Saturday, July 24, 2021



Someone asked me this morning if I had watched any of the Olympics, and I replied “No, but that reminds me I have an Olympic documentary at home to watch and should probably give it a spin.” The fellow asking gave me what I admit was an appropriately perplexing look in response. A contradiction maybe only cinephiles understand. I won’t engage in the Thing but I’ll watch a movie about that Thing. 

Sports movies are probably high on the list for this situation. Why do I not enjoy watching or playing sports but I’ll take a boxing or football movie any given day of the week?

Criterion has re-released 1973’s Visions of Eight just in time for the delayed 2020 Olympics; now labeled 2021, the XXXII Olympiad may seem like it’s full of strife, but keep in mind, the XX games back in ’72 are the games where Palestinian terrorists killed Israeli athletes, an incident only touched upon briefly in Visions of Eight. It’s backdrop for John Schelsinger’s segment, “The Longest,” as the attack delayed the marathon by a whole day. It’s hard to imagine what gets into a runner’s head with that extra day, and how it effects his race. That’s what intrigues Schlesinger the most: what does the long-distance runner face beyond the fatigue of body?

The Midnight Cowboy director [review] is the last to go in this anthology documentary, the 8th of the 8 in the title. Producer David L. Wolper (Roots) picked this octet of international filmmakers and let them loose to shoot what interested them, and each came back with their own snapshot of the Munich Olympics. The notion is that no one film can cover the whole event, so let’s slice it up and create a collage. Naturally, some of the shorts are better than others. Kon Ichikawa, no stranger to the Olympics, having set the standard for documentaries about the games back in 1965 with Tokyo Olympiad, is perhaps the most inventive here, chronicling one 100-meter dash by filming the race at 4X slower speed, isolating each athlete so the audience can track the contortions of body and face, and then showing the whole widescreen image, finally revealing who won. Each competitor looked like the victor on their own, but only one can get the Gold.

Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde [review]) also gets inventive, tightening in and abstracting high jumpers in both success and failure, creating a montage of daring and defeat. Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [review]) has the most fun, matching the decathlon events to musical performances adding atmosphere during and adjacent to the competition. And I suppose it takes a French director to blithely undertake “The Losers;” Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman) focuses on those who miss the mark and how they react to blowing it.

The weak link in Visions of Eight is something that only likely appears as such due to the passing of time. German director Michael Pfleghar’s segment “The Women” is the only one besides Lelouch’s to give the female competitors any time, and he spends most of it highlighting their clothes and how they prepare themselves (like, you know, primping their hair). There is a noticeable focus on mostly white faces throughout the film, as well, and though Visions of Eight is a product of its era and should be judged as such, it’s worth noting that even though Wolper tells you up front you are not getting the whole story, he’s not telling you how much you really aren’t.

For those interested in the technical specs, Criterion does deliver Visions of Eight using a new 4K restoration that looks fantastic while maintaining the veneer of film stock used in 1972. Sound is also good, giving some nice punch to the occasional music by the great Henry Mancini. Extras include audio commentary by podcasters from The Ringer, a new documentary, and archival materials.

Note: This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, July 12, 2021


This review was originally written for in 2011.

Things may have changed since I was in school, but my only recollection of any civil rights leader ever being discussed at length in American history classes is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There were brief mentions of Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez, and we also learned who Rosa Parks was, but any more meaningful profile of more aggressive political leaders was nowhere to be found. While I have, of course, gathered additional knowledge over the years, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is still a revelation, a documentary that both educates and informs, but also entertains.

Though credited to director Göran Olsson, The Black Power Mixtape is more of a collaborative effort spreading back more than forty years. The footage used to construct the documentary is taken from a variety of Swedish television broadcasts. Sweden took an active interest in American culture at the time, exploring our internal struggles and racism, as well as condemning the war in Vietnam. Their distance from the issue allowed for a fascinating perspective, and unlike most of the news media in our own country, they viewed the Black Panthers and similarly minded African American leaders as essential figures in an understandable and necessary revolution. As a result, they gained unprecedented access to Black Panther headquarters and social centers. Stokely Carmichael visited Stockholm with his mother, Eldridge Cleaver let camera crews into the Black Panther embassy while in exile in Algeria, and Angela Davis talked at length with a European reporter while in prison awaiting trial.

