What sparks creativity? Best May movies tackle the Bard and folk music.

Why We Wrote This

Film critic Peter Rainer’s top choices in May include Kenneth Branagh’s return to Shakespeare in “All Is True,” and documentaries featuring folk rock’s roots (“Echo in the Canyon”) and an outdoor installation by artist Christo (“Walking on Water”).  

Courtesy of Robert Youngson/Sony Pictures Classics
From left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst, Kathryn Wilder, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Clara Duczmal, and Lydia Wilson star in ‘All Is True,’ which takes place near the end of Shakespeare’s life.

Critic Peter Rainer’s top picks for May include films that take viewers inside the creative process of folk musicians, an environmental artist, and Shakespeare. 

‘All Is True’ ponders why Shakespeare put down his quill

Has there ever been so much speculation about a life so little known as William Shakespeare’s? The latest entry in the post-“Shakespeare in Love” sweepstakes is the engrossing, uneven “All Is True.” Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the Bard, it picks up at the end of Shakespeare’s life, when, in 1613, he left London following a catastrophic fire at the Globe Theatre and returned to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon, never to write again.

Why did he stop? This is the film’s central conceit, and Ben Elton, who wrote the screenplay, is at no loss for answers. It may seem presumptuous to, in effect, psychoanalyze a writer who, perhaps more than any other, plumbed the depths of the human psyche. Still, Branagh and Elton understand that the man who wrote the plays and the man who lived his life are not indistinguishable. Put bluntly, even those who fully fathom the human heart may have trouble fathoming their own. 

Shakespeare reveals his true colors in the film’s best scene, a friendly hearthside meeting between Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), his longtime benefactor and, it’s implied, one-time lover. Their talk has been polite and prosaic, and then Shakespeare gently recites, in full, his 29th sonnet, which begins, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” We realize, if we did not already, that there is no disconnect between this recitation and the mundane-seeming man speaking the words. The poetry resides in him in full. 

The moment is capped when the earl, in a marvelous rendition by McKellen, recites back to Shakespeare the same sonnet. Aside from being a master acting class in dueling poetic interpretations, this sequence is one of the most quietly impassioned dialogues I’ve ever seen in a movie. Given the impossibility of crafting William Shakespeare into a believable human being, the film is an honorable try. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, and language.)

Folk rock greats recall LA enclave in ‘Echo in the Canyon’

Early in the fascinating documentary “Echo in the Canyon,” rock legend Eric Clapton describes why, at the start of his career, he gravitated to the hilly Los Angeles enclave of Laurel Canyon. “I was attracted to eccentrics,” he says, “and they were all there.” 

The eccentrics to which he is referring made up some of the greatest talents of the folk rock era covered in the film’s 1964-68 time frame. These include such luminaries as David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn, and Graham Nash, all of whom are interviewed in the movie.

If you care anything about the music of groups like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the ramshackle, engagingly anecdotal “Echo in the Canyon” is required viewing. What makes this more than just a movie for fans of that music – and what music! – is that it delves into what made that era such a creative cauldron, comparable in some ways, as the film points out, to Paris in the 1920s and ’30s.

The ways in which these artistic inspirations abounded and cross-fertilized is the central theme of “Echo in the Canyon.” Perhaps by necessity, this approach downplays some of the darker aspects of that era. Drug anecdotes are mostly presented lightheartedly, and Wilson’s harrowing psychological battles go unremarked. Including such material would have made for a richer panorama, but the focus here is on the conviviality of those Laurel Canyon years and the creative ferment and idealism that came out of it. As Nash says, looking back, “I still believe music can change the world.” Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13.)

Chatty ‘Non-Fiction’ explores whether anything is truly made-up

Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” starring Juliette Binoche, is about writers and publishers and bourgeois intellectuals and affairs, extramarital and otherwise. But most of all it’s about talking. It’s practically a nonstop jabberathon. What rescues the film from tedium is that much of the talk is enticing.

Almost from the beginning we are plunged into the world of words. Everybody seems to have an opinion about the state of literature in the digital era. Publisher Alain is wary about where his business is heading. Are e-books really the wave of the future? In one conversation, a writer guest opines, not altogether unhappily, that more people read his blog than his books. Tweets are described as modern-day haiku. Alain’s TV actress wife Selena (Binoche, in the film’s best performance)is defiantly old school and declares she will never read a book on a tablet.

