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

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski


The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend

Loving Vincent


But is it art?

(2017) Animated Feature (Good Deed) Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, James Green, Bill Thomas, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Josh Burdett, John Sessions, Joe Stuckey, Piotr Pamula, Kamila Dyoubari . Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

 

As a painter, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the world’s most influential, creating works that remain iconic to this day – most of us have seen at least pictures of some of his work. As a person, Vincent Van Gogh was an enigma; beset by mental and emotional issues throughout his life (there are some experts who believe he was bipolar) that led to him shooting himself fatally at age 30 in 1890. He remains a mystery to many, producing over 800 paintings in the last 10 years of his life and then abruptly choosing suicide.

Armand Roulin (Booth) is a roustabout, a ne’er do well who is the son of Joseph Roulin (O’Dowd), the postmaster of Arles where Van Gogh lived and a friend to the Dutch painter. Joseph has come into possession of a letter that Vincent (Gulaczyk) wrote to his beloved brother Theo (Pamula) near the end of his life. It is 1891 and Van Gogh has been dead for a year. Joseph has tasked his son with the job of delivering the letter from the late master to his brother in Paris, only when Armand gets there he is unable to locate Theo. He goes to Vincent’s art supply dealer Pere Tanguy (Sessions) who informs him that Theo has followed Vincent into the hereafter. Armand then decides that in lieu of delivering the letter to Theo he will deliver it instead to Theo’s wife Johanna. Tanguy doesn’t know where she is living but suggests contacting Dr. Gachet (Flynn) in Auvers who treated Vincent in the last months of his life and was with him when he died.

Roulin travels to Auvers only to find that the good Doctor is out of town. He decides to stay at the same inn and pub where Vincent stayed; the kindly innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux (Tomlinson) who remembered the painter quite fondly puts him up in the very room where Vincent lived and died. Armand sets out while he waits for the doctor to return with talking with various townspeople about the painter, from the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Ronan), his housekeeper (McCrory), a boatman (Flynn) and the local policeman (Herdman). The more Armand interviews the people who knew Van Gogh the more murky his death becomes. Was it really suicide, as the painter himself confessed to on his deathbed? Or was it something else?

First off, this movie is a remarkable achievement in animation. The filmmakers started by filming the actors against green screen, then utilized more than 100 artists to create each frame as an oil painting in the style of Van Gogh (inserting actual paintings of the master in various places more than 40 of them – see if you can spot them all) which came out to about approximately 65,000 paintings all told. In a way, we’re getting a view inside Van Gogh’s head and coming about as close as we will ever get to seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes.

The voice acting can be stiff and stuffy at times, but unlike a lot of reviewers I found the story compelling. There is a bit of a mystery to the death of Van Gogh, particularly in light of a 2011 biography that questions the official account of his death and hints that he may have been the victim of an accidental shooting and that he insisted it was suicide to protect the person who shot him. There are certainly some compelling reasons to think it, mainly based on the angle of the shot that mortally wounded the painter. Most suicides put the gun to their head; most don’t kill themselves by shooting themselves in the stomach which is an exceedingly painful way to go. The angle of the wound also suggests a trajectory that would have made it physically unlikely that Van Gogh shot himself although it was possible.

That said, most scholars today agree that this new theory is less likely than suicide and while the filmmakers here seem to lean in the direction of homicide, it at least gives us a bit of a gateway into examining the painter’s works, particularly in the last months of his life. While the movie seems preoccupied with Van Gogh’s death more than his life – something in which Adeline Ravoux actually scolds Armand about during the film – there is no doubt that the filmmakers hold his work in great reverence.

And that’s really the beauty of the film. It brings the world of Van Gogh to life, gives it depth and meaning in ways that most of us could never do on our own. It will hopefully give some folks the impetus to take a closer look at his work and his life; it did me for sure. Spending so much time trying to make sense of his death may give the movie a bit of a morbid tinge but that doesn’t detract at all from the overall beauty that Van Gogh created – and the filmmakers re-created with such obvious love. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on the shortlist for the Best Animated Feature Oscar for next year.

