“The Art of Self-Defense”

“The Art Of Self-Defense” opens with Jesse Eisenberg sitting on his hands. As Casey, a thirty-five-year-old auditor, Eisenberg does his outlander-thing in a one-seater coffee booth. He listens to a couple talking about sex in French-which just happens to be his new language of choice. He returns to work to hear his colleagues talking about sex, and he photocopies images of female breasts from his boss’ porno magazine, and staples the pack for later use in the privacy of his home.

His dachshund greets him from a gramma-crocheted throw on the couch. Director Riley Stearns knows how to contrast Casey’s pet choice with an article of a man with a wolf as his companion.

The set-up has Casey walking alone at night to get dog food. A motorcycle gang of three stop and ask if he has a gun. When he says “no”, he is kicked to a pulp. We next see Casey in a hospital bed with one week of paid leave. The critical care ward means that he will have to use all his vacation time to recuperate. We have a loser in our midst. Eisenberg is good at playing wimps. As in “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004), Eisenberg has a plan to toughen up. Casey purchases a hand gun and enrolls in karate class.

Alessandro Nivola may be the reason to see this dark and violent comedy. Nivola is terrific as Sensei, the suave psycho who tells Casey that “macho” is the way. He is to become what he fears. It is here that the script turns very dark. One earns a red stripe for taking a life.

Animals and humans are killed, a disenfranchised blue-belt takes his own life, and henchmen still roam the streets to slaughter undercover policemen and unsuspecting bicyclists. A German Shepherd is trained to attack the face. Bodies are secretly cremated. Nivola is cult-like, yet dead-pan funny. He would rather be a black-mailer and a killer than a guy named Leslie, his given name. My favorite part may be the end, where we see the dachshund’s picture framed next to the grand master’s. A bow to the bow-wow if ever there was one.

This may become a cult-classic, but not for my age group. We know what it means to be a man. Men can eat quiche and cry, and still be manly.

“The Last Black Man In San Francisco”

A sense of place is romanticized in this dreamy art film about the Harlem of the West, San Francisco. There is much to like, and much to question. The first fifteen minutes of  “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” is confusing with voices lost in the music. I kept thinking what August Wilson could have done with this story. It takes too long to identify Jimmie ( Jimmie Fails ) and Mont ( Jonathan Majors ), and their love relationship never feels like a physical one. It is only hinted at by their friends’ teasing jeers.

The cinematography is innovative, though “ Moonlight”  ( reviewed Nov. 18th, 2016 ) comes to mind. I loved the close-up pauses on faces and figures as our two main characters share a skateboard down San Fran’s hilly streets. The camera lens often picks up a glare, and the prism effect distracts and reminds us that this is a film with a camera man. This is off-putting for filmgoers because it takes us away from the story.

The story deals with memory, self-worth, loss, dignity, and love. First time director, Joe Talbot, keeps the real story of his friend, Jimmie Fails, close to his heart. Urban displacement and gentrification are subjects at the root of the film. The house in question is a turreted Victorian in the Fillmore District. Four million is its commercial worth, but to Jimmie, who still does touch-up painting on its sills, the emotional worth is priceless. The friends ultimately become squatters and refurbish the house with all the antiques and memorabilia that Jimmie’s aunt has stored.

Below the house’s many fish scales and curlicues, a segue-way tour gives the home’s architectural history. Jimmie corrects the guide from a top window. He believes that his grandfather built the house in the 1940’s as the Japanese were placed in internment camps. Montgomery listens and worries that his friend may be obsessed with the property. He has tied his self-worth to the structure.

A group of homies lends an operatic chorus to the moving saga. Scenes of a cable car party, a shot gun death, a sidewalk memorial, and a naked, but hatted and shod bus rider fill in the panorama of a changing city. The loosely constructed script comes together with a memorable denouement. Montgomery has finished his play, ” The Last Black Man In San Francisco” and he performs it as a one man show in the house’s attic.

His costumes are made and the play bills are given out to the selected guests. The score of Emile Mosseri meshes real pain with a gentle sweetness that underscores San Francisco’s loss as Jimmie rows his woodie toward the Golden Gate Bridge. ” Be Sure To War A Flower In Your Hair” becomes hauntingly sad.

“ The Biggest Little Farm”

The crowd-pleasing farm documentary, “ The Biggest Little Farm” is perfectly executed! It begins with our farmer, Molly, telling her husband, John, that she is not okay with staying on the farm while six major wild fires swirl around her and their small son. “There is so much to lose” are her words. The remainder of the film shows us just how much.

Jeff Beal’s music and the beautiful cinematography of wildlife photographer John Chester supports the idealistic tale of John’s and his wife Molly’s venture into old school farming. The first person narration works well as they tell the story of their rescue dog, Todd, and how his incessant, daily eight hours of barking gets the couple evicted from their Santa Monica apartment in 2010.

