dloft59

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Reviews

ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas
(2019)

Solid, informative, fun
The makers of this documentary have struck a fine balance between their various tools -- fuzzy historic stills and video clips of the band's earlier incarnations (Hill and Beard based in Dallas with Lady Wilde and the Warlocks; Gibbons with The Moving Sidewalks down in Houston), brief animations of key early moments (especially those involving their late manager Bill Ham), very short concert clips in their early prime, and memorable footage from their first music videos directed by Tim Newman for MTV in the early Eighties.

There are also testimonials from fans such as Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Miller, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, and others.

But the strongest two elements are the interviews with the individual members throughout -- recalling their origins, early choices, war stories (the best involve opening for Hendrix, the Rolling Stones in Hawaii, an early Memphis Blues Festival, Beard's dissection of his substance abuse problems in the late Seventies) -- and footage of the band "today" (that is, 2018) playing some favorite, signature tunes at historic Gruene Hall expressly for this film as they closed in on an astonishing 50 years as a working unit with no personnel changes.

What comes across clearly -- especially if, like me, you were not a rabid fan and follower of this band's career -- is that there was more to ZZ Top than met the eye. Though they had a distinct and unmistakable sound (a brand, if you will), this band also were both smart and lucky enough to hire very good people to handle their promotion, sound production, video work -- everything that was ancillary to the actual music, but crucial to helping it find the massive audience it eventually did.

That, and the fact that the band managed to absorb interesting currents from the larger music industry as it evolved, such as disco and punk, and were sharp enough to plunge immediately into MTV to promote their work.

The ZZ Top "mystique" was largely cultivated by their manager. They would have liked to appear on Johnny Carson and do interviews, but Ham nixed all of that. Do your music, and make everybody come to you, he said. (Other than Beard's brief mentions of leaving Dallas with a wife and a kid, and destroying a relationship with his substance abuse, there isn't a whiff of a mention of their personal lives otherwise. You get no idea whether Gibbons or Hill ever married or have any children.)

The story pretty much ends with 1983's _Eliminator_ album and the "Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "Legs" videos. That's all that's essential to tell the story of the band's origins and success; the rest is disposed of in two sentences on a black screen.

But the movie goes on to finish with a live performance of "Blue Jean Blues" (going all the way back to 1975), intercut with each of the band members talking about why they think they stuck together so long. It's nicely done.

Rocketman
(2019)

Solid, imaginative, great lead actor, but . . .
I went to see "Rocketman" in early June 2019. It's a fine movie for its type, with the usual strengths (hardworking talent, no expense spared for artistic set design, undeniably great music) and weaknesses (somewhat pedestrian and predictable as well as episodic and fragmentary plot) of the genre.

It does make greater imaginative use of both music and visuals than last year's slightly more straight-ahead biopic, "Bohemian Rhapsody." But I also found it oddly less moving.

I never owned a single Elton LP. At the peak of his fame, in my mid teens, I was already a dedicated prog-head, spending endless hours listening to Yes, ELP, and Gentle Giant (a band led by three brothers who had previously been a UK pop outfit known as "Simon Dupree and the Big Sound," with whom young Reg Dwight toured for a time), as well as my older Deep Purple and Creedence albums, and select items from my father's extensive classical and jazz library.

But I know I had the "Crocodile Rock" and "Daniel" 45rpm singles. And Elton was an integral part of the general, public soundtrack of my adolescence. My girlfriend had the _Madman Across the Water_ LP, someone in my college dorm perpetually blasted "Funeral for a Friend" out the windows into the courtyard, and all the singles drilled themselves into my brain from the radio.

It struck me that these classic rock biopics are pretty similar to all the comic superhero feature films of the past decade or more (most of which I've skipped). Both types begin with the same easy appeal to one's nostalgia, hooking you swiftly into your past -- the people you dated, the places you hung out, the friends you had, maybe even the clothes you wore, as well as your more direct memories and feelings about the tunes and plots.

Which is what makes them instantly enchanting but ultimately -- for me -- disappointing and even empty. They can never fully bring back our past, and too often they fail to hook precisely into our deepest personal zeitgeist. There's an initial thrill of recognition as a character or melodic motif sneaks into the story, and then an almost inevitable letdown as it does its thing, which is never quite what your thing was with it when you were young and much more impressionable.

Several times during "Rocketman" as well as "Bohemian Rhapsody," I just wanted to close my eyes and shut out the visuals because -- no matter how imaginative, how colorful, how hard-working the actors, dancers, and set design -- it didn't live up to my rich emotions and memories about the item being evoked . . . because it was mine, and because it's long gone.

