Velvet Buzzsaw


Things that make you go “hmmm”.

(2019) Horror Satire (Netflix) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Alan Mandell, Mig Macario, Nitya Vidyasagar, Sedale Threatt Jr., Keith Bogart, Sofia Toufa, Kassandra Voyagis, Mark Leslie Ford, Amy Tsang, Mark Steger, Andrea Marcovicci, Pisay Pao, Ian Alda, Valentina Gordon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

 

I have said many a time that there is a difference between art and Art and it largely depends on how seriously the artist takes him/herself. Art is pretentious and arrogant whereas art is inspiring and insightful. Director Dan Gilroy, acclaimed for his work on Nightcrawlers, knows the difference.

In this horror-laced satire about the contemporary commercial art world, he reunites with two of the stars of Nightcrawlers. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the self-important art critic whose words can triple the price that a painting will get, or destroy a budding artist’s career entirely. Art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo) shares a symbiotic relationship with him. Morf, who is bisexual, has a thing for Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Ashton).

Josephina wants more than to be someone’s coffee-fetcher and when an elderly man in her apartment building dies literally in front of her door, she discovers her chance – his apartment is filled with haunting, vaguely unsettling art work. She knows instantly that it’s the Real Deal and enters into a partnership with Rhodora to sell it, even though the man expressly wanted his art destroyed and not sold. Nevertheless, sold it is and as a number of characters in the art world – up and coming agent Jon Dondon (Sturridge), gallery curator Gretchen (Collette) who looks to make her own mark (and fortune), to name a couple – jockey for position to get a piece of the pie. Then, they start to turn up dead in horrible, gruesome ways.

The film relies heavily on smart, snappy dialogue and Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date as Morf, whose evolution during the film is presaged by the homonym of his first name. In fact, the entire cast, which incidentally is a pretty nifty one, does a bang-up job with particular kudos to Dyer as one of the few sympathetic characters in the film.

The movie doesn’t go easy on the gore which is likely to delight horror fans, although they might not know what to make of the satire that makes up the first third of the movie. Regardless, this is wildly entertaining and one of the better movies under the Netflix banner.

REASONS TO SEE: Gyllenhaal is delightful. Entertaining in a smarmy way. Lampoons the artificiality and pretentiousness of the commercial art world.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, as well as a surfeit of profanity, some sexuality, brief nudity and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gilroy, who also wrote the film, stated in an interview that the unusual character names were inspired by Charles Dickens
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bucket Full of Blood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sometimes Always Never

Here Awhile


Reflections at the end of life.

(2019) Drama (1091Anna Camp, Steven Strait, Joe Lo Truglio, Chloe Mason, Kristin Taylor, Dana Millican, Reza Leal-Smartt, Grant Hall, Sydney Lovering, Parker Hall, Griffin Gadre, Kieran Gadre, Deborah Lee Smith. Directed by Tim True

 

Eventually, we all die. I will. You will. Your significant other will. Your parents will. Your children will. To dust we all, inevitably, finally, return.

Anna (Camp) has returned to Portland, Oregon, after an absence of 15 years to reconnect with her younger brother Michael (Strait). At first, Michael is not having it; there has been literally no contact between them since their late father threw her out of the house because she is a lesbian. Anna explains that she attempted to call, but their father would always hang up on her. It doesn’t take long before forgiveness supplants hurt feelings. Family is, after all, family.

But Anna has an ulterior motive; she has a very aggressive colon cancer that has spread all over her body. Not only is it inoperable but it is also untreatable as well. Oregon has a death with dignity law for their citizens. Anna has officially moved back and taken up residence, so she qualifies. She is in the end stages now and time is running short. She needs her brother’s support if she is going to end her life with the dignity she wants to.

She finds a new family with her wife Luisa (Taylor), Michael’s girlfriend Shonda (Mason) and Gary (Lo Truglio), Michael’s autistic/agoraphobic/OCD neighbor and co-worker whom Michael looks after. The five of them spread the ashes of Anna’s dad in a quiet, natural place, take a beach trip, have long talks about the nature of existence and what comes after death. As Anna weakens, she sees the doctor who gently tells her how to self-terminate. Will there be no miracle here?

