Salif Keita, Dearling, Pierce Pettis

Salif Keita, Un Autre Blanc

There are few world music stars whose luster matches that of Mali's Selif Keita. If you've not heard him, you should and you'd better hurry; Un Autre Blanc is allegedly the final record the 69-yearold Keita will make. That would surely be a personal decision, as his voice is as strong as ever. As you can hear on "WereWere," Keita is a dramatic force whose vocals cut like a knife. Or check out "Lerou Lerou," which opens with a swaying tune behind steady beats before Keita is again the storm that ruptures the calm. On "Tonton," Keita is more subdued, though the song builds in a way that's influenced by house music and would certainly be at home in a dance club. The Afro Pop master is magical on "Gnamale," which opens with kora setting the melodic structure for spirited guest performance group singing from Lady Smith Black Mambazo. This one goes back and forth between soft (Ladysmith) and hard (Keita). What a record! If you hear another other worldly female vocals soaring Keita's female response singers, it belongs to still another Afro Pop idol: Angelique Kidjo. The record is dedicated to the albino rights movement. (I'll bet you didn't know that the United Nations recognizes June 13 at Albinism Awareness Day.) If anyone needs another reminder of the idiocy of racism, in West Africa, those born with light skin or are stricken with albinism face horrendous discrimination. You can think about this, but you really should appreciate Keita now. He is truly a global treasure. ★★★★

Dearling, Silver and Gold

Dearling is a Colorado-born and based duo of Dave Preston and Rachel James, plus the brotherly pair of Joel and Noah Matthews. I'm not usually wild about self-descriptions, but Dearling's fits: "Sounds, textures, and feelings that the West inspires." Add eclectic to the mix as Preston and James count among their influences this mixed bunch: Kelly Clarkson, Fleetwood Mac, Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton, Jake Shimabukuro, and Justin Timberlake. You can find some Fleetwood Mac covers on YouTube, but Dearling isn't a tribute band. The title song of their new EP is a Nashville-style country weepy about a war widow: There's no halo/No white glow/Just another human hand…. By contrast, there's some scorching electric guitar in "What I Don't Need," but the vocals have a decided pop flair. "Real Love" is a slow folk song with Preston singing lead and James harmony. "Champion" has ringing tones that build and segue to enhance the emotive power for a song about a man pledging to be your last stand/I'll be your champion. As of this writing, there are no YouTube clips of their new material, but you can sample some past music by clicking here.  ★★★

 Pierce Pettis, Father's Son

The human voice changes as it ages, which creates challenges for singer songwriters. Some, such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez, adapt and continue to sound glorious. Others–Pete Seeger springs to mind–continued to perform even though their vocal chords weren't up to the task. Pierce Pettis has been a roots folk/bluegrass troubadour for 40 years, but it saddens me to say that his voice is shot. Father's Son is his first new album in almost a decade and he is still capable of writing a fine song and churning out a cool turn of phrase. His new record centers on family and deep connections. It's also about trails he's traveled. On "TheAdventures of Me (and this Old Guitar") he sings, Oceans of gasoline/Million miles in my ear… and therein lie several tales. Pettis dusts off covers of emotional songs such as the love song "Very Same Moon" and Jesse Winchester's "A Showman's Life," one of the better reflections of a musician wondering if the rigor and loneliness are worthwhile. He also enlists such top-drawer backing talent as Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Ruth Moody (backing vocals), Reese Wynans (organ, piano), Gerry West (bass), and many others. At the end of the day, though, we hear a creaky, quavering voice that strains both high and low. It may be time for Pettis to concentrate on writing and curtail public performance. 


If Beale Stret Could Talk Says Plenty

If Beale Street Could Talk (2019)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Annapurna Pictures, 119 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)

There are two things to know about this film off the bat. First, it’s being billed as a timeless love story. That’s only sort of true. It’s faithfully based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, and Baldwin was not the sort to deliver fluff. Nor is Barry Jenkins, the director who gave us the magnificent and Academy Award-wining film Moonlight (2016). Second, the film is actually set in Harlem, not Memphis. Baldwin’s title is an oblique reference to a W. C. Handy blues composition from 1916. If you know anything about the blues, it’s that tragedy and circumstance threaten everything in their path.

