Faces Places a Stunning Celebration of Humanity


Directed by Agnés Varda and JR
Cohen Media Group, 89 minutes, PG (in French with subtitles)

Faces Places will restore your faith in humanity and you won't need a word of French to fall in love with its humanity. On the surface it's little more than the documentary of a road trip between two improbable buddies and a choreographed one at that. But, oh, what a road trip and, oh, what buddies.

Our protagonists are 89-year-old Agnès Varda and 34-year-old JR, she a famed film director and he a photographer known for giant paste-ups that blur the lines between street art, graffiti, and vandalism. If Varda's name doesn't rings bells, it's because you've seen too many "movies" and not enough "cinema." Varda is, simply, one of the most important filmmakers of all time, a diminutive giant of the French New Wave (1950s/60s) that made film into an art form. One utters her name in the same breath as icons such as Chabrol, Goddard, Rohmer, and Truffaut. She is to France what Bergman is to Sweden, Kurosawa to Japan, Fellini to Italy, or Orson Welles to the USA.

But now she's old, visually impaired, and museful of her mortality. She's also whip smart, opinionated, independent, and fearless. One sees that in her face, through her milky eyes, senses it in her bold concepts, and her quirkiness is perched upon her head: a whimsical crown of gray fringed by a copper dye job.  By conventional logic she should be puttering about by herself, not cavorting about the French countryside with a fedora- hatted hipster who never removes his dark sunglasses. Luckily, JR is also unconventional in all the right ways. We too often think of street artists as furtive renegades who live in shadows darker than JR's sunglasses (like Banksy), or as urban-toughened daredevils harboring antisocial values. JR, though, has a soft side: he loves the elderly, works with a stable team, welcomes opposing points of view, and has warm regard for his fellow creatures.

Faces Places is exactly as advertised—an investigation of stories etched on faces in the villages where prosaic dramas unfold. Varda and JR hit the road in his remarkable van, the back of which is an instant photo booth that, instead of spitting out strips of tiny head shots, disgorges large-size grey-tone images on thin paper from a slot on the right side of the vehicle. JR and his team then stitch together a series of these to make enormous assemblages that they paste circus-poster style onto the sides of buildings, factories, ruins, train cars—even shipping crates. He and Varda pursue a simple-but-noble goal: find ordinary people and honor them through public display. They don't waste time with the upwardly mobile, pretentious, or haute bourgeoisie; their subjects are farmers, postal carriers, factory workers, waitresses, village folk, and those living on the margins.

I was hooked from the opening credits, which rolled against a delightful backdrop of animated sketches, and began to feast from the first project: a drive into a small town where JR distributed baguettes to the locals, filmed individuals chomping into the bread, and then strung the images together for what might be the world's longest baguette! I was enthralled by a three-story poster of a postman—and what's more French than that?—complete with shutters and doors that open through the picture.

This is the sort of film, though, in which every viewer will be moved by different images. Two that resonated with me emotionally were of women. In the first of these, Varda and JR landed in a played out coal mining town where they found a block of homes scheduled for demolition. In the midst of these, they located an older woman who was the last resident of the street. They filmed her, enlarged her face, pasted it to the side of her home, and slathered the rest of the block with oversized archival images of village work scenes and long ago mine families. When she viewed it, she was so overcome that her speechless tears shouted out, "At last! Someone who understands."

I was also moved by the only non-village trip: to the shipping port of Le Havre, where the two talked to unionized dockworkers, most of them men whose fathers and grandfathers worked on the docks. Varda, though a supporter of the unions, sought out three women to photograph—with enthusiastic support from the men, by the way. She and JR created three monumental full-bodied portraits that were pasted onto veritable skyscrapers of stacked cargo containers. Varda then had each woman lifted into an open container approximately where the heart would be located in the surrounding illustration and each spoke of what she felt. Yeah—Varda has that kind of vision.

Everything in this film delights and astonishes. Sure, some of it is staged, but if ever a film has its heart in the right place, it's this one. Would that more of today's directors had an ounce of Varda's vision. Would that more of today's aging folks (ahem!) had more of JR's empathy.

Rob Weir


Shape of Water Bold, Inventive, Beautiful

Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Fox Searchlight, 123 minutes, R (nudity, a few swears)

On paper, there's very little about The Shape of Water that works. Its star is an upright amphibian (Doug Jones) and the film's Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, admits that he's a near copy of the scaly protagonist of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Our female lead, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is—for most Americans—a little known British actress who plays a mute. Improbably for the film's time period, her best friends are Giles, a closeted gay graphic designer (Richard Jenkins) and an African American woman, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who works the nighttime cleaning shift with Elisa at the Occam* Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore. (Who, other than Barry Levinson and John Waters even makes movies that take place in Baltimore?) The villains are cardboard cutouts, there are no big "stars," and the script is a crazy quilt patching of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, ET, and Japanese sci-fi.