Whatever I was seeing mostly diminished the beauty and majesty of the songs, rather than embodied them or did them justice. Sometimes I want to cringe.

I find myself much more deeply moved and impressed by movies about people I've never heard of, in stories I've never encountered (e.g., "Blinded By the Light," "Maiden," and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?").

Blinded by the Light
(2019)

Utterly beguiling, an unassuming winner!
Never a Springsteen fan, I never owned any of his records. I was certainly aware of him all along -- I had a girlfriend who bought and loved the obscure "Nebraska" album, and I well knew the hit singles by Manfred Mann and Patti Smith I heard over the years had been penned by the Boss -- but like certain other bands and composers (e.g., Frank Zappa, Kansas, even Bob Dylan), Springsteen was more someone I respected from afar, and sensed I might like if I had bothered to acquire his albums . . . but I never did.

You shouldn't be concerned about that if you're just as ignorant of the music or even more. You don't really have to know a thing about Springsteen to love this movie.

It contains so many cinematic tropes that might sound old and tired (first-generation immigrants struggling to make a way for their kids in a new land while the latter fail to appreciate them and ache to get away . . . the fear, ignorance, abuse (and occasional discreet encouragement) of the locals . . . a teacher who sees the spark in one quiet outcast and nurtures and pushes him . . . fellow misfits of various stripes discovering and helping one another to get along . . .), but they all work beautifully in this tale based on a true story.

The movie makes no obvious missteps or easy use of cliches. And it's tremendously moving and inspiring. Although I knew -- and had even bought and owned -- quite a bit of the music in "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Rocketman," this movie -- so much smaller, less ambitious, and unassuming -- wins my heart over those two.

What I wrote at the conclusion of review of "Rocketman" was borne out by watching this film and my response to it, so I'll just quote that:

"It struck me that these classic rock biopics are pretty similar to all the comic superhero feature films of the past decade or more (most of which I've skipped). Both types begin with the same easy appeal to one's nostalgia, hooking you swiftly into your past -- the people you dated, the places you hung out, the friends you had, maybe even the clothes you wore, as well as your more direct memories and feelings about the tunes and plots.

"Which is what makes them instantly enchanting but ultimately -- for me -- disappointing and even empty. They can never fully bring back our past, and too often they fail to hook precisely into our deepest personal zeitgeist. There's an initial thrill of recognition as a character or melodic motif sneaks into the story, and then an almost inevitable letdown as it does its thing, which is never quite what your thing was with it when you were young and much more impressionable.

"Several times during 'Rocketman' as well as 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' I just wanted to close my eyes and shut out the visuals because -- no matter how imaginative, how colorful, how hard-working the actors, dancers, and set design -- it didn't live up to my rich emotions and memories about the item being evoked . . . because they were mine, and because they are long gone.

"Whatever I was seeing too often diminished the beauty and majesty of the songs, rather than embodied them or did them justice. Sometimes I want to cringe. "I find myself much more deeply moved and impressed by movies about people I've never heard of, in stories I've never encountered."

And that's what happened with "Blinded By the Light." I wasn't taken back to my Springsteen past, and certainly not my Japanese immigrant past (which, being third generation, I mostly skirted, save for only a few vague personal encounters with racism) . . . but I was taken back to MY teenage, oddball, hoping-and-wishing past, and remembered how other music lifted and supported me and my "mates" and my girlfriend, helped me get here, and stayed with me all the way.

And yeah, even though I've read his excellent memoir and possibly at least one biography, I thought I ought to check out more Springsteen.

Official Secrets
(2019)

Solid, even vital story, coolly related
In the winter of 2003, a translator working for the British government saw a document that indicated the U.S. was trying to lead the Western powers into an illegal war in Iraq. The document, an email from a US National Security Agency official, urged spying on members of the UN Security Council to pressure them to vote for a resolution to support the war. Enraged that the British government is apparently participating in this effort to lie to their respective nations' citizens and blackmail others to justify an illegal war, Katharine Gun arranges for the email to be leaked to the press.

Co-writer and director Gavin Wood, whose last project was the taut and thrilling "Eye in the Sky," has created a more calm and conventional presentation of a true story here. It's important -- and even relevant in 2019, when the U.S. President constantly lies and casually dismisses evidence of international espionage. It's also beautifully shot, underplayed with superb acting (especially by Knightley, who manages to hold together somewhat disparate plots -- her character's personal arc with her Turkish Muslim immigrant husband, the issues for the media faced with this info, and the legal questions raised by her defense team), with a brooding, mostly not in-your-face score.

