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Authors Posts by Richard Von Busack

Richard Von Busack

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A ‘personal shopper’ receives messages from the dead

In Oliver Assayas’ film ‘Personal Shopper,’ actress Kristen Stewart searches for ghosts in a house with a tragic history.

By Richard von Busack

Very sexy and very scary, Personal Shopper is Oliver Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria, the film that proved that a sharp and sensitive director could find virtue in Kristen Stewart’s air of neutrality. Assayas makes a display of this actress’s humid eyes, firmly set mouth and smooth physique, but the ghost story isn’t all about her vulnerability—it follows a few sidebars about the parapsychological activities of Victor Hugo, for instance, to get us ready for the point when Assayas starts playing the xylophone on the viewer’s spinal cord.

Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) is a personal shopper for a very mean and extremely wealthy Parisienne. Cartwright has an avocation—she’s a medium and spends a night searching for ghosts in an empty house where her twin brother, Lewis, died; her heart, like his, may be a time bomb ready to stop without warning. He’d always promised to send a message back to the world of the living. The film doesn’t cheat: A ghost of swirling, smoke-like ectoplasm reveals itself to Cartwright early in the film. Later, she gets texts from some mysterious, omniscient being.

There are three sound people credited here, and you’ll see why. The soundscape goes beyond the eclectic mix of the score, including Marlene Dietrich’s song about carpentry, but really about death as the great leveler of the world’s classes. As in David Lynch’s films, the disturbing sound is more chilling than the disturbing image. The thump of a ghost answering questions has a wetness and echo to it, like the sound of rolling thunder diminishing. The dull, irritating buzz of a cell phone carrying threatening anonymous messages—perhaps from the hereafter—gives brand new punch to the old “the calls are coming from inside the house!” gimmick.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ an epic stare-down

In ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ the mighty Kong confronts a team that has set out to explore an uncharted island in the Pacific.

By Richard von Busack

In 3D IMAX, Kong: Skull Island is a battle of gigantic scowls between Samuel L. Jackson and a 10-story gorilla. It’s an epic stare-down, rivalling the squint-offs of Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood. Jackson shows maximum indomitability as a Vietnam-era officer called Packard, bitter over the course of the war. In 1973, Packard escorts a scientific expedition helmed by Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeking to explore Skull Island and bomb it a little in the name of scientific tests.

This cursed isle, ringed by storms, is shunned by all sane mariners. Helicoptering in, Jackson roars out the legend of Icarus over the thunder; his attack force brings ammo, napalm and high-caliber weapons. In their party is a Bondian British mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist, Mason Weaver. She’s played by Brie Larson, whose attractive brown-eyed melancholy is just right for the part of the lady flirting with the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.

Online, it’s an article of faith that the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong had crap digital dinosaurs, which misses the point: It also had soul. This one, not so much. Kong is distracted from the romance; he turns his back on Weaver after he rescues her.

The witty and energetic director Jordan Vogt-Roberts corrals hallucinatory megafauna, who attack with viscera-splattering violence. One of the surprises is a marooned and cracked old fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), whose comic relief is positively eloquent.

Despite the speed, the epic critter-walloping and the feverish jungle, the movie’s rules wobble. The picky should have fun pointing out the contradictions; we’re told that the gentle, tattooed natives live without theft, and then a second later, that they cut off the hands of thieves. One needs no security system when protected by Kong: “He’s a pretty good king,” Marlow says. “Keeps to himself, mostly.”

Hugh Jackman takes ‘X-Men’ character for final spin

‘Logan,’ starring Hugh Jackman, is full of action that comes hard and fast.

By Richard von Busack

It’s 2029 in the film Logan, and the last of the mutants—pale Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the mercenary Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)—are holed up in an abandoned industrial facility in the Mexican desert. Trying to hide from the government and his past, Logan works as a limo driver, taking high school kids to their proms.

A smirking Blackwaterish thug called Donald (Boyd Holbrook) turns up around the same time that Logan is asked for help by a woman tending a special child, Laura (Dafne Keen), who seeks safety in an Eden for mutants. This most meta of the X-Men movies suggests that a clue published in an old X-Men comic book determines the future of mutantkind. But the comics are there for Logan’s contempt, as if he were a Western gunslinger scorning a Ned Buntline dime novel.

The tangy script makes up for director James Mangold’s bent for overemphasis. We glimpse the Statue of Liberty on a sign for a low-class flophouse called the Liberty Motel—we get it, remembering the X-Men’s battle 17 years ago atop the torch. Mangold (Walk the Line) tries to give Jackman’s Logan Johnny Cash–worthy demonstrations of integrity, even ratifying that moral heft with Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” It usually works, but Mangold leans on the buzzer.

