Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Say "cheesy".

Say “cheesy”.

(2006) Fantasy (Picturehouse) Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander, Boris McGiver, Emmy Clarke, Genevieve McCarthy, Mary Duffy, Lynn Marie Stetson, Gwendolyn Bucci, Eric Gingold, Christina Rouner, Marceline Hugo, Emily Bergl, Matt Servitto, David Green, Sandriel Frank, Krista Coyle. Directed by Steven Shainberg.

In the 1950s, housewives were expected essentially to be seen and not heard. The only voice their husbands wanted to hear was “Welcome home, honey” and “Here’s your martini” and “Dinner’s ready” and maybe “Yes, dear.” Of course, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at things and most wives, even back then, had voice and were heard, although they often had to find subtle ways of doing it. Diane Arbus was never the strongest of women, but she had a vision and her determination to express it led her to places that she could not have expected to go.

Diane Arbus (Kidman), the quiet, mousy daughter of fur magnate David Nemorov (Yulin) and his overbearing wife Gertrude (Alexander), is also the devoted wife to would-be photographer Allan (Burrell). She has aspirations to being a photographer herself, but has had little time to pursue that dream, helping her husband run his portrait studio as well as clean their apartment and raise their children. However, her passions and eclectic nature have led even her children to label her “weird,” although her saintly husband is willing to overlook her occasional emotional outbursts and supports her in nearly everything she wants to do.

However, a drastic change ensues when the mysterious Lionel (Downey) moves in upstairs. He only ventures in public wearing a sweater mask; that is, when he ventures out at all. She finally summons up the courage to go introduce herself to the new neighbor and discovers he suffers from a rare disfigurement; his hair grows rapidly and all over his body, turning him effectively into a living wolf man. Once she gets over his appearance, she wants to take his portrait but he keeps demurring, offering her a glimpse into a world of what used to be called the freaks; a world of dwarves and dominatrix, giants and gender benders. She begins to immerse herself more fully into that world, withdrawing more and more from her own family. Which world will Diane Arbus eventually choose?

Kidman is asked to carry this movie while retaining the obedient and subservient demeanor of a 1950s housewife. Much of her dialogue is in a whispering, excuse-me-for-speaking voice which at times gets irritating, considering you’re asking the audience to retain an interest in her character. To her credit, Kidman’s  acting is right on the money for the character as written, but pales when compared to Downey’s Lionel.

Essentially pared of facial expression for most of the movie (except for the very last reel in which Kidman tenderly – and sensually – shaves the fur from his skin), Downey uses his eyes and his voice to great effect. Although he received no acting nominations for any major awards for his performance, he was certainly deserving of consideration. If they’d used a fictional photographer loosely based on Arbus in many ways this would have been a better movie, because then they could make it about Lionel. In addition, Burrell does a surprisingly good job as the husband helplessly watching his wife drift away, wanting her to be happy and yet needing her love and support. You can see the potential he would eventually fulfill in Modern Family.

The filmmakers capture the energy of New York circa 1958 rather nicely. The apartment set by Amy Danger and Carrie Stewart, is spot-on. The set decoration, both of the Arbus’ apartment with its 1950s normality, and the more whimsical loft of Lionel, is bold and striking. Carter Burwell’s score captures the jazzy feel one associates with the city in the era of the Beat Generation. The legendary Stan Winston’s make-up for Lionel makes him the perfect Beast to Kidman’s Beauty.

First of all, I don’t like the whole concept. Why create a fictional account of Diane Arbus’ life? I’d much rather prefer to see a movie about her actual life. Wasn’t it interesting enough? I also find it highly telling that in a movie purporting to be a tribute to the world-famous photographer they use none of her photographs. I found very little of Diane Arbus in this movie, at least as far as I could detect. While Kidman does a pretty good job acting, she is asked to essentially carry the movie and yet be reserved and quiet (most of her lines are delivered in almost a whisper), leading to a curiously flat quality to the movie. We never get a sense of who Diane Arbus really was or why anyone should bother making a film about her life.

No. I honestly think this does a disservice to the memory of Diane Arbus and her work. I felt after seeing it that I hadn’t gleaned anything new about the artist; in that sense, you’re better off picking up a book of her photographs (of course, that’s pretty much true of any artist). Despite Downey’s wonderful performance and Kidman’s presence, the movie is neither inspiring nor informative and sadly, not really entertaining either.