Spoiler alert: no. Anna’s death is depicted as a part of life. The physical act of dying is handled with sensitivity and realism, so kudos to the True (who co-wrote the film) for that. He also shows off Portland pretty well, presenting it as a really nice place to live. Portland is often portrayed as the unwanted stepchild of Seattle, so that was nice to see.

The movie handles a topic – the end of life – that is rarely looked at by the movies, because it is a topic that most of us are uncomfortable with, even though we will all end up facing it someday (and I hope, gentle reader, it is a long, long, LONG time before you do). There is definite food for thought here and using Oregon’s enlightened death with dignity law is a handy springboard.

But the movie is deeply flawed. The characters are largely archetypes rather than feeling like real human beings. Camp looks way too healthy and strong to be dying; some creative make-up would have at least given her a sallow complexion. Worst of all, most of the characters are mouthing platitudes rather than any real insight. I wish the writers would have tried writing real people with real opinions for this film.

For those who are triggered by political correctness, the movie is woke AF. Both couples are bi-racial which is a good thing, but it doesn’t feel organic; it feels like it was a means for the filmmakers to feel proud of how politically correct they are. The relationships seem forced and poor Gary is the only one who doesn’t have a romantic partner. That feels more condescending than you can imagine, and the Asperger’s patient who is wiser than Merlin has become something of a cinematic cliché. I also feel a little skeevy about someone on the spectrum being used as comedy relief. Maybe I’m being too politically correct myself.

But I suppose that’s just the times we live in – everyone is overly sensitive about everything, it seems. I guess I’m no exception in that regard, but that doesn’t change the fact that this film had a golden opportunity to open dialogue about euthanasia, dying with dignity and death itself, but ends up sinking into a morass of clichés and banal plot points and characters. There is some insight to be had here, but you’ll essentially have to be work really hard to find it.

REASONS TO SEE: The subject matter is worth exploring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly maudlin and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult in nature, with a side of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is True’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, MUBI, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Farewell Party
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
This Teacher

If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Gelateria


Seduction comes in many forms.

(2019) Art (Tropical GreyCarrie Getman, Tomas Spencer, Christian Serritiello, Daniel Brunet, Jade Willis, Simone Spinazze, Joulia Strauss, Arthur Patching, John Keogh, Melissa Holroyd, Julie Trappett, Myra Eetgerink, Ben Posener, Seumas F. Sargent, Laura Wilkinson, Mike Davies, Darren Smith (narrator), Wencke Synak. Directed by Arthur Patching and Christian Serritiello

 

Art isn’t easy. It isn’t meant to be spoon-fed to the observer; it is meant to engage them. It requires thought, emotion, whimsy – sometimes all at once. Making art requires focus and determination, a willingness to leap before you look, and a very thick skin.

There’s no plot here per se and I guess it would be fair to say there’s not really a concept either unless you choose to supply one of your own. The main “storyline” here – an artist is given a show at a gallery on a remote island and ships her art there. When she doesn’t hear anything for months, she becomes alarmed and sets out to the island to find out what happened to her artwork. There…stuff happens. Eventually, the movie ends.

The storyline I speak of doesn’t kick in until 35 minutes into the film. Before that there are a series of vignettes – a guy (Serritiello) on a train to Zurich with a girlfriend he no longer loves (and who no longer loves him) and whose face he no longer can see clearly gets off the train and finds himself in a weird, strange place. He ends up dealing with his past which isn’t all rose-colored; when in a jazz club he sees a jazz vocalist there who was once as close as a brother to him but whom he abandoned. When confronted, all the man can do is murmur “I’ve changed.”

A performance artist uses a real gun n her performance art. A party engages an Italian speaker to speak to them, even though none of them speak a word of the language. Apparently, that’s a thing there as there is a Speaker’s Agency from which you can rent foreign language speakers. People eat. People scratch. People laugh. People move about until the man’s story is left behind and we follow the artist and her journey – which starts out as an animation.

The directors are apparently fond of extreme close-ups; they are employed relentlessly throughout the film. The thing about extreme close-ups is that they tend to distort features and make even the most beautiful people look ugly. It gets to be repetitious.

