Posts Tagged ‘film’

Apollo’s Girl

May 14, 2017


Exiles: Away From Home…

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
June 16 in LA at Laemmle Royal)

For a rich and deeply satisfying look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. Schrader has chosen a cool, objective approach to her subject, which frames the white heat of politics and culture threatening to burst into flame in every sequence, and hooks you from Scene One.

The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives, both of whom accompanied him abroad en famille), and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader, famous for her role in Aimėe & Jaguar, applies all her acting smarts to her cast’s talents and draws a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich.

Because the technical, aesthetic and dramatic elements are always in perfect balance, and the tensions between Zweig’s inner life and his public persona heighten the intensity of the portrait, it’s as close to total immersion as you can get without actually having been there. Surely you will be inspired to move on to Zweig’s novels and essays, which made him the most successful writer of his time and have continued to remain the basis of dozens of films right up to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014. (P.S.: Pay attention to the way the end of Zweig is shot. Fascinating choices!) Deservedly Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

(Opens May 12 in NYC at Cinema Village;
June 2 at O Cinema Miami Beach)

Full of turbulence and moving at warp speed, Elián will keep you breathless and on the edge of your seat right up to the end of the narrative: Elián Gonzalez was only a little boy when he was found alone, clinging to an inner tube, in the ocean between Havana and Miami. The boat on which he had traveled with his mother, her boyfriend and dozens of Cuban refugees had sunk, and his mother had drowned. Overnight, the beautiful child became a sensation—television crews and reporters swarmed the house where he lived with the Miami aunts, great-uncles and cousins who had claimed him. The media circus exploded into a cause célèbre for Miami’s Cuban exiles, always at the boiling point, and for the many public officials who joined the efforts (pro and con) to grant American citizenship to Elián and to prevent his return to Cuba, where his father (who had learned he was gone only after the boy and his mother had fled under cover of darkness) had immediately sought to reclaim his son.

Photo by Shaun Best REUTERS

Eventually, members of Congress and Janet Reno (then Attorney General) determined Elián should live in Cuba with his father. The fire and brimstone that accompanied every twist in the story were shocking in their ferocity. There were daily confrontations on the streets of Miami and Havana; instead of cooling with the passing of time, the violence escalated, with demonstrators, police, Federal agencies, religious institutions and—always—hordes of media pouring accelerant on the flames. The ugliness lasted six months, until Elian’s father flew to Andrews Air Force Base to join his son after Federal agents stormed the home in Miami where Elian, hiding in a closet, was literally snatched from the arms of the fisherman who had originally found him. The entire affair could not be forgotten; its after-effects impacted the presidential election of 2000, and US foreign policy for over a decade.

Benefitting from a wealth of footage (which spares us none of the competing opinions and shameful frenzy of the many participants), Elián is still remarkably even-handed. Not only in exposing the disturbing zealotry of the exiles in Miami (which caused the INS the Border Patrol to stage the armed rescue raid that terrified the little boy), but in Cuba as well. Through no fault of his own, Elián had became a pawn in the United States as a symbol of “democracy”, and then again in Cuba where, after his return, he was “adopted” by Castro as a symbol of Cuban ideals.

Despite the heat of its subject, this film is told and made by experts who really know their stuff: Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden have, between them, filmed and written prize-winning material that is both intensely emotional and impeccably researched. As I discovered while digging through the internet, Golden published a piece in 1994 (it haunts me still) read article here about how the US destroyed the then-state-of-the-art Cuban health care system, several others about Elián Gonzalez, and a series on the abuses of Guantanamo.

There is no question that Elián will roil your heart and your mind as you are horrified by the brutality of the forces pulling at the traumatized six-year-old. The film also spends quality time with the grownup Elian, who seems to have weathered the storms of politics, just as he once weathered the shipwreck that left him without a mother and at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Whatever your feelings about the issues, you will be shaken by this chapter of very recent history whose ending still remains to be written. Don’t miss it.


Apollo’s Girl

November 20, 2014


apollo and lyre



Bigger Than Ever: Doc NYC at Five



If you have a festival and you want it to grow, you doc nyc 2014need a few basics: a list of sponsors with muscle, a dedicated team with vision, a multiplex, an interesting slate, seductive events, and location. Doc NYC has all of these; offering 92 features and 37 shorts, up from a total of 132 last year, plus a Doc-A-Thona didactic soup-to-nuts, beginning with Mapping Out Your Film: Story and Style, and ending a week later with the bottom line: Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker. This last may prove something of an oxymoron, but it’s an inspirational idea for attendees heading out into the dark and stormy night that is documentary film.

The Festival’s upbeat gala finale—The Yes Men are Revoltingtakes place tonight at the SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) at 7:00 pm. The miracle of Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno is their ability to make you laugh at the brilliant stunts they dream up to protest issues like climate change. That is until you absorb the scale and implacability of their targets, ever-growing Goliaths to their yes menDavids. You have to see the opening to believe it, but its activist blobs wading knee-deep in the East River is a unique call to arms, impossible to top.

