lengthy documentaries at a regular pace, each one figuring among the best of the year (case in point, In Jackson Heights, which I am super-eager to see, ranks FC#13 of all 2015 features).  His latest on DVD, National Gallery (2014, MC-89, NFX), certainly appealed directly to my interests, bringing his usual panoptic viewpoint to every facet of the London museum.  He’s the most intelligent and all-seeing fly-on-the-wall in the history of film, who fashions his very personal storytelling about institutions without narration or other editorial intervention, aside from his own feel for pace, insight, and connection.  Recording sound in a two-man crew with brilliant cinematographer John Davey for almost thirty years, Wiseman gets close to his subjects and studies them from many angles, and delivers his reports with impressive objectivity, flavored by his own distinctive craft.  The more attention you bring, the more you will get out of his films. 

The behind-the-scenes operation of a world-class museum is bound to engage my interest, but for a test of Wiseman’s magic, take a look at Boxing Gym (2010, MC-83, NFX), which I was surprised to find quite riveting for its 91-minute running time, a mere short subject by Wiseman standards.  The time is spent just hanging around a gym in Austin TX, getting to know a range of characters and their reasons for embracing the “sweet science” of boxing.  Would make an intriguing double feature with Andrew Bujalski’s Results.

Two other European museums have recently received Wiseman-like (or Wiseman-lite) treatment, highlighting the differences in Dutch and Austrian national cultures.  The New Rijksmuseum (2013, MC-66, NFX) demonstrates the democratic culture of Amsterdam, construction being held up for years by public arguments over a bikepath, and hearings on every other issue imaginable.  The available DVD cuts almost two hours from the theatrical release, but still takes its time and gets into many corners of the museum, and portrays the many characters who must come together to allow the outstanding national museum to open again, after a decade of renovation and construction.  The Great Museum (2015, MC-66, NFX) refers to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, also dealing with a major renovation, the installation of a gallery of Hapsburg family treasures.  It’s interesting to see how old imperial culture lingers in Austrian politics, especially in contrast to Amsterdam’s liberal democracy.  Other than that, this shorter film shares the style but does not have the dimensions of the other two.

Here are two more documentaries I vetted for possible showing at the Clark, once the auditorium reopens after renovation, probably next January.  Art and Craft (MC-68, NFX) would certainly get a discussion going.  It’s the true story of Mark Landis, a not-for-profit art forger who paints copies of second-tier artists and gives them to second-tier museums, impersonating a priest and saying the works were inherited from recently deceased relatives.  He’s a Southern Gothic sort of character – schizophrenic? autistic? – who has managed to get his work into sixty different museums.  One registrar he duped goes on a crusade to reveal the con.  Except Landis broke no laws, not even taking a tax deduction for his gifts.  There’s the mystery of his character and motivations, but also a wider inquiry into questions of authenticity and value within the art world.

No problems of provenance in Very Semi-Serious (MC-74, NFX, HBO), in which all the works are signed, sealed, and delivered to the New Yorker art department, where cartoon editor Robert Mankoff makes the weekly selection of trademark panels.  This is a sharp and funny look behind the scenes at the irregular characters behind our regular weekly comics, including Roz Chast and others, and what it takes to make a living by drawing.

Here’s one strong documentary recommendation that might be a tough sell.  Racing Dreams (2010, MC-78, NFX) is an examination of NASCAR culture, through the prism of its corresponding “little league,” where middle-schoolers travel around the country to race go-carts at speeds up to 70 MPH.  Following the template of Hoop Dreams and every kids’ competition film from Spellbound on, Marshall Curry deploys his curiosity and canny filmmaking skills to tell a tale of pre-adolescence that is both universal and tied to a very specific sociology, brilliantly edited to turn 500 hours of footage into a swift, compelling 90-minute narrative.  Following two young boys and a girl as they compete on the Karting circuit for a national title, we come to know them and their families well, and the unfamiliar milieu they inhabit, in a manner that makes me almost willing to think of auto racing as a genuine sport.  I’d put this in a category with Red Army, as a doc that uses a sport in which I have no interest as a window onto much more than a game.  It’s endearing, informative, and even stirring.  You should see it to believe it.

That documentary was so surprisingly accomplished that I felt impelled to look deeper into its director, Marshall Curry.  Turns out his first was Street Fight, an excellent film that first brought Cory Booker to my attention.  Since Curry seems like a documentarian who qualifies as an auteur, I made a point of catching up with his other films.  Unfortunately, in nonfiction the characters are chosen and not created, so unless you’re a genius like Fred Wiseman, real authorship is elusive.  I didn’t mind watching Curry’s other two films, but the subjects portrayed were not as engaging. 

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011, MC-65, NFX) follows a tree-hugging “ecoterrorist” years after he was arrested by the FBI and jailed for acts of arson against logging companies and other supposed environmental villains.  The question of violence in the service of a good cause is looked at from many angles, through news footage and interviews, but the central character is not interesting enough to carry the film.  Same deal with Point and Shoot (2014, MC-65, NFX), where a pipsqueak Lawrence of Arabia wannabe takes a motorcycle trek through the Middle East for a “crash course in manhood,” filming himself obsessively along the way, and winding up with anti-Qaddafi fighters in Libya.  Both the location footage and the subsequent interviews are queasy with the subject’s self-regard, which Curry views all too dispassionately. 

Before surveying the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, I want to offer three further personal recommendations:

How to Dance in Ohio (MRQE, NFX, HBO) is something I never learned growing up there, but something a group of autistic young adults undertake to do, in a program designed to prepare the high-functioning for independent living.  You may not feel the degree of identification I did with these unusual young people trying to find their way in the neurotypical world, but Alexandra Shiva’s film will make you empathize with the effort they put it, and the delight they take in such against-the-grain sociability.  The film follows three girls in particular as they prepare for a spring formal, and the problems they face in doing so, with a winning blend of insight and uplift.

I was rather surprised to wind up adding Little White Lie (MC-80, NFX) to my list of outstanding first-person documentaries.  I’d suspected a vanity project but discovered something much more profound.  Lacey Schwartz grew up in a Jewish family in Woodstock, where her unusual looks were ignored or explained away, in a conspiracy of silence about her actual parentage.  Only when she went away to college was the obvious observation made, as she was invited to join the Black Students Union.  She then confronts her family over long-buried secrets, and embraces a black identity.  Through family photos and interviews, she puts the story together in a brisk and moving 65 minutes, with implications well beyond the narrowly personal.

I also suspected Ethan Hawke of a vanity project in directing Seymour: An Introduction (MC-83, NFX), but found an honestly searching portrait of a mentor he’d met at a party, where they discussed the problem of stage fright.  Octogenarian Seymour Bernstein has plenty to say on that subject and many others.  He was an acclaimed concert pianist who gave up the stage suddenly at the age of fifty, and has since devoted himself to teaching and composing.  Despite my frightful ignorance of music, his passion and precision gave sense to everything he said, about the practice of music, and the vicissitudes of performance.  Talking with Hawke, and other interlocutors like ex-student Michael Kimmelman, he reveals understanding not just of his art and craft, but of life.  This film makes a nice match with Albert Maysles’ Iris, in introducing us to a deeply vital elder with a lot of life wisdom to pass along.

(Click through for reviews of the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, and others.)