But then, repetition seems to be a theme here. Lines of dialogue are repeated several times (and sometimes more than that). Lines are repeated by Greek choruses of background performers. There is something very La Dolce Vita about the whole thing. A secret, though, about repetition; sometimes it’s not creative; it’s just repetitive.

I’ll be honest with you; my taste in cinema tends to be a bit more mainstream and so it was difficult for me to sit through the film at times. I can say in defense of the filmmakers that there is a great deal of imagination shown throughout; in one scene people are caged like birds and instead of voices coming out of their mouths, chirping and birdsong comes out. I found that to be funny in a renegade kind of way.

I can’t say this is for everyone. The average viewer will find it unfathomable and difficult to watch, and they aren’t wrong. All I can say is it requires a commitment on the part of the viewer to actually use their brains and any opportunity to do that in this day and age where stupid really is as stupid really does is welcome.

Gelateria has yet to play on an American screen although there are plans to take it onto the festival circuit once theaters reopen and film festivals are up and running again, so those who are fond of the avant garde may want to keep an eye out for it. While the filmmakers are concentrating on Europe, there are plans to have it in North American festivals and eventually, on a streaming service of some sort.

REASONS TO SEE: At times, very imaginative with a subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Falls prey to needless repetition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to their iMDB entry, the movie has played exclusively at European film festivals to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/120/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Un Chien Andalou
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Shoplifters

Perception (2019)


It doesn’t take a psychic to figure out what’s coming in Perception.

(2018) Thriller (Gravitas Ventures) Wes Ramsey, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Caitlin Mehner, Max Jenkins, Jro, Vee Kumari, J. Barrett Cooper, Adam & Ali Zoumzoum, Valerie Jane Parker, Matthew Davis, Apollo Bacala, Kelly Mengelkoch, Takayla Williams, Tshombi Basemore, Davis Aguila, Daniel H. Shoemaker, Shaleen Cholera, John French, Sarah East. Directed by Ilana Rein

 

When we lose someone we care about, their spirit stays with us in a sense; they are on our mind as we hold on to their presence for as long as we can. We see them wherever we go; in memories and sometimes as apparitions from better days. We have a tendency to forget the bad memories but they’re there as well.

Daniel (Ramsey) is a high-powered go-getter at a bank that is foreclosing on a suburban shopping strip in L.A. that has seen better days. One of the last tenants of the strip mall is a palmistry shop. When a silent little boy named Hugo (Zoumzoum) stows away in Daniel’s SUV, he figures out that the boy might have come from the shop which, indeed, he has. His mom Nina (Kumbhani) is shocked – “he’s never done this kind of thing before,” she explains once she gets over the shock of seeing her boy with a complete stranger.

Out of a sense of gratitude she gives Daniel a free reading and tells him that he has a spirit attached to him, following him, someone recently deceased. “Your wife?” she inquires. In doing so, she hits a raw nerve. Maggie (Mehner) indeed passed away recently and Daniel is desperate to contact her, willing to pay anything if Nina can do the job for him. Nina’s business partner Jro (Jro) congratulates her on hooking what is an apparently wealthy fish and urges her to reel him in. In the meantime, Hugo is acting out in school and his teacher (East) suggests an expensive private school who can better take care of Hugo’s needs.

And so, Nina starts doing “sessions” with Daniel, even though she is shocked to discover that the spirit of Maggie is angry. “She’s in control,” Nina tells Daniel forthrightly, “She decides what memories she wants you to see.” Indeed, the memories of Maggie are not always pleasant but Daniel wants more. Nina is reluctant but she needs the money so she allows the sessions to go deeper but deeper is dangerous – much more dangerous than even she knows.

This thriller harkens back to the sort of psychosexual thrillers that were popular in the 90s, often as direct-to-VHS or cable. The supernatural element is never overplayed and although we see Maggie as a ghostly apparition once, mostly we see her in flashback.

Sadly, the script veers from what was a promising thriller into fairly cliché territory. Ramsey is a veteran soap opera actor and in some ways the sudsy froth of this script is likely familiar territory for him. Most of the acting performances are pretty strong, although as the movie reaches its climax Ramsey indulges in some serious scenery chewing. However, both Mehner and Kumbhani deliver strong performances and Jro delightfully steals the scenes that he appears in.