Along the way, we are treated to past capers, brainstorming sessions, consequences, and slow (and delicious) reveals of corporate and institutional stalwarts realizing they’ve been had. There seems to be no limit to the energy or inventiveness of Buchlbaum and Bonanno, although doubts and sorrows occasionally leaven their capers. My advice: follow their every move and find a way to support them. Then just dig deep, choose a project, and give til it hurts. (Director Laura Nix and the Yes Men in person to attend.)

What makes the festival notable is its focus on the genre (so often neglected or underserved in favor of narrative film) and its inclusiveness. The sheer number of its offerings guarantees that there will be works of interest to everyone.  There were many strands, much variety, and — a real Godsend — revivals of some recent citizenfour_posterhits from the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Citizen Four, arguably the most important documentary to surface this year), and Finding Vivian Maier (whose quirky mystery seems destined to be obscured by a subsequent legal battle with no end in sight, like a latter-day Bleak House). Both were part of the Short List section; likely Oscar nominees. Then there was Docs Redux, bringing ’em back alive from decades past: Steve James’ (director of this year’s searing Life Itself) 1993 multiple award-winner Hoop Dreams; David—from DA Pennebaker and William Ray (the very pinnacle of 1960s verite cool)—as well as Pennebaker and Hegedus’ much later Kings of Pastry (did you ever think you’d see strong men cry over the collapse of a sublime chocolate confection)? The capacity to bring back films, old and new, that demand repeat viewings and new viewers, is the real luxury of multiple screens, good selection committees, and long memories.

There were parallels among the features (coincidental or otherwise); overviews of an era from Ric Burns, and from Gracie Otto. The first, Enquiring Minds— a hard look at Generoso Pope, Jr., who purchased the National Enquirer in 1952 (allegedly with mob financing) and turned it from a sleepy  local gossip sheet into an increasingly lurid supermarket sensation beset by celebrity lawsuits; the second, The Last Impressario, featuring the elegant Michael White, besotted by dreams of producing only the best of the bests on Broadway, in the West End, and in Hollywood, drifting after a lifetime in the company of the stars he presented. 

Two radically different (but entertaining) films were screened that used the evolution of a group to represent changing times and more: George Hencken’s spandau balletSoul Boys of the Western World (the story of the rock group Spandau Ballet), and Tim K. Smith’s Sex and Broadcasting (a chronicle of WFMU, “the best—and perhaps weirdest—radio station in the tristate area, if not the country.”) Seeing both, you realized that every group, like every person, has a life cycle; from the enthusiasm and idealism of youth, to the growing exhaustion and disillusionment of middle age, and finally the resolution of life’s lessons in a variety of ways. For WFMU, the future is a big question mark, generated by a chronic and oppressive lack of funds. For Spandau Ballet, we are treated to a spectacular reunion concert (after decades of toxic estrangement) that ends with a socko performance at the Isle of Wight; the band’s members literally throw off the years and become luminous, visibly younger versions of themselves; something I haven’t seen since Christopher Gable (as Richard Strauss) ripped off the mask of old age while conducting Death and Transfigurationthe finale of Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils. It took your breath away both times.

Attention must be paid to Vessel (by Diana Whitten) a call to arms for women’s reproductive rights; its heroine (Dr. Rebecca gomperts
) founded Women on Waves to provide contraceptive and abortion services to women in need. The clinic operates around the world on a ship moored in international waters, to avoid harsh penalties in countries where there is no legal alternative to pregnancy, however dire its consequences. Gomperts is tireless, and unafraid, but the threats are many and lurid, and impossible to ignore.

scottAs in every festival, there was one real surprise—a quiet film that spoke to me with a cumulative strength that demanded recognition: Florence, Arizona, by Andrea B. Scott, its director, writer, and cinematographer. Florence is a one-industry town whose prison employs most residents, and whose inmates outnumber them two-to-one. Its arid streets and quirky small-town characters grow on you; a Native American barber; a bad-boy adolescent trying hard to improve; a former teacher and a deputy sheriff who oppose each other in an election for town mayor; no two stubborn peas in this sun-drenched pod are remotely alike.florence_sunset
Scott’s cinematography is glorious, her understanding of what makes Florence tick and her empathy for her subjects produces pure gold. She asks the right questions, then gets out of the way, letting people speak for themselves. It’s a gift that many filmmakers can learn from, and a film that perceptive viewers can take to heart.

DOC NYC will be back next year; with even more premieres, more sold-out screenings, and more films, great and modest, as expected and as surprising. Keep track of the news and stay on top of it. home base

Cogito: John Branch

October 22, 2013

Film, Books, Science

JB photo-painting by RC 2

Defying Gravity

In Children of Men (2006), adapted from a children of mennovel by P.D. James, changed extensively by five screenwriters, and  directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the sociopolitical element of James’s novel has been subordinatedto the central character’s progress from detachment to purpose. The entire film carries a blunted impact, because much of the story’s context is blurred or has been dissolved away. At times it’s hard cuaron2to understand or even to believe what’s going on. At least Clive Owen’s character has a life history and relationships, and the challenge he reluctantly adopts catalyzes the stages of his development.