This sort of discussion, extending throughout the movie, may seem too “inside” for even the film’s intended art house audience. But what keeps the talk from being merely a pileup of shopworn pensées is that Assayas, who also wrote the screenplay, is less interested in what these people are saying than in why they are saying it. Beneath all their righteous intellectualizing sits a big blob of personal insecurities.

Assayas is operating on a breezier plane than usual, as evidenced by a scene in which writer Léonard inquires about a good candidate to record his audiobook and Selena answers “Juliette Binoche.” It’s a smart-dumb joke that carries the nonfiction of “Non-Fiction” too far. Even in a movie about the reality of unreality, some illusions should be maintained. Grade: B+ (In French with English subtitles. Rated R for some language and some sexuality/nudity.)

Tender ‘Photograph’ is the antidote to Bollywood clichés

“Years from now when you look at this photo, you’ll feel the sun on your face.” These are the opening words spoken in “Photograph” by Rafi (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to tourists in Mumbai as they congregate around the Gateway of India monument. He makes his meager living snapping instant photos of them, and his hard-sell patter has a practiced ease. 

One of the tourists is Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy young woman studying to be an accountant. Rafi takes her picture but she runs off before the transaction is completed. There is an overriding reason to track her down: Rafi’s grandmother (played with aplomb by Farrukh Jaffar in the film’s liveliest performance) has made it known that she will stop taking her medicine until her grandson finds a wife. 

India is a country of strict class distinctions, and Rafi, who is poor and uneducated, has no illusions that the bourgeois Miloni will fall for him. But, for his grandmother’s sake, he devises a scheme that, surprisingly, once he finds her, she agrees to. She will pose as his fiancée, at least until he finds a real one, in order to allay his grandmother’s fears. Matters complicate when the grandmother arrives in Mumbai from her village for an up-close look-see. 

Director Ritesh Batra is aware of the story’s inherent sentimentality, even to the point of drawing implicit parallels between Rafi and Miloni’s predicament and the standard tropes in Bollywood movies, with their spangly love stories and family intrigues. But what Batra is reaching for here is the fairy tale beguilements of Bollywood romance – without all the hoopla. He wants to tenderize the Bollywood clichés and bring the essence of their ardor into the real, teeming world of Mumbai. To a fairly large degree, he succeeds. Perhaps Batra was wary of too spirited an approach lest he highlight the story’s clichés. He needn’t have worried. He’s a rarity in the movie business: a romantic without a trace of schlock. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some thematic material. In Hindi and English with English subtitles.)

‘Walking on Water’ goes behind the scenes with artist Christo

Five years after his wife and creative collaborator Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, the controversial environmental artist Christo began work on a project they had conceived decades earlier, an art installation called “The Floating Piers” that would give people the sensation of walking on water.

Situated in three different locations on Lake Iseo in northern Italy, the piers, all converging on a small island offshore, would consist of interlocking polyethylene cubes wrapped in yellow cloth. The streets leading up to the piers would also be cloth-covered, and the entire expanse of floating walkways would span 1.9 miles.

Whether you deem this project an extravagant boondoggle or a masterpiece, you have to admire Christo’s tenacity in finally making it happen, as chronicled in the documentary “Walking on Water,” directed by Bulgarian writer-director Andrey Paounov. The film is free-form, with no voice-over narration or staged interviews. Its fly-on-the-wall aspect should not, however, be taken as a guarantor of “truth.” Everybody, from Christo and his burly, bearded operations manager and nephew Vladimir Yavachev on down to the local authorities, is well aware they are being filmed. In fact, some of Christo’s many tantrums seem directed as much to the camera as to his targets.

I would imagine that these environmental artworks are best – perhaps only – experienced in the field. But it’s still possible to gasp at what is shown us in “Walking on Water,” if only from a logistical standpoint. The massive planning required for such a project is revealed in mind-numbing detail. When Christo yells at his crew for unwrapping the fabric too soon – “Do not open fabric!” he howls – you can almost sympathize with him. This is how “geniuses” behave. Or at least this is what the film would have us believe. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

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