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Authors Posts by Richard Von Busack

Richard Von Busack

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‘Long Strange Trip’ chronicles the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead may have been the ultimate LSD band because of the way they catered to both sides of the trip: The shuffling exuberance of the rise, and the graveyard despair of the 4am comedown.

By Richard von Busack

Jerry Garcia is 22 years dead this summer—take that in. Long Strange Trip, Berkeley-raised documentarian Amir Bar-Lev’s monumental four-hour-long film about the Grateful Dead can neither be called indecently early nor rushed to completion. Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) explains the Dead as an enduring conduit between the Beat Era and the various countercultures of our own time.

It’s a record of the joy the Dead brought to listeners for 30 years, and an account of Garcia’s excesses of work and substance abuse. It’s also the story of a juggernaut band with a monster 100-foot-tall sound system, which was set up and pulled down 80 times a year for almost a decade. Even their own label didn’t quite get them at first—former Warner Bros. executive Joe Smith recalls the problem of trying to sell a record called Aoxomoxoa when he couldn’t even pronounce its name. The label had more success after they moved to Marin and created their most enduring albums, the Bakersfield countrified Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

This study of the band’s long voyage includes crisp montage, thoughtful interviews and informed commentary by Sam Cutler, a Brit who worked as the Dead’s road manager. A particularly well-chosen mix of some 60 songs by the band fits the history of this long-lived act, both in the the dawning and the ending of their time. The music is maybe sadder than you remember, but the Grateful Dead were the kind of fun that should have lasted a lifetime.

‘Long Strange Trip’ plays on Thursday, May 25 at 5:45pm and 6:30pm, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-1222; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

‘A Quiet Passion’ examines the life of Emily Dickinson

The film ‘A Quiet Passion,’ about the life of Emily Dickinson, is like a version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ in which a Beatrice never finds her Benedick.

By Richard von Busack

The title A Quiet Passion is kind of lethal. Quiet is a risky word to put in a film title. The film’s pace is very deliberate—the first impression is of a game that went into extra innings. There’s a line here that any critic could take to heart: “All the best compliments are dubious.”

Praising the deliberateness of this movie’s pace may make it sound boring. When it’s over, it’s clear that the eminent director Terence Davies, a master of moody, immersive cinema, needed time to contrast the body and soul of his subject.

Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) focuses on Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), a lady of solitude and physical sufferings, tortured to an early grave at 55 by Bright’s disease. She was the middle daughter of a family in Amherst, Massachusetts. The father (Keith Carradine) was a stern patriarch of a lawyer, but he had the intelligence to let his daughter live her unmarried life, letting her rise at 3am to get some writing time in before sunrise.

This anchoress saint of poetry only published a few poems in her lifetime, and hand-stitched her verse into little chapbooks. The apparent lightness of the lines disguise its tensile strength; her telegraphic bursts of words, connected by dashes, are as light as a feather and as dense as a $6 loaf of bread. What was seen of her poetry was dismissed; one editor called it “Childish, like nursery rhymes.”

Dickinson’s struggle against lifelong underestimation had its light side. Sometimes wrenchingly sad, A Quiet Passion is by far Davies’ funniest film. The Sex and the City veteran Nixon captures the yeast as well as the starch of Dickinson. This vision of the poet as a keen epigrammatical woman is beguiling.

‘The Dinner’ doesn’t sit well

Aside from the visuals, director/writer Oren Moverman’s anti-comedy ‘The Dinner’ isn’t filling.

By Richard von Busack

Some films you watch, thinking, “This is seriously never going to end.” The Dinner is more like, “this is seriously never going to begin.” The third film based on an international bestseller by the Dutch novelist Herman Koch, director/writer Oren Moverman’s scolding anti-comedy stars Steve Coogan (as Paul). He’s a bitter crank of a former high school history teacher. He loathes his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman running for governor.

The two and their spouses—Stan’s angry new wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) and Paul’s patient wife Claire (Laura Linney)—are to meet at a hideously expensive restaurant that has a waitlist for months. It (eventually, very eventually) transpires that the fabulously pretentious meal is to talk over some bad trouble their sons got into together—a horrifying and unprovoked assault, now visible to the world on social media.

Paul is the kind of role that a Wallace Shawn or a Paul Giamatti could nail; Coogan’s accent is fine, but his angst doesn’t compel us—he’s a smaller-than-life kind of actor in a role that ought to have a little menace to it, a little unintentional humor to the whine.

The tirade against the goddamn kids and their goddamn cellphones flatters an older audience. And the subject matter matches the rancid, acrimonious politics of today. The great Bobby Bukowski’s photography keeps the movie from total enervation: Linney glows in a crimson gown in front of the restaurant’s fireplace, and the exterior walls of the restaurant glow in orange-bronze floodlights. Aside from the occasional eye candy, this is the most thorough-going bummer since We Need to Talk About Kevin.

‘Better Call Saul’ keeps plot interesting

In season 3 of ‘Better Call Saul,’ the game continues between charming, untrustworthy Jimmy McGill and his brother, a respectable lawyer.

By Richard von Busack

In the background of the show Better Call Saul, Nancy Sinatra chirps “Sugar Town.” Seen in black and white, disguised by a fake-looking brown mustache, is Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), once known as Albuquerque’s most dubious lawyer. He’s the oldest guy working at a Cinnabon in an Omaha mall. Some sugar town! In flashback, we see the rise of McGill, and the chicanery that undid him.

A main plotline in Better Call Saul’s source show, Breaking Bad, had Walter White (Bryan Cranston) almost outwitting his police detective brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris). Saul isn’t brother vs. brother-in-law, but brother vs. brother. Chuck (Michael McKean), McGill’s older sibling, is a respectable lawyer, immobilized in his house with a case of electromagnetic sensitivity. The game continues between this snobbish attorney, and the charming, untrustworthy McGill.

The sharp point of this tragi-comedy is McGill’s partnership with his fellow lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a smart lady becoming worn down by work and disappointment. Wexler’s admiration for McGill’s audacity is maybe the saddest part of the show.

The New Mexico terroir is remarkable; the show is staffed with novice directors working like crazy to get a fresh angle on cityscapes and deserts. And then there’s the narrative itself. It’s worthy of Honoré de Balzac in its analysis of how big illegal money is made—as he wrote, great fortunes are the result of great crimes, and men make their way through the world either like cannonballs, or like contagions in the wind. So many of the best qualities the movies used to have seem to have migrated to Better Call Saul.

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.”

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