David H. Anthony discusses the Silicon Valley African Film Festival, in audio above.
Review by David H. Anthony listen above or read below.
The documentary In A Dream by Jeremiah Zagar has all the virtues of intimacy. It is affectionate without being overly sentimental and pulls few punches in its unfolding.
Zagar’s subject is his artist father, Isaiah and mother Julia and their at times tortured relationship. Isaiah crafts brilliant mosaics. His work has been used to refurbish run down and/or abandoned parts of Philadelphia for the three decades covered in the film. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Isaiah’s art bears marks of genius, nor would it be inaccurate to also say that the film details the darker side of his gifts and the price paid by his family as he pursued his own particular expressive modes.
Shot in 2008 In A Dream is an assemblage of vintage footage dating back to the seventies, using a variety of tools and techniques. It mixes live action, period stills and moving pictures with animation to create an often astonishing array of effects, relying chiefly upon the imaginations of the principals and the vivid vistas that take shape through the creative acumen of Isaiah with the cooperative foresight of Julia.
This is not yet another tragic trope of genius gone awry, but it dares not dodge the vexing matter of how artistic intelligence may coexist with, perhaps even depend upon a degree of detachment from rationality, even as ratiocination occurs. Stated simply, an enduring theme in the lives of Isaiah, Julia and their progeny is the lifelong battle Isaiah wages with mental illness, punctuating or puncturing his productivity. Isaiah’s art becomes the vehicle through which he both engages and retreats from existence. In it he chronicles his story but also increases his isolation.
There are other parts of In A Dream that are better experienced as a viewer than recounted in a space such as this one. Because the chronological arc of the mature lives portrayed here (and thankfully allowed to speak their own truths) temporally roughly paralleled my own, there were moments when I felt close to the spouses as members of a cohort who endured several common cultural and social milestones.
This is no tale of sweetness and light. The nature of the couple’s commitment is tested, leading to complex and compelling crises of conscience as the two wrestle with whether collaboration can best be accomplished with or without cohabitation. Speaking to a steadicam breaks down barriers as Julia and Isaiah say what is on their mind and in their heart. Isaiah’s incandescent, incendiary art is a constant.
Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, or read it below.
Months after his untimely death in February of this year, the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to capture the imaginations and hearts of moviegoers. This is clear from his first moments on screen in A Most Wanted Man, the latest film adaptation of a John Le Carré espionage thriller. Set in post 9-11 Germany, it trades militant Islamism for Communism in a neo Cold War combat between the West and The Rest. Hoffmann is Günther Bachmann, a German operative in a dark force functioning in deep cover. He must unravel and counteract a potential threat posed by a Muslim Chechen torture victim who is seeking to connect with an articulate intellectual interlocutor. This interlocutor may or may not be financially implicated in money laundering ventures bankrolling arms purchases for nefarious purposes. Given the contemporary geopolitical situation, little about the plot is surprising. It is predictable, with righteously motivated quasi-simpatico villains and flawed would-be heroes, Le Carre’s formula. What holds viewer attention are the ways in which characters interact in what can seem yet another cynically played high stakes game of chess with the ‘Free World’ as its prize.
Consistent with Le Carrés vision, we are frequently left wondering who is free, if anyone. The entities arrayed in A Most Wanted Man, are local, national and global. They are caught in ceaseless competition between separate security services ostensibly engaged in a common purpose. But they are unrelentingly as ruthless in their internal rivalries with one another as with their state and non-state adversaries. The story inevitably involves finance capital and its role in making all things possible in this case a means for Willem Dafoe to showcase his penchant for moral ambiguity. Homayun Ershadi of Kite Runner fame is a puzzling presence. Robin Wright exemplifies American assurance and is almost as arresting as Hoffmann in her appearances as the face of a still very strong superpower projecting itself.
Le Carré is especially good at complicating characters by conferring upon them crises of conscience. Much like Tinker Tailor’s George Smiley, Bachmann recognizes that the other side has legitimate grievances and never loses sight of this fact while doing his duty. He does not think himself or his job virtuous, only nastily necessary and is all too aware of his own flaws and foibles, reminding himself of his failings whenever others are not ensuring that they do not escape his or their consciousness.
