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February 20, 2014


Oh bless thee continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul. Gentle this soul.

~Leonard Cohen, "The Window"

Every rave about Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty is an understatement. Set in Rome, the Eternal City, The Great Beauty exudes what we traditionally mean by "culture" and "civilization." Yet that centuries’ worth of civilization is juxtaposed with celebrity and trivial amusements, pettiness and hypocrisy. We mortals surround ourselves with art, music, literature, gardens, philosophy, religion, architecture – all attempts to elevate the human condition above the quotidian. We seek THE great beauty that will transport us into the divine, and when we fail to transcend, we are seduced by the earthly. We turn to diversion to forestall our fears, muffle our knowledge that we are but a speck in the universe. As Ingmar Bergman’s Antonius Block observes in The Seventh Seal, “We carve an idol out of our fear and call it God.”

Our protagonist, Jep Gambardella -- marvelously realized by Toni Servillo -- is a sybarite we meet celebrating his 65th birthday. As the film leisurely ambles past the monuments of Rome, like a 19th century Parisian flâneur, Jep parties, banters, seduces, and remembers things past -- a carefree childhood and an early love affair with the young woman he thinks of as the great beauty he lost. The reality, of course, is that she is only "the great beauty" in Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility," in the abstraction of art and myth. The flesh and blood human being would have disappointed.

We flesh and blood human beings are all failures – even those we place in the pantheon of the greats were flawed mortals like ourselves. We all long to be great, but we settle. After his novel’s modest success, Jep settled on becoming the see-and-be-seen man about town, "King of the High Life," who can make or break the success of a party.

The film is an obvious homage to Fellini and la dolce vita. In some ways, Sorrentino is approaching the same panoramic and cosmic questions that Terrence Malick explores in Tree of Life, but by looking at the human condition in the vastness of time and space through the lens of the absurd Sorrentino succeeds, whereas Malick arguably fails by taking himself too seriously. Jep can be munificent and sardonic by turns, yet despite his hedonistic life, he continues to be a seeker after truth.

Everything about this meditation on life and dying, youth and aging, the sublime and the ridiculous is gorgeous. The camera caresses Rome accompanied by a lush, spellbinding original score by Lele Marchitelli interspersed with David Lang's "I Lie" and "World to Come IV";  Arvo Pärt's piece based on Robert Burns's poem "My Heart's in the Highlands"; Vladimir Martynov's "The Beatitudes"; Zbigniew Preisner's "Dies Irae" from Requiem for My Friend; John Tavener's "The Lamb"; the "II. Adagio" from Georges Bizet's Symphony in C Major; the "III. Lento: Cantabile-semplice" from Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3; Magister Perotinus's "Beata Viscera," a conductus celebrating the mystery of the Virgin Mary; and "Water from the Same Source" by Rachel's. This haunting sea of music is juxtaposed with a dizzying club mix of electro-pop, house music and Merengue. 

In an interview with Jean Gili, Sorrentino explained that "In thinking about this film, an inevitable [yet miraculous] mix of the sacred and the profane, just as Rome famously is -- I immediately thought that this flagrant contradiction of the city...should be echoed in the music."

I quibble with Salon's Andrew Hehir when he says, "Never have cynicism and disillusion seemed more intoxicating than in The Great Beauty, which is such an overwhelming visual and auditory experience that its elements of cautionary moral fable threaten to get lost amid the gorgeousness." Jep is bittersweet not world-weary. After explaining the proper way to comport oneself at a funeral, once there he violates his own rules and steals the family's thunder by weeping copiously and uncontrollably. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins's Margaret in "Spring and Fall," Jep weeps not for the unstable young man who has committed suicide or for his mother, but for himself. "It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for."

Indeed death hangs over The Great Beauty from the opening scenes to the end. "We're all on the brink of despair," Jep says. "All we can do is...keep each other company, joke a little." This is not as glib as it may sound on its surface. It is precisely what Samuel Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon do as they wait... and wait and wait for a Godot who will never come. "We are not saints," Didi admits, "but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?" which Gogo replies, "Billions."

Toni Servillo.

Galatea Ranzi (left) has an intimate moment with Toni Servillo in “The Great Beauty.”

February 19, 2014


In Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden's Feral, a hunter discovers a wild child who has grown up in the woods amidst wolves. The hunter brings the child into the town, cleans him up and deposits him in school where he is taunted and treated like an animal. The child responds in kind. Beautiful animation even if a story that has been told before is this time told very thinly. 

 Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden

Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden

Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim's Get a Horse! is Disney Studios' self-reflexive tribute to itself. Mining the late 1920s animation style of the original Mickey Mouse films, the short opens with the antics of black and white toons cavorting in a barnyard and setting off on a wagon ride. Then Peg-Leg Pete shows up to ruin the fun. Suddenly a color Mickey not only breaks the fourth wall (in something of a Jazz Singer black and white breaking into color reference), but breaks down any charm the short began with, devolving into a mounting CGI chase. Sam Adams of Indiewire aptly notes that "[I]n 'breaking through' the 2D frame like some cartoon '80s hard-rock act, Get a Horse! implicitly slights the tradition it purports to homage. It tells viewers -- not just children, but anyone who's never seen a black-and-white Mickey short -- that the 'classic' format is something to be patiently endured until the real action starts. Even though both are modern creations, the 3D animation looks garish and clunky next to the faux old-school imagery...."

Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim

Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim

Unlike the jarring Get a Horse!, Lauren Witz and Alexander Espigares's Mr. Hublot is a beautiful story imaginatively realized in characters who, despite being at some stage of evolutionary morphing into vintage machines, are still very much human. The agoraphobic Mr. Hublot must overcome his obsessive compulsion when he is compelled to rescue Robot Pet. His carefully ordered world will be disrupted beyond his wildest imagination, but what he receives in return is grace.

Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares

Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares

In 18th century Japan, when a fix-it man who has lost his way seeks shelter from a storm in an abandoned shrine, he is met with a torrent of enchanted household objects animated by goblin spirits in Shuhei Morita's Possessions. Like the parasols, the screen and the flowing sheaths of kimono fabrics, the lovely choreography also enchants, but something gets lost in translation when one is unfamiliar with Japanese notions of spirits whose deep-seated grudges are not easily appeased.

Shuhei Morita

Shuhei Morita

Max Lang and Jan Lachauer's Room on the Broom is adapted from the book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It tells the story of a genial witch and her cat who are joined one by one by a dog, a bird and a frog. The witch may seem a little too generous for her own good, but we learn that there is no such thing.

Max Lang and Jan Lachauer

Max Lang and Jan Lachauer

February 14, 2014


Jeffrey Karoff's CaveDigger tells the story of one of those rare individuals who has lived life on his own terms. Ra Paulette is much more than a cave digger. He is a sculptor who creates spiritual environments from New Mexico's lithified sand dunes, commonly referred to as slickrock. Lithified dunes were ancient marine or aeolian dunes that have become compacted (consolidated) and hard, the perfect medium for Paulette's structures and their ornamentation, which is at once elaborate and austere. Using only hand tools, and a wheelbarrow to cart away the excavated sand, Paulette carves out the dunes intuitively, driven by his deep-seated need for creative expression.

The documentary does not romanticize. There have been more than one disgruntled patrons, and Paulette's wife, who has borne the brunt of earning their living, admits she sometimes longs to pursue her own creative life. Still, it is hard not to admire Paulette's single-mindedness and his unwavering commitment to his vision.

"Manual labor is the foundation of my self-expression," he says. "To do it well, to do it beautifully, is a 'whole-person' activity, engaging mental and emotional strengths as well as physical strength. When digging and excavating the caves I break down all the movements into their simplest parts and reassemble them into the most efficient patterns and strategies that will accomplish the task while maintaining bodily ease. Like a dancer, I 'feel' the body and its movement in a conscious way. I'm fond of calling this 'the dance of digging,' and it is the secret of how this old man can get so much done."

Ra Paulette in "Cavedigger"

Cavedigger: the documentary

In Facing Fear, Jason Cohen recounts a story of what can only be called a bizarre reunion. As a gay 13-year-old, Matthew Boger was a hustler on the streets of LA. One night a group of neo-Nazis targeted him with what they thought was a fatal beating. Twenty-five years later, in a chance meeting where he is working at the Museum of Tolerance, Boger meets the man whose savage final blow was meant to take his life. Tim Zeal describes the doubts that began to haunt him and that ultimately led him to a transformative self-examination. At the Museum's behest, Boger and Zeal reluctantly presented their story at a forum -- an unlikely collaboration that continues and from which has grown an abiding friendship.




Sara Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls is an eye-witness account of the Friday, March 18, 2011 uprising when crowds of peaceful protesters, who had gathered in Change Square to demand Yemen liberation from a barbaric regime of 33 years, were fired upon by pro-government snipers leaving 53 dead and hundreds injured. Two cameramen were there and chronicled the day that became a turning point in Yemen's political history, sparked national outrage and inspired international sympathy. The day has come to be called Juma'at El-Karama, the Friday of Dignity.


Sara Ishaq

Alice Herz Sommer is the oldest living pianist and the oldest Holocaust survivor. She is 109 and the subject of Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed's The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. The subtitle is not meant metaphorically or poetically. It is quite literal. Alice grew up amongst the likes of Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka, and Max Brod -- friends who visited her parents often. She studied at the Prague German Conservatory of Music and was becoming an established concert pianist when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. 

