Sunday Streams — ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. —Bob Dylan

Rolling Thunder Revue is Scorsese’s second documentary about the singer/songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota. His first, No Direction Home from 2005, covered Dylan’s early years up to his motorcycle accident in 1966. Less concerned with documentation than myth-making, No Direction Home is partly how Robert Allen Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, and partly how Bob Dylan now remembers Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Rolling Thunder Revue, currently streaming on Netflix, picks up ten years later, in the streets of New York City during America’s Bicentennial. What does this have to do with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour from 1975? Why does Scorsese open Rolling Thunder with The Vanishing Lady, an 1896 silent short from Georges Méliès? And why make this movie now? It’s been 14 years since Scorsese’s first volume; 17 years since the recordings were released.

Those conclusions you’ll have to come to on your own. Rolling Thunder Revue (re-view?) is about the slippery nature of crafting a myth — a story if you will — mid-stream. Some of what is presented here is an outright fabrication, some of it is a simple misdirection, but all of it is believable.

“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point at it: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of our dreams.” — James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 1976

Idealizing the past isn’t hard, it just takes a little creative licensing.

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This week in Film — FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN

The John DeLorean story has it all: Cars, cocaine, supermodels, countries at war, political scuffles on both sides of the Atlantic, an FBI sting of ridiculous proportions, secret off-shore bank accounts, deception, avarice, opulence, and ego. And like most stories, what’s true and what isn’t depends on your perspective.

IFC Films releases Framing John DeLorean at the Sie Film Center on June 28. Review at BoulderWeekly.com.

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HALSTON

Who was Roy Halston Frowick? He was the man who stuck a pillbox hat on Jackie Kennedy’s head before her husband’s inauguration in 1961. He was the gay kid from Des Moines, Iowa who brought New York fashion to both Paris and Beijing. He was the man who sold his line and name to JCPenney, claiming he wanted to “dress all of America.” He was friend to Liza Minnelli, inspiration to Andy Warhol, and regular at Studio 54. And on March 26, 1990, Halston died from AIDS-related complications. He was 57.

Halston is the latest documentary from Frédéric Tcheng, whose previous film, Dior and I, was an impressive piece of cinema vérité set in the world of haute couture. Granted, in Dior and I, Tcheng benefitted from a subject who was still alive and working. That’s not the case with Halston, and the results are disappointingly bland and routine. Tcheng tries to add a little juice into a collection of talking heads and archival footage by casting Tavi Geninson as the movie’s narrator, but it adds nothing. It’s a made for TV movie, CNN Films, and despite a little bit of Liza Minnelli singing, there isn’t much here to seek for those who haven’t the foggiest idea who Halston was. For those who do, Halston is the usual trip down memory lane with the usual views of all the standard landmarks.

Halston opens June 14 at the Landmark Chez Artiste.

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THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jimmie Fails and Montgomery Allen are Estragon and Vladimir. Only they’re not waiting for Godot; they’re waiting for the bus. Neither comes. Unlike Samuel Beckett’s two heroes, Fails and Allen get up and leave. But, unfortunately, they still can’t move.

Jimmie Fails plays Jimmie Fails, a young man trying to form his future by reclaiming his family’s past. Jonathan Majors plays Allen, a fishmonger by day and a playwright by night. Fails lives with Allen and Allen’s grandfather (Danny Glover) in a cramped house south of Hunters Point but spends most of his time in the Mission District, touching up and maintaining his grandfather’s home. Something the owners of the house (Maximilienne Ewalt and Andy Roy) really wish Fails would stop doing.

That house, a magnificent Victorian structure topped with a witches’ hat, is the story of America. Pre-1942, this neighbor was almost entirely Japanese. Then FDR signed Executive Order 9066 and Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes, interned in war camps, and relocated following the war. When Fails’ grandfather returned from the war, he moved into the empty neighborhood as, according to Fails, became the first black man in San Francisco. But then Fails’ father (Rob Morgan) lost the house and Fails lost his place.

Consuming gentrification followed, as did skyrocketing property values. Now Fails is on the outside looking in at an American Dream always in view but forever out of reach.

Directed by Joe Talbot (who wrote the script with Rob Richert based on a story by Talbot and Fails) The Last Black Man in San Francisco is outstanding, dramatic, and poetic. There’s a Greek Chorus, a Haight-Ashbury singer (Mike Marshall) — whose rendition of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” is beautifully haunting — and a cast of characters so authentic they feel like they were pulled off Market Street.

Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra captures them and the city as if they are one. Using long lenses, Newport-Berra compresses San Francisco’s towering verticality with precision, making the world around Fails at once claustrophobic and spacious. In one shot, Fails rides his skateboard down an endless hill and barely seems to move. The city has him. In another, the camera follows Fails as he speeds faster and faster down a road with no end.

It’s a dichotomy Fails loves and loathes, and it’s a feeling shared by many who live in a grand city. His troubled past is also the city’s troubled past. His problematic present is the city’s problematic present. His future is uncertain, and so is the city. The story of progress in America is also the story of displacement, and now Fails is the one feeling displaced.

“I can’t go on like this,” Estragon says.
“That’s what you think,” Vladimir replies.

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Photo credit Peter Prato. Image courtesy of A24

Directed by Joe Talbot
Screenplay by Joe Talbot, Rob Richert
Story by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails
Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Khaliah Neal, Christina Oh, Joe Talbot
Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Jamal Trulove, Maximilienne Ewalt, Andy Roy
A24, Rated R, Running time 120 minutes, Opens June 14, 2019
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THE DEAD DON’T DIE

Humanity has reached a dead-end, and it’s fracking that did it. In real life, maybe, but in writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, definitely.

Fracking the polar ice caps — which doesn’t sound that far-fetched — has thrown the Earth off its axis and caused the dead to rise. One of the first out of the grave is an old Jarmusch staple: Iggy Pop, sporting his requisite leather vest and lack of t-shirt. The grave he climbs out of belongs to Samuel Fuller, one of Jarmusch’s idols. If those names don’t mean anything to you, then Dead Don’t Die might be rough sledding. For the rest, it’s like listening to the radio on a warm summer afternoon when an old favorite comes on.

The Dead Don’t Die is a mellow take on the zombie genre, one less interested in jump scares and gore, and more interested in riffing on George Romero’s zombie-hypothesis put forth in Dawn of the Dead: We are all just zombies in waiting, mindless consumers forever needing more.

“What are they doing?” one character asks as a plague of zombies tries to break down the doors to the shopping mall where the town’s survivors have holed up. “Why do they come here?”
“Memory of what they used to do,” comes the reply. “This was an important place in their lives.”

Phones, TVs, records, guns, prescription drugs, Wi-Fi; these are all important things in life, why wouldn’t they be in death? Maybe this sounds like Jarmusch is shaking his finger at kids these days, but he’s not. Jarmusch’s has always had a fascination for the things we own and the things that own us. It gives Dead Don’t Die a fairly plausible rendering of how people will handle the collapse of society. That weirdo down the street, your brother who lives off the grid and checks-in every other month, they have a much better chance when the shit hits the fan than you do.

The two characters that embody this best are Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), our observer and narrator of sorts, and Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish undertaker who practices diligently with her katana, refers to everyone by their first and last name, and walks strictly in straight lines and right angles. People treat her like she’s from another planet.

There are also “normal” folks in Centerville, a small town of 738 and policed by Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), but even they seem a little off.

Not much happens in Centerville, and not much happens in Dead Don’t Die, that is, until the zombies show up. No one really knows how to react, except for one who keeps repeating, “This isn’t going to end well.” He knows why. How he knows is a playful moment best left discovered in the theater.

As wonderful and easy as The Dead Don’t Die is, it’s a hard movie to recommend to anyone in particular, but it’s a movie that could be enjoyed by many. Like every movie, your mileage will vary based on the mental baggage you take with you into the theater and what expectations you have. Who knows what odd intersection of want and need will best suit the mellow mood of Dead Don’t Die, but should you find it, it’ll be a like locking into a groove you don’t want to let go.

Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Driver in The Dead Don’t Die. Image courtesy of Focus Features.

Written & directed by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan
Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 103 minutes, Opens June 14, 2019
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AMERICAN WOMAN

Stories have trained us to expect life to progress in a linear nature: Set-up, complication, and resolution — preferably in that order and ideally with some connective tissue. In reality, it’s a little more circuitous. The connections are there, but some distance is required.

That seems to be the motivation of American Woman, the new drama from director Jake Scott and writer Brad Ingelsby, that, on the surface, appears to a be a standard missing-persons drama. American Woman is, but with a little distance, proves to be much more.

The center here is Debra (Sienna Miller), a single mother living in rural Pennsylvania with her teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), and her infant grandson, Jesse. Debra is a good-time girl. She drinks heavily, smokes constantly, and, as we learn her history in dribs and drabs, is used to playing the other woman. Not that Debra seems to mind; she’s enjoying herself, even if no one else is.

Then, Bridget goes missing. An investigation takes place, but there are no leads. The worst is assumed, and Debra self-destructs. Not completely, someone still needs to raise Jesse.