Bachmann has many enemies: His own doubts, his opponents’ capacities to make mayhem, and the sinister certitude of crusading colleagues and compatriots. This quality of self-questioning keeps our attention and moves the film along even when talk overrides action sequences. A Most Wanted Man is not so much a whodunit as a how to deal with it. Even so, it must be read carefully. What is being communicated when a central character whose function is to counsel interfaith tolerance and dialogue is exposed as an agent fueling hostilities? What does that say about those sincerely pursuing peace through communication?
Bachmann is the foil for the spy who understands himself and others to be going through the motions of saving the world when there are no winners or losers, but we who watch may draw different conclusions. The film runs the real risk of reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as inscrutable “others” who are implacable foes of non-Muslims. Le Carré succeeds at humanizing his protagonists and antagonists, but we as viewers owe it to ourselves and them to demystify his ordinary every day subjects, not as rogues in sleeper cells waiting to awaken and pounce upon innocents in subways, markets or shopping malls, but as regular people, a minority of whom may well at times resort to extreme measures in response to perceived provocations. After all most people are just trying to live their lives.
Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and watch the trailer below.
Richard Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood, was a very risky venture. You’ve likely heard that it took over twelve years to make, and that he used the same cast throughout. That, in itself, was daring – taking the chance that each of the cast members would be available for a twelve year shoot.
But, I think there was an even greater risk. Generally, movies succeed on the basis of disguising themselves as reality. We don’t want to enter the theatre and be reminded, over and over, that what we are watching is an assemblage of hundreds of hours of preparation and execution designed to fool us into believing that we’re witnessing a few seamless hours in the lives of the characters.
Linklater must have known that if he succeeded in getting to the finish line, the reality that he’d have created something never attempted in the annals of film history would likely ensure that most folks would be very aware that they were watching a movie. Which is to say – the desired outcome of ‘getting lost’ in the film might well be diminished.
Fortunately, sometimes great risks produce great outcomes, and I am happy to report that Boyhood is among them.
So, what is Boyhood about? Ostensibly, it’s about the childhood, pubescence, adolescence, and early adulthood of a bright guy named Mason, and about the lives of his closest family members. But I think it’s also a film about time – about how humans negotiate it, use it, abuse it, and, especially, about its velocity.
That Boyhood is about time and its manifestations is no surprise. Prior to Boyhood, my favorite Linklater films were the ‘Before’ trio: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Obviously, Linklater is artfully obsessed with time.
The film opens with six year old Mason lying on his back on a schoolyard lawn,
gazing pensively into the sky. His mom, Olivia, arrives to take him home. In the car, she asks him several questions generated by his teacher’s concerns. Mason’s simple answers establish immediately that he is a bright and unpretentious kid – a magnet for our attention and affections.
Next we are introduced to Mason’s precocious sister, Samantha. Samantha is played beautifully by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei. And we fall in love with her, too.
We now are beginning to know three of the four major characters – sister, brother, and mom. And soon we will meet the estranged father of the family, Mason Sr., played with characteristic excellence by Ethan Hawke.
We discover that mother Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, has a penchant for choosing partners with unhealthy habits. Mason Sr. is an inveterate smoker. He is followed in Olivia’s chain of love interests by an abusive alcoholic, who, in turn, is followed by a guy with an incipient drinking problem.
Boyhood is a powerful portrait of the all too familiar problems faced by many single parent families – divorces, frequent moves, financial difficulties, a disarming rootlessness. Linklater, the endearing Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason Jr., and the entire cast have made a memorable, perhaps even, a great film. Don’t miss it.
Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, or read it below.
Snowpiercer, a Film by Bong Joon-Ho
Summer is an acknowledged times for blockbusters. Snowpiercer the latest film by Korea’s Bong Joon Ho, is an apocalyptic dystopic entrant into that category. Bong Joon-Ho may be familiar to moviegoers as the director who brought us the creepy horror flick The Host (also known as Monster) and a poignant melodrama, Mother. Qualities in evidence in both these previous works recur in Snowpiercer: Bong’s penchant for the macabre and his ability to incite intense emotional responses from viewers.