Children of Men represents a species of anti-realistic filmmaking in which people are abstracted from much of their world, leaving a presumed essence: someone facing the situation of the moment, which can be rendered as virtuosically as desired. In one unbroken sequence, a car in which the central characters are riding is attacked on a country road for no apparent reason except that, gosh, the world has become a bad place, and besides, something needs to happen for the sake of the plot. The scene is nearly pointless but also a true technical marvel.

Cuarón has taken that abstracting process much further in Gravity (in general release). Here he works again with cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, from a script he wrote with Jonás Cuarón, his son.

The world has now literally been removed to the background, along with all but two specimens of humankind. The film transpires in orbit, with the great globe itself (to borrow from Prospero) not dissolved but put firmly in its place, as Cuarón seems to think, somewhere beneath us. The situation is simple but desperate: two astronauts, deprived of their shuttle-shelter, must find a new vehicle that can take them home. As in the road sequence of Children of Men, bad things happen; reasons are given, which appear to satisfy many viewers, but they’re almost all scientifically dubious. The real reason for what happens is, again, that Cuarón and Lubezki want a chance to show some tricks. They can make you believe that they do impossible things before breakfast. But their movie is little more than a kinetic thrill ride, the newest thing in an amusement park.

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock doesn’t play a traditional action hero—bullok clooneyshe doesn’t wield a kick, a punch, a head-butt, a knife, a sword, a crossbow, or any form of firearm, for which I’m grateful—but she gets knocked around a lot all the same. In fact, she and George Clooney are bounced about like ballsin a pinball game. For much of the movie, these two capable and respected actors are reduced to the status of mere moving masses.

The movie is only 91 minutes long but is so short on ideas that it keeps repeating itself. A cloud of orbiting malevolent debris keeps trying to kill our heroes. They keep jetting off to a new refuge and finding, so to speak, no room at the inn. Sandra Bullock keeps opening an airlock from the outside and being caught off guard by what happens. The film even shows us its title three separate times. Mostly, it keeps indulging in a mechanistic orgy of things, including people, getting flung around.

Imagine a scene set on an ice rink, with Sandra Bullock standing on the ice and holding the rail at the side of the rink. If George Clooney went whizzing by her, and she managed to grab his tie, he’d come to a stop, right?You know that if you know anything about ice rinks, and you know that if she then released his tie he’d stay put. Now imagine a scene set in Earth orbit, in which Bullock is essentially attached to a space station, so she’s stationary. When Clooney passes by, she grabs a tether that’s attached to him. This is exactly how a scene in Gravity begins.

gravity5What happens next? Clooney comes to a halt, but the movie shows that some mysterious force keeps trying to pull him away. The zero-G environment is irrelevant (though the eminent Neil deGrasse Tyson implied otherwise); this wouldn’t happen on an ice rink any more than it would happen in space. The mysterious force pulling on Clooney is only the screenwriters, who want to force a climactic decision on him. Many more absurdities having to do with physics and astronauts working in space occur in Gravity. And that’s only one category of its problems.

In a way, it’s naïve to complain about Gravity’s scientific-technical cheats. But some remarkable works with which it might be comparedfor instance the novel Moby-Dick (there’s a fine LA Review of Books essay here, though I disagree with it) and the movie 2001: A Space Odysseyhave told their astounding 2001--A-Space-Odyssey-the-60s-701989_1024_768tales without abandoning realism. Yes, 2001 turns mystical at the end, but as long as it’s operating in the known universe, it follows the rules of physics. Fact need not be opposed to enchantment.

Gravity is like a bad horror film crossed with a bad disaster film. It keeps throwing shocks and threats at its characters simply to keep things happening. It wouldn’t exist without science and technology. Its making required them; the situation it shows—people and machines in Earth orbit—depends on them. Yet it frequently violates science. This encapsulates an ongoing mystery of American life: our culture depends on the fruits of science and technology but disdains both and would rather believe in angels. Curiously, Gravity includes an angel, in a manner of speaking.

As far as I know, only a few people share my overall distaste for this film: the friend with whom I saw it—we could be dismissed as crackpots—and New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who cannot.

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Cogito: John Branch

February 13, 2011





Black Swan: A Dissent

by John Everett Branch Jr.

What did I think about Black Swan? My main sensation, during and after this much-talked-about film, was varying degrees of distaste. If the film’s staging of the end of Swan Lakereminds one of the end of Puccini’s Tosca (in both, the heroine plunges from a height onstage), that’s not the only connection one can find; Joseph Kerman dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” and while Black Swan is too clever to be called shabby, it seems brutal instead, which is worse.

Trying to think of the film neutrally, analytically, I can see themes and visual elements and issues that would be worth considering if I were being paid to think about the film, among them: the artist’s challenge as a battle with the self, which may seem to be a battle with something or someone else; the goal of losing oneself, the mistake of using death for that purpose; all sorts of Romantic nonsense about things like perfection and death; the theme of the double, the appearance of mysterious others who may be doubles or objects of desire (or both), the frequent and very obvious use of mirror images; the suggestion that the world of professionalized and institutionalized art-making uses up its artists (the character of Beth, played by Winona Ryder, ends up looking like a corpse, and a shriveled, consumed one at that).