But it's a talky movie that may find it a challenge to connect with American audiences: no shooting, no car chases or punches thrown, and only a brief war-zone scene. The viewer is left to take the critical issues from recent history as far as he or she chooses, and some of the more thorny questions about political whistle-blowers such as Assange and Snowden remain untouched. (The motives of the real Katharine Gun may indeed have been as pure as they're depicted here, and if so, major kudos to her, but that doesn't make for a terribly ambiguous protagonist and story). The understated plotting and acting lead to an equally -- and probably also true -- understated and almost anti-climactic denouement in court, where Gun appears to face charges of violating Britain's Official Secrets Act.

I'm glad Wood and company made the movie. The story and the questions it raises are worth thinking about . . . and one cannot help wondering how Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Colin Powell look upon those events -- and how they're depicted in this movie -- today.

Vsechno bude
(2018)

Sly, subtle, quietly triumphant
Mára, a sullen, shaven-headed 15-year-old, is running away from home at the wheel of a stolen Audi. He's barely hit the road before a chubby, hulking acquaintance named Hedus, dressed in shaggy camo and carrying an intimating automatic weapon that turns out to be only a pellet gun, wheedles him into letting him go along.

Mára is verbally cynical and detached, Hedus constantly employs foul language to speculate about and plan sexual exploits that are obviously beyond his dorky ken. They pick up an attractive older hitchhiker who's ditching an abusive boyfriend, and the story pops in on a police interrogation that evidently occurs much later (so we know the boys haven't gotten killed or maimed, and don't appear to have trashed the car). This sets up a mysterious destination for the interim events we have yet to witness.

Ostensibly a buddy or road picture, "Winter Flies" keeps you guessing. You never know what's going to happen from one minute to the next, although a series of familiar tropes parade through the plot, for example: the unlikely, squabbling pair who come to respect each other ... the clumsy loser who manages a startling act of imaginative heroics ... the hard-talking teen who fails to hide his compassionate heart or prevent a skilled inquisitor from penetrating to his vulnerable center.

And though some dark and dire moments -- a near rape, a man tries to drown a dog -- and much adult misbehavior and neglect are shown or implied, the film never turns truly ugly OR sentimental in relating its drab, low-key, yet often very funny tale of small miracles.

The story is related in a mostly cool, realistic fashion, but there's at least one puzzling sequence that prompted a voice in the row behind me to murmur "magical realism," as if slapping a label on it would even begin to explain why the filmmakers chose to include it in this picture. A better strategy -- with this and all other artistic experiences -- is to let the confusion and discomfort sit with you. Maybe an answer will come later, maybe not; but it's okay not to have everything nailed down, folks.

Los Reyes
(2018)

Calm, charming, thought-provoking
The setting is an average skateboard park in the middle of a big city ... in this case, Santiago, Chile. The filmmakers originally set out to make a film about the teens and early twenty-somethings who frequent the park, but had trouble getting them to talk on camera (understandably, it turns out). Eventually, the documentarians noticed the two large dogs that appeared to live in the park: a black lab-ish female and a shaggy, bearlike but easygoing male.

So the filmmakers chose to shoot a documentary about the dogs instead; at least, that's what they SAID they were doing. And in fact, the pair of canines fill the screen for most of the 78 minutes of this largely wordless documentary -- you see their toys, their habits, how they treat each other, the lab chases passing donkeys and motorcycles, and they occasionally interact with humans but seem largely unconcerned with most of the scraping and rattling skateboards whizzing around them.

However, the microphone also periodically picked up conversations between the skateboarders: discussions of drug deals, booze and pot benders, reports of arguments with family, violent confrontations with cops, phone chats with friends who are new or expectant mothers, honest self-assessments of faults, errors, and the aimlessness of their lives.

It's a curiously calm, mostly relaxed series of days, nights, weather changes, with no ostensible story arc let alone onscreen drama (at least in human terms). The park's street art and graffiti get temporarily painted over and speakers and bleachers are set up for a festival that only mildly disrupts the life of the "residents" . . . the dogs appropriate soccer balls and tennis balls, and the lab creates her own games with them (the other dog seems to prefer wrestling with and carrying large stones) . . . park maintenance people and sprinkler systems do their stuff in and around the other activities . . . someone sets up doghouse-shelters for the residents that they eventually make some use of.

Over the course of two years of shooting, the dogs got quite accustomed to the cameras being (literally) in their face. You get extreme closeups of nostrils, eyes, flies walking and laying eggs on fur, paw pads that resemble geologic formations with tufts of grass (the dog hairs) sticking out from between them. There may even be an onscreen death, which -- if that's what happened -- is the most subtle yet startling mortal event yet captured on screen, but if not, is still a beautiful piece of artistic license.