There are worse things than moral seriousness. Logan’s action comes hard and fast, with a savage car pursuit and various skirmishes in an Oklahoma farm and in the Rocky Mountains. There’s magnificent action-movie confidence in the moment where Logan steps into the full force of one of Xavier’s psy-storms, which are strong enough to break windows blocks away. Logan pulls himself to the center of the telepathic hurricane, bracing himself with his claws at every step.

With dignity and grace, Jackman says sayonara to this signature role, and one wonders what will replace it in upcoming X-Men installments.

‘Kedi’ follows the felines of Istanbul

‘Kedi,’ a film by Ceyda Torun, is an intimate portrait of a tribe of Istanbul cats.

By Richard von Busack

Filming cats is likely tougher than herding cats, but Ceyda Torun’s positively enchanting Kedi (Cat) is an intimate portrait of a tribe of Istanbul cats—scads of calicos, gingers and even a few coon-cats escaped from Norse freighters. Kedi is also a look at what’s left of an old city of twisty pedestrian streets, surrounded by an ever-narrowing ring of office towers and skyscrapers. From cat’s-eye camera to drone-view, Torun studies the city at all of its levels.

It’s as if Istanbul were knitted together by the presence of unusually well-fed and well-tolerated municipal cats. They wander in and out at will, pilfering sardines from the waterfront fishmongers, or tangling with the rodents. Bystanders stress the unique personalities of the animals, from angel-with-tail to absolute psychopath.

Supposedly Mohammed’s favorite cat fell asleep on his arm when he was studying, and the prophet cut off his sleeve rather than wake the beast up. We hear about a tradition that cats know about Allah. Dogs think their people are gods, but cats are not fooled by this canine Gnosticism, knowing humans as we are, and looking at us without awe.

These alley cats bring out the philosopher in the people who care for them. One claims that tending a pack of ferals in the rocks by the harbor helped him recover from a breakdown. Another describes a mystical experience: When he needed money, a cat led him to a lost wallet stuffed with the exact sum he needed. At 80 minutes, the city and the cats never get stale. Torun’s marvelous film is capped with a soundtrack of ’60s Turkish rock, as if the cats were living the old hippie dream of life without responsibility and sustenance without work.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ illustrates ongoing conflict

The subject of ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is James Baldwin, and an unfinished manuscript.

By Richard von Busack

Raoul Peck’s tremendous documentary I Am Not Your Negro shows great intelligence and relevance. Rather than a rehash of the 1960s struggle, it’s a demonstration that the struggle never ended. The subject is James Baldwin, and an unfinished manuscript. Baldwin never got farther than 30 pages into his study of three lives in the civil rights movement. All three of the leaders were martyred, and all were under 40 when they were shot: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.

All three were Baldwin’s friends. Which didn’t mean that he agreed with their methods, any more than the three agreed with each other. In this unfinished study, Baldwin wrestled with the question of how to proceed, and—in the sidelines—how to deal with the weakness of liberal backbones.

Making sure he has a well-filled screen, Peck sometimes cuts no-comment landscapes of the South and the iron grids of elevated trains in the cities. We hear a story of how Baldwin observed scraps of a lynched man’s clothes littering tree branches, as we see the Spanish moss dangling in a Southern grove. Numerous film clips illustrate Baldwin’s time, and ours: From Gus Van Sant’s Elephant to the silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In its bricolage about an important writer and his times, I Am Not Your Negro is sometimes a movie about movies, about how the glow of soft-focus Technicolor helped whites to hide their eyes. Baldwin scripted what he hoped would be a Billy Dee Williams-starring version of the life of Malcolm X. Thus, as he writes, Baldwin got the news of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. by telephone at the side of a Palm Springs swimming pool.

Peck’s smooth time shifts contrast 1960s beatings on the protest line to the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. Black martyrs are juxtaposed with photos of dead kids killed by incompetent or malicious cops. A few facts turn up missing, probably because of the muscular brevity of Peck’s film. The film is an education based on the experiences of a man who learned the hard way. As Baldwin said, speaking to whites on the behalf of black people everywhere: “I know more about you than you know about me.”

‘Lion’ follows one man’s journey to find his roots

The film ‘Lion’ is based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir about getting separated from his family in India when he was 4 years old.

