Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

The Times of Bill Cunningham


He had an eye for ladies’ fashion and for life going on around him.

(2018) Documentary (GreenwichBill Cunningham, Sarah Jessica Parker (narrator), Mark Bozek, Editta Sherman, Diana Vreeland. Directed by Mark Bozek

 

Bill Cunningham was a beloved figure in New York; his two columns for the New York Times begun in 1967 were candid shots of mainly women on the streets of New York and out at fabulous parties became something of a visual history of fashion in the Big Apple for nearly 50 years. He mainly hung out at 57th Street and 5th Avenue, a corner which New Yorkers have petitioned to re-designate as “Bill Cunningham Corner,” a familiar presence on his bicycle and blue moleskin jacket.

The movie essentially revolves around a 1994 interview Bozek conducted with the photographer that was only supposed to last ten minutes but went on until the tape ran out. Although there was a previous documentary on his life, this one – which fittingly enough debuted at the New York Film Festival in 2018 – has more of the man’s voice in it, faint Boston accent and all.

We get a pretty good overview of his life, from his strict conservative Catholic upbringing in Boston, to his time working as an advertising minion at the high-end department store Bonwit Teller in New York, to his obsession with ladies hats leading to a career as a milliner (hatmaker) which continued clandestinely while he was stationed in France for the Army. We see his time working at Chez Ninon, a New York fashion house that catered to the wealthy, to his introduction to journalism at Women’s Wear Daily, to the serendipitous photograph of Greta Garbo – he didn’t know who it was he was taking a picture of, only that he admired the way she wore her nutria coat that led to his long association with the Times.

Cunningham is a marvelous storyteller and a charming, boyish presence on whom Bozek wisely keeps his focus. Former Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker is an appropriate narrator, although I wish the narration had filled in the blanks a little bit more; for example, we’re never told how he ended up in the Army and when was he a part of it. We also hear nothing of the autobiography that was posthumously published, nor is any material referred to from there.

However, we are treated to literally thousands of still images that were not only taken by Cunningham but also illustrated the various eras of fashion that he lived through. We get the joy that Cunningham took from his work – although he considered himself a fashion historian rather than a photographer and constantly downplayed his keen eye – but also there are moments that humanize him, as when he breaks down considering the toll AIDS took on those around him, particularly neighbor Carlos Garcia who was the subject of a documentary earlier this year himself and lived with Cunningham in the remarkable Carnegie Studio apartments above the legendary facility which are sadly scheduled for demolition to build offices and studios for the performers there. That’s a shame, considering that luminaries like Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando lived and worked there.

In any case, this is a joyful documentary that is a tribute to a life well-lived. Most New Yorkers, particularly those in or with an interest in the fashion industry, adored Cunningham; Anna Wintour, the notoriously catty editor of Vogue once quipped “We all get dressed up for Bill,” and there is a lot of truth in that. It was not unknown for the women of New York, eager to get their picture in the Times, to put on something fabulous and make their way to his corner. It was a kind of immortality, after all.

In that sense, Cunningham – who passed away following a stroke in 2016 – will outlive us all. His amazing collection of photos which he stored in his tiny studio apartment somewhat haphazardly, will continue to shine a light on how we lived and how we dressed for what future generations remain. There is nothing wrong with that epitaph.

REASONS TO SEE: Cunningham is a bubbly, effusive and self-effacing raconteur who makes for a charming subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to fill in some of the blanks.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Cunningham was the subject for a previous documentary of his life in 2010 and attended the premiere, he remained outside while the film screened, taking pictures and never saw the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Bill Cunningham: New York
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Ocean’s 8


Back in black.

(2018) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Elliott Gould, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Richard Armitrage, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Dakota Fanning, Sarah Paulson, James Corden, Dana Ivey, Elizabeth Ashley, Marlo Thomas, Charlotte Kirk, Whitney White, Charles Prendergast, Damian Young, Talia Cuomo. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Sure, we need more films with empowered women doing what men do. The Ocean’s trilogy had an A-list all-star cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac and so on and so forth. Why should they have all the fun?

Indeed, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove that girls just wanna have fun too but the movie is sorely lacking in the presence of Steven Soderbergh, who wrote snappy dialogue, created a retro mood that recalled the Rat Pack that made the original Ocean’s 11 and let the men loose in Sin City – obviously the cast was having a great time with one another.

Sadly, this heist movie involving the theft of a fabulous Cartier diamond necklace from the equally fabulous Met Gala party annually hosted by Vogue’s Anna Wintour (who cameos as herself, one of a raft of cameos) fails to deliver the goods. As much as the Oceans trilogy felt like all involved were having a great time, this one feels like just another job. The bonding never feels authentic and the chemistry is sorely lacking. Like the distaff version of Ghostbusters back in 2016, the movie feels less of an ensemble and more of a collection of actresses. Don’t get me wrong – some of the sequences here are done with the kind of clever wit that the Oceans films are known for and the movie is entertaining in its own right and it makes some salient points about our celebrity-obsessed culture but it doesn’t hold up to any of its predecessors except maybe the least of the series, Oceans 13.

Part of the problem is that I think the expectations for a distaff version of an established and beloved franchise is that the movie will replicate the feel of the originals and that’s hard enough to do in the first place; throw in that the cast is going to be all-female in a fairly misogynistic society as we have and the movie has two strikes on it before it gets out of the gate. I think that thand their relationships I I think that the biggest mistake that was made here was that short shrift was given to the characters at the expense of a “sisters are doing it for themselves” empowerment narrative and sisters can do it for themselves as Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games have more than proven. It’s a pity that a cast this glittery left me so cold.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelous.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks the camaraderie of the first three films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexually suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gould is the only actor from the first trilogy to appear in this film, scenes were filmed with Carl Reiner and Matt Damon but were both left on the cutting room floor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!