REASONS TO GO: The technique is startling and brilliant. The use of Van Gogh’s paintings is clever. The story is compelling. The end credits are extremely well done. The film will likely motivate you to explore Van Gogh, his life and his work.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems more concerned with Van Gogh’s death than with his life. Some of the voice acting is a little stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly mature; there’s also some violence, a bit of sexuality and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each one of the film’s more than 65,000 frames were hand-painted using similar techniques to what Van Gogh actually used. It took a team of more than 125 artists more than seven years to complete the massive task.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Painting (Le tableau)
FINAL RATING: 8..5/10
NEXT:
Clarity

Levitated Mass


L.A. rocks!

L.A. rocks!

(2013) Documentary (Electric City) Michael Heizer, Michael Govan, Jarl Mohn, Terry Semel, Zev Yaroslavsky, Bruce Pollack, Stephen Vander Hart, Mary Heizer, Terry Emmert, Tim Cunningham, Chris Gutierrez, Larry Klayman, Greg Otto, Elaine Wynn, Kathleen Anderson, Wes Molino, Chaz Ermini, Raul Duran, Gregg Lowry, Ron Elad, Laura Roughton, Chrissie Isles. Directed by Doug Pray

Florida Film Festival-2014

Art is an entirely subjective thing. What is art to one person may not necessarily be  to another. Some people can look at a beautiful sunset at call it art; others say that art only exists as a human creation; art cannot be discovered, only created. There is no right answer, incidentally; art is what you think it is.

Michael Heizer is a sculptor who has been pushing the boundaries of art since the ’60s. He created the concept of “negative sculpture” – solid objects with the “art” carved out of them. Heizer also tends to prefer working with massive sizes and shapes. He has mostly been on his Nevada ranch the past couple of decades, working on a unique and perhaps unfinishable sculpture.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made time for other things however. One concept he has been working on for more than forty years has been the work of art entitled “Levitated Mass” in which a massive boulder is suspended above a trench so people can walk beneath the boulder and alongside it. He would eventually have a supporter in Michael Govan, executive director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or as it is locally known, LACMA.

When Heizer found the perfect rock in a Riverside quarry, he was ready to create his artwork but first he had to get the rock from Riverside to Los Angeles. That’s a 60 mile journey if you make it directly, but a boulder this size – 340 tons, 21 and a half feet tall – isn’t just something you can pick up and put in the back of a pickup truck. A specialized transport had to be constructed just to move it and the route had to go in such a way that the vehicle was able to make it under bridges (and over bridges that were structurally able to support the weight) as well as on roads which didn’t have tight turns that the truck couldn’t make. Eventually a route was plotted that turned the 60 mile trip into 106 miles.

The process to move the boulder was a harrowing one, involving 22 city governments, three county governments and the State of California with the museum having to secure permits from each one of these bureaucracies. Just one refusal would have shut the whole thing down, and there were some legitimate reasons to say no – wear and tear on roads, the involvement of city services, the disruption to traffic (although the rock only traveled late at night).

The museum raised the ten million dollars needed from private donors and eventually, on the night of February 28, 2012 the boulder went underway from the quarry. The museum had to arrange to notify the residents of what was happening, tow cars parked along the route, temporarily move traffic signals and signs, and insure that the rock wasn’t damaged en route. In order to facilitate it, the boulder was wrapped in sheets of Egyptian cotton and essentially hidden from sight.

A curious thing happened on the way to the museum. People turned up to watch the spectacle night after night, sometimes in pajamas in the wee hours of the mornings. Tens of thousands of residents turned up, over a thousand of them gathering at LACMA on March 10 alone to see the boulder arrive at its new home. Spontaneous block parties broke out; people proposed marriage and everywhere the rock went it ignited a debate as to whether the expense was worth it and if this rock was actually art or ego. One thing is for certain; Angelinos love a good spectacle.

Pray wisely doesn’t take sides and allows the viewer to decide these questions for themselves. It’s understandable why some people, particularly in some of the poorest neighborhoods of L.A. would be grousing about spending ten million dollars to move a rock when there were so many urgent needs desperate for funding in those neighborhoods. However, it is also understandable that art has an important place not only in a city’s culture but in its own self-definition. What would New York City be without the Guggenheim, or Chicago without the Cloud Gate sculpture? Sure, they’d still be there but they wouldn’t be the same.