WHY RENT THIS: Downey is compelling. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We don’t ever see any of Arbus’ actual photographs. Would have preferred seeing her actual life story. Kidman speaks in a whisper and we never get the sense that Arbus was of any interest whatsoever.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is much explicit nudity and a graphic sex scene. The adult tone to the film make it unsuitable viewing for any but the most mature teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Steven Shainberg’s Uncle Lawrence was a close friend of Diane Arbus.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2,3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 3.5/10
NEXT: Selma

Pride & Joy


 

Nothing says Southern cooking better than barbecue and few do barbecue better than Helen Sanders.

Nothing says Southern cooking better than barbecue and few do barbecue better than Helen Sanders.

(2012) Documentary (Southern Foodways Alliance) Will Harris, Dori Sanders, Rodney Scott, Lee Ross, Kendall Schoelles, Thomas Stewart, Julian van Winkle, Ben Lanier, Allan Benton, Bill Best, Geno Lee, Rhoda Adams, Leah Chase, Martha Hawkins, Ida Mamusu, Earl Cruze, Helen Turner, Bernard Colleton, Red Coleman, Sam Jones, Bruce Jones, Gerald Lemoine, Ronnie Durand. Directed by Joe York 

Florida Film Festival 2013

Southern cuisine is much more than pork rinds, barbecue and deep fried. The South has always gotten a bit of a bad rap when it comes to food until the last decade or two when chefs have begun to discover that there is an abundance of fresh ingredients, delicious cooking that takes its cues from all over the world. Celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Art Smith, Norm van Aiken and of course Paula Deen have been enthusiastic ambassadors for Southern cooking over the past decade and some of the best restaurants in the world come from the South.

But Southern cooking isn’t all about celebrity chefs. There are literally thousands of food producers who take great pride in bringing to market the finest of ingredients, the most delicious of finished products. Some are the latest in generations of people who have done the same thing, some preserving the timeless traditions of taking the time to do things right.

The Southern Foodways Alliance has been dedicated to preserving Southern food traditions and publicizing the best of the best – those who produce beautiful Georgia peaches, grass-fed beef, gulf oysters, sweet Tupelo honey, flavorful smoked Virginia hams, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, potent Kentucky bourbon and of course the best barbecue there is. Some of these are sold directly to the public while others are available only through suppliers.

York, acting on behalf of the SFA and the University of Mississippi Documentary program has been traveling throughout the South from New Orleans to Memphis, from Georgia to Virginia and all points in between – not just sampling the ample variety of food but documenting it on a series of shorts that celebrate the passions of these producers – from oyster shuckers to caviar farmers to orchard owners to bourbon distillers to beekeepers to barbecue pit masters – who not only cook the food but those who produce the ingredients.

He’s gathered some of these shorts as well as several new ones in a feature length documentary that not only celebrates the food but those behind it as well. We get to see people who love the land and its bounty, some of them quirky (grass-fed beef producer Will Harris likes to end his day with a “700ml glass of wine”), some of them completely passionate (like Tupelo honey producer Ben Lanier who waxes rhapsodic over the superiority of his brand of honey) and some of them who are philosophical (peach grower Dori Sanders on how food “speaks to you” and tells you something about who you are). Not a one of these shorts are boring and every one of them will not only give you a different outlook on food and eating but will make you downright hungry in the process.

You get a sense of the modern South here, from rural South Carolina to metropolitan New Orleans. The beauty of the green pastures where cattle graze in the late afternoon sun – far from the steroid-injected factory farm cattle who live in stalls fed on corn and chemicals meant to create a greater meat yield – gives you a sense of why these people love the land they tend and love what they do. These are people I wouldn’t mind spending an hour or two just chatting about their products and about their lives, sitting on the porch with a cold frosty beverage or perhaps enjoying the fruits of their labors. Sadly, we only get five minutes or so with each one – I could certainly have enjoyed longer chats with each and every one of these people. That’s the mark of a great documentary.

Incidentally, you can see the shorts at the Southern Foodways alliance website here and to find out where you can get the products shown in the film go to the movie’s website by clicking on the picture above.

REASONS TO GO: Each segment is fascinating and there isn’t one I didn’t wish had lasted longer.

REASONS TO STAY: You’ll be real hungry by the time this is over.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some animal carcasses that might upset the very impressionable young or militant vegetarians.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the transportation was done through a Ford Taurus station wagon, affectionately nicknamed the “Schwagon” which York drove to the various locations throughout the South. The Schwagon was retired with honors shortly before the film was completed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film is mostly on the festival circuit and at one-off screenings throughout the Southeast; PBS will be airing it sometime in the fall.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Food Finds

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Year of the Living Dead and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)


The Secret in Their Eyes

Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin share a tender moment.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella, Jose Luis Gioia, Carla Quevedo, Barbara Palladino, Rudy Romano, Alejandro Abelenda, Mario Alarcon, Sebastian Blanco, Mariano Argento. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella

The eyes are the windows to the soul, or so it is said. There are plenty of people who believe that if you want to find out the truth about people, you simply need to look into their eyes.