Molly, a chef, dreams of farming all the food she needs. With the aid of investor friends and family, the couple purchases 240 acres one hour north of Los Angeles. The clod-like soil is dead from mono-culture farming and drought. They enlist a farm guru, Alan York, as a consultant. Alan champions the highest level of biodiversity possible. First, they must burn and rip out everything that never should have been planted, set up an irrigation system, and use worm poop and cover crops to aerate and build up soil nutrients. Their first year budget is blown in six months and no crops are planted. Money is not mentioned again.

An orchard is started with seventy-five varieties of stone fruit trees. Every farm animal is acquired from bull to pig to lamb to hen. A staff is hired and expanded. Young people come to learn farming techniques along side them. Year two has the Apricot Lane Farm successfully selling fifty dozen eggs in an hour.

Interspersed with hard work we see beautiful close-ups of hummingbirds, playful animated graphics, and overhead views of nature perfectly sculpted. When problems begin, nature provides a solution. Coyotes killing 200 chickens mean they need to be moved to the orchard to eradicate the root-chewing gophers. Crows decimating tree fruit means bringing in owls. Snails in the citrus mean bringing in the ducks. Flies overwhelm the farm with maggots until the chickens eat them up. Co-existence is delicate, not forced. Year three and four have the harmonious dance partners always changing. Owls eat gophers, too.

Rare and unique varieties give the Chesters an edge in the marketplace. Tours are given. Sustainable farming tips shared.

Year five brings 18 inches of rain. The Chester’s topsoil does not float out to sea because of the cover crop and the aquifers. Year six and seven have one of the guard dogs killing hens, but the complex and diverse web of life seems to be in equilibrium.

Molly and John have a son and micro-organisms teem in the soil. The raging wildfires send smoke, but the farm survives. The Chesters become comfortable with a certain level of disharmony. A lone lamb frolics and a coyote eyes an easy meal. The guard dog barks and a lamb is returned to the fold.

Many filmgoers brought their elementary school children. Families clapped as the credits rolled. I noticed poets Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver were listed as inspiration.

“ Late Night”

Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling team up for a comedic drama about women coexisting in the field of late night tv hosting, a field dominated by men. Thompson, as Katharine Newbury, has been hosting her own show for twenty-eight years. Her gig is getting stale, and the head of the network, Caroline Moran ( Amy Ryan) is ready to dump her. Too many interviews with Doris Kearns Goodwin brings on the line that Goodwin could be an Avenger if she tried! Moran also scoffs at a ” folded fitted sheet race” segment. All the criticism leads Katharine to mock a viral video of dog butt sniffing which itself goes horribly viral.

Most of the screen time is showing us who Newbury is. A rather snobbish, direct and tough woman, who eschews social media and protégées. ” I will not allow you to destroy the show I built.” sounds much tougher than the easy compromising she exhibits. She takes no time in calling her surprising three year affair ” reprehensible”. We never learn what becomes of “Charlie”. John Lithgow plays Katharine’s forgiving husband.

Mindy Kaling, the first Indian-American to have her own show, plays Molly. Molly works at a chemical plant , but is obsessed with comedy. Molly is hired to prove that Katharine does not hate women and to diversify the all thirtyish- something male fifedom. One of the funniest lines is Molly saying that she is not worried about the masculinity in the room. Many of the writers are obviously gay.

Many of the jokes are based on appearances. Katharine’s spikey hair is challenged by her black publicist. ” How do you feel about extensions?” Molly attends a party with the tags still on her dress. The monologues could be funnier, and viewers are dragged through Molly watching old stand-ups and gazing at the accolade room full of Golden Globes and Emmies. Katharine tells Molly that her earnestness is hard to be around. The suspiciousness of the famous is well documented. Slut shaming is addressed, as is selfishness. While Katharine is often unusually cruel, her complacency is what has driven her ratings down. Caroline tells Katharine to “give a damn” and the two strike a deal. The jokes, the growth, the women karma did not seem that fresh to me.

“ Rocketman”

One sees the film “ Rocketman” for Taron Egerton. This thirty-year-old Welsh actor does all his own singing ;and like his name, which is a variation of “thunder” in Welsh, he literally thunders on screen. The energy of his performances is breathtaking. Two key scenes are memorable. One has Egerton as Elton John rise with his legs behind him while still playing the piano keyboard. The audience levitates to his performance while singing ” La la la la” to the razzle dazzle. The second visual fantasy has Elton diving into his pool in a drug and alcohol whacked suicide attempt only to have his childhood-self sitting in a space helmet on the pool’s floor as Elton slowly swirls in his silk Versace robe.