The movie serves as a tribute to human ingenuity as well as human will, the will to make the unlikely happen. One has to admire the tenacity of the team of transportation experts and museum staff as well as Heizer himself. The installation shows skills not only in art but in engineering and architecture as well. It is open to the public at the present and doesn’t require museum admission to see it.

While some of the street interviews tended to raise some of the same points over and over again, it is nonetheless inspiring to watch the transportation, the reaction of the people of Southern California to it and the final installation of the boulder in its new home. Is it art? That’s really your call to make dear reader but as far as I’m concerned, it’s art. Very much so.

REASONS TO GO: Invites debate as to the nature of art. Inspiring and creative.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the talking heads are a bit superfluous.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heizer’s father was a geologist who did a great deal of research into the movement of heavy objects by ancient civilizations.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tim’s Vermeer

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Brick Mansions

For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!

Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg)


Ghosts in the Hermitage.

Ghosts in the Hermitage.

(2002) Historical Fantasy (Wellspring) Leonid Mozgovoy, Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Maksim Sergeyev, Natalya Nikulenko, Aleksandr Chaban, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Lev Yeliseyev, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Ospienko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova, Svetlana Gaytan. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Russian Ark was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also produced in one long shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope and as viewers travel the corridors among the magnificent artworks of the Hermitage, they meet figures from history who lived and worked there.

The story concerns an unseen narrator (Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as “The Spy.” He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great (Sergeyev). How can that be?

And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, although writer/director/producer Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline than Vonnegut did.

The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.

It’s an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music.  Part of the movie’s problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you’d have a 100-hour long movie.

Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It’s truly a charming portrayal.

At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the siege of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don’t know what’s coming next or whom – or when – you’ll encounter.

Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother’s family hailed from the Ukraine), I found Russian Ark’s commentary on Russian life not always flattering, but always honest and completely scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a “what can you do” kind of fatalism.

It was not so long before this was made that these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship during those transitional years in shrugging off the communist government they’d pioneered. I don’t think Russian Ark could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history – warts and all – instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.

Russian Ark is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it’s worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. You should seek this out – it is one of the best movies of the last decade and remains to this day one of the highest grossing Russian-made films in the United States.

WHY RENT THIS: The magnificent artwork and corridors of the Hermitage. Novel concept. Epic sweep of Russian history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: A few eerie moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The entire film was shot in one continuous shot which was choreographed and pre-planned to the very last detail. What you see is the third take – there were two flubbed attempts that thankfully occurred in the first ten minutes. Oh, and the Marquis de Custine was an actual historical figure.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a 48 minute documentary feature on the history of the Hermitage, as well as 43 minute making-of featurette that details all of the issues and preplanning of this massive undertaken, which included three different orchestras, almost 2000 actors and 33 different rooms of the museum all filmed in one continuous shot.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.7M on an unknown production budget; despite the epic scope of the film, I believe that it was profitable in the end.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is like nothing else that’s come before or since.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: My Country, My Country

 

The Painting (Le tableau)


Art is a leap of faith.

Art is a leap of faith.

(2011) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Jean Barney, Chloe Berthier, Julien Bouanich, Serge Fafli, Thierry Jahn, Jean-Francois Laguionie, Adrien Larmande, Jessica Monceau, Jeremy Prevost, Jacques Roehrich, Celine Ronte, Magali Rosenzweig, Thomas Sagols, Michel Vigne. Directed by Jean-Francois Laguionie

 Florida Film Festival 2013

In this French-Belgian co-production, the figures in a painting lead their own lives behind the canvas walls that we see. In one particular painting, there is a rigid social strata; in the luxurious castle live the Alldunns, the completed figures who are at the top of the food chain and are altogether pleased with themselves as the painter meant to complete them. Below them but worlds apart are the Halfies, figures not quite finished with occasionally the matter of only a few brush strokes separating them from the top of the rung – but it is in the garden they must live. Finally there are the Sketchies, little more than pencil drawings who hide in plain sight and are the low carvings on the totem pole, the objects of derision and hatred from both the other groups, exiled into the forest.

