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Authors Posts by Richard Von Busack

Richard Von Busack

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Classic French trilogy back on screen

Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Marseille Trilogy’ is coming up at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.

By Richard von Busack

In between the wars in Marseille, young Marius (Pierre Fresnay) is torn between his lover Fanny (Orane Demazis) and his desire to go to sea. The temptation is worse because he lives near the old port, where tall ships sometimes still enter in full sail. When he impregnates Fanny right before finally shipping out, the disgrace rattles the cozy harborside community of fishwives, barkeeps and loungers. Key among them is Marius’ wise but temperamental old dad, Cesar (Raimu). That’s when the well-off Panisse (Fernand Charpin) steps in …

Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy is screening on three subsequent Sundays at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center: Marius (directed by Alexander Korda, 1931), Fanny (directed by Marc Allégret 1932) and César (directed by Pagnol, 1936). The thread can be picked up anywhere, since each piece of this trilogy stands alone. Now after a 4K restoration, the monuments of the town, the Le Pharo lighthouse and the Canebiere are more lambent than ever.    

They’re sometimes quaint, as when a tiny trolley, stuffed with passengers and bedecked with tin Pernod signs, slams to a halt because some loafers are playing boules on the tracks. And they’re sometimes very comic. The tang of life in this trilogy was keen enough to inspire Alice Waters to name her restaurant after Mr. Panisse. These French films had more salt and grit than the Hollywood films of the time; the trilogy is as warm as summer, as fragrant as lavender fields and as prickly as the mistral.

Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Marseille Trilogy’ plays April 23, 30 and May 7; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454.1222.

‘Truman’: It’s complicated

In ‘Truman,’ two friends, one of them dying, try to give an elderly rottweiler away.

By Richard von Busack

I’m so pro-euthanasia that it’s amazing I’m not actually dead yet, so some of the life-choosing cross-currents in the Spanish import Truman didn’t tug at me. The dying Madrid actor Julian (Ricardo Darin) is surprised by a dear old friend Tomás (Javier Cámara, an elongated and more forlorn Robert Duvall) who has flown in from Canada. Julian informs his friend that he’s about to discontinue chemo and will, before long, pull that final curtain himself. In the meantime, he must adopt away Truman, his elderly rottweiler. During the four days of hanging out, the old friends try to give Truman away to various people.

Darin’s a dashing actor with a buttery voice; pale and dying is not a great look. There’s unused room for a backstory—director Cesc Gay slows the process by generally having one bit of information per scene—and it takes a while to figure out who is whom to who.

By the time it’s clear, there’s the aspect of a pity-party. A scene where Julian is fired from the part of Valmont in a Spanish language staging of Dangerous Liaisons seems piled up with  extraneous sorrow. While the theater manager’s double-talk is coldly witty, it doesn’t add up. The production is a hit, and Julian shows no weakness on stage as the French scoundrel.

Some of the moments could be taken from a dying man’s notebook, like Julian accepting forgiveness from a man whose wife he slept with, and talking with friends who avoid him. The first thing said to him by the producer (José Luis Gómez) who is cutting him loose is both grave and brave: “I have no words of comfort.” But Truman is stuck between realism and romanticism, and neither side works completely.

Dull ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is nothing new

In ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a cyber-enhanced human dedicated to stopping crime.

By Richard von Busack

In Ghost in the Shell’s horrifying dystopic future year of 2017, Scarlett Johansson has her face sawed off—“scanned” is the parlance. Her kissable visage is used as a model for a digital avatar, roaming around Neo-Sorta-Kinda-Tokyo killing her fellow avatars with a blaster. She’s a federal cop called Major—with a human brain in a synthetic body—on the trail of terrorists assassinating execs from the robot-making Hanka corporation. The investigation involves some cyber eavesdropping, rousting yakuza nightclubs and penetrating a “lawless zone” where the rebels live, scrawling their Unabomber-like manifestos.  

Studying the live-action version of the distinguished 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, one broods over psychological questions. How much humanity can Johansson have after all of the movies where she’s been animated into a cartwheeling, hair-whirling, ass-kicking electronic phantom? Does ScarJo have any “glitches”—any unsanctioned memories—of her time sashaying around Tokyo in Lost in Translation?

Hushed and expressionless, ScarJo goes on missions in a Barbie-doll body, as shiny as a factory-new Kia. She’s given support by the maternal scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), as well as from a controller, the paternal if ever-sinister Beat Takeshi—here with his own funny haircut, a cross between Larry Fine (The Three Stooges) and Dick Tracy’s villain Flattop. Major’s partner, Batou, is played by Danish dreamboat Pilou Asbaek, and director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) sets a tone of dead seriousness.

ScarJo breaks a lot of real and synthetic bones, but the movie doesn’t break any new ground. Ghost in the Shell wouldn’t exist without the original RoboCop—it’s a haunted, abject copy of the Paul Verhoeven movie. The easy compare and contrast, given the holographic chimeras all over the place, is with Blade Runner. Ghost in the Shell isn’t interesting, but there is a lot of blasting—that may send it over.

‘After the Storm’ one of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s best

The Japanese film ‘After the Storm’ is a portrait of an unpretentious family.

By Richard von Busack

There are still Westerners who have never seen a Japanese movie that didn’t have swordsmen in it. The comedy/drama After the Storm shows what they’re missing. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movie may be his funniest and funkiest yet. That said, the cheaper, smudged side of Japan shows up in all of his movies, from the not-so-sweet hereafter in After Life; the grubby kids left to fend for themselves in Nobody Knows or the beach-city fixit shop with its tattooed proprietor in Like Father, Like Son. Even Kore-eda’s lesser movies show a Japan that doesn’t appear much in the movies, and After the Storm is one of his best.

It’s late summer. The 23rd typhoon of the season is lurking offshore, raising the temperature to sweltering. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) has come out by train to an old folks apartment complex. He slurps down some noodles at the train station and goes to visit his recently widowed mom.

This good-looking Ryota could be defined in one of two ways: He’s either a writer with a gambling problem or a gambler with a writing problem. He published a novel to some acclaim, but few readers. Since then, the divorced man has been working as a private detective, on the grounds of researching his next book. This excuse is face-saving, not that Ryota has much face to save: He lives in a dump, he haunts pawnshops, he stalks his ex-wife and he inaugurates sleazy double-crossing scams with the clients who hire him for divorce work. And in scenes with his mother—memorably played by Kirin Kiki—you can see where he got his hustle and charm.

Kiki, who was in Kore-eda’s Still Walking, is the movie’s real reason for being. Being slightly wall-eyed makes Kiki a master of the side-eye; she misses nothing.

Kore-eda pushes for a bit of a happy ending when all we really needed was some hope. Mostly, the humor reminds one of the Thanksgiving classic Home for the Holidays. The hustles are funny and the sage and salty old lady is an elder to be cherished.

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.

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