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On my way out of the media screening for Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn, I overheard someone calling it a “standard Western”—as if that would be a bad thing, if there were any such thing anymore. Making a Western these days is anything but standard; they’re enough of a novelty that it’s still worth being thankful when we get one, and not dismissing it for being less than a masterwork. Blackthorn, a Spanish production with an international cast, has touches of artsiness and a low-budget offhandedness, but more than anything, it’s a good old-fashioned dusty B oater, and more power to it for that.
Miguel Barros’s screenplay posits an intriguing notion: let’s suppose that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren’t killed in that famous shoot-out with the Bolivian cavalry. It finds a much older Cassidy, living quietly in Bolivia under the assumed name of Jack Blackthorn. Cassidy/Blackthorn is played by Sam Shepard, whose presence in a movie like this is the very definition of “reassuring.” He gives the character a weary, grizzled impatience; there’s not a false note in the performance.
Blackthorn is a small film, played in a minor key. That is as it should be. But in its own quiet way, it’s quite marvelous.
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The Swell Season opens with a clip from Once, the small, lovely film that brought folk singer/songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová worldwide fame and an Academy Award. The Swell Season (which shares the name most commonly affixed to the duo), directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, goes on tour with them, as they visit America and visit their respective homes (he in Ireland, she in the Czech Republic). They’re successful, they’re playing music, and they’re in love. “It’s a great life we have, isn’t it?” he asks cheerfully, as she gives him a bedroom haircut. And for a while, it is.
But conflicts eventually begin to surface, made all the more difficult by the personal stuff between the pair. Hansard is dealing with being, for the first time really, a known entity when he walks onstage; the workaday musician uncomfortable with fame is an old saw, but we indulge him because he’s so likable. Irglová is having a very different experience, parachuting in just as this thing is starting to happen, and the strain between their perspectives begins to show with snippy little disputes over fan photos and entrance cues. The film is just about equal parts biography, fly-on-the-wall documentary, and performance, and that mixture works—particularly in the later sections, as we watch the couple slowly drift apart with regret and sadness. This film has, at first glance, a much different ending than their first—but then again, maybe they’re very much cut from the same cloth.
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Gretchen and John Morning’s Gone tells the story of how Kathy Gillern went to Vienna to try to find out what happened to her son Aeryn, who disappeared without any explanation or much of an inquiry by the indifferent local police. It is not a comprehensive documentary, not in any traditional sense; the filmmakers do not do much of their own investigating, and do not seek out multiple sources. There is, in fact, only one interview subject: Kathy, a retired cop who is absolutely wrecked by her son’s disappearance, and confounded by the local authorities’ apathy towards the investigation. It is not a muckraking piece of journalism; it is her story. That is enough.
The picture’s methodology is disarmingly simple; the Mornings interview Kathy, in front of a black background, as she recalls the events of her visits, the places she went and people she met in an attempt not only to reconstruct her son’s disappearance, but to determine that the ever-shifting “official version” of what happened to Aeryn was quite simply impossible. As she describes her journey, the filmmakers intercut her own home video from her visits, the policewoman relentlessly documenting her investigation. Towards the end, they use a video Aeryn shot himself, narrating a little tour of his apartment. It’s a little startling, to finally hear his voice—by that point, he’s almost become an abstract idea. But that’s why Kathy kept going back to Vienna; he was never just an abstract, just a “missing person,” just another unhappy gay man. He was a person. He was her son. She never stopped hearing that voice.
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Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? was an earnest and well-meaning documentary, though one that was ultimately harmed by its infomercial iconography and reliance on whiny, C-list celebrities as protagonists. His follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, is a far stronger picture; given three years’ access to the powers-that-be behind the auto industry, Paine’s new film is less about full-throated advocacy and more about good, solid documentary storytelling. It’s a switch that suits him well.
The access Paine is given this time around—to board rooms, proving grounds, and auto shows—proves vital to the success of the film. Sure, he may be getting used a bit, embraced as a promotional partner and, the companies presumably hope, silenced as a critic. But he ends up with one of the most valuable of all documentary elements: interesting “characters.” The three men that become the focus of the film—GM’s Bob Lutz, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Nissan’s smart and confident CEO, Carlos Ghosn—are unique and fascinating individuals. By intercutting between them, as they nip at each other’s heels in the race to get their vehicles to the marketplace, Paine generates real suspense and real stakes.
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Coming tomorrow—reviews for Zoe Lister-Jones in Stuck Between Stations, Dennis Farina in The Last Rites of Joe May, Chris Evans in Puncture, and one more mysterious title to be determined. Look at me, I’m spontaneous!