It is entirely possible that you've never heard of Chavela Vargas, but the excellent documentary, Chavela will introduce you to this remarkable woman. She sang, not like a bird but like the earth. She sang ranchera, literally "a farmer's song," but figuratively, songs of love and loss, lots of loss.

Chavela knew loss. She was born in 1919, but her parents did not love her. They hid their man-like daughter when company came. So she dreamed of leaving Costa Rica, the land of her birth. When she arrived in Mexico City, she found a welcoming place to sing, mostly in cabarets and bars. She became famous singing the songs of José Alfredo Jimenez. The two of them drank tequilas until Jimenez died of alcoholism.

Chavela's alcoholism drove her to poverty, more loneliness, and obscurity. When her lawyer and lover helped her to dry out, Chavela returned to singing to audiences swearing that she could not be on stage as the great Chavela had died, hadn't she?

Directors Catherine Fund and Daresha Kyi skillfully interwove newsreels and a long interview reel with interviews with the people in Chavela's world, including Jimenez's son. Frida Kahlo, her eyebrows a swallow and her breast bared, appears in old forties' home movies as a lover of Chavela's. The director Pedro Almodovar appears as the fan who applied Chavela's singing to the background of his early films and promoted her longed-for concert at the Olympia in Paris. She called him her husband.

Chavela tells the story of a strong, serious singer, a macha in a macho society. She sang not, as one interviewee declares, like a "little fountain." On stage, she draped her body in a serape, the same garment that cloaked her coffin in 2012.

 

Director Sean Baker's film The Florida Project exposes the chaotic, unsettling world of the hidden homeless, that is, those families, usually with one parent, living week to week in budget motels. That's where six-year-old Moonee, her mother Halley, motel manager Bobby, and several of Moonee's friends live. Over the course of a summer, life is rowdy, joyful and increasingly distressing. 

The title The Florida Project comes from Walt Disney's working name for EPCOT which he envisioned as a utopian world. But right down the road from Orlando's Disney World, along Highway 192, run-down motels house numerous children. Ironically, what once passed for tourist housing still bears fanciful names and vibrant colors; for example, Moonee's home is a flamboyantly purple place called the Magic Castle.    

From the child's perspective from which the film unfolds, many of the days are magical as the young girls and boys run wild, absent adult supervision beyond periodic intervention by Bobby. When around, Moonee's mother adds to the mayhem. Director/co-writer Baker says he likes to describe his and co-writer Chris Bergoch's project as "a modern day 'Our Gang aka The Little Rascals.'" It also focused on children's adventures against a backdrop of poverty. 

The plot consists of loosely linked events in Moonee's days, full of wildly energetic play, with the camera adding momentum as it races to keep up with the children or to track alongside them. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé's color scheme adds even more energy with an aesthetic he calls "blueberry ice cream with a sour twist." That sour twist comes from the adult world that inevitably intrudes, through a pedophile who ambles in, the security guard who runs Halley away from the nice hotel where she's hawking perfume at a discount, or the investigators after Halley steals from one of her Johns. Fantasy can be indulged only so long before the real world insists on attention.

Superb acting by the children, Bria Vinatie as Halley, and a terrific Willem Dafoe as Bobby makes a difficult film engaging. It takes courage to present this tragic struggle with poverty -- and some fortitude for the audience to confront it. At Landmark's Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac cinemas.

 

Those alive at the time certainly remember and those who know history have surely learned of the monumental importance of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex June 17, 1972. Subsequently, several journalists, not only the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, investigated these events, leading to President Richard Nixon's resignation. 

F.B.I. Deputy Associate Director Mark Felt figured as the critical, knowledgeable individual who gradually learned about and exposed the White House's connection to these criminal acts. Felt provided indispensable information, despite warnings and pressure on the FBI to shut down its inquiry. Until 2005 when Felt revealed his identity in a Vanity Fair article, the public knew this man only as Deep Throat, the mysterious individual who prompted and promised earth-shattering revelations if the truth were revealed. Archival footage of Walter Cronkite, Dick Cavett, and President Nixon add strong reminders of the period and what was at stake. 

Beginning in April 1, 1972 and proceeding chronologically, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the Whitehouse goes behind the scenes to explore the internal politics of the FBI. Felt's motivation to reveal the Executive Branch's unethical behavior is, at least in part, prompted by this thirty-year FBI veteran passed over for promotion after J. Edgar Hoover died in May '72. Writer/director Peter Landesman based the film on two memoirs: one my Mark Felt himself (he died in 2008) and the other by Felt's attorney John D. O'Connor. The compelling insights merge the political and the personal, weaving in his wife Audrey, indignant at the treatment of Mark, and the search for his daughter Joan. 

