Itzhak – 7.5

A delightful bio-documentary about a charming man who wears his musical genius lightly. Itzhak Perlman’s story – overcoming polio to Juilliard to international stardom – is heartwarming, as is his marriage to a lively wife, but what sets this film apart is the music. I don’t know classical music, but even I appreciated the excerpts of Itzhak’s performances that punctuated the story. Less successful were some of the set pieces, such as a staged lunch with Alan Alda, which made you think the director was struggling to build a narrative that didn’t really have a dramatic arc.

Ismael’s Ghosts – 6

At one point we are intrigued by the face-off between two of France’s great actresses, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard, who are both mysteriously attracted to the Woody Allen type, played by Matthieu Amalric, who is the confusing center of this film. Then the plot, such as it is, goes off the tracks and we are confronted with loose strands all over the place – none of which we really care about. Both main-selection films we saw at the NYFilm Festival this year were total director’s indulgences with little regard for us, the average audience, making me wary of signing up for more in the future. (PS: The Florida Project, which was also presented at the NYFF, would count as a third.)

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat – 5

The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is the hole at the middle of this documentary: we never hear his voice, don’t see his paintings, learn nothing of his background, and catch only fleeting glimpses of his face. Instead, we get talking heads remembering the days when he emerged on the Lower East Side scene. What the film does provide is a shocking reminder of what terrible shape New York was in from 1978 to ’81. But the gaping hole left me hungry. (NYFF)

Zama – 6

Sort of a cross between Last Year at Marienbad and Aguirre, Wrath of God, this Argentine period drama offered memorable still images – loved that tricorner hat! – but not much continuity or sensible plot. Life was pretty crummy in Spanish South America, and I was happy to have a shower afterward. A bit of a senseless slog. (NYFF)

Tomorrow (Le Demain) – 7

A group of French filmmakers sought to counter the despair provoked by climate change and the ongoing Sixth Extinction by finding examples that show how the world could survive in a better, sustainable way – sort of a filmic version of John Lennon’s Imagine. I can’t say it was convincing – more on that in a minute – but several of the concepts were new to me and quite startling. First, the structure: the film identified five areas where existing models showed the way to a better future: Agriculture, Energy, Politics, Economy and Education. They traveled the world in their research, although a majority of the exemplars were to be found, not surprisingly, in Europe.
Agriculture touted urban farming (e.g., in Detroit), which fostered direct-to-consumption produce, eliminating wasteful packaging and transportation. More interesting was the claim that small farms could be two-to-four times more productive than the large-company single-crop farms that dominate the U.S. market. For one thing, nature abhors a monoculture, and the big farms degrade the soil and require increasing amounts of chemicals to be productive. The small-farm example showed how many crops could be grown in the same space – for instance, basil, tomatoes and grapes – organically, using far fewer resources. The heavy reliance on grain in our diet was also seen as bad for the environment, whereas fruits and vegetables are healthier are require less processing.
Energy I am familiar with, thanks to RMI and others, and the film didn’t have to dig very far to find examples such as Copenhagen’s, and eventually all Denmark’s, renunciation of fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power. The last stumbling block is cars, and here Copenhagen, which I can’t wait to visit, is moving forward by favoring bike lanes, walking paths and public transportation.
For Politics, the film looked to Iceland, where citizens, but apparently not the government, have experimented with legislature-by-lottery. Choose your parliament by having citizens draw lots and you will come up with a governing body that takes its job very seriously (here, the analogy is to a jury), is a cross-section of the population and is not beholden to special interests. [One of California’s Republican gubernatorial candidates has an equally revolutionary idea, called Neighborhood Legislature, in which small districts of 12,000 people each elect a representative who then gets to vote on the local Congressman.]
The novel idea in Economy was a complementary currency, a form of money that doesn’t replace the pound or Euro but is valuable only inside a limited jurisdiction, which could be an entire European country but seems to have taken off mainly in British towns. The film didn’t say how the complementary currency is valued vis-à-vis the official government currency – i.e., why would people prefer it – but the benefits are clear: it keeps the local economy humming because you can use it buy coffee at your local coffee shop but probably not Starbucks and definitely not in the town next door. Moreover, you can’t earn interest on it by saving, so it encourages local spending. On a large scale, Switzerland seems to have this going, and it was suggested that a complementary currency would enable Greece to get its economy running again. The economists interviewed also surprised me by explaining than 97% of money (maybe in Britain, with a somewhat smaller percentage in other places) is created not by the central government, but by private banks issuing loans! Another shining light was an envelope manufacturer who was committed to low-energy use and low waste and paid no dividends to shareholders, eschewing the goal of making anyone rich.
The model in Education was Finland, which scores at or near the top in national surveys. The trick there, which brought applause from the Santa Barbara audience, is lack of testing: “We teach for learning, not for the test,” said the interviewed principal, who was also shown tossing kids in the air and having lunch with students in the cafeteria, which, like every part of the schooling, is free to age 16.
Yes, it was heartening to see that so many people are committed to better ways of doing things. It was slightly discouraging to see that the film was completed in 2015 and has made zero impact (it only reached us via a special screening sponsored by local environmental groups). And while the models may have made good sense, they all, in one way or another, require large commitments of manpower – think of how many small farmers would be needed to substitute for Cargill’s production; enlightened leadership – at a time when our politics are in total dysfunction; and massive buy-in by populations more diverse, not to say splintered, than Copenhagen’s. Above all, the hope for a better future instilled by the movie was deflated upon leaving the theater when I realized that for now and the next few years we are living in the world of Donald Trump. At least I am in California.