Of course everything begins with a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between Alldunn Ramo (Larmande) and Halfie Claire (Berthier). This is deeply frowned upon by the Great Candlestick, the Doge-like leader of the Alldunns. The Halfies are just as resentful of Claire and so she runs away. Separated from his love, Ramo goes into the woods to find Claire, accompanied by her friend Lola (Monceau) and Plume (Jahn), a bitter Sketchie who watched his friend Gom (Bouanich) horribly beaten and thrown from the castle balcony to the ground below.

The three go on a journey to reunite the lovers and to find the painter, who can bring harmony to the world of the painting by completing his work. They will discover new worlds inside other paintings and find out that the things that seem important on the outside pale in significance to what’s inside.

The paintings here bring to mind the works of Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Chagall although they are representations of different styles of art more than of a specific piece. The world of The Painting is imaginative and clever, although the animation, while colorful, is a bit choppy in places, looking almost like a Cartoon Network version of an art history course.

Still, this is solid family entertainment with a lovely little twist at the end and a distinctly European point of view, especially in regards to class differentiations and in changing your environment. It took four years to realize and I suspect that the things I found deficient in the animation itself may well have been done deliberately to make a point which I can appreciate but still in all with a little bit more care this could have been the work of art that it was trying to portray.

REASONS TO GO: Very colorful. Imaginative and innovative.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is spotty in places. Very simplistic story.

FAMILY VALUES:  One of the paintings in the movie is of a topless woman, but in an artistic way and certainly non-sexualized. There is a bit of violence including one rather disturbing scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The distributor name, GKIDS, stands for Guerilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate, and began life as the organizers of the Oscar-qualifying New York Children’s International Film Festival which they continue to do today.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Putzel and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

The Roommate


 

The Roommate

The backwards on the floor no-look door opening technique rarely works.

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) Leighton Meester, Minka Kelly, Cam Gigandet, Aly Michalka, Danneel Harris, Frances Fisher, Billy Zane, Tomas Arana, Chris Bylsma, Nina Dobrev, Matt Lanter, Katerina Graham, Ryan Doom, Carrie Finklea. Directed by Christian E. Christiansen

 

Ah, sweet college days. The parties, the friendships, the dorms. Who can forget that sort of half-baked roommate, the one who drove you crazy? Of course, there are always the crazy roommates who were really crazy…

Sara (Kelly) is a fresh-faced young fashion student mending from a broken heart and attending a school in sunny Southern California which must look pretty cosmopolitan to a girl off the farm in Iowa. She winds up with Rebecca (Meester) as a roommate. Rebecca comes from good money but she has a lot of problems. She’s an art student with a taste for let’s just say the darker side of art. She also is a bit obsessive when it comes to Sara. She wants Sara to like her. Her and nobody else, to be exact.

This becomes somewhat inconvenient for the other people in Sara’s life, such as the hunky frat boy Stephen (Gigandet) that she’s dating, or the ditzy party girl Tracy (Michalka) she’s friends with. Rebecca goes further and further off the deep end and we know what murky waters that can lead to.

Christiansen has an Oscar nomination to his credit (for a live action short) so we know he has at least some talent and imagination. At times he sets up some fairly innovative camera shots but that really doesn’t help this mess out much. The problems here are myriad and mostly have to do with the writing and the acting.

While not credited anywhere, this seems disturbingly similar to the Jennifer Jason Leigh/Bridget Fonda film Single White Female which is a far better movie than this one. It contains a lot of similar elements to The Roommate but is executed much better. Single White Female at least has the courage of its convictions whereas The Roommate is something of a tease, wanting to titillate with the promise of homoerotic encounters as well as straight-out gore and really, delivering neither.

The cast is attractive enough, although they tend to lean heavily towards CW alumni. Unfortunately, most of the characters they play lean towards the single dimension and other than Rebecca we really don’t get much background whatsoever. In short, we aren’t given a reason to care about any of them. That’s not always a problem with the script; some of the acting seems to be a bit forced while in other cases the performances seem obligatory, as if the actor just wanted to collect the paycheck and move on.

