Thursday, November 29, 2018

Orson Welles' last "classic?"

Watching the unfinished – and now finished (kind of) - late Orson Welles’ film The Other Side of the Wind simply by itself might be, shall we say, confusing. Or, less charitably, two hours of one’s life (you know the rest). The film should come with a notice stating you should also watch a companion documentary. It’s the also newly released Morgan Neville’s (20 Feet from Stardom, 2013) They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of this last film of the late great filmmaker, dramatist and all-around media disrupter, Orson Welles. Both films are on Netflix. The documentary puts everything in context, or almost does, at least enough so that you can start making up your own mind about what you just saw in the Welles’ film……The Other Side of the Wind was made in the early 1970s, after Welles returned from a second “exile” in Europe and in the aftermath of a long falling out with Hollywood after his 1958 classic – though Hollywood didn’t think so – Touch of Evil. According to Neville’s doc, Welles' return was made possible by the schism that developed in Hollywood by the late 1960s, when the embers of the old studio system were almost snuffed out and the hip - even hippieish – directors and films (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Godfather, The Last Picture Show) of the New Hollywood were taking over. This was auteur cinema, not the dastardly old corporate world run by a few old studio moguls. This New Hollywood, so the story goes, was now receptive to someone as disruptive as Welles, who after all terrorized most of America with his 1938 War of the Worlds and of course who has been considered an all-time genius with his 1941 Citizen Kane, perhaps the greatest movie ever made - layered, nuanced and iconoclastic in breaking new cinematic ground. So, upon his return, Welles secured financing, gathered a group of Hollywood types together, and started shooting the picture. But The Other Side of the Wind was a much different kind of film, even for Welles. It incorporated hand held camera work, had improvised dialogue, and spontaneity, lots of spontaneity.....So what’s it about? Well,
no one interviewed in the Neville documentary seemed to agree or know for sure, but it certainly seemed like it was creating caricatures of certain Hollywood types -producers, actors, studio crews, assorted hangers-on - and a send up of Hollywood in general. Could this at last have been Welles’ revenge?.....The plot, such as it is, is about a filmmaker, "Jake" Hannaford, perhaps based on Welles himself and played by no less a larger than life director than John Huston. He’s making a film, perhaps an “art” film, similar to the “atmospheric” films of European directors like Bergman or Antonioni, where one character follows another (Welles’ lover Oja Kodar) as she traipses around studio backlots and other bleak landscapes. “You either hate it or loathe it,” says one character wryly of the film within the film. Kodar, in the documentary, says the title is actually about Welles, who personifies the wind, but “I knew the other side” of it/him. Welles’ acolyte in real life, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971), plays a similar role, and even comedian Rich Little makes an appearance. And there are many Hollywood personalities who play their real selves – George Jessel, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Claude Chabrol. The film is kind of a Hollywood version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, with the tribe ending up at a ribald party in the Hollywood Hills. The story itself is very much of its time, with the characters trying to out hip one another (the only thing missing are Nehru jackets) and there’s even someone based on the famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael (Susan Strasberg as Juliette Riche)……So, again, what does it all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, or even the people who played the characters. Said Rich Little in the documentary: “I’m not sure he (Welles) knew where this movie was going, I’m not sure any of us did.” Because of financial and legal problems, The Other Side of the Wind was kept in a vault in France and only released very recently. Says one commentator in the doc, “it’s the greatest movie that was never released.” Says a bemused Welles, quoted at the time, “maybe it’s just talking about making a picture.”