The alternative perspective is astonishing for both new viewers and people more educated in the truth. Olsson has gathered up contemporary African American figures, as well as a few surviving voices from the past, to watch the footage and comment. Their reactions can be heard as voiceover. Rapper Talib Kwali, for instance, is surprised by the humanity of the news pieces, and it also reinforces for him his connection to the Black Power movement of yesteryear. Footage of a black bookstore in Harlem in the 1970s reminds him of one he worked at in Brooklyn in the 1990s. A piece on a typical African American family in the late '60s inspires Erykah Badu to sing the coded songs they taught her in school to discourage questioning authority. In other clips, Harry Belafonte looks at himself as a young man meeting Swedish dignitaries, and Angela Davis reflects on the larger meaning of the struggle.

Smartly, Olsson keeps his commentators off-screen, avoiding letting The Black Power Mixtape turn into a talking-heads documentary. What historical context is not provided in the journalist's copy from the actual broadcasts is given via short news clips of other events or text in the upper corner of the frame. Olsson never lets his audience lose a sense of time and place, and he builds the framework naturally, moving in chronological order across the years. Raw footage is also enhanced by new music from Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer for the Roots and a respected hip-hop producer. His compositions, like the film itself, blends old and new, mixing vintage musical lines with more up-to-date rhythms, but avoiding making any of it too domineering. (The musician also contributes to the voiceover.)

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 ends on a sobering note. Harlem always served as a microcosm of black culture, and as drugs flooded its streets in the early '70s, they had a damaging effect on African American empowerment. Years of fighting back had brought about some victories, but it also caused fatigue. As with most of the political activism that had survived the turn of the decade, the Black Power movement was losing steam. Yet, there were still voices struggling to be heard, and some of those voices still speak up and, as this movie illustrates, there are others speaking alongside them. Olsson provides the right perspective for why everything shown in the previous 90 minutes still matters and where we can take the inspiration it engenders from here. It's a compelling message, one that seems particularly relevant as disparate individuals gather across the country to protest economic injustice. There is much to be learned and considered from the past, much to be gleaned from the success and failures of those that fought before, and for that, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is certainly a vital place to start.

Friday, July 2, 2021


This review originally written in 2011 for the film's 20th Anniversary, and was posted at

In the 20 years since I first saw Thelma & Louise during its original theatrical run, there is one scene that I always return to. It's a very short sequence, it could almost be dismissed as throwaway connective tissue, but in my mind, it speaks strongly to the soul of Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri's road-movie western. It's during a brief pit stop, the titular fugitives have pulled off the highway to take a bathroom break and clean up. Susan Sarandon, playing Louise, washes herself in an outdoor sink and, seeing the old man who lives in this roadside shack, she goes over to him, removes all of her jewelry, and puts it in his hand. It's a silent interaction, there is no dialogue or explanation given. Yet, one can take so much away from those few frames. In one light, it is a compassionate moment. Louise is paying this man, who has likely seen some hard times judging by the lines on his face and the faraway look in his eyes, to thank him for the respite he has provided. It also proves she hasn't given herself completely to crime, she won't rob those who can't afford it. In another light, Louise is shedding her earthly connections, rejecting the material world and accepting a fate that is becoming all-too inevitable.

It's not just the best scene in an otherwise rollicking movie, it's one of Susan Sarandon's finest screen moments. It's the actress at her most raw. She is vulnerable and sweet and, a rare thing for us to see in big-budget Hollywood movies, at rest. It's an oasis of peace in the middle of a movie where a bullet from a pistol can blow up an oil tanker.

And yes, it really has been two decades [now three!] since Thelma & Louise was a well-deserved big hit at the box office. The film is a perennial now, something we have become comfortable with, even though the dimwits who run the American film industry are still scared of the idea of kick-ass women headlining their own kick-ass movies. Thelma & Louise casts the dream team of Geena Davis as Thelma, an Arkansas housewife kept underheel by her domineering jerkwad husband, and Susan Sarandon as Louise, a bold-as-brass waitress who has seen her fair share of disappointments.