Not a film for everyone, this is an unusual and thought-provoking piece of work -- wonderfully shot.

Nothing Like a Dame
(2018)

A lovely, relaxed visit with a fabulous quartet
Filmmaker Roger Michell gathered four old friends of the British stage and world film for a chat about their lives, careers, and lessons learned. He prompts them a bit from off camera, and they tease and support one another. The tone is pleasant, relaxed, occasionally serious, but unhurried and not often terribly revelatory, it must be admitted.

What might surprise most viewers are the forgivable glimpses of vulnerability: not just Plowright's physical infirmities, but the actresses' general admissions of fright on the boards and on camera, and memories of regrets and bad judgments.

Other reviews have complained about the archival footage -- but I found most of it delightful, especially since we Americans have rarely seen these jewels on stage, particularly early in their careers. Most of us probably can picture Dench or Smith only as regal elders in "Downton Abbey," or the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. These women were never glamorous beauties in her youth, but they were all undeniably magnetic.

The clips are all mostly very short, anyway, save for some home-movie footage of an early outdoor production that the filmmakers probably linger over to savor Dench's surprise and pleasure at seeing ancient footage of herself as a very young thespian.

The complaints about time devoted to Olivier are unwarranted, as well, since all these women worked with him on stage and under his direction. He was, after all, artistic director of the National Theatre when these actresses were in their board-treading primes ... and he was married to Plowright for nearly three decades. We do see footage and discussion of several other husbands, but the average American would not know them.

My complaints center not so much on anything that's in the film, but all that's not. So much more could have been addressed, and I would have loved to see more clips of their early stage and film work. But one must respect the privacy of venerable ladies, and to have pressed several of them any further would likely have taxed their stores of energy as well as patience.

The film climaxes with the subjects' answers to the question of what advice they would have given their younger selves, which is hilarious and touching. Don't miss the final tongue-twister the filmmakers give the quartet, which Dench manages, Plowright manages, Atkins NAILS, and Smith utterly and hilariously blows, probably because she decided it's not worth the trouble.

The Price of Everything
(2018)

Meandering yet trenchant
It's hardly a new observation that capitalism and money have swamped the production and appreciation of art around the world in recent decades. It's not even a new subject for a documentary.

Yet "The Price of Everything" explores this topic in an unhurried and largely nonjudgmental way. Sharp and thought-provoking comments are provided by working artists, dealers, art historians, wealthy collectors, and even auctioneers, but the movie doesn't take sides.

Hugely successful and almost industrial-scale sculptor Jeff Koons (fittingly, a former Wall Street trader) is contrasted with once-hot, now largely forgotten abstract painter Larry Poons, quietly continuing to labor in his converted barn of a studio in the woods at the age of 80.

Nigerian-born collage and paint artist Njideka Akunyiki Crosby pursues her work calmly and wonders about how she can and will develop over time. Older photorealist painter Marilyn Minter looks wrily back as much as forward. Amy Cappellazzo, an executive at Sotheby's, speaks feelingly of the beauty and meaning of art while simultaneously citing the prices she expects pieces to bring at auction and the people she has in mind to get to buy them.

Although it can feel a bit aimless -- more of a mosaic than a panorama or story with an arc -- there is a structure to this film. Preparations are made in anticipation of a major Sotheby's auction and an exhibit by a once-celebrated-but-now-obscure artist, both of which occur near the end.

There's no urgency, and no climax. If there are heroes or villains, you'll have to pick them yourself. Just allow the comments of the articulate interviewees, and the beauty of the artpieces, wash through your eyes and ears . . . and draw your own conclusions.

Deconstructing the Beatles: 1963 Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
(2018)

Fascinating depiction of a phenomenon catching fire
In the second talk of his "second season" of multimedia lectures on the Beatles, Freiman irises in on a single year ... the one in which the boys from Liverpool broke free of their home town and London, and neared the precipice of world stardom with the release of two singles that would hit number one in the U.S. the following January.

As always, Freiman opens with a quiz. This one features the original working titles of Beatles songs and you try to guess the real, final name. It's a lot harder than the quizzes in previous Freiman shows; instead of a chorus of replies, some of the unfamilar titles are greeted with silence from the audience at the Jacob Burns Film Center, where these presentations are shot.

This two-hour show features the usual thrilling mix of rare photos and video footage, and studio outtakes. Three things stood out for me.