And raise him, she does. Debra begins taking night classes, finds an abusive boyfriend (Pat Healy) who can front the rent, and relies on the support of her sister (Christina Hendricks) and brother-in-law (Will Sasso) who live across the street. Debra grows stronger, more confident, and more independent. When a man in her life turns out to be like all the rest, Debra is distraught but not destroyed. Maybe she expected this; maybe she thought she brought it on herself. The whys don’t matter; only her reaction does.

American Woman does not move the way you think it might. It is a strong, confident piece of work that unfolds the way it wants to at the pace it feels it ought to. Like memory, there is nothing precise or defined about what marks time from one scene to the next. In one shot, a car speeds recklessly down the road, away from the camera and enthusiastically into the future. On the other side of the street, another car ambles toward the camera and eases into the driveway. Debra is in both of these cars, and ten years have collapsed into a single shot.

Miller’s performance is the anchor that keeps American Woman from drifting, but supporting performances from Hendricks and Sasso make this world feel full. These are not showy performances in a showy movie, yet the movie is never stationary. It moves along, knowing full well that when we get there, we get there.

Sienna Miller in American Woman. Photo Credit: Seacia Pavao. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Directed by Jake Scott
Screenplay by Brad Ingelsby
Produced by Brad Feinstein, Michael A. Pruss, Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh
Starring: Sienna Miller, Sky Ferreira, Christina Hendricks, Will Sasso, Aaron Paul, Pat Healy
Roadside Attractions, Rated R, Running time 111 minutes, Opens June 14, 2019
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LATE NIGHT

How Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States of America has been the topic du jour ever since November 6, 2016, and the discussion won’t be going away anytime soon. Currently, the narrative is occupied by investigations of foreign meddling, but back in 2016, the focus was on the state of the nation and two divisive populations, both fed up for drastically different reasons. Pundits and analysis lobbed plenty of theories at their constituents, but the one that cut through the noise the loudest was of castigation: The majority of white women voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton.

There is some question as to the authenticity of that statistic. The president claims 52% voted for him while the Pew Research Center sets the number of white women votes for Trump at 47%. Numbers schmumbers, talking heads ran with it, attaching “educated” or “affluent” to the statistic and painted a picture many found to be explanatory: In 2016, white women voted for their privilege over their gender.

Statistical explanations like this are absurdly reductive — the number of reasons why an individual votes for this person over that person is countless — yet, a narrative emerged then a movement. And though the much-talked-about Blue Wave of the 2018 elections didn’t exactly manifest with the fervor Democrats hoped for, the message was clear: If you’re not on board, you’re in the way.

What timing Late Night had, premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival just a few weeks after the swearing in of the 116th Congress, the most diverse set of American lawmakers ever elected. Written by Mindy Kaling, who co-stars, and directed by Nisha Ganatra, Late Night garnered immediate attention first for its stellar performance from Emma Thompson as late night talk show host, Katherine Newbury, and second for Late Night’s timely progressive bent.

The story is familiar: Newbury’s ratings are plummeting, and the network wants someone new; someone fresh. Who? Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), a young, hip standup who also happens to be xenophobic and misogynistic. Those last two traits infuriate Newbury, but they don’t trouble the network executive (Amy Ryan), because of Tennant’s popularity with You Tubers, vapid Instagram models, and the hoi polloi Newbury refuses to touch with a ten-foot-pool. Newbury tasks her head writer, Brad (Denis O’Hare), with hiring a new writer, specifically a woman, to freshen up her image and prove to her staff that she can work with a woman.

Brad finds Molly (Kaling), who works for the chemical company that owns the network’s parent company. Molly is either the first, or the only, woman to apply for the job, and so it’s hers. Her position as a diversity hire quickly becomes a punchline for Newbury, who holds the world — save for her husband, Walter (John Lithgow) — in utter contempt. No one is free of her scorn; not Molly, not her team of writers, and certainly not an American audience that is intellectually beneath her.

Herein lies Late Night’s central problem: Newbury’s standards put her out of touch with the world around her; Molly’s position exists to change that and give her a populist shine. Not because that’s who Newbury is, deep down inside, but because that’s what Late Night needs Newbury to be. There’s an odd cynicism running through Late Night that has less to do with being who you are and more to do with being the person everyone wants to you to be.