By Richard von Busack

Imagine being lost at age 4 and waking up in a train station on seemingly the other end of the earth, where no one speaks your language. Lion adapts Saroo Brierley’s memoir of an unimaginable childhood nightmare, resolved with the sturdy help of Google Earth … and there is truth to the oft-repeated comment that the film is sort of a feature-film-length commercial for the search engine. Garth Davis directs this story of a rural Indian boy (played in youth by Sunny Pawar) who fell asleep as a stowaway. The boy ended up a thousand miles away in Kolkata. He was one more urchin in a city already full of street kids, and the name of the very small town he came from drew a blank with the local authorities. After a time in a dangerous shelter, he was adopted by a couple from coastal Tasmania. Saroo grew up in affluence, still plagued by the thought of the family he left behind.

Davis, primarily an Australian television director, seems to keep a loose hand on the actors, giving them room. As the adult Saroo, the steadily rising Dev Patel holds the screen with ease. He stands his ground even against the intense acting of Divian Ladwa, who plays his deeply troubled foster-brother. Commonly a pair of icebergs in the movies, Rooney Mara (as Saroo’s girlfriend in Melbourne) and Nicole Kidman (as his adoptive mom) are unusually warm and touching. One never sees Mara this playful, this willing to do a little dance on a night sidewalk. Kidman is at first the perfect kind of mom, who always knows how to say the right thing. In one scene she reveals her own past, and a William Blake-like vision she had when she was a child. Then Kidman’s performance is complete: It’s like a trapdoor opening to reveal the mysteriousness of motherhood.

Photographer Greig Fraser’s landscapes of Saroo’s two worlds are extremely handsome. One feels that the remarkable story has been tarted up a little, though—there was enough Dickens in it already, even before the scenes of how Saroo narrowly evades being pimped out as a child. True or not, it doesn’t play true—there’s a gloss all over this movie that keeps us at a respectful distance.

Willy Loman in Tehran in ‘The Salesman’

In ‘The Salesman,’ first-rate director Asghar Farhadi fascinates us with the way an evolved couple handles a mysterious attack.

By Richard von Busack

It’s a hallmark of the way Iranian films are made—immersive, circumspect, slippery—that they can start with circumstances so familiar to their core audience that they don’t seem to need much explanation. Take The Salesman, which begins with an apartment shaking itself to pieces. An earthquake? No—A man-made quake, caused by some careless bulldozer excavation nearby. It leaves the home of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) with cracked windows, gas leaks and plaster. An American film would begin with a search for financial restitution; here, no one expects much justice. The couple transplants to a new, leaky apartment in a worse neighborhood, setting the stage for a more serious invasion of their home.

Emad is a film and drama teacher, staging a production of Death of a Salesman with the help of his wife in the role of Mrs. Loman. When Rana is home alone later, she’s attacked and beaten by someone while she’s in the shower.

The extent of the attack is up to us to gauge. Rana denies that she was raped (and you suspect, well, of course she would). They don’t call the police, because the cops are going to regard Rana as a loose woman who got what was coming to her. Moreover, the previous occupant of their new flat was a prostitute who was kicked out by the landlord, leaving all her stuff behind; pathetically, the crayon drawings her child scrawled are still on the walls. There is evidence, however. The assailant left behind his truck, keys, cell phone and a wad of money to pay for what he did.

It takes a lot of skill not to turn this into a rape-revenge movie. Director Asghar Farhadi’s (A Separation) The Salesman almost approaches that abysmal genre. Instead this first-rate director fascinates us with the way an evolved couple handles a mysterious attack, in a land where the man is generally supposed to be more shamed than the wife. Alidoosti brilliantly evokes the trauma she suffered, though it was Hosseini who got the Best Actor award at Cannes. The reveal of a highly pathetic culprit makes this the smartest kind of movie on the subject, up with Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden. Farhadi’s melodrama-free drama impresses with the bewildering hunt for truth amid chronic falseness.

‘Toni Erdmann’ explores business anxieties

In ‘Toni Erdmann,’ a zany father disguises himself as a capitalist in hopes of reconnecting with his daughter.

By Richard von Busack

Lovable if not ordinarily hilarious, Toni Erdmann explores both sides of a situation familiar to many. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is “Dude” Lebowski’s German cousin, a shaggy joker retired from something or other. After his elderly dog dies, he’s at loose ends. So he decides to surprise his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) at her job in Bucharest. She works as a consultant—which is to say, she’s a hatchet-wielder looking for potential layoffs.

Ines is in the middle of some delicate business and has little time to haul her father around the capital’s sites. The two spat, and he heads home … or so it seems. When Ines is having dinner with some female colleagues, her zany father reappears, fright-wigged and posing as an important businessman called “Toni Erdmann.”

The style recalls the Romanian wave of a few years back, when one brilliant movie after another was arriving from that nation. It’s long, and heavy on procedural material. Yet Toni Erdmann is often as an acute exploration of business anxieties as we’ve seen since Michael Clayton, depicting the world of nervous sweat, double-talk and ugly pantyhose.