Director Dexter Fletcher of “Bohemian Rhapsody” fame uses a musical video format to outline Reginald Dwight’s rise to fame as Elton John. Matthew Illesley plays the eight-year-old prodigy with the song ” The Bitch Is Back”. He directs fantasy orchestras from his bed and warrants placement in music classes for the gifted. On a Royal Academy Of Music scholarship, Dwight is taken to lessons by his grandma (Gemma Jones). His mother ( Bryce Dallas Howard) is busy with her philandering, and his father ( Steve Makintosh ) is cool to his son’s ” softness” and equally self-absorbed.

The lonely, emotionally neglected boy plays out in AA therapy sessions with the circle repeated in his abuse of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Bulimia and non-stop shopping get mentioned, as does poor anger management. While these sins are enumerated, the executive producer ( Elton, himself) and the producer ( David Furnish, his partner) balance the warts with Elton’s 450 million dollar philanthropic activities. This being said not much character insight is given. Compared with Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Elton seems underexamined ,and therefore, more shallow.

The character with depth is Bernie Taupin ( Jamie Bell ). Taupin is the lyricist, who for fifty years supplied Elton with the grist for his themes. Elton composed the music and and added the accoutrements of performance art. Be it feathers, outlandish glasses, sequins, or platform shoes. Twenty some songs wend their way through the film: “Crocodile Rock”, ” Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, “I’m Still Standing”, “ I Want Love”, “ Hercules”, “ Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, ‘Rocketman”,“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Honky Cat”, “ Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest”, “ Border Song “, and my favorite, “Your Song”. Others  like “ Candle In The Wind” are given a few lines and chords. It is quite a song fest of adulation.

Jaime Bell’s Taupin is a great foil to the self-serving new manager and pretend-lover, John Reid (Richard Madden). I loved the scene where Taupin and Elton collaborate on a park bench. Bernie later tells Elton that he doesn’t have to put up with the unfaithful John. John is vehement and tells Elton that his 20% of the profit will stay long after Elton kills himself. Elton feels “ frozen on the ladder of life”. At 28, Elton is back in re-hab and soon after marries an Italian studio producer named Renata. They sleep in separate bedrooms, and the marriage does not last long. “Rocketman” ends on a positive note with pictures of his now partner, David Furnish, and their two sons.

This saga of mega-celebrity is channeled beautifully by Taron Egerton. His frenetic energy owns the film.

“ Seraphine ”

“Seraphine” (2009) is based on the relationship of art collector and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde and French primitive painter, Seraphine Louis.

In 1912, we see Seraphine as a dowdy maid cleaning the floors and stripping the bed of a German art dealer. She notices his sadness and offers him her “energy” wine. She shares that walks in nature often make her foul moods lift. He pays not much heed of her, but appreciates her kindness. When Seraphine later shows her displeasure at a woman jumping into his bed and making loud noises to roust him, he smiles at her misconception.

Wilhelm (Ulrich Tuker) confides that the woman is his sister, and that Seraphine shall never find a female lover in his bed. The religious Seraphine understands his secret. Later, when he asks where she gets her red paint of such unusual consistency, she smiles and says that she has her secrets, too. Thus begins an unusual alliance.

Belgian comedian, actress, and screenwriter Yolanda Moreau is cast in the role of Seraphine. For this portrayal, Moreau won the Cesar Award for Best Actress. Moreau, also, directs: and these directorial talents seem to merge with her acting ability to make us care about her character while giving viewers an objective distance which mirrors Wilhelm’s own. Bathing in a stream, collecting clay for her paints, or pouring wax from the votives at church for her own use, Seraphine is busy with life. She sings as she paints. Her exactitude meshes with ecstasy in just the right doses. She signs her board and later her canvases before she begins her art. Flower and fruit motifs furl and wind and rewind in this self-taught artist’s pieces.

Creating and making due with one meal a day, Seraphine is looked in on by the villagers, who understand that her painting is admired by the now absent art critic Wilhelm Uhde. ( As a German, he has been chased out of France right before World War I.)  Uhde has discovered Rousseau, and he sees a primitive kindred soul in Seraphine. He has helped support her by making certain she has supplies. He wants her to focus on her gift rather than on domestic drudgery. Money is given to her landlady to acquire a larger suite with a studio. A young, neighbor girl helps Seraphine buy silver and set up house with new dishes, and even a samovar. A tad heady with the generosity of this new found patron, Seraphine purchases a pricey bridal gown, which she wears in a bizarre scene which causes the villagers to call the constables. It is here, that we have a mad artist of sorts.

The asylum provides no art therapy as a recourse, and Seraphine is ultimately buried in a common grave in 1942. She was 78. Her work was exhibited posthumously in “ The Modern Primitive Exhibition of 1945”.

