July 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
For years I watched several movies a week in theaters and more at home; hundreds per year. These days I rarely set foot in theaters, and the last film I saw in one was a documentary. As for features, what little isn’t of the superhero/action variety is usually unsatisfying, and often forgotten by the time I get home.
Further complicating matters are the increasingly compelling original series on streaming services. Nothing I’ve seen in this year has interested me as much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown,” so why make the trip to ArcLight? Fortunately, some relief has arrived via Deborah Graynik’s new film, “Leave No Trace.” Will, a war veteran with PTSD (Ben Foster) hides from civilization in the woods outside Portland with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Father and daughter live harmoniously in primitive conditions until their inevitable discovery by park rangers. Though their re-entry into society yields mixed results, there are no villains or platitudes in “Leave No Trace,” and no violence. Social workers are sensitive and kind, as are Will and Tom’s new neighbors, but Will’s problems have no easy solutions.
Foster and McKenzie are brilliant actors, though it pains me that American characters in this quintessentially American movie are played by an Australian and a New Zealander. Aside from that, I can find no fault with “Leave No Trace.” The film is visually beautiful, as would be expected from its Pacific Northwest setting, but more crucially it captures the passage of time as only film can do. For anyone who longs for movies about humans rather than superheroes, this one’s for you.
May 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.
In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.
Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.
Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:
I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.
Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:
If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.
With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.
Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
I have mixed feelings about “Isle of Dogs,” just as I do about other Wes Anderson films. On the one hand, it’s an homage to Japanese culture, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. On the other, it’s a stereotype-laden tale that trots out (pun intended) every conceivable Japanese cliché: Cherry blossoms! Swords! Sushi! Megacities! Machine Politics! None of that offended me. What did were the references to World War II, particularly the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;the post-apocalyptic Trash Island; the kamikaze-like plane of Atari, the “Little Aviator;” and the island’s deformed and wounded native dogs, survivors of laboratory experiments. For those who might have missed those references, Anderson helpfully provides an explosion with a mushroom cloud.
Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola apparently love Japan and have spent time there. But like countless other infatuated gaijin, they can’t resist the urge to explain Japanese culture, despite their shaky and superficial understanding of it. It’s a long tradition among white males that began with Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Cypriot journalist and wanderer. As the first westerner to write extensively on Japanese literature and culture, the non-fluent Hearn got so famous that he attained a professorship–in English literature, a subject he was also unqualified in–at Tokyo University in 1896.
These days, the explaining goes on less in books than in movies and television, but with the same mixed results. Roman Coppola does better in the current season of “Mozart in the Jungle,” which has several episodes set in Japan. There the orchestra performs on temple grounds and at a Tadao Ando-designed complex, among other picturesque locations. In other scenes, the Japanese love of classical music is depicted at a bar where patrons go to listen to recordings on high-end equipment. All of this culminates in a tea ceremony attended by the two leads (Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke) and conducted by a Japanese woman who is a master of the form. So far, so good, but then the characters drink the tea and find themselves in a Kurosawa-inspired bamboo forest, where they speak forbidden truths and achieve the enlightenment that they either were or were not seeking–I forget which because I’d already tuned out.
As in “Isle of Dogs,” the western fantasy of Japan collapses under its own weight in “Mozart in the Jungle,” and soon the musicians are back in New York where they belong. Japan clearly deserves better. It’s absurd that non-Japanese-speaking outsiders feel compelled to explain its complex culture to the world, but as long as there are white male Japanophiles, there will be attempts.
March 27, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week’s rains transformed the narrow channel that confines the LA River into something that actually looked like a river, albeit an ugly one hemmed in by high concrete walls. Staring at it from the windows of my gym, a fellow member said, “I keep expecting to see a body going by.” We’d already seen tree branches and plastic bottles in the fast-moving water, so anything seemed plausible.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and throughout my years here I’ve been hearing about plans to restore the LA River into a more natural body of water. To date, one can only access the river in small sections: at the Sepulveda Basin and the Glendale Narrows near Dodger Stadium, and in Frogtown. Burbank is another area slated for restoration, but so far it hasn’t happened.
The main problem with the LA River is that it’s not really a river. It’s an arroyo, running dry in the summer and dramatically coming to life in the rainy season. (Los Angeles is unique among the world’s major cities in lacking a navigable river or deep water harbor; only Brasilia, with its artificial lake, compares, but it’s a master-planned city founded in 1960.) Before the LA River was channelled it regularly flooded, causing fatalities and property losses. After the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted it almost completely, putting an end to flooding but creating a massive eyesore.
Given our desert climate, Los Angeles will never have an unchanneled river. But even channeled rivers can be beautified and improved. I grew up in western Tokyo, on a hill above Meguro River, which in those days was less a river than a dank urban waterway filled with garbage. Whenever our car crossed its bridge, an ominous thunk made me imagine the horror of falling in. Then, around the time my family left Japan in the 70’s, the river was cleaned up by the city. Cherry trees were planted along the banks and walking paths were built on both sides. As the trees grew, new apartment houses sprang up on both sides of the river. The neighborhood became chic.