Yet, improbably, it does work—brilliantly. The Shape of Water might not be the best picture of 2017, but it's certainly the most inventive and one of the most daring. Think a more watery magical realism vibe along the lines of Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman (2014). If you know anything about del Toro, you know that he really likes monsters. He's the director who gave us other creature features such as Cronos (1993), Hellboy (2004), Blade II (2012), and Pacific Rim (2013). And if you've seen his previous masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth (2006), you know that his ogres serve a greater purpose. Such is the case in The Shape of Water.

The film is a love story straight out of Beauty and the Beast, to which del Toro gives direct homage. Yet it's also a film about disability, loneliness, marginalization, trust, social class, society on the cusp of change, and the Cold War. Did I say the Cold War? Yes. It's the early 1960s and the Russians have the early lead in the Space Race, so expect some spy intrigue. Much of that era seems misguided in retrospect, hence del Toro presents Cold War intrigue in a way that's part Frederick Forsyth** and part Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy. The focal point is, of course, "Amphibian Man" (as the film identifies him), a muscular bipedal specimen captured by Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and spirited back to the Occam Center for study in the hope he might be the US answer to Russia's Laika the dog—a sacrificial animal to be launched into space in advance of humans. The Ruskies also want him, or at least they don't wish the Americans to possess him. Del Toro dabbles in tropes from 1950s sci-fi: the military mind vs. the scientific mind, destruction vs. investigation, security vs. morality, and the age-old question of sentience. Let's even toss in Biblical rain as a key plot device—something we've seen in dozens of movies.

Yet it is in these things that del Toro works his greatest magic; he makes improbable things profound. There is, first, terrific acting from Hawkins, Jones, Spencer, and the much underappreciated Jenkins. Splashes of humor keep us off-kilter. Above all, though, is the overall feel of the film and sets that bring to mind the dark hues of films such as Metropolis (1927) and Sin City (2005); that is, Shape of Water is a noir(ish) dystopian live action graphic novel pastiche. There are wonderful visual puns for the keen-eyed, many of which involve textures and hues of green. Elisa and Giles live above a seedy one-screen movie palace, which foreshadows themes of isolation, loneliness, difference, and transformations not yet realized. We know that such theaters—and note how classic movie clips on movie and old-style TV screens parallel the story arc—are on their way out, but what of those caught between the decaying and the new? 

Giles embodies this. Not only does he remain closeted, he also cranks out advertising mockups appropriate for the 1950s Golden Age, images more out of fashion each day. Col. Strickland's home, family, Cadillac, male privilege, disdain for underlings, and yes-sir patriotism are also on the cusp of major challenge. Ditto things such as sexual identity, Jim Crow, and the marginalization of those with physical disabilities. Elisa has mysterious marks on her neck. She can hear, but she cannot speak, all of which add up to freak in those days. It is no accident that del Toro's characters are an intelligent monster, a mute, a homosexual, and a black woman with a blind husband. Nor is it accidental that a loss of fingers infers symbolic emasculation.  

On the surface, The Shape of Water is a cartoon-like caper and monster film. Yet from it comes something stunningly beautiful and transformative, a very different kind of love that dare not speak its name. You might shed tears at the end, or join those who spontaneously applauded (as happened the evening I saw it). The Shape of Water is why we go to the movies: to be taken to heights, depths, and imaginative places we'd not reach on our own. What does it mean to be different? If we break ugly surfaces, gems emerge.

Rob Weir

*I assume that the name Occam is deliberate. William of Occam was a 13th century philosopher best known for "Occam's razor," a principle that says that when confronted with competing theories that point to similar conclusions, the one with the fewest assumptions is likely to be the most sound. In popular thought it's often expressed as the simplest explanation is the best, though that's not quite what Occam inferred. 

**Forsyth penned The Day of the Jackal,  thought by many the classic Cold War spy novel.


Best and Worst of 2017


Few things delight me as much as music. Here are my Top Ten Albums. Live links will take you to the original review.

Top honors go to a band that simply knocked me off my feet.: I Draw Slow, an Irish ensemble that ended up being the best bluegrass band of the year. More proof that music is global. Beauty, grace, and surprises. Wonderful stuff.

 Numbers 2 through ten are listed two through ten are listed alphabetically by surname:

Debra Devi--a kick ass rock and rolling yoga teacher from New Jersey.
Hope Dunbar--A Lori McKenna goes to Nebraska-style slice of honesty.
Alaisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas--Scottish fiddle and cello go global.
Nikki Lane--full-throat, sassy antidote to little girl voices. 
Kate MacLeod--Celtic fiddle as inspired by the American West.
Peter, Paul and Mary--Their retrospective reminds us of more hopeful times.
Quiles and Cloud-- Where folk, bluegrass, jazz, and Americana picnic together.
Sleeping at Last--Can music heal? You're damn right it can.
The Waifs--An Aussie folk ensemble that blurs genres.

