"Goodbye Solo" ****

I frequently rail against films with more silence than dialogue, in which little is revealed about main characters’ backgrounds or motives, and where the pace sometimes approaches glacial. All these are true of Goodbye Solo. Yet it transcends these qualities and emerges as a moving and minutely observed study of human nature and thought-provoking commentary on the value of life—and what happens when that gets de-valued.

The film is a virtual pas de deux between men with nearly nothing in common—not age, race, national origin, family status, nor outlook on life. Yet the irrepressibly upbeat Senegalese taxi driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and William (Red West), the determinedly grumpy old American who hires him are polar opposites whose profound differences somehow draw them into one another’s orbit for a time.

Solo tells the story of what may be the last days of the old man’s life, for William has given Solo a down payment for a one-way ride to a famously high and windy cliff. Will he or won’t he? On that slender thread the entire film hangs. You might argue that it’s not enough, but on the other hand, what more profound question is there?

Solo is the third feature film by writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose work I was introduced to in 2006 at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. Bahrani was there with Man Push Cart, which also took viewers inside the life of an immigrant (in that case, a Pakistani who sells coffee and snacks from a push-cart in New York City). Solo is told in much the same way—camera sticking close to the people, who are often silent, his pacing letting us observe what life is like for his characters rather than being told in words.

Longtime character actor Red West has a spectacularly difficult role, since he rarely says much more than “Stay out of my life” or “I don’t give a shit that…” but his creased, world-weary face conveys all we need to know. Souleymane Sy Savane talks more as Solo—indeed, William can hardly shut him up—and carries all the film’s energy.

Bahrani’s got a particular knack for filming at night. As in Man Push Cart (which contains a memorable scene of the vendor laboriously dragging his heavy metal cart through the heavy pre-dawn city traffic), much of Solo takes place at night. Here it serves to focus the film, shutting out the wider world nearly entirely so all that’s left are the two protagonists—individuals and forces of life and death.

Even at just over 90 minutes, there’s a bit too much of Solo. But the director’s trust in his audience to stay with his characters—and the actors’ skill at keeping our attention and making us care what happens to both of them—lifts this far above what a bald description promises.

Viewers already tired of mindless spring/summer multiplex fluff will find their patience and attention richly rewarded by Solo’s serious charms.—P.B.



Put this one at the top of your reading list!

Looking for some summer reading, viewing, and listening? Here’s some good stuff we never quite got around to reviewing this spring.


Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. World War II has just ended, but Spain remains firmly under the fascist thumb of Franco. A young boy becomes obsessed with a forgotten author whose novel he discovers in a Barcelona repository. Who was Julián Carax and why does the young boy’s every query invite the wrath of a mysterious stalker and a sadistic police chief. Glom a world class mystery onto a coming-of-age story, mix with Dan Brown-like labyrinthine plot twists, and season with skillful writing and the result is a delicious read.

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature for Blindness in 1998, but we just got around to reading it. A strange bout of blindness plagues Lisbon in Saramago’s allegory of Portuguese fascism and spiritual darkness. It is a chilling but irresistible study of the struggle between civilization and humanity on one hand and A Darwinian survival of the fittest on the other. Do not see the movie made about the book. There’s no point to watching a lame film about blindness!

I enjoyed Saramago’s sequel, Seeing, even more. It intelligently tackles an age-old conundrum: How would a government react if the bulk of society simply decided to ignore it?

Ghost by Alan Lightman: Seeing is believing. Or is it? What if you’ve seen something but don’t know what it was? And what do you do when some people try to tell you what you’ve seen and still others tell you that you saw nothing at all? This very unconventional ghost story raises fascinating epistemological and eschatological puzzlers.

Joël Glenn Brenner, The Emperors of Chocolate. This book came out in 2000, but remains relevant. If you think the CIA has secrets, it’s a band of tattle-tales compared to the candy industry. Brenner, a former Washington Post writer, penetrates (to the degree she can) the corporate world of Hershey and Mars to arrive at a center substantially chewier than nougat and caramel.


Assorted snafus prevented me from seeing The Wrestler until recently but I can report that you shouldn’t take its hype any more seriously than you would a WWF bout. Mickey Rourke is pretty good as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a past-his-prime gladiator who has messed up his life in just about every way imaginable. It’s hard not to superimpose Rourke’s real-life bio onto this, but the film itself is a lot like pro wrestling—written to formula. You can see everything coming from a mile away. And will Hollywood please stop trying to convince me that Marisa Tomei is a real actress? With the exception of Matthew McConaughey there is no more over-hyped, under-talented actor in the biz.