First, Freiman shows that even this early, well before "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver," the Beatles were innovating: He claims that "P.S. I Love You," released as the B-side of their very first single, "Love Me Do" (which had peaked at a respectable #17 in the UK in October 1962) was the first rock song to feature a flat six, flat seven, and tonic chord (they recur at the end of each verse).

That climbing trio of chords under "you, you, you" had been used in other musical genres such as jazz and classical, but not in rock and roll. It would reappear in the Beatles' work, of course ("Lady Madonna") but everywhere else as well, from The Kinks "Lola" and Abba's "S.O.S." to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" and Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (even in the background music to the Super Mario Brothers video game).

Second, there's a lengthy discussion of the multiple takes the band and their producer tackled to arrive at the final version of "From Me to You." It's still early March 1963, yet the band did 13 takes: seven before adding John's harmonica, trying the humming on take 11 at Martin's suggestion, da-da-da-dos on 12, and an octave singalong on 13. Martin would stitch together parts of takes 12, 8, 9, and 10 to make the master. A lot of work to do something that's easy today, as Freiman observes.

Third, Freiman explains how hard the Beatles worked outside the recording studio that year, and how much material they generated and simply gave away to other acts. On June 1, they performed live on the BBC show "Pop Go the Beatles," and sang half a dozen songs -- their own mixed with Chuck Berry and Leiber/Stoller covers. (They would eventually perform live on the BBC 53 times.)

Among the songs they passed on to others, The Fourmost had a #17 chart single in the UK with Paul's "I'm In Love" in November, Peter and Gordon would go all the way to number one with Paul's "World Without Love" the following winter, and of course they shared "I Wanna Be Your Man" with a new and upcoming London band called The Rolling Stones.

In October, they achieved their dream of appearing on the premiere UK TV show "Sunday Night at the London Palladium." John would josh the queen and her box three weeks later. But oh, there would be more - so much more - to come!

Deconstructing the Birth of the Beatles
(2018)

Astounding, at least for true Beatles fans
This 2018 video-lecture is the first in Freiman's "second season" of Deconstructing the Beatles talks, following the quartet devoted to each of their biggest mid-period albums, which rolled out in 2017.

As always, Freiman begins with a quiz, then moves briskly through the milieu and childhoods of the three boys who would become the core of the Quarrymen, John's secondary school band, in the summer of 1957. There's a brief, and understandably poor, but still astonishing tape clip of John and his band playing a church hall fete on July 6, 1957 - the day he would meet Paul.

Freiman provides plenty of other photos of people and locations, audio and video clips, and wonderful trivia. There are also audio clips of the music the boys grew up with, or were about to overtake, starting with Tommy Steele's "Rock with the Caveman" (1956). He reminds us how hard the band worked at its craft in Hamburg, playing six to eight hours a day, fueled by cigarettes and Preludin, an amphetamine.

Freiman closes with some great video footage of the Beatles live, playing "Some Other Guy" at the Cavern Club on Aug. 22, 1962. They're spiffed up -- Brian Epstein has gotten them out of leather and into white long-sleeved shirts, ties, and sweaters -- but Ringo's on drums (barely a week on board), their first recording sessions with George Martin at EMI/Parlophone are just weeks away, and you can see the magic they're about to spring on the world.

It's tough to rate a show like this, because hardcore fans of the band would automatically give it a 10, but folks with a more nodding acquaintance of the Sixties icons might rate it more like a 5 or 6.

Bar Bahar
(2016)

Terrific portrait of young women in transit between tradition and modernity
This Israeli production about Palestinian roommates in Tel Aviv presents a rich and moving array of the quandaries faced by young women on the uneven ground between traditional values and self-determination in a modern, urban landscape.

Leila, a young lawyer, and Salma, who begins the story as a sous chef and then takes a job as a bartender but also moonlights as a rave DJ, are modern young party girls who drink, smoke cigarettes, and do occasional pot and coke when their male friends are offering. Into their apartment moves Noor, an ostensibly traditional Muslim girl who never appears in public without a hijab, and is affianced to an activist who works in an NGO devoted to helping Muslims get by. He's not happy that she's studying computer science at university, and hopes she'll stay at home to raise their children eventually.

All three women collide with their culture's - and especially families' - traditional expectations. Salma's parents introduce her to various unappealing bachelors; Leila meets and dates a filmmaker who has studied and worked in New York but turns out to have some sticking points about her choices. Noor hits the hardest wall, but the way her initially unsympathetic roommates come together for her is beautiful and very satisfying.

Although this story centers on young women, and most of the men are forgettable at best or unpleasant (save for a queen-y gay friend of Leila's and, surprisingly, Noor's father, in a pivotal scene late in the movie), I wouldn't call it a "chick movie." It's well written and acted, and I found it not a great stretch to recognize that some men and families oppress young women in the U.S. in ways that are not so different, even today.