Water & Power – 6.5

This documentary tackled a fascinating subject – water rights in California – but left me with more questions than answers. It approached the topic from several different angles but never tied them together. The people of East Porterville had no running water for three years. Something called the Monterey Amendments set water allocations behind closed doors, favoring Kern County or corporate interests, or maybe they were the same. Then there were the Resnicks, big LACMA donors and producers of POM and Fiji Water, who somehow gamed the system to get all the water they need for massive almond and pistachio groves. Other big companies are buying vineyards for access to the aquifers below. Clips of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown showed that this, whatever it is, has been going on for decades. The talking heads – lawyers and journalists mostly on one side of the issue – carried the football for the filmmaker’s anti-almond point of view, but the film’s vignettes pointed in various directions. One interviewee suggested that water should be a public resource, not a private commodity, which would have been an interesting thesis that might have connected some of these dots. But as Water & Power left it, I had no idea how the Resnicks’ use of water contributed to the paucity in Porterville, or why in the last scene they were bulldozing their almond trees.

Long Strange Trip – 7

Totally satisfactory as a tribute to the Grateful Dead, four hours of archival footage and talking heads from the band and fans. Of course, the soundtrack was one happy thrill after another. Seeing it in a full house of Deadheads in Greenwich Village, with director Amir Bar-Lev present, made it more a pilgrimage than a mere movie experience. There was an underlying story, too, beyond the Dead’s musical innovation and excellence: their communal spirit informed and epitomized the ’60s flower-power era but couldn’t deal with the success that turned their concerts into near riots and perversely locked Jerry Garcia into an isolation that produced his drug-induced death. Oh, and Phil Lesh looks a lot better now than he did in the ’60s.

The Hero – 5

A little Sam Elliot is a delight to watch. An entire movie with nothing but closeups of Sam Elliot is rather too much. The story – an aging cowboy movie star given new life by a young girlfriend and a viral video – is neither deep nor plausible, and the secondary characters don’t do much with what little they’re given. In short, a film for Sam Elliot devotees only. (San Francisco Film Festival)

The Cage Fighter – 4

A not terribly well made documentary about a not terribly interesting man engaged, not terribly successfully, in mixed martial arts – something I’m not terribly interested in and certainly don’t enjoy watching. The filmmaker took life as he found it – and the access he achieved was remarkable; not every life, however, is worth a film. (San Francisco Film Festival)

The Distinguished Citizen – 8

Here was a film to think and talk about: how many themes did you detect, and what were they? An Argentine writer, winner of the Nobel in literature, returns to his small home town in the country – why? to bask in his glory, to refresh his imagination, to experience nostalgia? – or does he? (As an introduction to Argentine cinema, this was a nice companion to Neruda.) People greet him on the surface, then turn petty and hostile. They don’t understand him, but does he understand them? He bumbles along in his world of fiction (Oscar Martinez won the Argentine Oscar for Best Actor), finding that he can’t go home anymore – or can he?