Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)

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Direction: Martin Scorsese
Country: USA

Celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese has shown his knack for music documentaries with solid works such as The Last Waltz (1978), Shine a Light (2008), and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011). However, his efforts reveal disappointing results in Rolling Thunder Revue, a sort of mockumentary with real and fake footage and fabricated interviews about Bob Dylan’s legendary concert tour in the mid-70s. The series of concerts would allow Dylan to perform in smaller venues in a more intimate connection with the audience. The political context comes forward and goes well with the confrontational activism of the talented young musicians, who abandoned themselves to socially conscious, politically charged music.

While Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Allen Ginsberg were actually part of this American caravan, the unsatisfied filmmaker Stefan Van Dorp, event promoter Jim Gianopulos, and Rep. Jack Tanner are all fake characters played by actors. Moreover, Scorsese utilizes Sharon Stone, in flesh and bone, as tantalizing bait to his story, increasing the mordancy when she states, flattered, that “Just Like a Woman” was written for her. Conversely, the story behind the protest song “Hurricane”, written for boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, is authentic.

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The music is great, yet this artful satire never really stood out as something really big, working more like a benign prankster spreading misinformation than giving a consistent insight about the topic. In a similar way, the interviews only served to make things more recondite, enhancing the artificiality of a make-believe that, at least, could have put an extra effort to be funnier. Rolling Thunder Revue doesn’t break any ground and proves more unimaginative than impressionistic.

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24 Frames (2018)

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Direction: Abbas Kiarostami
Country: Iran / France

24 Frames is an experimental posthumous work by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. To form the base of this interesting, if unconventional, experiment, the latter first employed famous paintings before switching to his photographs. That media, representing an instant and unique capture of the reality, becomes the framework over which he expresses his imagination of what could have happened before and after that particular moment.

Introduced by fade-ins and culminating in fade-outs, the frames exhibit nature in various forms. You may indulge yourself in wintry landscapes populated by wildlife and occasional human activity, or interior shots in which birds, lingering on the other side of a window, become the main subjects, having contrasting trees composing the beautiful black-and-white images. Intrinsically, some of them impel us to reflect on life and death, while others, made me think about how the humankind affects nature.

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Whereas some segments are repetitive and a bit monotonous, others feel melancholically rich in its minimalism. Once in a while, there are surprises that force you to look at and think further about what was put in front of your eyes, but it’s mostly sadness that reigns. As an exception to this rule, a specific frame comes to my mind, where six persons, with their backs turned to the camera and facing the Eiffel tower in Paris, are too absorbed to pay attention to the other pedestrians. The liveliness of the people’s movements is reinforced by the melody of Les Feuilles Mortes.

Although 24 Frames is attractive to the eyes and senses, it requires patience since there are no characters or even a plot to follow. Kiarostami prefers simplicity to opaqueness, and his method is pure, almost symbolizing the vision of a child. Not for everyone, these art forms are to stare at, relax, and enjoy.

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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018)

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Direction: Wim Wenders
Country: Switzerland / Germany / other

Perceiving the turbulent times we’re living today is not an easy task and master documentarian Wim Wenders (Pina; The Salt of the Earth) felt the urgency of spreading Pope Francis’ noble ideals and message. He did it in a simple yet compelling way in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a documentary where the pontiff’s inspirational words of wisdom echo like bombs in our deaf ears.

This pope, the first to choose the name Francis, lives according to the humble ways of his inspirer, St. Francis of Assisi. He talks about the problems of the modern world without avoiding any sensitive matter. No wonder he points out wealth as the bigger temptation of the church and politicians, naming it God’s highest antagonist. Instead of wasting time dividing religions, he calls brother to every man, at the same time that shows a deep understanding of their choices, paths, and milieus.

Amidst the serious and thoughtful considerations about unemployment, deliberate onslaughts against Mother Earth, pedophilia in the church, gender equality, immigration, and the importance of listening to what others have to say, the pope still finds the courage to throw in funny lines about husband-wife relationships and coping with mothers-in-law. With an overt smile, he makes reference to a prayer for good humor by St. Thomas More. He is so charismatic and unequivocal in his sayings that I could be seated a couple more hours and listen to his recommendations.

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Wenders opted for a type of interview in which he concedes the pope enough space to talk directly to the camera, emulating a face-to-face interaction with us, the viewers. Even if his direction feels more competent than brilliant, he deserves credit for making sure the film progresses with no topic redundancy or unnecessary delays. A pertinent parallelism with the life of St. Francis is made, and for this purpose, black-and-white images are exhibited in a classic style.