And though this cynicism is present, it is more or less steamrolled by the movie’s formulaic approach and its need to express its politics. Newbury’s staff is comprised entirely of white men, all of whom Molly assumes are products of nepotism. Most of them dispel this assumption — no one came to the job by similar means — and several of them turn out to be both competent at their job and open to collaboration with Molly. That all gets shoved aside in the third act when Molly’s insistence on diversity in the workplace is reduced to a flash-forward and a single glad-handing camera track through Newbury’s office. A sea of faces representing every possible walk of life are here, but none are allowed a line of dialogue, or an identity; just representation. A few of the white guys are left standing — the ones the movie spent time getting to know — and, of course, Newbury, who has learned to play ball and appeal to the masses. If she didn’t, her job would be next.

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury in Late Night. Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Screenplay by Mindy Kaling
Produced by Jillian Apfelbaum, Ben Browning, Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Denis O’Hare, Amy Ryan, Ike Barinholtz, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 102 minutes, Opens June 14, 2019
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Sunday Streams — FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES

The Japanese New Wave (1956–1976) doesn’t get near the love the French New Wave does in cinephile circles, but that doesn’t make the work any less significant. A key entry, Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no Sōretsu) from 1969, was recently restored by Cinelicious in 2017 and will screen at the Alamo Drafthouse Littleton on June 16, 4p. For those not in the area, Funeral Parade of Roses is currently streaming on Kanopy.

Mixing documentary and narrative, Funeral Parade is a kaleidoscopic and subversive look at Tokyo’s underground “gay-boy” culture. Writer/director Toshio Matsumoto loosely uses Oedipus Rex as his structure while also relying on experimental filmmaking techniques and Japan’s “New Left” ideology. Stanley Kubrick cites it as one of the major influences of A Clockwork Orange; it shows. And like the best discoveries of yesteryear, Funeral Parade of Roses feels as fresh and vibrant in 2019 as it must have in 1969.

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This week in Film — ZEN FOR NOTHING

Looking for an alternative to the mass destruction of the Hollywood summer blockbuster? Zen For Nothing is a small documentary; an immersion into stillness, quiet, and meditation. For those living in the Denver/Boulder area, it will be screening at the Dairy Art Center’s Boedecker Theatre June 12–15.

Over at KGNU, I discuss Zen for Nothing, as well as the disappointing Dark Phoenix, the mellow The Dead Don’t Die, a couple to see for Pride Month, and the kick-off movie for this season’s Chautauqua Silent Summer Series, Hot Water, with Veronica Straight-Lingo on this week’s episode of After Image.

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PASOLINI

There are few filmmakers in the annals of cinema as notorious as Pier Paolo Pasolini. From his first film, Accatone — documenting a messianic pimp — to his last, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom: an infamous and notorious work that is either 145 minutes of filth so depraved it cost the filmmaker his life or a grand subversive masterpiece.

Pasolini, the latest release from provocateur Abel Ferrara, opens with the Italian director, played magnificently by Willem Dafoe, putting the finishing touches on his final film. Pasolini is 53, gay, a pluralist in the highest regard, and lives with his mother in Rome. He is also working on his novel, Petrolio, about a traveler and an angel following the Star of Bethlehem in search of the Messiah. A pilgrimage that leads them to a massive orgy, an annual ritual where all of the lesbians and all of the gay men in the city lay with each other for one night to procreate the species. Little about Pasolini was dull.

Which is why Pasolini is a frustrating disappointment and might explain why a movie finished in 2014 is just now seeing its theatrical release. And though Pasolini only runs 84 minutes, it feels longer; sluggish and slow, as if Ferrara either dreads having to find his way to Ostia Beach — where Pasolini was murdered — or finds pleasure in the foreplay.

Pasolini senses his demise, even vocalizing it to a reporter and close friend. He suspects his beliefs and actions will be his downfall, a downfall he also sees coming to Rome. In that sense, Pasolini makes the same assumption Dante Alighieri did 700 years ago when he penned The Divine Comedy, audaciously associating his halfway point in life, 35 years old, with the halfway point of human existence.

There is enough to like in Pasolini, particularly Dafoe’s performance and striking resemblance of the filmmaker, but Ferrara manages to make him feel absent in his own story. A shame, there isn’t a single frame in Accatone, Momma Roma, The Gospel of Saint Mathew, and Saló that lacked Pasolini’s presence. Few artists loomed larger.

Willem Dafoe in a scene from Pasolini, courtesy Kino Lorber

Directed by Abel Ferrara
Screenplay by Maurizio Braucci
Based on an idea by Abel Ferrara, Nicola Tranquillino
Produced by Fabio Massimo Cacciatori, Thierry Lounas
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Valerio Mastandrea, Roberto Zibetti
Kino Lorber, Rated R, Running time 84 minutes, Opens June 7, 2019
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