Friday, November 23, 2018

Death, despite humour, doesn't become them

It seems films and television shows have a problem with death. I draw your attention to the much-hyped new Netflix series, The Kominsky Method, starring two of my favorite actors, Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas. I so much wanted to like this show and to most extent, I do. Still, it was a disappointment. The concept was to create a comedy, with a little drama thrown in, about the toughness of aging. Douglas plays a famous actor who runs an acting school, hence the title’s “Method.” And Arkin as Norman Newlander is a beyond rich and famous Hollywood agent, so on in his years he hardly makes an appearance at his sprawling offices. These are two comic actors. The problem is the series is more a downer than uplifting. Sure, there are many funny lines, most at each characters’ expense as they trade barbs back and forth. The problem is that the series relies too much on, well, aging, clich├ęs. There’s Norman’s wife’s death from cancer. And Kominsky dates with a student (Nancy Travis) where they first rendezvous at a hospital and then funeral. Then there’s Kominsky’s doctor’s visit in a genuinely funny scene with Danny DeVito as a urologist diagnosing his prostate issues. Much of the next episodes are devoted to Kominsky trying to successfully relieve himself. Yes, this is supposed to be funny, but it ends up being tiresome and gross. And the comedy that does exist isn’t enough to counter a general mood of melancholy. How about some new plot lines about aging that generally aren't explored? Like how condescending service people can be and how younger people incessantly address you as "sir" or "ma'am"………. Then there’s the British film, also on Netflix, called Burn Burn Burn (Chanya Button, 2015). It’s about three friends – Seph (Laura Carmichael – Lady Edith Crawley on Downton Abbey), Alex (Chloe Pirrie) and Dan (Jack Farthing). The story’s an inventive concept and again aims at humor with a poignant underpinning. Dan is dying from cancer and wants his friends Seph and Alex to take a road trip and visit some of the seminal places that had great meaning in his life. He instructs them where to go in a video released after his death. He virtually anticipates their every reaction to the places they visit, while reflecting on his commentary about what they mean to him and how life events have been shaped by all their lives, with some truths less than pleasant. The problem is that the plot becomes predictable and that when you dwell on death as much as Dan – and this story – it’s kind of a downer and not resurrected by the levities along the way.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Marnie the opera: a taut close-up look at a sociopath

If there’s one thing seeing the new opera Marnie made me appreciate, it’s watching opera on the big silver screen at your local cinema. What a way to immerse yourself close-up – as only televised viewers can see it – in the operatic dramatic action and performers’ voices, much more so than being in the New York Lincoln Center concert hall at the same time. Moreover, you get two bangs for the price of one. People who watch the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, as I did Saturday at Windsor’s Cineplex Silver City, get a unique behind-the-scenes look at how the stage is set - the crew working feverishly to meet the opening curtain - and live interviews with the cast after they’ve just walked off the stage! This is the second time I’ve seen opera on the big screen, the last time was a Met production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (2017)…...But Marnie, as an opera, is tantalizing indeed. It’s the same story that Alfred Hitchcock conjured up in his 1964 film of the same character (starring Tippi Hedren), based on the novel by Winston Graham. But this opera by Nico Muhly, with libretto by Nicholas Wright (Michael Mayer, director), hews closer to the book, and drills deep into the central character’s psyche to reveal a confused, indeed sociopathic, young woman.  Isabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano) is in the starring role. And she’s magnificent, not just in singing but in depicting the psychological inflections of Marnie, an office girl of the late 1950s who also happens to be a serial thief. Her fellow cast members such as Christopher Maltman as her boss and eventual husband Mark Rutland, and Iestyn Davies as his brother Terry Rutland, her sexual pursuer, round out boldly and strikingly the three key characters. But this can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it production is enhanced by a couple of things. There are two acts, as opposed to opera’s often three. And the production is tautly produced, with fantastic stage backdrops, quick scene resets and two small groups of characters. These are women who look almost exactly as Marnie, dressed in identically cut but different colored dresses – her alter egos or enablers, call them what you will. And then there’s the group of male figures, all in fedoras and looking like detectives, who shadowy stalk or spy on the damaged protagonist…...At least one more repeat performance is schedule for January 26. Treat yourself and check it out.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

WIFF 14th edition - that's a wrap

The 14th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival wrapped Sunday and director Vincent Georgie announced, in honor of WIFF’s 15th edition, the festival will expand to a total of 10 days. This will bring it in line with major city festivals like Toronto and Montreal. Not bad for a smallish city of 200,000-plus. Here are some observations about this year’s event.

Intentional or not – and I can’t believe it’s not intentional – WIFF does an excellent job of marketing the festival. This is by tying in business sponsors – and therefore certain audiences – to films. For example, the documentary Big Time about Danish architecture Bjarke Ingels was introduced by the head of the local architectural society, and notably present in the audience were staff from several architectural firms. These may have been people who’d never been to the festival before and discovering it, might come back for more films this year and next. It’s called building audience. (Festival director Georgie is a marketing professor after all.)

The festival may be run by volunteers but it has a professional sheen. Every one of the 20 films I attended started on time with exception of Friday’s 4 pm screening of Tea with the Dames, where there was a technical glitch. But even at that the film was delayed only about 10 minutes, less time than what was announced.