I had all but forgotten about the Meguro River’s existence, so I never saw its transformation. Then in March of 2013, I arrived in Tokyo and was told by a friend to hurry and see the cherry trees there. An unexpected hot spell had forced an early bloom that year, and the trees alongside the river were already past their prime. It was also raining that day, but no matter: the experience was magical. Festive lanterns lined the riverbanks, and the fencing was low enough to allow picture-taking. The pathways were carpeted in petals, and as I walked blossoms fell with the rain. Though the Meguro River was still channeled, the sweeping branches of the cherry trees detracted from the concrete, giving it a more natural appearance. Why can’t the LA River be like this?, I wondered. I still do.
March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment
For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.
Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.
At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.
The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:
Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.
Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.
Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.
February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
The film opens with a blond boy taking a meandering route home from school along a nearby river. Alyosha (Matey Novkov) is twelve, a loner and the only child of a middle-class couple. Though his family lives in a spacious modern apartment, Alyosha’s world is coming apart: his parents despise each other and are in the midst of an ugly divorce; the apartment is on the market. That night in bed, he overhears his father Boris (Alexy Rozin) and mother Zehnya (Maryana Spivak) fighting and learns that neither wants custody of him. When Boris says he can’t care for his son, Zehnya suggests putting Alyosha in an orphanage. The look of anguish on the boy’s face when he realizes he is–and always has been–unwanted by both parents is heartbreaking and unforgettable.
The next day, we learn that both parents have already found new partners: Zhenya a rich older man whose only daughter is not only grown but conveniently living in Portugal; and Boris a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Zehnya, after leaving work to have her hair and nails done, meets her lover for dinner and spends most of the night at his apartment, while Boris spends the night with his lover at her apartment. Zehnya returns home late and doesn’t bother to check on Alyosha. In the morning he’s missing, and Zehnya soon learns he skipped school the previous day and hasn’t been seen since.
On the advice of a policeman, Boris and Zehnya enlist the services of a private group dedicated to finding runaways. With admirable skill, they search the woods, riverbanks and a new but abandoned building where Aloysha and his only friend liked to play. When the search party finds no sign of the boy, they paper the area with flyers and search the stairwells, balconies and elevators of nearby buildings. There are visits to hospitals and the morgue, tips about unnamed corpses and a growing sense of despair. Early on, the group leader persuades Zehnya to visit her monstrous, estranged mother to see if Alyosha might have gone there. Their brief encounter is primer on what not to do, both as a parent and an adult child.
Compared with his icy wife, Boris seems warm and cuddly, but he’s just as much a narcissist as she is. A moral weakling whose main goal is to keep his job by deceiving his boss, a religious fundamentalist who fires divorced employees, Boris sleepwalks through the crisis of his son’s disappearance, unable to comprehend its meaning.
In the end, both Boris and Zehnya get new lives but not the fresh start they expected, and Aloysha’s disappearance is not transformative for either. Both parents remain irredeemably selfish in spite of their new partners and homes, and Boris loves his new baby no more than he did Alyosha. But life goes on as predictably as the children who sled outside the family’s apartment, now under renovation by its new owners.
It’s this refusal to indulge in sentimentality that ultimately makes “Loveless” great, as well as a welcome antidote to every film with a contrived ending. It opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles but should be more widely available soon.
December 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign!
Poinsettias of Old Hollywood, Part I
December 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
I was surprised to find this vintage postcard in the collection of Tommy Dangcil because I had not previously heard of poinsettias being grown in Hollywood. Judging from the single building in the hills, the image dates back more than a century, to when Hollywood still had large agricultural tracts. Most were planted with lemons and oranges, crops that would soon give way to movie studios and other commercial properties.
What makes the postcard even more striking is the fact that the poinsettia was not well-known at the time, and less a commercial crop than a curiosity. Native to Mexico, the plant–despite its red color–was not even particularly identified with Christmas. Its popularization was largely the work of Paul Ecke, a San Diego County grower who not only tirelessly promoted the poinsettia as the Christmas “flower” (in fact, the red parts are leaf-like bracts, while the yellow centers are the flowers) but who, with his son Paul Jr., created the white, pink, yellow and variegated types that are available today. Because of Ecke, Encinitas has long been the undisputed capital of poinsettia cultivation, producing 80% of the world’s plants. In light of its long history in Encinitas, discovering the poinsettia’s early connection to Hollywood was an unexpected pleasure.
Poinsettias of Hollywood, Part II
After I posted my last piece, I discovered an article in the current issue of Discover Hollywood * that completes the poinsettia’s history in Hollywood. It seems that it was none other than Paul Ecke’s father, Albert, who started growing the plants in here in 1900. Like many Angelenos of the era, Ecke was headed somewhere else–in his case, Fiji–when he discovered Hollywood’s ideal year-round growing conditions and decided to stay. He settled his family on Hayworth Avenue and soon established an orchard and a dairy.
Noticing that poinsettias grew wild in Hollywood and bloomed at Christmastime, Albert Ecke cultivated them in the field on Sunset Boulevard shown in the postcard above. Father and son sold them in pots from roadside stands in Hollywood and later Beverly Hills, where winter visitors as well as locals bought them. The painter Paul DeLongpre painted them (one of his watercolors is featured in the article) adding to their popularity beyond Southern California.
As many have noted, the poinsettia is memorialized as a street name in Hollywood. Now we know why.
*The issue is available free of charge now, but isn’t up yet on the magazine’s website http://www.discoverhollywood.com
Presumably it will be soon.