The true star here is the pope himself, not only a man of his word, but also a man of impressive openness, humbleness, and fearlessness when speaking the embarrassing truth. He delivers the real message. Words that could help us save the planet, be better persons, and pull us out of this shameful idolatry of money and apathy in the face of injustice.

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6 Weeks To Mother's Day (2017)

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Directed by Marvin Blunte
Country: USA

Especially now, in a time that the world needs righteous deeds to balance the frenzy that keeps escalating a bit everywhere, it’s comforting to focus our attention on honorable projects done by solicitous people who dedicate their lives to help others in need. This idea gains further emphasis when the people who are benefitting from these efforts are children.

Documentarian Marvin Blunte captures with a self-assertive sense of admiration, the wonderful assistance and guidance given to the impoverished children that reside at Children’s Village School, a 35-year institution located in a remote jungle of the Kanchanaburi province, Thailand. As an alternative to the public school system and the first democratic school in the country, it gives the opportunity for 150 underprivileged children to experience several tasks, from cooking to art making to clean, while learning the basics of life from a remarkably open-minded program. Afterward, according to their natural skills, the students can freely choose what they want to be and do in the future. As explained by the school’s principal and co-founder Rajani Dhongchai aka Mother Aew, endless patience with and love for these kids who were abandoned, abused, or simply let go due to extreme poverty, are the keys for success.

Both former and current students don’t spare words of gratitude and praise to their benefactor, who, despite struggling with her own health problems, is constantly smiling and treating her foster children with the love and respect they’ve never had at home.

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Blunte's starting point is six weeks prior to the Mother’s Day. At the Children’s Village, all the teachers are called Mom, but the one who is being honored is the big-hearted Mother Aew, who left her regular job as a public teacher to focus on this grandiose accomplishment alongside her husband Pibhop.

The school is exemplary in its educational discipline, touching a variety of fundamental subjects such as democracy, sexual education, birth giving, human rights, freedom of speech, environmental consciousness, and many others. The kids can openly express their sexual orientation, like it happened with Pao, and participate in a sort of court emulation, a fair process to deal with misconducts and complaints. Teachers and students suggest possible punishments for the wrongdoers, which are posteriorly subjected to a vote.

Before the festive day arrives, the film crew follows two twin siblings in a sporadic visit to their real parents. Alcoholic and miserably paid for their work in a sugarcane plantation, mother and father act disparately in front of their children. While the mother gets emotional, the father, visibly depressed and ashamed, is inexpressive, almost indifferent to their presence. This scene is particularly excruciating and heartbreaking.

The director showed unity and efficiency in his moves, portraying Mother Aew and her heroic achievements as remarkable examples to be followed worldwide. “6 Weeks To Mother's Day” has the ability to fill our hearts with optimism and gratitude.

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Faces Places (2017)

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Directed by Agnes Varda and JR
Country: France

Sympathetic French New Wave filmmaker Agnés Varda, 89, links up to photomuralist JR, 33, in the sweet and humorous documentary “Faces Places”, a celebration of friendship and art alike. The two artists visited several French rural villages and small towns for the pleasure of making art, homaging the hard-working local people.

The spontaneous duo gives wings to creativity while visiting Jeanine, the last surviving soul of a waiting-to-be-demolished coal miner neighborhood, a tireless farmer who deals with 800 hectares alone, Pirou Plage, a ‘ghost’ village whose construction was never finished, a longtime mailman friend, a solitary retired artist, two very distinct goat farms, and a chemical factory. All these places were chosen to plaster large black-and-white pictures that JR’s photobooth van spills out itself. However, my absolute favorite work included the figures of three wives of Le Havre dockers pasted on colorful vessels, in a clear support to feminism, a movement/topic that has been inherent to Varda’s personal work for a long time. In the Southern village of Bonnieux, they’ve also turned a cautious woman into a model star with her glamorous picture filling a downtown's building facade.

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Real life is shown without preconceptions, even when the work doesn’t achieve the desired success. It happened with a collage on a Nazi-era bunker that rests on a desolated Normandy beach. The film then moves on with new adventures and ideas, keeping us tied up to its well-edited course of events. 
 
It’s extremely amusing when they jest about Varda’s blurry-eyes condition, whose treatment immediately revives Luis Buñuel’s classic “Un Chien Andalou”, or JR’s tenacity in hiding his eyes behind sunglasses.

Socially conscious if slightly repetitive in its structure, the good-natured “Faces Places” reserves a touching moment to be presented at the end, having the reclusive philosopher/filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard at the center.