I had no problem with the theatres at the four venues. The addition of the Armouries “stadium seating” classroom drew a few complaints from people who found the seats hard and the lower tiers positioned far below the screen and therefore forced them to crank up their necks. I always got an upper level seat so didn’t have that problem! Overall, though, I’d have to say this is a better venue than the Capitol Theatre’s Joy room’s temporary one level seating which it replaced.

The song audio playlist before films should constantly be changed. How about a fresh rotation of four or five new songs each day? I still have ear worms of Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind and The Police’s Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Starchitect, "Red" Wings and the eternal Loren

Final reviews from this weekend's screenings at the 14th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF).

Big Time (Kaspar Astrup Schroder, 2018). “Big” here stands for architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group), named for one of the world’s preimment “starchitects,” a Dane who is conquering the world through extraordinarily inventive buildings and lands. Ingels has been commissioned to design Two World Trade Center in NYC, and his designs have reimagined traditional building use. A Danish power plant is built as a triangle with the longest side serving as a ski slope. His 57 West Manhattan condo complex seeks to change New York’s west side skyline, incorporating natural space and a shaft of light. Yet Ingels at 40 seems a regular guy, cycling through Manhattan and trying to learn how to tie a bow tie. (Not everyone is an expert in everything!) This is a tightly-edited documentary with strong appeal to professionals (a lot were at the screening) and lay people alike.

The Russian Five (Joshua Reihl, 2018). Had it not been for five key defections from what was then an authoritarian Russian state in the 1990s – and in particular the Red Army team – the Detroit Red Wings would not have emerged from their interminable slumber as hockey’s “Dead Wings” of the previous decade. This doc plays spy thriller as much as sports drama, with Red Wings management employing surreptitious tactics – including literally bags of cash – to get the Russians to join them. This is one of hockey’s greatest stories and told here in all its exciting details.

The Girl in the Fog (Donato Carrisi, 2017). Talk about plot twists! This thriller will have you guessing, and double guessing, right up to the very end. In fact, “fog,” might be applied to the drama’s narrative, as we’re directed into false leads as to who exactly is the killer of a tween on a foggy night in the Italian Alps. Well known actor Toni Servillo adds typical bravura as the lead investigator, Vogel, with a flair for the dramatic and not a little skullduggery of his own. 

The Confession (Nicolas Boukhrief, 2016) is a quiet but compelling story of two individuals - one a Communist, Barny (Marine Vacth) and the other a Catholic priest Fr. Morin (Romain Duris). Barny is a member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France and doesn’t trust the Catholic church. When a new priest arrives, she seeks out his bonafides. Her arrogant atheism is taken in stride by Morin, a kind of intellectual himself. The performances are terrifically nuanced in a film that refreshingly takes a pro-religious POV.

Two Women (Vittorio De Sica, 1960). Every year WIFF pays nod to cinema’s historic past and screens a film by one of the world’s greats. This year it was Italy’s Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women starring Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Loren as Cesira is a widowed shopkeeper in Rome who wants to escape the Nazi bombing during World War II. She and daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) flee to the countryside and find a group of villagers who take them in. But the war catches up as the women try to scrounge an existence. Cesira meets Michele (Belmondo), where romantic feelings emerge, until he guides German troops with a promise to return. The village is liberated by Americans, but the movie’s great irony comes in the aftermath. Loren not only is stunningly beautiful but is a great naturalistic actress, and in full glory here.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Domestic freedom, free soloing, and travel's perils

More reviews from the 14th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), in order of the films I saw Friday. The festival concludes Sunday.

Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018). One of Germany’s current hottest filmmakers, Petzold in Transit takes a 1940’s novel and updates it to the present, or a kind of present. A German who escapes to Paris (Franz Rogowski) must find his way to North America via Marseille but of course needs papers. The references are to the Nazis and the Vichy government, though the stormtroopers are in the guise of modern riot cops. The film is about identity (and mistaken identity) and the Kafkaesque wait for official bureaucracy. But its interwoven and repetitive narratives about three characters doesn’t quite work and the film devolves into a kind of farce.

Puzzle (Marc Turtltaub, 2018), features Kelly Macdonald as Agnes, a dutiful middle-aged working-class wife who finds her awakening from the humdrum by playing jigsaw puzzles. She’s so good she joins world class champion Robert (Irfan Khan). Macdonald’s studied performance is absorbing, and the film plays with gender-specific issues – subservience, male domination, deception as a form of freedom. Macdonald here is in Best Actress territory. 