Ines dismisses her father as a Green-Party weirdo, but we see her side of it—he’s so exasperating that he provokes her to a howled-out version of the affirmation-heavy song “The Greatest Love of All” at a party. An ordinary practical joker seeks the humiliation of his victims—the rare kind seeks to enlighten. In this disguise as a capitalist, Winfried is trying to nudge his daughter, making her realize what she’s doing: Colluding with greedy businessmen who are making Romania worse.

Everyone who’s had a sudden guest during a rough patch at work will know how she feels, and it’s easy to respond to the wrongness of Winfried blurting out, “Are you really a human?” to his overbooked daughter. He has the advantage of a man who feels he belongs everywhere, from a country farmhouse to a business class hotel bar. Director Maren Ade is raunchy but tender about the body’s needs, and sentimental about the small good things—wooden Easter eggs and a bag of apples from a peasant’s farm.

‘Toni Erdmann’ opens on Friday, January 27 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.

Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ a Temptation-Filled Remake

‘Silence,’ by Martin Scorsese, is a ‘less bloody’ remake of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’

By Richard von Busack

Martin Scorsese’s dream project Silence is done at last, and it’s one large dry hunk of crisis of faith. It’s a less bloody but still torture-wracked remake of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), complete with the last temptation to a peaceful life. It’s the seemingly longest and most pulse-free of Scorsese’s primarily religious movies, including Kundun (1997) and Last Temptation.

A pair of suitably dogged Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are sent from Portugal to find out what became of a long-lost priest (Liam Neeson) sent on a mission years before. The black-robed Europeans discover a Catholic colony in southern Japan in turmoil, being martyred by the score; an inquisitor called Inoue (Issi Ogata) is sending his soldiers after the faithful. When the priests are separated, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Garfield) is left in the care of a backsliding guide whose faith can never stand the tests of the persecutors.

Many Catholic kids will have had some fun in their youths wondering how they would deal if pagans tried to make them apostates. Would they spit on the cross and escape at the costs of their immortal souls? Or would they endure their torments like a true Christian martyr? One liked the movie most when it wasn’t focusing on a religious fanatic trying to get God’s signal tuned in, or watching poor Christian peasants fed to the flames or the waves. Ogata runs away with the movie. He’s an old ambler, a smiler and good at cuffing a dumb assistant with his fan. (His overbite matches Scorsese’s—perhaps he’s the director’s surrogate.) You end up on his side. How much patience is an old man supposed to have with a blinkered young fanatic?

Deep feelings emerge in ‘A Monster Calls’

In ‘A Monster Calls,’ a young, bullied boy must tell an enormous creature one true tale.

By Richard von Busack

Like the fairy-tale creature that he is, the title character in A Monster Calls brings a challenge. In accordance with the Law of Three, he will tell three stories. You, in return, must tell him one true tale.

Seeing him emerge from a massive yew tree, unfolding into a gnarled figure of some 20 feet in height, one thinks of the line from the old folk song “The Silkie”: “And a grumly guest I’m sure was he.” Towering, ancient and solitary, he’s like the warrior Ents in The Lord of the Rings or a more frightening and better-spoken Groot. The rumbling voice belongs to Liam Neeson, pitched down an octave or two, and all the fiercer for it.

The animation in the three stories this monster tells is as gorgeous as Kubo and the Two Strings—forests and villages unfold like paper blossoms, or spiral out into the multi-colored fractals of wet-on-wet watercolors. J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) centers his touching film on the emotions of the monster’s companion. Conor (Lewis MacDougall), an English schoolboy, has a mother who is slowly dying, and he’s pitilessly bullied at school. The mother is Rogue One’s Felicity Jones, in perhaps her best performance. Most likely, Conor’s future home will be with his loveless grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, using a self-conscious British accent she probably could have done without). Conor hopes to be spared a life with this cold woman, when his father arrives from his current home in the USA. But the man is useless. Dad’s idea of consolation begins and ends with his repeating the old English expression, “Worse things happen at sea.”

It seems that Patrick Ness’ source novel would be most mind-blowing to a younger reader, with the revelation that a story that starts with witches and handsome princes may finish in a different way than the Grimm Brothers wrote it down. However, A Monster Calls retrieves its essential keenness in its finish, in the story Conor must tell and yet cannot bring himself to say. This hard-edged fantasy reveals honest, unsentimental feelings … the sort of feelings many will recall from the ordeal of tending doomed lovers or parents, after some monstrous disease called upon them.

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