The pacing is pretty slow for most of the film and the script gives away a bit too much to make the big twist really effective. That’s the real shame; a little more imagination could have taken this film a long way. As it is it’s fairly mundane but not entirely without entertainment value.

REASONS TO SEE: The performances are for the most part decent.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced until the plot goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the world-famous Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Again
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Love & Saucers


David Huggins does his best Nosferatu impression.

(2017) Documentary (Curator/The Orchard) David Huggins, Michael Huggins, Harold Egeln, Anthony Lisa, Nitten Patel, Doug Auld, Jeffrey Kripel, Andrzej Nowicki.  Directed by Brad Abrahams

 

There are those who insist that we are not alone in the universe. Certainly the law of averages agrees with them; there are so many habitable planets in this galaxy alone that the odds are that life has evolved on at least some of them and of those that life evolved on, the odds are that intelligent life has evolved on at least some of those. Some perhaps even intelligent enough to invent faster-than-light space travel; some perhaps curious enough to explore this big blue marble.

David Huggins at first glance seems like an ordinary 72-year-old man in Hoboken, New Jersey. He works part time at a deli; he’s quiet but personable and radiates a grandfatherly kindness. He spends most of his time painting, a passion of his that at one time he wanted to turn into a career but that never materialized, alas.

David has a strange story to tell; as an 8-year-old living in rural Georgia he began to receive visits from creatures not of this world. As a 17-year-old, he lost his virginity to an alien woman he called Crescent; for six years she would be what he termed his “girlfriend” and they had regular…er, conjugal visits.

He largely forgot about his bizarre past until the episodes began showing up as paintings that he felt compelled to create. He had gone on to marry a fellow artist and had a son (Michael) by her but Michael was apparently not his only child. David recalls a hybrid alien child who Crescent informed him was his child and it was dying. Clearly he was distraught about the situation but it eventually ends with the child surviving; and as it turns out, the hybrid had many brothers and sisters.

Skeptics are going to have a field day with this; Abraham doesn’t do much to argue with any of David’s claims. I can understand why; David certainly seems pretty sincere in his beliefs and while there may be alternate explanations for what David has experienced, they aren’t explored and one gets the sense that Abrahams is giving David the benefit of the doubt and accepting his story at face value. Not every filmmaker would have the objectivity to do that.

One of the things that annoyed me about the documentary was the music. Derk Reneman alternates between Korla Pandit-like organ noodling to electronic burbling. It’s very repetitive and very noticeable which is not what you want out of your soundtrack. However, it’s offset by the visuals of the paintings themselves which Huggins himself admits are heavily influenced by impressionism but aren’t quite in that genre. They are quite interesting albeit a little on the fantastic side. Some won’t connect to them much but art is always – always – in the eye of the beholder.

There aren’t a lot of talking heads in this (other than David himself) until the end of the barely an hour long film and for the most part they all agree that David is a very nice guy and sincere in his beliefs. His son Michael appears and is very diplomatic; one suspects that while he loves his dad he finds his beliefs somewhat eccentric. In any case, Michael has moved to Thailand with his family and seems well-adjusted enough. Conspicuous by her absence is David’s wife Janice who declined to be interviewed for the film. One wonders if the marriage itself is on stable ground or if Janice just finds her husband’s stories annoying. I can imagine it’s a very different experience living with someone who has these tales to tell.

This isn’t an essential movie by any means but it is entertaining and while it is unlikely to change your mind about the existence of extra-terrestrials, it will at least fill up your hour with an unusual take on them. The movie is widely available on VOD (see below) and if you enjoy biographical documentaries about unusual people or if you’re just reasonably interested in alien abductions, this might be something new for you to consider.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer gets the sense that Huggins is absolutely truthful or at least believes himself to be. The paintings have their own strange beauty.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is often annoying and cheesy. The narrative bounces all over the place without a lot of flow to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much sexuality and some nudity in paintings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Abrahams’ first feature-length documentary as a solo director (he also co-directed last year’s On the Back of a Tiger.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Boss Baby

Shadowman


Me…and my shaaa-dow…

(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby

 

An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.

Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.

But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.

During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.

Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.

In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.

REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aida’s Secrets

Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

Celeste and Jesse Forever


There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, Chris D’Elia, Will McCormack, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Shira Lazar, Matthias Steiner, Rebecca Dayan, Janel Parrish, Rich Sommer, Rafi Gavron, Mathew del Negro, Kris Pino, Rafi Gavron, Zoë Hall, Lauren Sanchez, Ashli Dowling. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Cinema of the Heart 2016

It is said that it usually isn’t clear when love begins, but it’s always obvious when it ends. Sometimes couples that seem to be made for each other don’t make it; staying in a relationship in the 21st century is no easy task and requires sometimes a lot more of ourselves than we’re willing to give.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) have been married for six years and they’re everybody’s favorite couple. Celeste is essentially the breadwinner, owning a trendy L.A. agency that has just landed Riley (Roberts), a brand new super-hot pop star. Jesse is an artist but doesn’t seem to have enough gumption to actually produce much in the way of art. Still, they clearly care for each other and share a great deal of love. Everything is perfect – except they’re getting divorced.

Their impending divorce is not terribly well-received by their friends, for whom they have been something of an icon; if these two can’t make it work, how can the rest of us? But most are puzzled by the way the two hang out together all the time, how Jesse lives in his artist studio shed in their back yard while Celeste sleeps in her own bed at night. Why don’t they hate each other? And why oh why are they breaking up in the first place?

However, this idyllic circumstance of two best friends begins to change as things inevitably do. Jesse, whose slacker existence was an issue for the more controlling Celeste suddenly finds himself in a situation that changes his outlook. Celeste is unable to handle the change in Jesse and suddenly finds herself adrift, not ready to move on as Jesse had not been ready to move on initially.  Now it is obvious that Celeste and Jesse aren’t forever.

Jones wrote the film with Will McCormack who has a supporting role as a pot dealing friend of the couple. The film has some smart writing, realistic dialogue (i.e. the characters say things real people actually say) and a hefty dose of heart. It also has a surfeit of indie cliches that definitely reduce my affection for a film that could easily have garnered more of it.

Jones and Samberg are at their best here; both are enormously likable actors who get roles here they can sink their teeth into. Samberg in particular comes off as a much more multi-dimensional performer than he had shown previously on SNL and the Adam Sandberg movies he had done. He has enormous star potential which he shows here and some of his Funny or Die clips. He’s one good role away from the A-list.

Jones has been one of those actresses who never seem to deliver a subpar performance. I’ve always thought her immensely talented and this is one of the first roles in which she really shows off her potential. Celeste is very complex and in some ways unlikable; one feels throughout the movie that Celeste is taking a good thing and tossing it in the waste basket but eventually we begin to see that things aren’t that simple and a lot of that has to do with Jones’ emotional performance.

The movie works when we get into Celeste’s head; Jesse seems to be mainly an instigator for the various things going on there. When the movie tries to be indie-hip, it drags – there is a mumblecore sensibility here that doesn’t quite jibe with the overall mood. When the film gets away from that sense, it works.

Some relationships are meant to be and others, not so much. It is how we handle the not-so-much that prepares us for the next ones down the line and makes us better partners. Not every relationship is forever even though we want them to be; letting go can often be the hardest thing we ever do.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones and Samberg make an engaging non-couple. Cute in a quiet sort of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times feels like there’s nothing going on. Overloaded with indie cuteness to the point of distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of bad language, plenty of sexual content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title was Jesse Loves Celeste before it was decided that the focus of the film was going to be on Celeste.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage and a Q&A from the premiere, and also footage of Chris Pine, whose tiny role was cut from this film before he went on to star as Captain Kirk.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an $840K production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Break-Up
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

The Walk


The ultimate vertigo.

The ultimate vertigo.