Benjamin Esposito (Darin) is a retired prosecutorial investigator who, like many men who have set aside their professional lives, decides to write a book. The subject is the one murder investigation that has been sticking in his craw for 35 years. In 1974 a young woman by the name of Liliana Coloto (Quevedo) is brutally raped and murdered in her home. Esposito is assigned to the case and drives to the crime scene. When he arrives, the sight of the badly beaten body leaves a lasting impression on him.

He is motivated to give the case his utmost attention. His new department chief Irene Menendez Hastings (Villamil) is supportive but there is push-back from Esposito’s rival Romano (Argento) who is corrupt and brutal; he arrests a pair of workers who were employed nearby and tortures them into confessions. Esposito discovers this and immediately has them released; he is enraged and attacks Romano in the hallway of the justice building.

Esposito’s focus goes to a man named Isidro Gomez (Godino), a man from Coloto’s hometown in rural Argentina. The suspicions arise from photographs taken from Coloto’s home supplied by her husband Ricardo Morales (Rago). The expression in Gomez’ eyes are of deep obsessive love. Hastings is skeptical – she doesn’t hold much credence that you can tell that much from a suspect’s eyes. However, Esposito has a gut feeling this is their guy and goes after him, embarking on a road that will lead to unexpected places.

This is a brilliant film. Veteran Argentine director Campanella hooks up with cinematographer Felix Monti for some simply amazing shots (there’s a chase scene in a crowded soccer stadium while a game is in progress that absolutely has to be seen to be believed – it is one of the single best sequences of the sort you’re ever likely to see). While some critics have sniffed that the mystery in the film is more along the lines of an American TV drama, the mystery isn’t the primary component of the movie.

What lies at the center of the film is the unrequited romance between Esposito and Hastings. The film is told in two different time frames, 1974 and 2009 and plainly tells the story of the attraction between the two that might have become something more. There is plainly sizzle between the two that is enacted in glances and looks; the whole conceit about the film is that the story is told by the eyes and the actors both are thankfully possessed of soulful peepers.

I haven’t mentioned Guillermo Francella as Esposito’s alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval, and I remiss in doing so. Francella is one of the top comedians in Argentina and the role is not strictly comic relief. Like any great comedian, Francella is equally adept in inspiring pathos as he is in producing laughs. Yes, Sandoval is a bit of a clown at times but a pathetic clown, lost in the bottle but loyal to his friend who may well be the last person left who believes in him. It’s a great part and well-acted by Francella.

The chemistry between Darin and Villamil is very apparent, even in still pictures like the one adorning this review. They have to play the couple at two periods in their lives; as young, passionate investigators solving a heinous crime, and as older people whose lives have evolved much differently than they expected or wanted (Hastings has become a respected judge by 2009, married to another man and a mother to his children).

There is something to be said for a movie this intricately plotted – the ending sneaks up on you a bit and has a little bit of an O. Henry style to it. The disposition of the relationship between Hastings and Esposito is nicely handled as well.

It must be said that the rape and murder of Coloto is mostly done onscreen (although the killer’s identity is hidden) and it is an intense and disturbing scene which may be too much for some. We are keenly made aware that the scene is playing out the way Esposito imagined it did, and that the crime has haunted him for some time (the doomed woman’s screams echo from 1974 to 2009 in a very nice bit of filmmaking).

The movie is not about the murder as I’ve said before; that is merely the catalyst for the relationships onscreen. This is a movie about Esposito and Hastings, and the murder investigation is merely the context in which we are given to view them. Sure, there are a few images that might seem overly cliché to American eyes but I think that’s done deliberately to set a mood.

This was a surprise winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Films, beating out more widely-regarded movies like A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Both of those are wonderful movies that I have recommended highly, but quite frankly I think that Oscar got it right on this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully plotted with many unexpected twists and turns while leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat. Great love story and some fine performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rape scene may be a little too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense, brutal rape scene as well as some other violent images. There is some graphic nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second Argentine film to win an Oscar; the first was The Official History.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34M on an unreported production budget; this one is a slam dunk moneymaker.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Anonymous