"In Between" is a lovely and solid piece of work.

Chalard games goeng
(2017)

Smart, tricky, but with plenty of heart
It might sound odd to describe a film about high school students cheating on a national (and subsequently an international) scholastic exam as a "heist movie" or "caper thriller," but that's how the plot of the stylish "Bad Genius" plays it. (Terrible English title, by the way; its original name was "2B COME WON" -- as in: mission accomplished with a No. 2 pencil, and also "To become one.")

Things you think are happening turn out not to be the case; there are substantial chase sequences with nary a car or a gun in sight, and multiple interrogation scenes that include no cops; thugs are seen beating up one of our heroes on a security cam; and the film's actual cameras move wittily, even during the various exams -- from classroom to nationals to international level.

Lynn, an extremely bright scholarship student whose lower-working-class single father has moved mountains to get her into an exclusive private school, is persuaded by her well-to-do bestie Grace to help with her studies. Gradually, Lynn is cajoled into helping other wealthy but low-performing classmates pass exams for money.

The stakes and the schemes grow ever greater as the teens progress to national college exams and eventually the ultra-prestigious STIC, an international standardized test that enables students to land admittance and scholarships to U.S. colleges. To make her complicated, Oceans-Eleven-style plan work, Lynn will have to catch an international flight from Thailand to Sydney, Australia.

But she can't make it work without Bank, the other scholarship student at the school, who struggles to help his invalided mother run a laundry. And Bank is opposed to cheating.

Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, 21 at the time of her film debut in the lead, does an outstanding job with a morally ambiguous character. Though with much less screen time, Chanon Santinatornkul is almost as memorable as her sometime rival, sometime ally, Bank. This is a sharp, smart, and hugely entertaining film that deserves a wide Western audience.

Undir trénu
(2017)

Hilarious, unsettling, and thought-provoking
Atli is pushed out of his home by wife Agnes after she discovers him watching a sex tape that features him. He tries desperately to talk to her and get time with their daughter Asa at her kindergarten, but his behavior turns stalker-ish. Atli has crashed at his parents' place: Baldvin and Inga have commenced a fight with their neighbors over a tree in their yard that the neighbors, Konrad and trim young second wife Eybjorg, complain throws too much shade on their deck.

All the characters misread situations, let their anger push them to escalate in vengeful responses, and often give one another good advice which nobody follows. It might be misleading to call "Under the Tree" a dark comedy, because although it is often hilarious and even approaches over-the-top farce at times, the plot raises multiple serious issues in its fairly believable yet inexorable way, from aging and mental health, to grief and the fatal consequences of failing to speak up when one should.

Coolly but beautifully shot, and fiercely acted, especially the unsavory roles portrayed by Steinþórsson as Atli and Björgvinsdóttir as his fierce and cruel mother Inga, this is a startling story that does not take any easy turns.

Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(2017)

Terrific peek behind the scenes of a classic
This video of one of the "Deconstructing the Beatles" lectures Freiman has been giving over the past eight years at universities, cultural centers, and other venues offers an absorbing look at the creative work behind one of the most groundbreaking rock albums of the 1960s. Freiman's multi-media presentation includes video clips, music out-takes, alternate versions of famous cuts, stills, news footage, and the album covers, TV ads and sitcoms, circus poster, and other sources of inspiration for the songs on this beloved LP.

Freiman starts his talks with a trivia quiz for the audience, which focuses viewers' minds on what you remember and don't know about the Beatles and the album in question. From there, he moves through the songs in order, spending more time on some than others. (There's also considerable discussion of the double-sided single "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane," which was released that spring of 1967 but ultimately left off the album.)

Occasional dips into sound engineering details such as DI boxes, phasing, and flanging may go over the average listener's head, but are more than made up for by the musical content. In some cases, especially "Lucy in the Sky," "She's Leaving Home," "Within You Without You," "Good Morning Good Morning," and "A Day in the Life," Freiman presents alternate versions, or is able to isolate various tracks -- background vocals, percussion, lead guitar, etc. -- so you get to hear things you've never noticed in songs you've listened to dozens, even hundreds, of times.