Because of her talent Alice was sent to Theresienstadt, the camp the SS would hold up to Western governments and the Red Cross as a  model of the kinds of "cultural communities" to which Jews were being sent. Footage remains of a film the Nazis had in production, apparently to use as a propaganda piece, though it was never completed. Israeli director Yael Hersonski's 2010 documentary, A Film Unfinished, is an eerily haunting bird's eye look into the camp. 

More than 33,000 Jews died at Theresienstadt, Sigmund Freud's sister Esther, the psychotherapist Josef Breuer's daughter Margarete Schiff, the composer Zikmund Schul, and the German classical scholar Friedrich Munzer among them. It was not Alice's musical talent alone that saw her through her brutal ordeal. Her spirit is indomitible and is as joyous and full of grace today as it must have been then. 

Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed

Bill Brownstein: The Lady in Number 6 takes refuge in music

Jack Hall served his country in World War II, an experience that drilled killing into him. Stateside, after the war, he killed a drug dealer for hooking his son. Edgar Barens's Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall finds Jack Hall with terminal cancer in one of America's oldest maximum security prisons where he has spent his days since. Twenty percent of America’s prison population is elderly, the film tells us. In the next decade, nearly 100,000 inmates will die in their cells -- alone. In 2005, Iowa State Penitentiary created a hospice program to care for dying inmates. Jack Hall is able to face his final days with the assistance of the hospice care providers who are themselves prisoners. The film forces us to confront preconceptions about transgressors and their ability to transform themselves. Jack is supported by more genuine love and caring than many of us who have never seen the inside of a prison will likely experience as we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Edgar Barens

"Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" tells the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner. (HBO)

'Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall' Clip

SIU graduate nominated for Academy Award


February 12, 2014


I have procrastinated on writing about the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. I never thought I would see a Coen Brothers' film I did not like, but I was not crazy about Inside Llewyn Davis. At least among film critics I seem to be alone. It is not a bad movie. It is beautifully filmed, finely acted. But my reaction is meh.

Llewyn is another in the Coen's pantheon of Everyman losers on a quest through quotidian tedium. Problem is, this time he's not just a jerk, he's a colossal jerk and utterly unchanged by the journey. The raison d'etre of the quest is transformation, but Llewyn doesn't learn a thing. Oscar Isaac's performance is superb as the self-centered Llewyn and Carey Mulligan, an actress I greatly admire, is always a compelling screen presence, as she is here as Llewyn's old girlfriend, the long suffering Jean. Yet when I walked away from the theater, I did not care about either of their characters. I did, however, care about the music, about what Greil Marcus calls the old, weird America that the movie channels through Llewyn on the one hand while delivering a social critique on the popular face 1960s folk performers gave to traditional American folk music on the other.

And maybe this is what the Coen's are up to, after all. There are two competing myths of America, and they were each represented in the Folk Revival. One is the sunny American Dream in a land of opportunity where all men are created equal. Remember ABC's Hootenanny, which premiered in 1963 when I was 10 and ran for a little over a year? The Kingston Trio and The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Brothers Four, Judy Collins and The Limeliters -- all easily digestible to a mainstream audience. Even when the tales are of shipwreck or lost love, musically this pop folk tends toward a commercially viable, jaunty sound, and we hear it when duo Jean and Jim (Justin Timberlake) invite Llewyn to join them for "500 Miles" in a channeling of Peter, Paul and Mary.

I read Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory a year or so after Hootenanny left the airwaves. I wouldn't begin to explore the roots of the Folk Revival for another couple more, when I began looking for source material, which often had a dark, sometimes uncanny, even sinister, quality, in tale and tone.

Maybe this is where Inside Llewyn Davis missed its mark for me. John Goodman's turn as the drug-addled Roland Turner seems meant to function as one of the grotesques that those songs from the old weird America chronicle, but the narrative doesn't go down this murky path into the shadowland.

It wasn't until 1997 that I would hear the original old ballads, blues, gospel and labor anthem recordings unearthed by the American musicologist Harry Smith and issued in 1952 by Folkway Records as The Anthology of American Folk Music. The corollary to the myth of the pursuit of happiness and prosperity that these songs reveal inhabits a dark recess of murder, drunkenness, betrayal, violence for its own sake, and death.

Llewyn may be down on his luck, but his petulant self pity and his sense of entitlement are a product of his experience coming of age in the affluent America of the 1960s. The story is set early on the eve, in 1961, before the country would erupt in race riots, before peace demonstration would drive a wedge through the population. Llewyn has the luxury of being a jerk. If anything has the potential to redeem him, it is the music.
NYT Critics' Pick