But I didn’t get much pleasure out of watching it, nor do I get much out of pondering these elements after the fact. Bluntly put, the film does things that don’t need to be done. To recall Susan Sontag’s three questions, I could more or less say what it’s trying to do, and I think I can say (without doing the analytical and evaluative work) that it does them pretty well, but these things are not of primary importance.

That many people have come away saying things like “blown away” suggests that the film works very well—as far as basic function goes, it’s a successful piece of machinery, crafty and even cunning. It maintains tension, it frequently shocks you (keeping you uncertain and in a way refreshing your attention with jolts), and it may surprise you at the end. It capitalizes on many aspects of dancing that would be barely noticed by insiders—the punishment meted out to toe shoes before they can be used, the likelihood of injury—in ways that support its atmosphere and themes. (One almost expects a character to say, “To win all you must risk all,” but the film is smarter than that.) That it divides opinion, as most or all of Aronofsky’s films do, is probably a sign of something dynamic or vibrant, even a kind of vitality, at its core. Though it’s not high praise to say that you will not be bored, that gives the film a certain distinction; much that we experience and consume these days is boring, routine, mundane, or (only slightly better) a sustained annoyance, as Shutter Island was.

Nonetheless, I think Black Swan is wrongheaded, even (if one assumes that it’ll be taken seriously) dangerous. We should long ago have driven a stake through the heart of Romantic confusions about death and art; instead, we allow them to persist, to revive themselves at night, spring up from their coffin, and prey on fresh victims who are young enough (childish enough, inexperienced enough) not to be wary. That, I suppose, is my chief objection to the film. Black Swan traffics in these things without perhaps entirely supporting them; it may, then, be closer to corrupt than to immoral. So is Tosca. (I won’t take the space here to explain that, but you can read Joseph Kerman’s analysis in Opera as Drama; as for Black Swan, I know I’m remiss in not being more specific, but if I’m lucky, anyone who cares to read this will already have seen the film.)

I hope I won’t offend a friend who feels otherwise, but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say I’m uncommonly impressed by the ballet costumes created by the Mulleavy sisters of the Rodarte fashion company. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them. A colleague, if I heard her right, wondered why traditional Swan Lake costuming wouldn’t have worked, but since the idea in the story is to present a new take on the ballet, a new look seemed necessary, and the costumes we see are new. However, we don’t get much of a chance to appreciate them, considering the shooting style, nor does one hunger for a better look, as one often does in films with genuinely impressive and imaginative costumes (as in Elizabethor Orlando or Velvet Goldmine). It’s simply good work; you’d be surprised, and disappointed, if the costumes looked wrong, but that the designers have given us exactly what the story calls for isn’t reason for special praise.

I also don’t understand why even experienced film critics, such as Manohla Dargis of the Times, have been impressed by Natalie Portman’s performance. Dargis called it “smashing, bruising, and wholly committed,” observed that the role is “demandingly physical,” and added, “This is, after all, Ms. Portman’s own thin body on display, her jutting chest bones as sharply defined as a picket fence.” So what? Film actors routinely undertake to change their body to suit a character; they add weight to look paunchy, muscle up to look like a warrior, slim down to look sleek. And they routinely train to learn aspects of the life and work they’ve got to represent, as when young men take military training before playing soldiers. It’s long been expected that actors know, or be able to learn, things like period manners and deportment, sword fighting, horseback riding, ballroom and historical dancing; current practice has simply extended the expectations somewhat, calling on Portman to attempt some high-level ballet (which she already had a background in, just as Neve Campbell employed a dance background for The Company). One can recognize the work required without crediting it as exceptional. Nowadays it’s more notable when a film actor doesn’t attempt to transform herself; many women I know were pleased to see a bit of belly bulge on Julia Roberts in Duplicity. If you want to follow the common silly practice of taking films and performers as potential models (we ought to know better), Roberts is the one to applaud.

What I thought about Portman is mainly that she spent most of the film looking tremulous, uncertain, fearful, hesitant. This appeared to be little more than a directorial calculation, so that when she finally showed herself to be commanding and momentarily fierce as the Black Swan (not exactly what the role calls for, or even what the film’s ballet director has kept asking her for, which was seduction), the audience may be pleased.  They were; I was. That’s not the same thing as giving a seriously rich, deep, and varied performance.

As with Tosca, prevailing opinion in the long run may go in favor of Black Swan. If so, I’ll be content to count myself in the minority.