There's also plenty of trivia for anyone who hasn't pored over the dozens of Beatles books, especially Margotin & Guesdon's _All the Songs_ (2013), for which Freiman served as consulting editor. Did you know that producer George Martin cherry-picked audience noises from live performances of Beyond the Fringe, the comedy troupe he produced before signing the Beatles, for this album? That a new EMI act called Pink Floyd was recording its first album, _Piper at the Gates of Dawn_, in the studio next door and dropped by to watch the recording of "Lovely Rita"? Or that hair combs wrapped in toilet paper are part of the instrumental backing for "When I'm Sixty-Four" (a song McCartney composed for his Dad when he was only 16)?

Perhaps the most startling piece of trivia involves "She's Leaving Home," the haunting ballad McCartney composed after seeing a news story about a 17-year-old who disappeared from her parents' home, also leaving behind a mink coat, diamond ring, and car. It turned out that Paul generally guessed correctly about the circumstances: Melanie Coe indeed ran away to be with a man, but she had no idea the song was about her when she heard it. (She also got tracked down two weeks later and came home pregnant to have an abortion.) But here's the crazy part: Several years before, on Oct. 4, 1963, McCartney judged a dance contest on the TV show "Ready, Steady, Go!" (three girls jiggled to Brenda Lee's "Let's Jump the Broomstick"), and awarded the prize to a young teen . . . that very Melanie Coe, about whom he would unknowingly write a song three years later! It is, as Freiman says when he runs the footage of McCartney handing the girl her prize on the show, a "Twilight Zone moment."

This video lecture was shot during a Freiman presentation at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY -- about 30 miles north of New York City. Cameras regularly focus on people in the audience who are mouthing the lyrics of the songs, or smiling, which didn't add much for this viewer. But the cumulative effect of the movie is to renew your admiration and respect for this amazing quartet of musicians and their technical support (Freiman gives a lot of props to sound engineer Geoff Emerick as well as Martin), and send you home with the songs dancing through your mind. What could be better than that?

(NOTE: Videos of Freiman's lectures began screening at select houses across the U.S. in late 2016, and as of the spring of 2017, they continue to roll out mostly in one-night, one-screening-only performances at venues such as The Imperial Theater in Augusta, GA, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Living Room Theater in Portland, OR, where I saw this one. Check Freiman's "Deconstructing the Beatles" website for scheduled screenings.)

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt
(2015)

Challenging and dense
The German-Jewish philosopher, Johanna "Hannah" Arendt is famous for the phrase "the banality of evil," which she coined after observing the trial of Nazi Holocaust organizer Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. She devoted her life to writing and speaking about human rights, the importance of thought as (as well as in addition to) action, and the nature of power. She rarely misstepped, though her early affair with teacher Martin Heidegger, who later worked within the Nazi regime, and her continued support and defense of him after the war, certainly raises questions.

Arendt is clearly a worthy subject for a biographical documentary, and the filmmakers have done an interesting job of it. They've found extremely rare archival footage (from private videos of the Heidegger family to Nazi concentration camp guards clowning behind closed doors) and combined it with stock footage that may or may not relate to the narration or prose from books and letters read by actors over the soundtrack. There's quite a bit of video footage of the Eichmann trial -- certainly a pivotal event in Arendt's life and writings -- though perhaps not that illuminating in itself.

The excerpts from her political and philosophical writings are largely served in small doses -- slowly, with air time and comments by current experts to help the viewer to absorb them -- but it remains an exhausting exercise in concentration. I found myself flagging -- in energy, not so much as interest -- about 80 percent of the way into this admittedly long 132-minute film. Excerpts from personal letters by Arendt and several of the men in her life, both teachers and lovers (again read in English by actors), may have been chosen to give us a breather, but they aren't that instructive otherwise.

What is vital about this film is what Arendt can teach us about political fairness and balance, how not to yield to the temptations offered by totalitarian figures and governments. One cannot help think or more recent figures and events in history. Some of her aged students and contemporary academics that appear on camera are very helpful here, as well as archival video interviews with the philosopher herself.

She deserves the attention, and though this isn't an easy film to digest, it's hard to imagine how one could make the job much easier without possibly doing a disservice to its subject.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
(2016)

Engaging, illuminating, a little arty, and nostalgic
Norman Lear can honestly claim to have made the U.S. a better place, both apart from and through his work as a TV producer and writer. Directors Grady and Ewing have put together a creditable biographical documentary that serves as a solid introduction to the man, an overview of his work, and the influence he's had on U.S. culture.

Though there are excerpts from some of his most famous shows -- from "All in the Family" through "Maude," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," and "Fernwood 2 Night" (though no mention of "Sanford and Son," curiously) -- as well as recent comments and archival interview footage from some of the actors (a clip of Carroll O'Connor on a talk show correcting a description of his character as a "lovable bigot" by focusing on the essential unhappiness of the man is especially memorable), the emphasis is on Lear's life as a man and as an entertainment professional.