For me there is a point where reboot ends and rip-off begins and that’s pretty much the way the filmmakers went at it here. There’s little or no originality and some of the creepier elements that made Single White Female work so well are absent here. The filmmakers, rather than going for suspense and tension go instead for cheap thrills. Unfortunately, there are far too many movies out there where you can get those. I think the film would have been better served to go for an R rating instead of a PG-13; more gore, more sex might have given the film an edge it doesn’t possess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some very good-looking actors and actresses at work here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A poorly executed rip-off of Single White Female. Could have used some more edge.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence and menace, some sexuality, teen partying and a few choice bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, the poster depicts the Christy Administration building from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. While the photo of the building was legally leased from a stock photo service, the school was concerned that their image might be tarnished by the depiction of their school in the poster of the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a nice feature on the wardrobe department for the film, something that doesn’t get coverage often on home video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on a $16M production budget; the film made back its production costs and a bit more than that during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Lebanon

Dinner for Schmucks


Dinner for Schmucks

Rolling on the floor laughing is just an Internet phrase, dammit!

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Stephanie Szostak, Jemaine Clement, Jeff Dunham, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston, Lucy Punch, David Walliams, Ron Livingston, Larry Wilmore, Kristen Schaal, P.J. Byrne, Andrea Savage . Directed by Jay Roach

There are two kinds of people in business, it is said; those with ambition and those who succeed. Those who are successful, the inference is, act on that ambition. Sometimes, the price for acting on that ambition is high indeed.

Tim Conrad (Rudd) is that kind of ambitious guy, an executive at a financial firm who wants to move up the ladder. The key to his success is landing Muller (Walliams), a Swiss multi-millionaire. His boss, Lance Fender (Greenwood), is impressed enough to invite Tim to an annual event he hosts, a dinner for winners. Tim is psyched about this until he finds out that the event is not about highlighting legitimate talents, but to find the biggest loser for which the executive who brings him gets everlasting glory.

Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Szostak), who is a curator for the eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Clement) doesn’t like the idea much. Tim has proposed several times to Julie but she’s turned him down each time. Tim agrees not to go to the dinner, hoping this will put him over the top with Julie.

The next day Tim is driving his Porsche when he accidentally hits a man picking up a dead mouse in the street. That man is Barry Speck (Carell), and it turns out his hobby is recreating works of art as dioramas with dead mice in the place of humans in the tableaux. Tim realizes that he has found the winning loser.

When Julie finds out that Tim is going to the dinner after all she storms out of his apartment, leaving her cell phone behind. Shortly afterwards, Barry shows up having confused the dates of the dinner. He gets on Tim’s computer while Tim is occupied and gives Tim’s address to Darla (Punch), a one-night stand that Tim had before he met Julie who is now psychotically stalking Tim. To make amends for inviting her, Barry decides to guard Tim’s apartment and intercept Darla before she gets there but mistakes Julie for Darla and implies to Julie that Tim is cheating on her.

Barry acts like a cyclone in Tim’s life, innocently doing the wrong thing and making things worse when he tries to atone. Discovering that Julie is on her way to Kieran’s ranch, Barry enlists the help of his supervisor at the IRS (yes, a guy like Barry could only work at the IRS), one Therman Murch (Galifianakis) who believes he is able to control Barry with the power of his mind. Uh huh, as if. Even this turns out to be disastrous.

Tim, who was on the verge of having it all, now finds himself on the verge of losing it all. However, he will attend the dinner in a last-ditch attempt at redemption. Maybe he might even deserve it.

This is the remake of a French film by Francis Veber entitled Le Diner de Cons (translated as Dinner With Cretins). I haven’t seen it myself but I understand it is less over-the-top and a little more cerebral than this one. Roach, who has the Austin Powers franchise to his credit, takes a little more in-your-face attitude, making it more like a Farrelly Brothers effort to my mind.

One of the things the movie has going for it is Rudd and Carell. Although they’ve worked together before (notably on The Forty Year Old Virgin) they never have quite as extensively as this. They do make a good comic team, with Rudd being one of the best straight men in the business and Carell rarely getting to let loose quite as much as he does here.

There are moments that are heart-warming but there is an underlying cruelty to the concept that gives one pause. On the surface, the heart seems to be firmly on the side of the Schmucks, but there is that nagging feeling that they’re really the butt of the joke once again. From my perspective, this is decidedly uneven and will have you flushing with embarrassment as you laugh at some of the antics of the schmucks but at the end of the day, it’s still funny enough to recommend. Just.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Carell and Rudd is spot on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never really decides whether it’s going to be heart-warming or cruel.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of partial nudity and some crude content (sexual and otherwise) and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on in the film’s development, Sacha Baron Cohen was set to be the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the building of the mouse dioramas by the Chiodo Brothers (directors of the cult hit Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and a skit used during the 2010 ESPY awards lampooning the LeBron James press conference with Rudd and Carell in character.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $86.4M on a $69M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Missing Pieces


Missing Pieces

Mark Boone Jr. looks off into a confusing future.