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Mark Camacho, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Sergio Di Zio, Daniel Harroch, Soleyman Pierini, Patrick Baby, Marie Turgeon, Joel Rinzler, Inka Malovic, Larry Day, Catherine Lemieux. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Some dreams are bigger than others. Most of our dreams are relatively small – taking the family to Walt Disney World, or eating a corn dog on Coney Island. They are infinitely doable without a whole lot of planning. Some, however, can be bigger than all the sky.

Take Frenchman Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), for example. As a young boy, he grew fascinated by the circus performers who came to his small village. After learning the basics of walking on wires on his own, he convinced Papa Rudy (Kingsley), patriarch of the White Devils high wire act, to train him, often paying cash for each of Papa Rudy’s secrets. But even becoming a street performer in Paris after being thrown out of his house by his tyrannical father (Baby) isn’t enough, although he meets Annie (Le Bon), a fellow street performer who becomes his girlfriend.

No, he has his eye on bigger things. After walking between spires at the Notre Dame Cathedral, he still feels like there’s something else out there. While on a visit to the dentist’s office, he opens a magazine and sees the plans for the World Trade Center twin towers. He immediately knows what his destiny is to be – to walk on a wire strung between the two towers.

This actual event, chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, took place in 1974 and required years of planning. We see Petit assemble his accomplices (for the act which they called “The Coup”) including photographer Jean-Louis (Sibony) and inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve) as well as ex-pat J.P (Dale) and shy Frenchman Jeff (Domboy), and of course, Annie.

Just getting the equipment up to the top of the towers is dangerous; it’s not just getting the steel cable up there, it has to be brought from one tower to the other and affixed, then tightened all of which requires specialized equipment as well as some brilliant improvisation – the conspirators get the cable across by shooting an arrow attached to fishing wire, then attaching the fishing wire to a rope and pulling it across, then that rope to a larger rope and finally the steel cable. They also string a wire across so they can communicate without using walkie talkies which could theoretically be intercepted by authorities.

Petit would cross back and forth across the wire for 45 minutes, making eight traverses between towers. His feat made him a bit of a folk hero; he was arrested but not thrown in jail; instead he was required to perform community service which included putting a show on for children in Central Park. Petit would become a resident of New York City (which he is to this day).

Zemeckis wanted to put his audience on the high wire with Petit and in this he mainly succeeds; there are a few CGI shots that look like CGI shots but for the most part your stomach will be lurching and your insides tingling with fear, especially if you have any sort of fear of heights. While I saw the film in standard format, I understand that IMAX and 3D presentations are absolutely jaw-dropping if you can still find the film in those formats.

Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent which is at times a touch over-the-top but otherwise captures the arrogance and single-mindedness of Petit nicely; he also has the athleticism and grace of the French performer. Gordon-Levitt inhabits this role as much as he has any other in his career and this is likely to be one of his signature performances. I’m not sure what his Oscar chances are – I suspect he’ll be on the bubble – but there certainly are going to be those at the Academy who will take notice. He gets some fine support from Le Bon and Sibony, as well as Kingsley in a small but crucial role.

Gordon-Levitt also narrates the movie, sometimes in voiceovers but also jauntily perched in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France which is certainly not a coincidence that Zemeckis put him there. It contributes to the light and airy feel of the film, a delectable confection rather than a heavy-handed entree.

Of course, it’s difficult to view the Twin Towers – excellently re-created here down to the last rivet – without thinking about their fate. There is a moment at the film’s conclusion where it appears one of the towers is shaking as the movie fades to black but if I wasn’t imagining things that’s really the only overt mention of 9-11 in the movie. Zemeckis wisely allows it to remain in the back of our minds, knowing that we won’t be able to prevent thinking about it. He doesn’t try to and in that sense, he makes a more lasting tribute in the film itself which celebrates a good thing that happened there, something that those who witnessed it will never forget. In that sense, this is a fitting memorial to a pair of buildings that will be forever linked to the acts of lunatics that took more than two thousand lives; even if that was to be the destiny of the World Trade Center, it was still something else and something more once upon a time and it is high time that we remember that about them as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vertigo-inducing. Solid performances throughout. Clever narrative devices.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too vertigo-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES: Situation of peril, brief nudity, drug use, some historical smoking and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kingsley and Dale appeared in Iron Man 3.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man On Wire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: India’s Daughter