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Friday, March 24, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Glimpsing James Baldwin at his peak

Screen Grabs: Glimpsing James Baldwin at his peak

Plus: Tremendous drama 'Close,' young French love in 'One Fine Day,' a ghosty 'Civil Dead' friend, more movies

A couple one-night local screen events occasioned by Black History Month have already come and gone, but another is just opening this Friday: The Roxie Theater’s presentation of James Baldwin Abroad, three vintage shorts—all recently restored—that capture the late great author at the peak of his celebrity as an active literary figure and sociopolitical commentator. (They’ll also be playing Smith Rafael Film Center starting Fri/3.)

The 46-minute Baldwin’s N****r by Horace Ove is a straightforward record of a 1968 “discussion at the West Indian Student Centre, London” in which Baldwin (and, more briefly, Dick Gregory) ruminate on the US Civil Rights Movement’s struggles and other issues with a mixed but mostly young, Black audience. Baldwin’s 20-minute address before taking questions touches on Vietnam, African-American identity, “race riots,” the concept of freedom et al, and is a testament to his precision and articulacy as an extemporaneous speaker.

Another UK production is 1970’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, an attempted portrait that brings the writer back to the city where he’d lived from 1948-1957, a period when he first catapulted to fame with the publication of Go Tell It On the MountainGiovanni’s Room and the essay collection Notes of a Native Son. But director Terence Dixon almost immediately begins complaining that his subject grew “less cooperative” and “increasingly hostile.” That discord turns the half-hour film into a revealing tug-of-war between the two of them, with Baldwin at a peak of exasperation over yet again being expected to play by the rules of a white society’s representative.

He’s more relaxed and bemused—if still gawked-at by passers-by—in Sedat Pekay’s brief, impressionistic 1973 James Baldwin: From Another Place. The frequent expat is seen here in his then-residence of Istanbul, talking about why he’s spent so much time out of the US, his sexuality (he’d rather not be tied to any particular category), and love itself. Like Barry Jenkins’ 2018 If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a later Baldwin novel, it catches a whiff of the poetical melancholy that so often permeated the character of this great American voice.

For info on the Roxie program’s tickets and scheduling, go here. These films are also available for streaming this month on the Criterion Channel, as part of both a larger “James Baldwin On-Screen” retrospective and an element in their “Celebrate Black History” programming.

James Baldwin often seemed more at home—relatively speaking—in Europe, a sentiment you might echo as a viewer, since this weekend sees the arrival of some very good new films from thereabouts.

Close

Lukas Dhont’s Belgian feature is one of those movies whose excellence inevitably drives it to awards contention, but whose modest commercial potential simultaneously means it will be somewhat overwhelmed by bigger, bolder competitors. It’s also a classic example of a film that may suffer from being pushed for those kudos in one year, yet mostly unseen until the next year (i.e. now). It’s good enough that I may wind up putting it on a best list for both 2022 and 2023.

Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav Da Waele) are inseparable besties living in an idyllic countryside, where the former’s parents are flower farmers. They routinely have sleepovers and dine at each other’s tables; both families welcome the other boy as an extension of their household. But upon turning 13, the duo enter middle school, a bigger pond with new, sometimes unspoken but sometimes all-too-loudly-spoken rules for acceptance. The nonsexual physical as well as psychological intimacy that had previously existed naturally between the boys is suddenly pointed out as possibly “gay,” and rendered self-conscious. Leo, who transitions pretty easily to this unfamiliar milieu, finds for the first time that his friendship with Remi is a social handicap. It’s the kind of falling out that almost inevitably occurs many times in life, to almost everyone. But for Remi, it’s a catastrophe he may not have the strength to bear.

A more stylistically lyrical, narratively expansive companion piece of sorts to last year’s Playground—which was also Belgian, and revolved around a similar rift between brother and sister—Close is an exquisitely tuned heartbreaker. It’s not a tearjerker, though, in the sense of emotional manipulation or melodramatic contrivance. Dhont and Angelo Tijssens’ complex, nuanced screenplay assigns no simplistic blame, making sure the parents and other supporting figures have their own relatable personality dimensions, while the director draws very astute performances from all concerned. To say more would risk spoiling the experience of an extremely sensitive yet sturdy drama you shouldn’t miss. Close opens Fri/3 in area theaters including the Alamo Drafthouse and Metreon.

One Fine Morning

Also taking a measured, naturalistic look at family life in both the microcosmic and big-picture sense is this latest from French writer-director Mia Hansen-Love. Parisian professional translator Sandra (Lea Seydoux) is raising her young daughter alone. She hasn’t even dated since her husband died five years ago, feeling “my love life is behind me.” But that abruptly changes upon running into an old friend, scientist Clement (Melvil Poupaud). Their chemistry is immediate—if inconvenient, since he’s (unhappily) married with a child of his own—and rapidly escalates to mutual physical passion.