La Danse

September 15, 2009

La Danse

This is Babette’s Feast on steroids for balletomanes, but really for anyone drawn to the impossible dream and glory hotly pursued by the administration, production staff, and étoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet.ladanse Legendary large-scale documentary filmmaker Frederic Wiseman has done it again, shadowing every department, corridor, class, rehearsal, performance, and some low-key (but high-impact) backstage politicking: the delicate preparations for an “event” for Big-and-Bigger Donors, and—worst-case scenario—changes in government pensions for artists and performers. To say nothing of extended sequences of mealtimes in the company’s cafeteria (Condé Nast staffers: eat your hearts out)! “God” (company artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre) orchestrates the entire mechanism, determined to keep it ticking to perfection.brigitte_lefevre_visuel

There are some terrific performance excerpts of everything from Nutcracker to The House of Bernarda Alba and Romeo and Juliet. But, for me, the absolute standout was a slice of Angelin Preljocaj’s The Dream of Medea. You won’t forget it anytime soon. medea

At two-and-a-half hours, La Danse never lags. And, when a breather from the action is needed, there are John Dancy’s lust-inducing shots of Paris. Wiseman, at 79, the film’s producer, director, recordist, and editor, is at the top of his game. Don’t miss this – just eat before viewing and dive into the feast.opera-paris

Catwalk: Double Damage Control

September 11, 2009

The September Issue/Valentino: the Last Emperor

Lights! Music! Strut, strut. Turn, dip, stare. Sell it…sell it…Yes, it’s Fashion Week in New York, and there are two very good (and very different) films that give you the skinny on the high drama of haute couture.sienna-miller-vogue-2007

A picture may be worth a thousand words but, in some films, the words of an end scroll can pack an emotional punch that pictures would take too long to reveal. A case in point: Valentino: the Last Emperor. Without creating a spoiler, it is one (and the chief one) of many differences between this Italian emotional blockbuster of a movie and the chilly precincts of Condé Nast, home to most of The September Issue. Both films are partly shot in London, Paris, Rome, even Gstaad, and share some of the same air-kissing players. And both feature frighteningly thin women in frighteningly high heels and jaw-dropping clothes. But that, readers, is just wallpaper. The real news is their two takes on a fashion theme, with big money, bigger egos, and the biggest reputations at stake.

The filmmakers seem to have lots of access to backstage hissy fits. At anna-wintour-boredCondé Nast, they’re pretty much kept under wraps, although there’s enough eloquent eye-rolling and heavy context between the lines to keep viewers speculating on what, exactly, isn’t being shown. Vogue’s Anna Wintour gets her way with looks carved from blocks of ice; a mâitresse de découpage, wielding glances and barbs to slice out fashion’s 840-page bible—“the biggest September issue ever”—of Vogue, 2007 (pre-crash). Valentino, on the other hand, is Italian, so there’s always a little sentiménto just around the corner. It keeps you warm.valentinomoviestill2

Another difference: once the veils are stripped away, you know that Valentino is an artist. If you had any doubts, they are dispelled early on when he wakes from a dream of a perfect white dress. He goes to his desk and draws it, moves on to his atelier and, in a flash of words and gestures, shows and tells the chief precisely how to cut, drape, and stitch the gown entirely by hand. Seeing racks full of his custom-designed masterpieces for fashion royalty takes the breath away. Olympian bling? You betcha!

Valentino RetrospectiveThese are both all eye-candy, all the time, with super cinematography and editing—don’t-miss basics for fashionistas, but priceless as cultural documents for the rest of us. Tears and laughter, vanitas, gravitas. Harbingers of threads to come. For maximum wow, see them close together. And maybe lose a little weight……


Summertime Must-see: American Casino

August 29, 2009

When American Casino gets going with an on-screen quote (“The U.S. Government has pledged over $12 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers to bail out Wall Street. Most people would like to know why.”), you know right away it’s time to fasten your seat belt.americancasino2

In this film (that all American taxpayers should rush to view), the complex, still-molten mortgage meltdown is brilliantly dissected in a tour-de-force that is one part crystal-clear economic primer, and one part revelation of its effect on homeowners who were duped and traumatized by appalling practices. Filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn have managed to remain even-handed by fielding a cast of movers and shakers (good guys and bad), unusually articulate and appealing victims (largely well-educated, middle-class professionals whose lives will never recover from the body blows they received),americancasino3 a real estate investor who made $500 million by “betting against Wall Street” that the bubble would implode, and even a pest-control expert who tries to keep up with the plague of rats and mosquitoes that breed in and around abandoned homes and pools. AMERICANCASINO_STILL2_thumb

At a compact, energized 89 minutes, American Casino will make you cry, and certainly make you mad as hell. Bring your friends and family, or miss it at your own peril.

Summer Biggies: Two really worth the candle……………..

Another achievement by the Japanese master animator, Hayao Miyazaki, brimming with the mixture of realism and fantasy at which he excels. An up-to-date story (with a feisty mom, voiced by Tina Fey), a little boy (Frankie Jonas) and a fish named Ponyo who turns gleefully into a little girl in love (Noah Lindsey Cyrus). ponyo1There’s a hollow-eyed ex-hippie (Liam Neeson) married to an underwater goddess (Cate Blanchett who, like Meryl Streep, can do absolutely anything with her voice, as well as with the rest of her), and plenty of suspense and glory. For children and their adults who enjoy the ride.