The story begins as the girls set out for a weekend at a cabin in the mountains. Thelma decides not to get her husband's permission, he's not going to give it anyway. (Darryl is played by Happy Gilmore's Christopher McDonald, who has made what is probably a pretty fun career out of playing energetic sleazeballs.) For her, this three-day vacation is all about letting go and embracing life, to finally unleash everything that is inside her. For Louise, it's somewhat the opposite, though similar. The trip will become her opportunity to bury the past, to get over old mistakes, and accept the disappointments life has handed her.

The journey takes an unintended detour after an unscheduled bar stop. Thelma has too much to drink, and a local scumbucket (Timothy Carhart) tries to take advantage. Louise steps in, one thing leads to another, and Louise shoots the rapist. Convinced that no one will believe their story, the ladies hit the road. A series of mishaps and crimes follow, including running across a thieving drifter (Brad Pitt in a breakout role) and getting a sympathetic cop (Harvey Keitel) on their tail. Thelma & Louise is essentially a modern take on an outlaw western, two anti-heroes on the run like a feminist Butch and Sundance. With each obstacle they overcome, with each new "bad deed," they come into their own. By the end, they are seasoned gunslingers and as gutsy as any frontiersmen in a leather duster and ten-gallon hat ever was.

Thelma & Louise represents the last of vintage Ridley Scott for me. While the director has had some good movies since--usually his "smaller" pictures, such as Black Hawk Down and Matchstick Men--his run in the last twenty years never quite achieved the immediacy or creativity that made his 1980s work so exciting. His bloated Christopher Columbus biopic, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, was to follow a year later, and its failure inspired a four-year gap that would eventually be broken by the little-seen White Squall. His box office successes since have tended to be overdone historical epics or convoluted modern thrillers marred by an unyielding visual style. Thelma & Louise stands in direct opposition to this. The storytelling is lithe, and the bright and breezy cinematography by Adrian Biddle (V for Vendetta) eventually embraces the majesty of the road picture, drinking in all the wonderful sights of the American Southwest alongside its two heroines. Maybe it's fitting that the most over-the-top scene in the movie is the explosion of that oil tanker. It's ridiculously out-of-sync with the "reality" of the rest of Thelma & Louise, yet it serves its purpose: it's the signal flare that the ladies are leaving everything about their safe lives back in Arkansas. Maybe it's also Ridley Scott's demolition of all that came before, a last moment of whimsy before he hunkered down for the more calculated career that was to come.

Of course, if we're going to push that kind of meaning onto Thelma & Louise, then it might be just as fitting to suggest that the ending of the movie, which I guess some would consider controversial, is more of Scott's final leap into the creative unknown. I think it's a rather perfect ending to the film, I can't imagine why anyone would be upset (the extended version that's been out on its various digital video releases would have really given detractors something to crow about). Again, Butch and Sundance are a pretty obvious comparison, but I'd like to toss out a different one: Grease. At the end of the musical, Danny and Sandy take flight in their convertible, presumably on their way to some kind of bliss in cinema heaven. Given where Scott ultimately chose to fade out in this leap, there is no reason not to take it as a Kierkegaardian metaphor. Thelma and Louise never land, they soar off toward immortality. The fact that there is now a 20th Anniversary Edition would certainly suggest they've achieved some level of timelessness. Thelma & Louise is still as fresh and unpretentious as it ever was, despite the fact that it seems to be on TV at least once a week. It's the kind of moviegoing vehicle that's tires will never grow threadbare.

Sarandon & Davis at 2021 30th Anniversary event


This review originally written for The Oregonian in 2014.

A bear and a mouse aren't supposed to be friends, but they make for a cute pairing in the French cartoon Ernest & Celestine.

An adorable animated adaptation of Gabrielle Vincent's popular children's book, Ernest & Celestine depicts a world of bears and mice where the two species have a lifelong fear of one another propagated by urban legends and fairy stories.

The main characters are an imaginative mouse who loves to draw and a layabout bear who loves to eat. They form a friendship based on their mutual outsider status.

The Oscar-nominated French feature captures the look and feel of classic storybooks, using a charming watercolor style to bring the clever tale to life.

Ernest & Celestine delivers a sweet message that should prove delightful to young and old alike.