Part Two of our armchair audiovisual world tour offers more scenic and adventuresome distraction from “shelter-at-home” stasis. (Part One is here.) While we’re not heavily wading into the “new release” category here, at least not yet, it’s worth noting that foreign and arthouse features do continue to be released, some of them going directly to streaming formats in lieu of now-canceled or postponed theatrical runs.
Among such newcomers this week are two of particular interest. Veteran Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s latest Vitalina Varela (available from www.grasshopperfilm.com ) is a minimalist narrative in which a Cape Verdean woman journeys to Lisbon’s impoverished Fontainhas shantytown for a funeral—of the husband who abandoned her 40 years before. Offering one dark, chiaroscuro-lit, suitable-for-framing composition after another, this is sombre objet d’art cinema in the realm of Bela Tarr and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), demanding equal patience.
Considerably more entertaining is Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Cannes jury prize winner Bacurau, which is also set in motion by a woman’s arrival for a funeral—in this case her grandmother’s. But there’s otherwise nothing very mournful about this cheeky mix of neuvo Western and a Most Dangerous Gamespin not unlike The Hunt. The deceptively deadpan movie takes its time revealing the precise nature of what’s menacing a tiny northeastern Brazilian rural village already isolated by geography and local political corruption.
Handsome, humorous and eventually quite violent, it’s an enjoyably outlandish tale that gradually turns into a black joke at the expense of some very Ugly Americans. Warning: This movie is not for US viewers to whom it will be a terrible shock that some “foreigners” think the absolute worst of us. Five-day streaming rentals of Bacurau will partially benefit our own Roxie Theater (more info here).
But, continuing with our cinematic globetrot against the menace of pandemic claustrophobia (you can find these online with a little Google sleuthing):
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
One movie that managed to open just before the shutdown, but not early enough for most audiences to get to it, was Kelly Reichardt’s lovely First Cow. It put me in mind of other movies that are about the 19th-century American West without being primarily centered on violence and/or vengeance—of which there are, frankly, damn few. One much-liked exception to the Western genre rule of ridin’, shootin’ and hangin’ melodrama is this Robert Redford vehicle shot in his beloved Utah.
He plays a more-or-less fact-based mountain man who left military service after the Mexican War (1846-48) to become a lone trapper in the Rockies. But whether Jeremiah’s interactions are with tribal populations, settlers or US Army personnel, the human race—and its sorrows—can never fully be left behind. This gorgeous, meditative, attractively scored wilderness tale was only a modest success at the time, but quickly grew enough of a reputation to command multiple re-releases. Redford and director Sydney Pollack reunited the next year for the much more popular (but editorially compromised) romance The Way We Were. A comparably lyrical if darker recent movie was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s fine 2015 The Revenant.
Letter Never Sent (1960)
Speaking of The Revenant, an even more harshly beautiful story of wilderness survival (or at least its attempt) is this B&W 1960 feature by Mikhail Kalatozov, the most kinetically exciting stylist in Soviet cinema after the silent era. He had a great hit with 1957’s The Cranes are Flying, and a huge flop with 1964’s I Am Cuba, a co-production virtually unknown in “the West” until a Martin Scorcese-sponsored restoration three decades later.
But arguably his greatest achievement was this extraordinary physical adventure, a visually dazzling tragedy in which the elements and human nature conspire against a small group of government geologists exploring remotest Siberia for mineral deposits. When cruel fate bars their timely return to civilization at summer’s end, survival becomes increasingly difficult. A psychodrama set amidst Mother Nature at her most tempestuous, Letter has passages of truly harrowing beauty—a forest fire sequence seems to place the actors in such acute real danger, you can’t imagine how they filmed it.
The Thief of Bagdad x 2
For much lighter escapism in much warmer climes, you can’t beat the two most beloved adaptations of the most famous story from One Thousand and One Nights. Well, OK, there’s Disney’s Aladdin in its several incarnations to date. But for people of all ages, these are probably the two best flying-carpet movies of all time.
Having already transitioned from the all-American hero of his early films to the costumed adventures of Zorro, Three Musketeers, and Robin Hood, Douglas Fairbanks pulled out all of the stops for his 1924 Thief, which was directed by Raoul Walsh (who’d later direct many vehicles for Cagney, Bogart and Errol Flynn). It’s still an absolute delight, with lavish sets, elaborate special effects, color tinting, and a breakout performance by pioneering Asian-American star Anna May Wong. As ever, though, the biggest attraction here is an already past-40 Fairbanks, whose athletic brio and irrepressible personality have never been surpassed amongst screen swashbucklers.
Sixteen years later the British film industry sought to out-do even that spectacular flight of fancy with a Technicolor epic that did much to cheer troubled audiences amidst the early days of WW2. (Though that conflict actually forced production to be relocated whole from London to Hollywood, mid-shoot.) The 1940 Thief is an eye-popping marvel whose more purely fantastical spirit is arguably closer to the prior year’s MGM Wizard of Oz than to the Fairbanks film. It was also an early international triumph for co-director Michael Powell, who with Emeric Pressburger would later expand the medium’s vocabulary with such sumptuous, daring classics as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.
For a highly enjoyable later contribution to the cinema of Arabian Nights-type fancy, check out The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, an incongruously old-fashioned release in 1974—that peak “New Hollywood” year of Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, etc.—which made glorious full use of stop-motion “Dynarama” effects by animator Ray Harryhausen.
Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Werner Herzog has always been drawn by the remotest landscapes, and their impact on human behavior—including the foolish filmmaker who would think to make a movie there. (Let alone in the company of mad late actor Klaus Kinski, which long, tortured collaboration the director examined in My Best Fiend.) Alternating narrative features with documentaries since his earliest work, the German director has gravitated more toward nonfiction in recent decades, and dug out a surprisingly popular niche for himself in that category.
His eccentrically droll, very personal approach to the genre has never been more pleasingly displayed than in this look at Antarctica. Rather than focus on that icy continent’s natural wonders, however—though we do get some spectacular underwater photography of ice tunnels shot by Oakland-born musician Henry Kaiser—Herzog trains his camera primarily on the scientific researchers and others dedicated/crazy enough to work here. They are, needless to say, an idiosyncratic lot whose peculiarities have flourished in this extreme environ. It’s a funny, surprising and educational doc.
For old-school Herzog at his most characteristic (and for a sweatbath after those subzero temperatures), there’s nothing better than 1972’s Amazonian adventure Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with Kinski at his most rivetingly intense as a 16th-century Spanish conquistador losing mental grip in the Peruvian rainforest.
Life Feels Good (2013)
Not all travel is outwardly-bound, and this ingratiating Polish film from director Maciej Piprzyca does a remarkable job conveying the imaginative ingenuity exerted to keep daily life interesting by a protagonist dismissed by most as a virtual vegetable. Afflicted with cerebral palsy, Mateusz (David Ogrodnik) benefits from the encouragement of loving parents, but is eventually removed from their care to an institution where no one notices or cares about his hidden potential.
Like a funnier, more joyful version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, this fact-inspired tale charts the journey of a man to make himself truly understood despite severe difficulties of movement and communication. Avoiding all the usual “inspirational” and tear-jerking formulas of disability cinema (while earning some of those emotions), Life is a small marvel—a movie about a character with extreme physical limitations, whose oft-cosmic perspective nonetheless makes the world seem a bigger place.