(2012) Drama (Contraction Entertainment) Mark Boone Jr., Melora Walters, Alana Jordan, Taylor Engel, Daniel Hassel, Victoria Mullen, Joyce Liles, Hannah Hughes, Jocelyn Druyan, Jackson Pyle, Jeremy Windham, Emana Rachelle, Carlissa Arrow. Directed by Kenton Bartlett

Love is not the easiest thing in the world to understand or come to grips with. We just know when we’re in it and we don’t always know when we’re out of it. Sometimes, it ends sooner for one participant than the other; sometimes we have to go to extraordinary lengths to figure out why.

David Lindale (Boone) is not your ordinary average guy. He’s a big hulking dude who looks like he might rip your head off of your neck but a look at his eyes shows that he’s really just a big teddy bear who has a few light bulbs short of a chandelier. It’s not his fault – an accident left him a bit fragile from a mental standpoint – but if David seems a little slow on the uptake he still follows his own path of logic that is at least a different way of thinking.

Delia (Walters) is his girlfriend and she’s had enough. David has been getting worse in his confusion and his well-intentioned but ultimately inappropriate actions, and she wants to call it quits. David tries everything he can to get her to stay but she is adamant; it’s time for the both of them to move on. David is nowhere near ready to and that leads him to an act that may on the surface seem very crazy and spontaneous but in truth took a good deal of planning; he kidnaps two young people – Maggie (Engel) and Daylen (Hassel) – and puts them in a situation where they must learn to rely on each other. What will become of what David considers to be a social experiment?

This movie, first and foremost, is a labor of love. Bartlett only picked up a video camera for the first time a mere three years from the time he finished this movie, and clearly this project means the world to him. He got a number of friends and professionals to lend their talents gratis for the movie and you get a sense that the cast and crew had complete buy-in regarding the project.

Bartlett did quite a few things right here. For one thing, he cast the main roles to near-perfection. Boone, who has had minor roles in Batman Begins and Memento (both Christopher Nolan films) makes a terrific David. He has a mournful pair of eyes that sits in the body of a man who you wouldn’t necessarily see as sensitive at first glance. Boone does a lot of acting with those eyes and gets across his frustration in failing to understand what is happening and why. He’s not stupid – he’s just confused. The difference is huge and important here.

Walters, Engel and Hassel all do bang-up jobs in roles that could have easily been clichés (and would have been in a studio film) but bring some humanity and personality to their parts. That makes for a compelling character study and to my mind, that’s essentially what this film is.

Now to the bad news. This is told in a non-linear fashion (as was Memento) and while that’s an ambitious, ballsy move, it is also incredibly difficult to pull off and Bartlett doesn’t quite do it – the beginning of the movie is confusing at times. It is worth hanging in there for however.

Again, this is clearly a labor of love. The intent of the moviemakers was not to get headlines in Ain’t It Cool News or to be on everybody’s lips at Sundance, but to make a quality movie and get people to see it. They have an uphill climb ahead of them and I do wish them well. However, they managed to get some theater space in Birmingham in September and played a night in Los Angeles; I’m sure they will be making the festival rounds next year.

They were kind enough to provide a review copy for me and while I can’t laud them as the best thing since sliced bread, I can say that if you take a chance on this movie and give it a viewing (and if you hurry, they’re available on prescreening.com (link below) until mid-November 2011) you may well be pleasantly surprised. This movie got made for all the right reasons and there is enough here to make it worth your while. If you love movies, this is a film after your own heart.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted with a story that is unique and compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is told in a non-linear fashion and the beginning of the movie is often hard to follow.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult situations and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had 588 people volunteer their time at no charge for various duties on the production.

HOME OR THEATER: This will be awfully hard to find in a theater; it should be much easier to find either on Netflix (eventually) or on prescreen.com.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Chasing Amy