District 9
What a blast! You’ve seen the components before (giant prawns from space, the spineless good guy who turns heroic even as he turns into, well, a giant prawn, the evil businessmen and apparatchiks who make things worse, and the selfless wife who remains constant). But stir in allusions to the still-simmering pot of South African politics,district9ebaysign the grim humor, gore, imagination and rueful humanity of director-writer Neill Blomkamp, (whose special-effects background is put to spectacular use here), and you have a blockbuster original for the dog days of summer. District 9

In Every Family, Dreams are in the Details……..

August 14, 2009

Headless Woman

In Headless Woman, Veronica (Argentine actress Maria Onetto) drifts through the aftermath of a tragic car accident smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa, while the lives of others flow around her. Has she killed someone, something, or only imagined it? Has she checked into a hospital afterwards, stayed overnight at a hotel? She can’t remember.Headless_Woman_1-medium

The entire film has a dream-like quality, with Onetto going through the motions of work, family, marketing, household, friendships. Directed by Lucretia Martel (and generated, not surprisingly, by a dream of Martel’s own), Headless Woman draws the viewer in seductively, detail by tiny detail. We learn more: Veronica’s niece is attracted to her; her cousin is having an affair with her; her languorous persona and that mysterious smile are like magnets. headless woman2Yet she can’t quite escape her memory of what may have happened. Consequences of the economic gulf between haves and have-nots are implied, and Martel’s eye for what counts is unerring.

In the end, Veronica’s relatives have her hospital and hotel records erased; memory of the accident’s victim quickly disappears into the working-class family that mourns him, and Veronica is free to take up her routines as if nothing had happened. The film is beautifully made, its lives meticulously observed. It casts a spell, just like its leading lady.


Santiago was the Salles family’s butler for decades, supervising a palatial home and a staff of 22. Director João Moreira Salles, (brother of filmmaker Walter) returned to that home (now deserted) to film Santiago (now retired) for three days in 1992, interviewing him about his duties with the Salles family and his life-long magnum opus—a 30,000-page history of mankind’s kings, emperors, and aristocracy, especially the Medicis, whom he worshipped above all others. It now lies on shelves behind Santiago, each dynasty neatly typed and bound in ribbon, extended by images of its subjects framed on the walls.santiago2

Santiago is forever obsessed with every detail of their outsize human drama. “They are dead,” he admits, “but not for me.” As Salles interviews him, he displays the soul of an artist manqué, who did his job for the family to perfection, but existed emotionally entirely in the pursuit of his real life’s work.

Too late (Santiago has died since Salles first filmed him), Salles recognizes the value of his subject. Out of the original three-day interview, the pages of Santiago’s enormous manuscript, his paintings and sculptures, some family ghosts in the deserted house, and poetry, Salles fashions his film–“something out of nothing” — an original and haunting portrait. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Maximillian Schell’s film of Marlene Dietrich; she allowed him to audiotape her at length, but refused to permit him to turn on his camera. Schell stubbornly, slyly, rose to the challenge, and so does Salles.Santiago1

Santiago grows steadlily richer as Salles probes Santiago’s passion, revealing his own failings in the process. As Salles observes ruefully, “He was embarrassed. I placed a distance between us; I was the son of the owner, and he was the butler.” His ability to make fun of his own directorial role, with hindsight and humility gained in the intervening years, is very much part of the film’s charms.

Still Walking

Inspired by the loss of both his parents, Hirokazu Kore-Eda says Still Walking is a film “launched by the experience of regret that we all share.” The family is Japanese, but its generational tensions and pleasures are universal. Taking place (mostly) during one long day and night during a son and daughter’s visit to their parents’ seaside town, the minutiae of their shared history is revisited over painstakingly prepared meals extended by take-out sushi. Stillwalking1The family visits the grave of another son who died young and will always be mourned. The surviving children are indifferent to their parents’ concerns.

Once again, details that give shape and meaning to everyday life are observed, here by Kore-Eda’s clear and sympathetic eye but, this time, accumulate to express regret for what we all fail to do for the living. This is a really beautiful and elegaic work, shot mostly in the claustrophobic space of the family dining room, occasionally opening up to nearby streets and parks and, once, to the sea itself—the source of life and, in the case of the Yokoyama family, the scene of the tragic accidental death of the son so full of promise. Like the recent French film, Summer Hours, Still Walking is both delicately expressed and deeply satisfying. stillwalking_forweb


Iceberg and Goldmine: WWII

August 1, 2009

Flame & Citron
A Woman in Berlin
The Hurt Locker

World War II is a subject that refuses to quit. With a body count in the tens of millions, it also forever changed the lives of millions more, as survivors criss-crossed the world to find new homes, languages, and cultures. Their stories remain the tip of an iceberg for those who want to see, hear, and read them, and a goldmine for producers, directors, and writers who burn to tell (and sell) them.