New Releases for the Week of May 1, 2015


Avengers Age of UltronTHE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

(Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, James Spader. Directed by Joss Whedon.

The summer blockbuster season is upon us and what better way to kick it off than with the latest Marvel extravaganza? In this one, the World’s Mightiest Heroes are faced with an artificial intelligence, one that was created to defend the planet if the Avengers weren’t available but one that also decided that the best way to defend the planet was to remove the human parasites. Now up against a foe that may be stronger and smarter than they are, they also must battle their own internal division if they are to save the world.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, featurettes, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)

Cheatin’

(Plymptoons) Jake and Ella are the happiest and most romantic couple in the history of romance, but like all good things it can’t last. A jealous, scheming woman plots to drive a wedge between them, breaking Jake’s heart and sending him off on a succession of loveless trysts. With the help of a disgraced magician, Ella desperately fights to reclaim her lover and find the happiness they are both destined to receive. This played the 2014 Florida Film Festival and is only now getting a theatrical release; you can read my festival review of the film here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Dior & I

(The Orchard) Raf Simons, Marion Cotillard, Anna Wintour, Jennifer Lawrence. The legendary house of fashion that is Christian Dior has a new artistic director who is preparing his very first Haute Couture line for the venerable fashion icon. The pressure is on as we are given a fly-on-the-wall view of the entire creative process, giving us an insight into what it takes to work for one of the great fashion houses of the world.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fashion Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

The Search for General Tso

(Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin. One of the most popular entrees to be served in American restaurants is General Tso’s chicken. Americans eat it up like crazy. But who is General Tso? Who created his namesake dish? And is it even Chinese at all? The answers may surprise you in this documentary guaranteed to make you hungry. This played the Florida Film Festival this year and you can read my review of it here.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Food Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

New Releases for the Week of September 25, 2009


 

 

 

Bruce Willis reacts to finding out that this isn't the next Die Hard movie.

Bruce Willis reacts to finding out that this isn't the next Die Hard movie.

SURROGATES

 

(Touchstone) Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames, James Cromwell, Boris Kodjoe, Francis Ginty, Michael Cudlitz. Directed by Jonathan Mostow In the future, people will experience life through surrogates, mechanical constructs that are linked to their user directly through the brain, allowing them to feel and experience everything the surrogate does. This allows people to do things they never could in the flesh, things too dangerous in reality because while the surrogates can be damaged and even destroyed, it is perfectly safe for the user; that is, until a pair of users turn up dead. It is the first homicide in 15 years, and for a detective who hasn’t left his home in at least that long, suddenly he is embroiled in something far more sinister and far-reaching than he could imagine. Based on an acclaimed graphic novel, directed by the man who gave us U-571.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene)

Bright Star (Apparition) Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Thomas Sangster, Kerry Fox. Respected director Jane Campion returns with this period romance about the legendary English poet John Keats, and his affair with Fanny Brawne. Starting out at odds as two people from different stratum of society, they are drawn together as soulmates. As Keats’ eventually fatal tuberculosis worsens, he is moved to write some of the most astonishing and romantic poetry ever penned.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking)

Cold Souls (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Lauren Ambrose. Is your soul weighing you down? No worries! A new high-tech company can remove your soul and store it for you. Actor Paul Giamatti (playing himself…sorta) stumbles across an article in the New Yorker that convinces him to give it a go. All is going well until his soul is stolen from the storage facility, and he must chase after it to Russia, where a smarmy, talentless soap opera actress has possession of it. A black comedy in the tradition of Being John Malkovich.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for mature sexual content, language and thematic material)

Fame (MGM) Debbie Allen, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth. One of the most iconic movies of the ‘80s gets a remake…or perhaps more accurately, a sequel. The movie that made a star (briefly) of Debbie Allen sees her return to the New York City High School of Performing Arts, this time as principal. A new generation of artists, dancers, actors and singers takes on the hopes and heartbreaks of the most prestigious public school for performance in the country.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language)

It Might Get Loud (Sony Classics) Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge, Bono. Documentary director Davis Guggenheim, who gave us An Inconvenient Truth, switches gears and focuses on three maestros of the electric guitar; Led Zeppelin’s guitar god Page, U2 virtuoso The Edge and up-and-comer White from the White Stripes. The three get together and discuss their love for the instrument that has dominated music in the last 50 years and above all, play those instruments. Playing music that inspired them as well as new compositions that haven’t been released (at least at the time of the documentary’s initial limited run), watching this may profoundly affect the way you hear music.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, brief language and smoking)

Pandorum (Overture) Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Norman Reedus. Two astronauts wake up on a spacecraft, alone and disoriented in the pitch darkness with no memory of who they are or what their mission is. As they explore the ship, they soon come to realize they aren’t alone. And as the mystery deepens, it soon becomes clear that their actions will either save mankind – or doom it.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong horror violence and language)

The September Issue (Roadside Attractions) Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Andre Leon Talley, Oscar de la Renta. The September issue of Vogue magazine is the most critical in the fashion industry. It is the largest issue the magazine publishes, over four pounds by weight. The size of a big city Yellow Pages directory, it establishes what is fashionable for the upcoming year. At the heart of this is Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the woman who was the basis of the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada. She allowed unprecedented access to documentarian R.J. Cutler (The War Room) who shows us what goes into making the most important magazine in the $300 billion fashion industry.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)