If you want to see what real actors can do with a script that’s more play than film, rent Doubt. Meryl Streep is chilling as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman is her near-equal as Father Flynn, a priest with a secret that’s not the one that Sister thinks it is.

Hoffman is also superb in Synecdoche, the most intelligent film I’ve seen in years. If you need things clear, resolved, and obvious stay well clear of this one. But if your mind gravitates towards eternal questions about meaning, fate, and time check it out. We all like to think about how our lives would change if certain factors were altered. But what if it’s the interior that really matters?

We wanted to love Is Anybody There? but the film simply doesn’t compel. Michael Caine is fine as Clarence, an embittered, elderly ex-magician forced into a nursing facility, and Bill Milner is cute as a death-obsessed nine-year-old. The script, however, is paint by the numbers and dodges profundity in the name of affected sweetness.

Sugar, on the other hand, avoids the easy answers of Is Anybody There? Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Santos) is star pitcher in the Dominican Republic whom scouts have been watching since he was fifteen. At nineteen he gets his chance to pursue baseball dreams. But how does a Spanish-speaking kid who grew up in crushing poverty cope with being assigned to a club in Iowa, where he has no support systems? This intelligent take on culture clash avoids nostrums.


Talik TA35

These Norwegian ringlenders, bag tunes, waltzes, and marches are old-style tunes that Gullikstad learned from now-deceased musicians in the copper-mining district of Røros some 200 miles north of Oslo. The album has the rawness and immediacy of source music—demanding listening, but a treasure trove of fiddle tunes for those tired of the tried and true.

Waltz With Me
Compass 7-4492-2

Norway’s Annbjørg Lien is like musical sandpaper, gritty and rough, yet contained and organized. Her Hardanger fiddle is tossed into an international mix with Bruce Molsky’s fiddle, Christine Hanson’s cello, and Mikael Marin’s viola and the result is what you might get if a classical quartet was deported to the boondocks. “Edgy smoothness” sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s an apt handle for this beguiling collaboration.

Five Play
Beautiful Jo Records 53

Toss what you think a ceilidh band sounds like; this English quintet features big accordion-driven sets and a full sound more akin to the orchestral spirit of Ceoltoiri Chualanin than a pub pickup session. Jazzy interludes, lacey-interweaving, meaty hooks, a sense of swing, and exuberance make this a memorable release that’s miles from ordinary.

A Song in her Heart
Greentrax 321

Mary Kathleen Burke was born in Ireland and lives in Scotland, and has played with country bands. This collection of folk favorites and originals has a nasality and sparseness that’s more Appalachia than Albion. There are fine renditions of songs from the public domain, Donovan, Eleanor McEvoy, and Iris DeMent, the latter to whom she invites comparisons.



Jewell Ridge Coal
Jewell Ridge Records 003

The Clinch River straddles the Virginia/West Virginia line. It’s also a marker of postindustrial America with dead company towns hidden away in Appalachian hollows where the coal was dug out and the hamlets left to die. Jeni Hankins knows the area well; her grandfathers worked Jewell Ridge. Name a social problem and Jewell Ridge had it. Hankins and Billy Kemp capture the spirit of the place, with all its tragedy, dirt, defiance, sweat, and pride. They also capture the rhythms of daily life. When you listen to “Tazewell Beauty Queen,” a song of the youthful hopes that manage to bloom in barren places, you don’t know whether to celebrate the couple’s dreams or wail for the certainty they’ll be crushed. The album also honors the United Mine Workers, the union that was often the only thing between the miners and chattel slavery under a different name. As befits such material the vocals and instrumentals sparse and plaintive, and the album’s moods seldom drift from the somber-melancholy range. Hankins’s dry vocals have aptly been described as a cross between Hazel Dickens and Iris DeMent, and if the album has a fault it’s that sometimes her vocals are too “pretty” for the content. Styles include Country blues (“Oxycodone”), songs built around Kemp’s Appalachian-style flat picking (“Sweetness Keen as Pain”), old-time Country religion (“Land of the Pharaohs”), and mountain music (“Chicken Ridge”). Jeni & Billy have captured a bygone era, but they subtly remind us that even in a time of job scarcity no one should nostalgically yearn for the Clinch to revive.--LV