Flame and Citron is one: a harrowing real-life tale of two Danish resistance fighters recruited to oppose the Nazis who have occupied their country. Despite their initial idealism, nothing turns out as expected; issues come only in several shades of gray, as sides are chosen and chosen again. Almost disguised as an action-packed thriller, it’s really an engrossing morality tale about the nature of war and man. flamecitronpz2This Danish-German co-production is stylishly contemporary and operatic in its approach – dark in color, with intense closeups, gorgeous long shots, stark sets, costumes, and art direction, and often accompanied by music that owes everything (appropriately) to Wagner’s Gőtterdammerung. There is a great deal of violence, which escalates as the two Danes become—despite their misgivings—heroes of the resistance army, and assassins-at-large in the process. thure and mads

The filmmaker’s closeup lens probes deeply into their character and motivation, and subtly accrues the telling details that draw viewers into the noose that tightens around them, delivering tension, twists and gore in equal measure. Propelled by the spectacular performances of Thure Lindhardt as Flame, Mads Mikkelsen as Citron, and outstanding featured players, plus masterful filmmaking from director Ole Christian Madsen, Flame and Citron is that rare bird: a character-driven film that also delivers a visceral charge right to the last frame. It’s deeply satisfying on both counts. Because the Danish resistance is not as familiar as the European Holocaust, or the war in the Pacific, it feels particularly fresh, and keeps you guessing until a long post-finale scroll brings the story up to date.

A Woman in Berlin, (based on a controversial memoir by “Anonymous,” published in 1959), is stylistically more conventional than Flame and Citron, but reports from the other side of the WWII divide—the last days of Hitler’s Berlin, and the Russian occupation that followed it.4287EC69F764E5C17BF6AA9C5F793 It, too, reveals that black-and-white issues turn gray under the realities of war and occupation.

One thought to take away from both these excellent films: almost every country in the world is familiar with the horrors of invasion and the chaos that comes with it. After seeing Flame and Citron and A Woman in Berlin, the geographical isolation that has long protected North America from invasion seems more enviable than ever. But it has also fostered a lack of empathy that can make “Speak softly and carry a big stick” something of a defining stance. On the one hand, it has kept things tidy at home. On the other, it has obscured the terrible damage the stick can inflict.

Update: after seeing The Hurt Locker (a deeply disturbing edge-of-your-seat film), in which the US is the invader in Iraq, it’s obvious that the here-and-now is still shades of gray. But—judging from the quote by Chris Hedges that precedes the film, as well as the film’s final scene—the filmmakers’ conclusion seems to be that living with the giddy adrenaline rush of high-risk occupations hurt-locker-june2-590x331(defusing intricate bombs planted to destroy anyone who approaches them), renders the risk-taker unfit for the mundane tasks of civilian life. In creating two hours of blighted streets, corpses, bombed-out buildings, and the horror of a country destroyed, there is one burning question that seems to have escaped their scrutiny: what, exactly, were we doing there in the first place? It remains unanswered.


July 12, 2009


I’m back, and there’s lots to talk about. Filling in for the past few months of silence, some random notes on movies, art, and music.

Time Capsules

Time and place: scrupulous movies can reproduce them whole, more convincingly (and less fatteningly) than even the most toothsome madeleine. Two recent examples:

yoo hooYoo-Hoo,Mrs. Goldberg, Aviva Kempner’s fond and vivid recollection of the decades when black-and-white small-screen television brought us a sitcom starring a middle-aged Jewish woman from the Bronx who, somehow, spoke for decades to the entire country. Called the second best-known woman in America (after Eleanor Roosevelt), Gertrude Berg and her on-screen dopplegȁnger, Molly Goldberg, shared life lessons and recipes (Berg cooked on camerathough not in her real-life Park Avenue apartment), while carrying on dialogue with family, friends, and neighbors across her air shaft. She also produced and wrote Yoo-Hoo, subsequent incarnations (the Goldbergs moved to suburbia), several plays, and a memoir. Except for Berg’s encounter with the Blacklist, when she was steadfast in her support of co-star, Philip Loeb, it is a memoir of a kinder, gentler time. It’s a terrific story. And it is still very funny.

Vanished Empire recreates Moscow in the mid-1970s with astonishing fidelity. Stalin’s grip has been loosened a little by Brezhnev. Literacy and alcohol are everywhere. Bad girls have Big Hair and mini-skirts. Intellectuals, artists, and Party members have big apartments, once home to the aristocracy, while others are sardined into shared rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. And students yearn for vanished empirewhatever Western icons they can find on the black market: the latest rock-n-roll LPs, books, posters, and especially bluejeans. Change is in the air. The contradictions that will lead to Perestroika, a glut of consumer goods, and the loss of culture are revealed  in Karen Shakhnazarov’s clear-eyed past recaptured. There is no moralizing. But there is evidence that choices have consequences and are food for thought.

Public Enemies, on the other hand,  is a big, fat, guilty pleasure. The cinematography, art direction, costumes, and locations are a trip. Did I mention the lighting? The editing? And the skilled hand and iron grip of director Michael Mann? And, of course, there’s Johnny Depp, and a host of good actors who so wanted to be in good company that many of them (who have starred in other films) seemed happy to take cameo roles. There’s violence, but the camera doesn’t linger on it. The period, with all its contradictions and pivotal place in history, surrounds you. So, it’s a trade-off. In the end, the eyes have it.public-enemies

If I hadn’t seenSlumdog Millionaire and The Reader during the same week, I wouldn’t have noticed that both these stories are set in triple time frames. Yet they’re history so well-scripted that you always know where, and when, you are. If, for any reason, you still haven’t seen them, call Netflix!