Meanwhile, Sandra is also dealing with her philosophy-professor father’s (Pascal Greggory) decline due to Benson’s syndrome, a neurodegenerative disorder that is consuming his sight, his memory, and clarity of thought. It is a particularly cruel fate for him, unhelped by the gamut of doctors and institutions he’s bounced between.

Even more so than CloseOne Fine Morning manages the classic French-language-cinema trick of managing to capture the sometimes wrenching, sometimes just random course of life itself unpretentiously, in a seemingly casual yet meaningful course of events. It’s a very deft drama that is probably Hansen-Love’s best since Father of My Children—another portrait of unanticipated familial turbulence—14 years ago. It opens Fri/3 at area theaters including the Opera Plaza and Smith Rafael Film Center.

The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic

That title isn’t the only arrestingly offbeat thing about this Finnish feature from Teemu Nikki, whose 2017 Euthanizer also demonstrated a compelling knack for unusual characters and conflicts. Jaakko (Petri Poikolainen) is a thirtysomething man living in relative isolation—daily visits from a nurse-assistant and his apartment neighbors’ audible gossiping aside—while coping with the effects of multiple sclerosis.

He’s now more or less blind, and paralyzed from the waist down, conditions he’s not at all accustomed to yet. In fact he keeps a large movie collection—he’s a big John Carpenter fan with no use for sappy love stories, with or without nautical disaster recreations—to remind himself who he “used to be,” even if he can no longer watch them.

Reluctant to go out, his major lifeline is communication with Sirpa (voice of Marjaana Maijala), whom he’s never met in person, but with whom he enjoys an online rapport somewhere between BFF-dom and romance. She, too, however, has serious health challenges. When she’s thrown into despair by further bad news on that front, he is suddenly determined to visit. No matter that it will require multiple modes of transport to reach her city, or that a government-underwritten travel escort cannot be found on such short notice.

At first, this solo adventure is exhilarating—Jaakko gets high just breathing fresh air for the first time in weeks or months. But he is vulnerable, as a sightless person in a wheelchair, in public spaces. Before he (or we) know what’s happening, he falls prey to a stranger with ill intentions, and this movie takes a rather harrowing turn.

The Blind Man is a very simple story, really, one that at first you think may not have enough story to sustain feature length. But it’s also a story that rarely if ever gets the kind of exclusive focus granted by Nikki, who heightens our protagonist’s plight by means of select sonic and audio distortion. This could have been an exploitative film, utilizing disability as a gimmick for cheap thrills in the mode of many a prior suspense feature. The writer-director has something else in mind, making for a small but memorable character study that ultimately pulls something upbeat and heartfelt from a concept that might’ve settled for the hyperbolic. It opens Fri/3 at the Regal Jack London in Oakland, then will become available for streaming on Fandor March 14.

The Civil Dead

Likewise stuck with physical and other handicaps is Whit (Whitmer Thomas), an erstwhile high school friend whom barely-employed Los Angeles photographer Clay (Clay Tatum, also the director here) accidentally encounters while wife Whitney (Whitney Weir) is out of town. Though Whit greets him with “You can see me?!?,” it takes Clay a while to really grasp what his old pal’s current problem is: He’s dead, and for whatever reason, Clay is the only person who can still detect his presence.

This is a huge windfall to Whit, who’s been wandering around haplessly, unable to eat, sleep, open a door, communicate with others, etc. But Clay doesn’t necessarily want a constant companion…let alone one who’s whiny, needy, bored, invisible to others, and has alarming powers he’s not in full control of when angry. Plus, how will he explain this new status quo to his spouse when she returns?

This may sound like a 1960s sitcom premise a la I Dream of Jeannie or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and indeed The Civil Dead is a comedy. But it’s in a droll, shaggy, mumblecore-adjacent mode rather than the kind that requires slapstick and special effects. Co-writers/stars Tatum and Thomas (who really have been friends since childhood) are longtime comedy collaborators who’ve also forged separate careers in stand-up, TV, movies etc. This first dual feature can feel a little thin at times over the course of an over-leisurely 104 minutes. But it also has its own singular tone of deadpan cringe comedy, and ideas that it develops in ways not at all formulaic. Tatum and Whitmer will be present for a Q&A at the film’s Alamo Drafthouse screening this Sat/4 at 7 pm (more info here); the movie hits On Demand platforms Feb. 17.

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