Tea with the Dames (Roger Mitchell, 2018) features four of England’s most celebrated actresses – Joan Plowwright, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith – all royalty-sanctioned “Dames,” and friends in personal lives – at ease at Plowright’s country home, where they sit around and talk about, well, whatever. But since they’re on display the conversation turns to their acting careers, marriages to famous theatre men, and some industry gossip. And, we learn, being scared before a performance never changes. Fans will probably love it, but the film seemed stilted, much as anyone before a microphone and camera and told to open up, usually doesn’t.

Always at The Carlyle (Matthew Miele, 2018) is a doc about one of the last old-world traditions in New York City, the Carlyle hotel. On my yearly trips I’ve walked by the Carlyle many times and never gave it second thought, though I certainly know Woody Allen plays his clarinet there Monday nights. But the Carlyle outstrips other New York hotels - The Plaza, for instance – by a mile and then some. So I learned from this movie. The hotel's shimmering art deco design is matched by its loyal and long-time staff who vow to keep identities of their famous guests private. But it’s obviously an abode for the one percenters, with all manner of the elite including celebs like George Clooney, Jon Hamm, Vera Wang and Jack Nicholson, holding temporary fort. Former presidents and even royalty a la Kate and William, have put in appearances. This film, though, might pose a threat to the hotel’s famous discretion.

1991 (Ricardo Trogi, 2018). This is the most delightful and indeed funniest film I’ve seen at the festival so far. It’s about a Quebec student circa 1991 who takes his first trip to Europe, and the travails that beset him when he lands in Italy. It’s a story many who have backpacked or taken student tours to Europe will identify with, though Trogi is basing it on his own experiences. There is some fun too with the Quebec-Canadian dynamic and intercultural prejudices, which come in all languages and nationalities. And I remember the same embassy in Rome our hero attends because some of the same events befell me!

Free Solo (E. Chai Vasarhelyi, 2018). Even if you have no interest in mountain climbing you should treat yourself to this film. It’s about “free soloist” – meaning without ropes – mountain climber Alex Honnold and his quest to climb the so far unconquered 3,000 ft. sheer cliff of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Honnold is among a rare group of extreme climbing athletes, many who have already lost their young lives. The sport requires gripping some of the subtlest indentations on slippery rock walls hundreds of feet above ground. Your heart will start pounding, or you might look away, during Honnold’s perilous climb.

The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003). Okay, now I get what all the excitement is about. This perennial Midnight Madness favorite is the generation’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), with yelling, shrieks, mocking and a chorus reciting the well-known lines of some of the worst acting ever put on celluloid. Yes, this is the film that was so bad it’s good. And while toast is thrown in Rocky Horror, here spoons (plastic) - and lots of them - are heaved at pivotal moments. But, really, this is so bad a film only cult devotees could enjoy it.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A delightfully goofy LA noir

More reviews from the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) in the order I saw the films. The festival continues until Sunday.

I must say I was disappointed in Becoming Astrid (Pernille Fischer Christensen, 2018). Sure, this period piece measures up in all the parameters – the setting is realistic and performance by newcomer Alba August as beloved children’s author Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking) is fine. But my expectation was this would be about showing how Lindgren became a great author. There are some moments – such as her wit and sarcasm, even at an early age, and some creative stories she makes up out of thin air, to the disdain of her religious parents. But this movie really is a story of Astrid’s strict upbringing, her first love and the travails raising her child. There is nothing about developing her craft.

I know The Happy Prince (Rupert Everett, 2018) is a great film because Colin Firth seemed so good in it, the costumes and editing are sumptuous, as is the cinematography (John Conroy) in its soft shades of gold and brown, almost chiaroscuro. But I confess to have lost interest about a quarter of the way in. Perhaps it was the difficulty of discerning the English accents, perhaps it was simply me in an afternoon stupor. Other people seemed to enjoy it. So, I’ll rest without saying anything more.

My second fave of the festival so far is Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, 2018) (Mitchell is a Clawson MI native). This is a wholly bizarre humorous take on many things L. A. – the music and movie industries, the Hollywood Hills, swimming pools, slacker culture, zines, and cool people. Our hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield) can’t understand how a voluptuous neighbor he just met can disappear overnight. This sets him on a trail into subterranean Los Angeles – figuratively and literally – with a colossal amount of goofball twists and turns that might not have worked in any other director’s hands but in Mitchell’s ably do.