I shall refrain from naming the worst album of the year. Musical tastes simply differ too much, so my poison might be your ambrosia.


These Prince Edward Islanders are smart. witty, and talented.

A medical scare kept me in more than I wished this year, but let me give shout outs for several great performances:

My favorite was an April performance of Ten Strings and a Goatskin (pictured above) at the Iron Horse Music Club. It was a lively, accomplished, and exuberant display of Celtic music as filtered through the lens of joyful Prince Edward Island lads. My foot hasn't stopped tapping.

Other great performances included: Canadian chanteuse Rose Cousins (Iron Horse, February), the dazzling fretwork of Robbie Fulks (Parlor Room, September), Quebecois stalwarts Le Vent du Nord (Ottawa, June), the surprising energy of Irish squeeze box legend Mairtin O' Connor (February, Iron Hourse), the synergy of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (Academy of Music, November), the bluesy brilliance of Chris Smither (Academy of Music, March), and the catch-a-rising-star flat-picking artistry of young Molly Tuttle (West Whately Chapel).

As for duds, a big set of horns for Dan Bern, who stunk up the Parlor Room in October with a sloppy, unprepared performance that he made worse by encouraging the drunks who were annoying everyone else.


It was an okay, but not great year for fiction and I didn't really have a favorite, though Ruth Ware gets consideration for In a Dark, Dark Wood, a dark, dark thriller. I mention this because her second book was putrid. I'd also give consideration to Paul Beatty and Christina Kline Baker. [See below.]

My vote for the best non-fiction book goes to Jeremy McCarter for Young Radicals, his look at what World War One and government repression did to youthful idealists. My close runner-up goes to my colleague Chris Appy for another unvarnished look at what the Vietnam War did to America in American Reckoning.

I enjoyed the short stories of Richard Russo in Trajectory; Jamie Ford's Love and Other Consolation Prizes; really admired Christina Baker Kline's take on Christina Olson in A Piece of the World and Alice Hoffman's prequel The Rules of Magic. Ian McGuire chilled and thrilled me with The North Water. Paulette Giles made me like Westerns anew in her quirky News of the World. Chris Bohjalian kept me up with The Sleepwalker.

Paul Beatty gave us a look-in-the-mirror look at racism in The Sellout, surely among the year's best. Kevin Canty wrote one of the better looks at blue-collar life in The Underworld. Who could not admire the human story and graceful prose of Amor Towles in A Gentleman in Moscow? Ian Rankin wrote a first-rate twisty mystery in Even Dogs in the Wild. I also really liked Beth Underdown's look at the English witchcraft hysteria in Witchfinder's Sister.

Boo hiss to Ruth Ware for the derivative, if-not-plagiarized The Woman in Cabin Ten. I wasn't very fond of Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben either, but at least he's an activist, not a novelist. Tom Perotta recycled too much in Mrs. Fletcher. Carl Hiaasen's Razor Girl was simply pop flash trash and I'm at a loss to understand why reviewers raved over the Elizabeth Strout's Anything is Possible or Ian McEwan's Nutshell.

If I had to pick one truly lousy book it would be Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, simply because she's too good of a writer for such a lame effort. I don't care how well praised this book was; it would have been savaged from anyone with a lesser reputation. 


My very favorite show of the year, I'm proud to say, took place the University of Massachusetts Amherst: a razor-sharp look at the political heft of graphic art and it didn't make any less proud that a former student co-curated the show. This show definitely needs to be picked up by other museums. The Kara Walker show there was also first rate.

As for the most fun, hands down it was the Hanna-Barbera cartoon art at Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum. I regressed by decades viewing it and danced with my Inner Child.

I adored Patty Yoder's quirky alphabet sheep in Hooked on Patty Yoder at Vermont's Shelburne Museum. Kudos to the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire for its fabulous exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec posters. The National Gallery of Canada has unveiled its new wing and one simply must see the Inuit art if anywhere in the region. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams also showed off its new wing and new exhibits. The venerable Clark Museum scored with a new look at Picasso.

I did not expect to be dazzled by the an exhibit of ocean liner art at the Peabody Essex Museum, yet I was. It also scored big with an exhibit of wearable art, an idea that surfaced first in New Zealand. The MFA in Boston had great shows of Botticelli and Matisse, which redeemed an otherwise lackluster year.

The not-so-coveted Art on Velvet Stinkeroo Art trophy goes to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for its trite display of Takashi Murakami, who's not an artist so much as a pop conman. Places like the MFA shouldn't try to be hip. Every time they do, their squareness shows.

MOVIES: Wait for Oscar time!

Rob Weir