We learn about the effects of his father's conviction and imprisonment for selling fake bonds when Norman was 9, the Second World War (in which Lear served as a radio operator on a B-17 bomber), the influence of his second wife Frances in pushing for women's rights, how his overwork and the collapse of that marriage led to Lear stepping away from TV production and founding the nonprofit People for the American Way to battle the so-called Moral Majority. There's a third marriage, more children, some home video footage of the family in recent decades.

The filmmakers expend a fair amount of footage on a sound stage, showing a (presumably) 9-year-old version of Lear being affected by Father Coughlan's racist radio speeches and other events in the real man's life. (An earlier IMDb reviewer has referred to Lear purchasing a copy of the Constitution, but it was the Declaration of Independence.) Archival footage of Jerry Falwell and other televangelists of that era will make one both grateful they're gone and apprehensive about recent counterparts. Just being alive, kicking, and alert as Lear is at 93 is cause for celebration.

Whether you were a fan of his shows or not, this documentary will certainly arouse memories of the times, and the undeniable effect that Lear's work had upon them.

L'antiquaire
(2015)

Poorly made cultural thriller
When the art dealer husband of Esther, a magazine journalist in Paris, brings home an 18th- century painting for an upcoming auction, she is startled to discover her father emotionally stunned at the sight of it. In seeking to find the cause of his discomfort, she follows a trail that leads through her parents and their friends during the war, Nazi art confiscations, conspiracies between her Jewish elders, and government cover-ups. Her job is threatened, and surveillance photos of herself are emailed to her phone.

It's a bit painful to watch a fairly strong cast labor to try to make such a poorly written film work. One might be tempted to suppose the English subtitles have left too much out, but large plot holes, overlong shots that add nothing to the story, and unresolved threads suggest otherwise. This is basically an interesting plot situation, with some decent acting and stylish design and camera work, but in the end it's not a very intelligent movie.

Poor Anna Sigalevitch, who mostly does a creditable job in the lead, is forced to perform a shower scene and an erotic reconciliation with her husband that are utterly gratuitous. Best scene is her confrontation with her powerful, menacing uncle, played by veteran French actor Michel Bouquet, who sells a fairly pedestrian piece of plotting and dialogue with tremendous conviction and ambiguity.

L'orchestre de minuit
(2015)

Offbeat, quirky, funny, and moving
Successfully wealthy in finance, Michael Abitbol has lived in the U.S. and not seen his father for some years when he returns to his native Morocco at his father's bidding. The family had fled Casablanca in 1973 when racial tensions rose as a result of the Yom Kippur War. Michael has to unravel at least two mysteries from his childhood: why his father abandoned a budding career and his band, and what happened to the other young musicians who played in that band. With a comical Arab cab driver as his guide, Michael searches for the surviving members of his father's combo, whose lives have diverged in wild and some not-so-lovely ways. Music, ghosts, and intercultural misunderstandings spice this often funny, sometimes menacing tale.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
(2011)

I'll bet we're all far more ignorant than we think; this'll help
"The Story of Film" is showing in segments over a period of weeks at the NW Film Center in the Portland Art Museum. I wandered into the three segments that mostly address the period between 1969 and the mid 1980s, complacently figuring I'd view a lot of footage I'd already experienced in my youth. I was terribly mistaken, and that's why I feel the previous reviewer is unfair to Cousins's project.

Given the comparatively minuscule budget for a job this grandiose in concept, I believe Cousins has done admirable work. He rarely appears on camera, he gives a tremendous amount of attention to so-called Third World filmmakers, and he has gathered an amazing though perhaps idiosyncratic series of on-camera interviews by directors, actors, and other commentators. For this viewer, who had seen hundreds of old films and brand-new movies in the 1980s that have since become iconic, I was astounded by the array of interesting films he unearthed from India, West Africa, China, and the old Soviet Union. (Where the hell am I ever going to get my hands on a copy of "Repentance" or "Come and See"?)

Yes, though the pacing doesn't feel rushed from moment to moment, you still feel left a bit breathless by all the ground covered. I appreciated the occasional visual examples of the points Cousins tries to make about particular filmmakers or nations' approach to movies: changing the filter shading or positioning of the horizon in sample footage before your eyes. In the particular section I saw, I appreciated his efforts to put the work of new filmmakers in historical and political context: a comparison between the eyes of David Lynch and those of President Reagan made me smile. Even if you don't agree with Cousins's judgments, they're worth thinking about . . . and it's just a great thing that somebody has the cojones to attempt a retrospective on this scale.

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