We do get a love story, one between Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers  (Kiki Layne). They have known each other since they were infants and suddenly come to grips with that giddy moment in which familiarity blossoms into something much deeper. James and Layne are adorable as a couple. In fact, Jenkins’ treatment of those moments is one of the better treatments of those magic moments when love and passion shut out the rest of the world and give way to a universe of two. The first part of the film plays like romance pictures such as Say Anything, Splendor in the Grass, When Harry Met Sally, or The Way We Were.

Alas, a universe of two faced long odds for a black couple in the early 1970s. Fonny is a struggling sculptor and Tish a student. Their love is strong–the sort that leads to spontaneous yelps of joy–but where will such a couple live if they wish more than basement hovel? How will they negotiate a world in which a white man feels it’s his right to proposition a black woman whenever he feels a desire for­–as the expression of the time put it–a bit of the strange? What does one do about racist cops such as Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) who are just waiting for an excuse to administer a beating (or worse)? Indeed, how do they overcome internal obstacles such as Fonny’s evangelical mother (Aunjanue Ellis), or pay for a lawyer if you need an advocate for a crime you did not commit? The last of these is critical when Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.

If Beale Street Could Talk has already won Golden Globe honors for Best Motion Picture Drama and it is certain to garner Academy Award nominations. Is it worthy? Yes, but perhaps not in categories one might expect. As noted, James and Layne make a cute, cuddly couple, but their performances don’t stretch either actor. They mostly do as their roles demand and are intoxicated with each other. James also does a wonderful job of showing how a man can be pushed to his limits. His tongue bends to his cheek in moments where we see him struggle to contain his rage.

In an unusual twist, Jenkins gives the juicier parts to actors in supporting roles. You’ll probably want to strangle the sanctimonious Ellis when she’s at her righteous worst, just as you’ll thrill to the put-downs from Tish’s sassy sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). If I’m handing out the Oscar hardware, though, it goes to Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. Hers is a performance that walks a tightrope between fierce determination and world-weary resignation. Also affecting is Colman Domingo as Tish’s father, Joseph. He is man trying to do right by his daughters no matter the risk, and he knows to back off when his wife arches her eyebrow or delivers a sharp rebuke. His laugh is infectious, and he’s streetwise in ways Fonny is not. I would imagine both Rivers and Domingo will get supporting actor nods, and I’d give another to composer Nicholas Britell for a score that enhances drama when needed, but gets out of the way when the screen action requires no help.

James Baldwin died in 1987, but had long before grown suspicious of whether black folks could trust whites. Beale Street isn’t cynical about that possibility, but it is leery of it. Credit goes to Jenkins for letting such questions linger rather than launching into a sermon. There is Officer Bell looming over matters, but also moments of hope such as Fonny’s encounters with a friendly waiter, Petrocito (Diego Luna) that seems like a genuine friendship. We also meet Levy (Dave Franco), a Jewish landlord drawn to people in love no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion. Is cross-racial trust real or naïve?

Is is Beale Street a lock for a Best Picture Oscar? It certainly wouldn’t grieve me if it won, but it would not get my vote. It’s a very good film, but not a masterpiece like Moonlight. It’s very easy to draw parallels between this film, the morning headlines, and Black Lives Matter. If we literally take race out of the (motion) picture, however, Beale Street is a romantic drama cut from the same cloth as lots of tales in which some terrible injustice separates young lovers. You know­, like Romeo and Juliet. I don’t mean to sound the slightest bit cynical; I liked this film very much and couldn’t possibly admire James Baldwin or Barry Jenkins more than I already do. That said, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman is among the films that are more Oscar worthy for the big awards. But by all means see If Beale Street Could Talk. Its tragic core reminds us of how far we’ve come and how much road remains before our feet.

Rob Weir


Shoplifters: A Film that Will Steal Your Heart

Shoplifters (2018)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Magnolia Pictures, 121 minutes, (Rated R for brief nudity and sexual situations)
In Japanese with subtitles

Shoplifters is a classic "small" film, but this one captured the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In a quiet and unpretentious way, director Hirokazu Kore-eda raises socially contentious questions whose answers are ambiguous.

