The Good Life

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Art House Salad

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release

By R. Kurt Osenlund
Film critic and correspondent

Dir. Jeremiah Zagar
HBO Documentary Films
80 min. NR

Jeremiah Zagar's "In a Dream" incorporates fanciful footage of South Philadelphia, talking-head confessionals, vintage photography, hundreds of original drawings and paintings and whimsical animation to tell the life/love story of the director's father, renowned Philadelphia mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar, and mother, Julia Zagar. Exposing the high times and hardships of the artist (Isaiah reveals a dark history of mental illness), the couple (Jeremiah opts to document his parents' painful separation) and their family (Jeremiah's in-recovery brother, Ezekiel, also appears), the film isn't so much a family portrait, as many will call it, but a whole scrapbook of mixed media, new and old.
Jeremiah, who also co-edited, is a masterful manipulator of his medium of choice. Like his father but with a greater degree of control, he favors bold, vibrant colors and takes advantage of interesting architectural spaces. His curious cameras, deftly handled by cinematographers Erik Messerschmidt and Mark Stetz, are constantly moving through space, scanning Isaiah's indoor and outdoor creations with an affectionate, even loving gaze.
"Don't just give them eye candy," Isaiah says at one point in the movie, "give them something else to chew on." Jeremiah gives us something else, alright -- too much, perhaps. Just as Isaiah often straddles the line between fascinating eccentric visionary and plain-old weirdo (attempted self-castration in psych ward? Compelling! Handling feces and contemplating its beauty? Not!), Jeremiah continuously dances on the border of exploitation territory, showing us deeply personal moments we don't feel entitled to see. The director's daring to ask the tough questions is commendable, but it sometimes registers as an invasion of privacy for the sake of drama.
When the murals and their hard-at-work maker are are at center screen, though, one art form beautifully melds with another, and the divine synthesis frequently makes us feel as though we are -- you got it -- in a dream.
4 stars (out of 5).

Dir. Ramin Bahrani
Roadside Attractions
91 min. NR

Ramin Bahrani, that 34-year-old minimalist who won the hearts of critics with his dressed-down features "Man Push Cart" (2005) and "Chop Shop" (2007), proves himself a consistently skillful American auteur with "Goodbye Solo," a surprisingly unique friendship tale that exudes a great deal of power without the slightest hint of force.
It's rather astonishing that Souleymane Sy Savane, the actor from Africa's Ivory Coast who plays the sanguine Winston-Salem, N.C. cabbie Solo, has no previous film credits. In a performance of equal parts subtlety and vitality, Savane fleshes out a cheer-worthy modern protagonist who seems more heroic amidst his daily tasks than many Superheroes do whilst saving the world. Solo is the very antithesis of William, the crotchety white fare who pays his driver $1,000 to take him to a windy mountaintop for undisclosed reasons. William is portrayed without pretense by Red West, a weather-worn veteran with plenty of film credits (as well as a former gig as Elvis's bodyguard). Though the film's trailers may imply otherwise, don't think for a moment that Bahrani would condescend to go the white-man-in-distress-consults-the-magical-Negro-route, for "Goodbye Solo" soars beyond petty genre conventions.
Bahrani, whose fondness for smart and simplistic American character studies makes him a gritty kindred spirit to actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas McCarthy ("The Station Agent," "The Visitor"), worked with his two leads for months, allowing both men to understand both characters and cultivate their rapport. We, the audience, reap the benefits of this prep process -- Solo and William don't have a single false exchange.
The ending of "Goodbye Solo" approaches with a palpable potency, like a wave waiting to crash. Though largely unspoken, the outcome is an inevitable and predictable one; however, Bahrani is too good a storyteller to allow that to subtract from the drama. There's still a graceful mystery hanging in the air when the movie reaches its final moments, wherein we reflect on the journey we've just seen -- one of two men at opposite ends of the human experience.
4.5 stars (out of 5).



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