About the Metropolitan Museum: much has been (and will be) written about the new incarnation of the American Wing, with its light-flooded center hall,  its double mezzanines with masterpieces of glass, metal, wood, and ceramics, the twelve period rooms (with more to come), and the overall painstaking and imaginative planning by its chief curator and architect, Morrison Heckscher. So, rather than go into detail, I’d like to share some sub-text that shadows the essays and pervades the entire enterprise.americanwing

Almost every object in the collection (paintings have yet to be installed; ETA 2011-12) was made by skilled hands. Hands that had a personal relationship to the materials and objects they created, just as the end-users had a personal relationship to the objects, and often to their makers. Walter Gropius originally believed in the virtues of handarbeit and in man’s innate desire to “make”  things; the American Wing displays the wisdom of his pre-mass-manufacturing philosophy.

Of course, since most of the collection was created by the best artists/craftsmen money could buy, it reflects four centuries of  American high society. No planned obsolescence here! But it also presents a faithful and enlightening capsule of American culturebefore it evolved away from the delights of close encounters with fine materials, hand-made furniture, furnishings, jewelry, and tactile life-enhancementbefore the prevalence of disposable plastic and impoverished language that have become the American Way. Before, in other words, the triumph of Pop Culture. Indulge your Inner Luddite. See it for yourself, and take your time. It will be well spent. metvases

One final caveat for the Luce Collection that here is folded into the American Wing: as at most museums (such as the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum), it provides a rich ancillary context for nearby galleries of the America That Was. But who decided that every label next to every piece should have only a number (presumably one that can be looked up on a nearby computer for further enlightenment)? If labels are to be used, why not include some basic information–like the name of the artist/designer and the date of the work? Note to Luce: the computers are usually down, and viewers come away knowing little more than before they arrived. It’s especially frustrating because of the quality of what’s on view and the curiosity it provokes. But it’s an easy fix, guys, so please fix it!

And There’s More!

After seeing The Soloist (for which I had high hopes), it becomes clearer than ever that Hollywood should never, repeat never, make a movie about classical music. Despite being based on a “true story,” and with a promising cast, its nervous producers could not resist sequences of clouds, and heavenly choirs. It raised the long-gone specter of The Competition. Rumored to have been the brainchild of a Juilliard graduate who knew the territory, it fell into the hands of Ray Stark and emerged drained of all the high passion, tension, and emotion that actually saturate international music competitions in real life─and recreated them strictly by the numbers.

 But there’s an antidote! A recent not-made-in-Hollywood documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, overflows with the joy of making music, with the purely visceral give-and-take at the core of inspired improvisation, and with the high adventure of its unlikely hero, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck,  who strums his way through four countries in Africa to seek the origBelaAfricaSessionsEditins of his instrument. Along the way, he discovers the real diversity of African music (the sequence of a jam session with Fleck’s banjo and a giant marimba played by a dozen villagers is hair-raising). You don’t have to know anything about banjos or Africa to be swept into what music is all about: a deeply satisfying immersion in non-verbal communication. There’s little narration, and not much dialogue: it’s not about the words – it’s about the music!

A recent PBS special, The Music Instinct: Science and Song, elegantly ties it all together so you can actually understand your brain on music. Built around a core of articulate music1scientists who love the subject, and a number of musical prodigies (Bobby McFerrin, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma), narrated by Audra MacDonald, and produced and written by Elena Mannes, it is exhilarating. And yes, the dancing cockatoo, whose moves are a YouTube sensation, plays his part. One of my favorite factoids (after learning that every living thing, including the cosmos, has its own frequency), was discovering that black holes are a “B-flat…27 octaves below anything the human ear can hear.” It’s in reruns on PBS, and available on DVD. Don’t miss it!

Thinking back, I retract what I said about movies about classical music in one case: Impromptu, directed by James Lapine (often Stephen Sondheim’s director of choice) and written by Sarah Kernochan, with an English-speaking union of a cast (Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Emma Thompson, Bernadette Peters), romping through boudoirs, ripping bodices, and occasionally tossing off some then-new music: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (arranged for four hands) and a few Chopin Etudes. It’s witty. It’s wicked. It’s divine. And it’s an exception. But it was shot in France (not Hollywood), so one expects, and gets, a highly sophisticated, nutritious soufflé that gives equal time, talent, and affection to words and music. It was finished in 1991, so you’ll have to explore, the library, or Netflix. Dig it!impromptu

And, while you’re at it, try unearthing a copy of The Mozart Brothers an archival gem from Sweden, made for everyone who treasures the Marx Brothers and opera. It will have you laughing at its insider’s slapstick, then sighing over its ravishing  Mozart.  Either way, you win the prize.

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