As Felt, Liam Neeson reclaims his acting kudos. Seething and outraged, he suppresses his fury with a clenched jaw and flashing eyes while expressing the indignation of a qualified professional who has put in his time only to be passed over for the promotion he deserves. As Audrey, Diane Lane expresses her resentment over their thirteen posting and thirteen moves that end in futility, but, as usual, her role as "the wife" is undeveloped and clichéd. Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, Tom Sizemore, and Eddie Marsan, among others, give excellent supporting performances. 

Daniel Pemberton's atmospheric music creates an appropriately tense backdrop. Adam Kimmel's cinematography works best when focused on Neeson's expressive face. And Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House resonates today. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

The idea for directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's unprecedented, gorgeous feature film Loving Vincent seems crazy at face value. They decided to use Vincent Van Gogh's paintings as the foundation for interrogating the puzzling circumstances of his death. They then hired 125 artists, from 5,000 applicants, to create 65,000 oil paintings constituting the entire hand-painted, 94-minute film.  

Welchman credits the idea to Kobiela, captivated by Van Gogh's letters and fusing her interest in film and painting. After a decade of meticulous, painstaking work, Loving Vincent emerged in gloriously saturated, vivid colors with the thick, expressive brush strokes characteristic of Van Gogh's creations, while flashbacks contrast in black and white. Animating paintings superimposed over live, staged footage brings a detective story to life, the images segueing from one to the next with startling impact. 

The  story begins at Arles in 1891, a year after Vincent's death July 27, 1890. A prickly Armand Roulin, the local postman's son, is directed to deliver the letter found in Vincent's possessions to younger brother Theo, whom he soon learns is also now dead. Thus begins Roulin's investigating Vincent's alleged suicide from a gunshot wound to his stomach, an assumption conflicting with varying interpretations of  Vincent's psychological state and interactions. Through the animation of Van Gogh's portraits and landscapes, we follow Roulin cross examining individuals about Vincent, including an innkeeper, two doctors, Dr. Gachet's daughter Marguerite, and Vincent's paint supplier. Was it suicide, murder, or an accidental shooting? (A case is made for the latter in a December 2014 "Vanity Fair" article by Gregory White Smith & Steven Naifeh.) 

Robert Gulacyzk provides the voice of Vincent himself, Douglas Booth is Roulin, with Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson, Chris O'Dowd, and Helen McCrory, among others, providing voices. The title Loving Vincent comes from Van Gogh's frequent signature on his letters. But most remarkably, this film's oil paintings generate an overpowering impression. Twelve oil-painted frames equal one second and ten days work. The introduction sets the stage as the camera travels in close-up around and then in long shot into Van Gogh's Starry Night via 600 paintings, a shot taking over a year to complete. Loving Vincent features the beauty of Van Gogh's art and the monumental achievement of the artists bringing it to life. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema. 

Everyone paying attention to the news knows of the displaced populations the world over. Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow gives a distinctive, empathetic face to the global crisis even as the statistics, periodically seen in text on screen, accumulate with a powerful force: an estimated 65 million forcibly displaced individuals, the most since World War II. 

Equally haunting are the quotations from contemporary and ancient poets and philosophers, also superimposed over the footage shot in more than twenty countries and forty camps. From Syria and Iran, Palestine and Myanmar, Kenya and Afghanistan they come in droves, seeking peaceful existence. And yet, as Human Flow makes clear, while refugees increase, resources diminish. 

A well-known Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei shows a heightened sensitivity to the dire circumstances depicted. In fact, for this year's Telluride screening of "Human Flow," Ai wrote that he felt he grew up a refugee in his own country as an activist who suffered his own government's repression including being detained and beaten, leading eventually to his self-exile. Here Ai Weiwei is an unobtrusive, essentially non-speaking but comforting presence throughout the film, appearing occasionally during interviews or capturing what looks like cellphone video.

Ironically, his footage and that of eleven cinematographers is beautiful: rafts packed with men, women and children emerge from the fog at Lesvos, Greece; dozens of African refugees huddle in their golden space blankets; masses of the dispossessed surge forward, walking down a rural road. Drone footage illustrates the magnitude of the refugee tent camps and, from their aerial perspective, project an eerie calm that belies desperate struggles. As one Afghan woman says, "No one leaves their country lightly," and yet refugees average twenty-six years displaced from their homes.  

As tragically serious as this is, the kindness of aid workers and the spirit of the displaced persons are inspirational in this calm, haunting documentary. Human Flow is in English and with English subtitles and screens at Landmark's Tivoli Cinema.

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