One of these is the split between absolute and situational ethics. Should we always adhere to a "thou shalt not steal" ethos, or are there situations in which it's justifiable? It's easy to assert the first, but if your family was desperate, would you steal to help? If you answer "yes" to that, you face the central problem of situational ethics. Where is the border between moral and immoral? Is it okay to steal from a corporate giant such as Walmart, but wrong to filch from a mom and pop store?

Let's up the ante. What would you do if you found a cut, bruised, and weeping five-year-old in a dumpster? No one has reported her missing, though there is a nearby apartment from which you've heard shouts, slaps, and screams. The little girl slides into the rhythms of your family. Would you be tempted to "adopt" her as your own? How about a boy you find abandoned in a car? Or a grandmother whose biological family wants her out of the way? All of this is fodder for the bigger question of what makes a family. As Nobuyu, the surrogate female head of household rhetorically asks at a key moment in the film, "Giving birth automatically makes you a mother?"

Throw in some hand-to-mouth poverty and you've got quite a rice pot full of sticky ethical conundrums. The film's very title tells you that the "family" relies upon unorthodox ways to make ends meet. Most visitors to Japan see a neat and prosperous nation, but this film's principals are squatting in a section of Tokyo analogous to U.S. swamp poverty. Their hovel­–just a few rooms in which everything from cooking to sleeping to sex occur–is chock a block with things useful and not: cooking pots, baskets, noodle bowls, scavenged junk, and pilfered items awaiting black market sales. Space is so cramped that when bedrolls pads are laid out, all six sleep in a big lump.

The occupants are:

·      Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), an inept construction worker and perhaps not overly bright paterfamilias
·      Osamu's wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who toils in a laundry
·      12-year-old Shota (Kairi Jō), who has learned his "father's" shoplifting skills and hand signals
·      5-year-old Yuri, posing as "Lin," who is learning the family trade from her "brother"
·      Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), the "big sister" role model, though she earns money in an R-rated peep show/sex club by displaying her beautiful face and ample cleavage
·      Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who extorts money from her biological family under surprising pretenses

Can such a unit bond? One of the film's subthemes concerns itself with whether Shota can bring himself to call Osamu "dad." Shota is an intelligent lad and he's pretty aware that shoplifting may be Osamu's greatest talent, just as he's cognizant that he and Nobuyo really care about him. But can a "father" sanction teaching a 5-year-old to steal? And, of course, there's the whole child snatching issue. Or, is it really "rescuing" unwanted and kids? Credit goes to Hirokazu for giving a new twist to the presumption that biology and parenthood are synonymous. He forces us to consider whether a child is an object that can be "owned."

Surrender to this film's Japanese aesthetics. In Western films, one usually gets to know characters early on, but their motives are suspect. A lot of Japanese cinema is the opposite. In Shoplifting we know the motive (survival) from the start, but it takes time to figure out how everyone is connected. This means it's "slow" film by Western standards–more atmosphere than action. In many cases, though, the film's mundaneness is a virtue. It is rare to see screen families portraying everyday life, especially if it centers on creative foraging such as that in Shoplifting. The film's pacing is difficult at first, but the slow-to-reveal back-stories somehow makes us care more deeply about each.

Even if you don't speak a word of Japanese you can tell you are witnessing fine performances. Kirin Kiki is superb as a chameleon who is the affectionate grandmother to the Shibata clan, but a calculating grifter when dealing with her son and his second wife. Hers is the sort of performance that would gain a best supporting actress nomination were she acting in English. It's also hard to take your eyes off Kairi Jō (Shota). He is a beautiful child with eyes that shine with fierceness and determination.

For me, though, Sakura Ando was the most memorable of all. In the film (though less so off-screen), she bore a physical resemblance to Sandra Oh. Ando's performance was subtle, but she conveyed a lot of information through a crinkly smile or a taut sad face. Hers is further proof that you need not wail like an arena rock star to get a point across.

I don't know if Shoplifters will be nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. It's certainly worthy of consideration. I highly recommend you seek out this film. I suspect it will be a while before it shows up online and it's a movie you'd not wish to miss.

Rob Weir
--> -->