Director Martin Provost, also a Cesar Award winner for this film, develops both main characters. We see Wilhelm in Germany caring for his sick lover. Ten years pass. Seraphine continues at paint, and Wilhelm sees her work in a townhall exhibit. He searches and finds her and is appalled at her state. We see him trying to better Seraphine’s lot by paying for a private quarters on the asylum’s grounds. He relishes her work and respects her privacy. His grief strewn face is as upsetting as Seraphine’s  straight-jacketed moans and screams.

The cinematography is lush. Wind and light swirl around us. Reminiscent of Francois Truffaut ‘s films “The Wild Child” and his “Adele H”. Even the harsh interiors are lighted by moon or candle flame. Seraphine hugs trees and bounces in stream beds. Restrained and bed bound, the suffering artist rends our hearts in a pure white cell. While current Van Gogh films like “ Loving Vincent” (reviewed Oct. 29th, 2017 ) are structured around the art, “Seraphine” focuses on the woman, who hears her guardian angel’s whispers. This is a moving film that draws us back to her almost medieval designs: colorful, ordered, yet sometimes frightening.

In “Seraphine” artful questions emerge about the creative spirit, and for some, like myself, an artist is introduced through her story.

“Meeting Gorbachev”

Restroom chatter after viewing Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’ s Gorbachev documentary dispersed in one communal sigh. One patron added, ” I did not realize what a nice man Mikhail was! ” An 87 year-old widower, who loved his wife and rose from the brilliant son of Russian peasants to head the Soviet Union comes across as profound, too.

In a series of three contemporary interviews and archival videos, Herzog and Singer elevate the man by showing a core of sensibility that reminded me of my father in both temperament and strength. Genuine, funny, and able to establish immediate rapport, Gorbachev shines as a world leader, who never forgot the people. Like a good personnel director, he listened and stayed positive. His task was to make life better for all, not just for the people in power. He visited all outposts of the Union, and he walked when he had to. The film’s title, “Meeting Gorbachev” is perfect. At one point as he stands nose to nose with a female citizen, he jokes that he can not get much closer.

While nuclear disarmament and the unification of Germany are highlighted, this documentary focuses on the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev. Based on his biography and on William Taubman’s book “ Gorbachev: His Life And Times” ( 2017) , we see him as intelligent, perceptive, wise, and somewhat tragic. He became a “ person non-grata” to those Russians who blamed him for the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992. The end of the Cold War is what he takes credit for ~ using his power to make the world better for people.

We learn that his mother was strict and illiterate, and that his father Sergei, a war veteran told Mikhail on returning from the battle field that , “ we fought until we ran out of fight. That is how we must live.” Twenty million Russians were lost in World War II. We witness Easter flowers being placed on his parent’s graves. Respect was valued; recklessness looked down on.

The most prestigious university in Moscow was Moscow State, founded in 1755. Philosophy, Medicine, and Law  degrees were offered. Mikhail studied law and met his future partner, Raisa, here. Raisa studied philosophy. They married and had one daughter. Their union was said to be a profoundly happy one, and seeing Mikhail’s soft flow of tears as he talks about her death in 1991 is moving.

His genuineness permeates the film. Gorbachev was chosen as the youngest leader of the Soviet State, because of his extraordinary political talents. Perestroika, a series of reforms meant to improve the stagnant 1980’s Soviet economy, and Glasnost, a new transparency and openness by lifting press restrictions etc.., were at the top of Gorbachev s agenda. He believed that a complete restructuring was essential.  High -ranking officials were rankled. Hardliners and KGB types fought back. Rumors of ill health are debunked by Mikhail, but the power struggle forced his resignation in 1991. Tragic for everyone but Boris Yeltsin and his old-guard handlers.

At one point after the incompetence of  Chernobyl, Gorbachev intones that “people who do not understand cooperation and disarmament should get out of politics.” He wanted a ban on nuclear testing and the elimination of nuclear weapons. “ The death of civilization” he feared. He saw the banning of an entire class of intermediate range weapons as progress.

There were parts of this documentary that I loved. The way Gorbachev would touch his hearing aids to better hear Herzog was sweetly evocative of age. His love of sweets and his surrender to diabetes were likewise humanizing. His pregnant pauses effective in highlighting the weight of his words. Momentous handshakes, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, human longing for freedom and unity all touch us. Gorbachev’s  belief in Communism, his warm smile, his efforts, will stay with viewers.

The boogie-woogie being satirized in a Moscow University skit in the 1940’s, the modern methods of wheat harvesting and sheep shearing, the penchant for Russian medal giving, and Kremlin Wall burial rites add panache to the delight of        meeting Gorbachev for me.