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The Departure (2017)

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Directed By: Lana Wilson
Country: USA

The Departure” is a potent documentary about a former rebellious rocker turned Zen priest who spends his days helping depressed people on the verge of committing suicide. Working for a decade in the suicide prevention, Tokyo-native Ittetsu Nemoto leads with confidence one of his famous retreat sessions known in Japan as The Departure. He urges the attendants to think of what they will leave behind if they follow their suicidal thoughts, in a clear attempt to find remnants of hope in the emptiness of their anguished souls. As a considerate counselor and a great listener, he makes them feel less lonely by reinforcing that fear is a road we’ve all traveled at some point. Reacting to the irrationality of living (being born to struggle until the time of our death), he also encourages people to express themselves through art in order to find some relief. However, this is not always the case with the people who seek him.

Nemoto lives in a temple located in the countryside with his wife, Yukiko, the nurse who took care of him after a serious motorcycle accident when he was 24, their little son, Teppei, whom he barely sees due to a busy schedule, and his helpful mother, who worries about his health.

It’s truly honorable what this priest does for the sake of others, but he keeps forgetting of himself and his own needs. His mission seems to be more important than anything that can happen to him, however, he’s getting weaker, stressed, and vulnerable since most of his energy is consumed by his patients, who, in turn, pass him their sufferings. Furthermore, the 24/7 availability takes his sleep away, with phone calls, emails, and text messages arriving in the middle of the night.

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Emmy-award winning director, Lana Wilson (“After Tiller”), intersperses Nemoto’s medical condition - he suffered a heart attack in the past and now faces the real danger of clogged arteries - with several suicidal cases of people who remain in treatment with him, including a man who cannot bear not to see his kids, a young girl who is anxious and uncertain about the future, a man with 30 years of drug addiction, and a middle-aged woman whose sadness is endless. Serene and unhesitating, our hero refuses to give up on them.

Besides focusing on the grandiose altruism and compassion of its protagonist with a lyric simplicity, what the film actually questions is utterly complex: how can this man take care of other people when he is not taking care of himself? Would he feel better after leaving the patients at the mercy of their own miseries? What will happen to him if he continues with such an exhausting lifestyle?

This is what keeps revolving in our heads throughout a meditative film that treats both dejection and encouragement with the same quiet impartiality. Sometimes hope turns into light, other times it’s the despondency that brings us down.
 
The Departure”, sliding with a deliberate melancholy toward the painful reality that concludes its story, benefits from the competent editing by David Teague. Nonetheless, better the subject matter than the technical aspects.

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13th (2016)

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Directed by Ava DuVernay
Country: USA

13th” is a powerful Netflix documentary centered on the racial bias lived in the American criminal justice system. The film was directed by the acclaimed Ava DuVernay, a true specialist who makes us aware of this spreading cancer called racial discrimination that feels brutally active in the US. She was the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. It happened in 2015 with the top-notch historical drama “Selma”.
Also nominated for an Oscar (best documentary) is the awesome “13th”, whose title refers to the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. It was filmed in secrecy and had its premiere last year, opening the New York Film Festival.

The film starts with a curious statement about the US. It’s said the country has 5% of the world population and 25% of the world prisoners. The world’s highest rate of incarceration becomes even more shocking when you learn that a huge percentage of these incarcerations are with African-Americans.
Here’s what the 13th amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
Thus, it’s easy to imagine what white supremacists and racist hypocrites, especially those in a position of power such as policemen and prison guards, can do to the colored people and Latinos. What this feature is trying to prove is that mass incarceration inevitably leads to modern slavery.

DuVernay dexterously intercalates archival footage with a variety of testimonials from selected personalities, eventually addressing the flagrant cases that have shocked the world lately.
Moreover, she discloses how much the US presidents contributed to widening this civil rights gap with their supposedly well-intentioned measures – the war on drugs during the Nixon and Reagan administrations and Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.
Another individual to be rebuked is D.W. Griffith due to his erroneous portrayal of the African-American in his controversial 1915 epic film “The Birth of a Nation”.

Fearlessly, and boosted by the activist songs of Nina Simone and Public Enemy, the director points the finger to a rotten system that needs urgent revision in order to give a true meaning to the word ‘justice’. 
She does it with clarity and objectivity, but also indignation, almost in a desperate supplication, in a cry of hope for changing a country, called the land of the free, for better.

Observant, insightful, and necessary, “13th” reaffirms Ava DuVernay as the powerful voice of the oppressed, as well as a world-class filmmaker.