Grief, guilt, and revenge animate resonant RIDERS OF JUSTICE

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A soldier returns from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan after his wife’s death in a train accident and turns into a merciless avenger when he becomes convinced that his spouse was actually collateral damage in a vicious conspiracy. That Death Wish trope activates the plot in this Danish drama that reunites filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen with frequent collaborators Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, but things are never that simple-minded with Jensen. Instead of a revenge thriller, Riders of Justice is a violent, sometimes darkly funny but also surprising and warm observation of people grappling with grief, guilt, and the human impulse to make sense out of the incomprehensible.

A young girl’s wish for a blue bicycle for Christmas is what sets the film in motion. She has nothing to do with anyone else in the film. She doesn’t even live in Denmark, but her stated desire is the first link in a chain reaction that explodes into madness. Markus (Mikkelsen) adds another link with his decision to stay at his military post rather than return home for a visit with his family. Data scientist Otto (Kaas) forms one more link as a survivor of the train accident. But perhaps the most important link is the member of the Riders of Justice motorcycle gang who left his wheels home and took the train on that fateful afternoon.

While Markus and Otto are convinced that somehow the motorcycle gang is responsible for what the authorities deem an accident, they are each, in their own way grappling with guilt that implicates them in the event. Markus’ wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) would not have been on the train had he come home. Otto has survivor’s guilt and not only for this one event.

Together, they are a mess. Otto at least has a support system in fumbling colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). They rally around Markus and Mathilde, too, but Markus is too much inside his own head to accept emotional support or to give it. He is useless to Mathilde, unable to offer the solace she desperately needs.

There are many pleasures in Riders of Justice, from the arresting performances of Mikkelsen, Kaas, and the rest of the cast to Jensen’s nuanced, complex screenplay to the chaos unleashed on the bikers by Markus and his oddball band of science geek brothers.

But what is most entrancing is watching Markus, Mathilde, Otto and his colleagues, and others drawn into their orbit slowly come together for far more emotionally resonant reasons than simple vengeance and seeing Markus – a man apparently dead inside long before he lost his wife – gradually return to the land of the living.

Riders of Justice is a rare film. Movies with this much brutal action are not supposed to leave audiences feeling warm and fuzzy about humanity. With the aid of his wonderful ensemble, especially Mikkelsen, in this latest work, Jensen manages exactly that. –Pam Grady

Riders of Justice is playing in theaters.

Statham, Ritchie reunite for WRATH-ful thriller

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Jason Statham stars as H in director Guy Ritchie’s WRATH OF MAN, A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

Wrath of Man is a homecoming of sorts, Jason Statham’s first film since 2005’s Revolver with Guy Ritchie, the director with whom he started his career with the one-two punch of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). An adaptation of a 2004 French film, Le convoyeur, the reunion between an auteur of ultra-violence and his stoic muse is a diverting wallow in high body count cinema.

Ritchie is well past the era when his films were inventive and as darkly funny as they were bloody, but he can still produce a satisfying (if ridiculous) thriller. This one begins with the suspense meter already set at 11 with a high-octane action sequence set in the streets of Los Angeles that introduces a faceless heist gang with at least one trigger-happy member. From there, it develops into the story of H (Statham), a new British employee at a Southern California armored car company who barely passes his gun qualification only to show exactly how deadly his aim is when a shipment he is guarding comes under fire. He clearly is not the average schlub he claims to be (as if his reserved demeanor and six-pack abs didn’t already give that away).

Eventually Wrath of Man settles into a three-pronged story. There is the origin story of H defining who he is, really, and why he wanted a job far below his particular skill set. There is the story of the criminal gang that includes war vets Jackson (Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan) and wild card Jan (Scott Eastwood), who seem to be operating out of the notion that because they served their country, the world now owes them. And there is the armored car company where absurd nicknames like Bullet (Mindhunter‘s Holt McCallany), Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett), and Hollow Bob (Rocci Williams) abound to substitute for anyone having a distinct personality.

To Ritchie’s credit, he keeps things moving and puts the “thrill” in thriller, acts of extravagant brutality bursting forth at regular intervals. One area where he and co-screenwriters Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson fall short is on creating three-dimensional characters. H comes closest, thanks to Statham’s truculent charm and more fully realized motivation for H’s actions.

That the entire plot rests on one very big coincidence makes the whole movie vaguely farcical (although never humorous). But as vicious time waters go, Wrath of Man fills the bill for suspenseful, if superficial entertainment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of junk food, nothing but empty calories, but satisfying a certain urge for mindless, savage amusement. – Pam Grady

Celebratory Hector Babenco doc streams in virtual film series highlighting 2021 international Oscar picks

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For her feature documentary directing debut, Brazilian actress Barbara Paz, did not have to travel far, only to the other side of the marital bed as she turns her lens on her husband, filmmaker Hector Babenco. A joint project between spouses, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Brazil’s 2021 international feature film Oscar entry, is an incandescent examination of an auteur’s life and work and a deep dive into an artist’s reckoning with his own mortality as Babenco – who died in 2016 at 70 – wages a losing battle against cancer. Despite that, the film is not maudlin nor is it an elegy. It is a wife’s love letter to her spouse and a celebration of his art.

By the time, Babenco tells his wife, “I’ve already lived my death; now all that is left is to make a film about it,” the Argentinean-born director, who adopted Brazil as his home, has been living with dying for decades. He was only 38, riding high on the strength of his 1981 critically acclaimed drama of the Brazilian favelas Pixote and his Oscar-nominated 1985 Hollywood debut Kiss of the Spider Woman, when he was first diagnosed with cancer. At one point, in the first years of the disease, he was given four to six months to live. Yet, not only did Babenco survive, he thrived for three more decades.

Images in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die are a luminous black-and-white, even the clips from Babenco’s films and behind-the-scenes footage of the director at work rendered so. His last film, 2014’s My Hindu Friend parallels the filmmaker’s real-life situation, as Willem Dafoe (an associate producer on Babenco: Tell Me When I Die) plays a filmmaker facing death. In the documentary, Babenco similarly struggles with his failing health, but his illness is only one facet of the film. Paz takes the measure of her husband’s life: his youth in Argentina, his life as an artist, his love of film. She also limns a devoted couple’s story as they face the biggest challenge of their relationship. It is not a straightforward biography; playful, surreal touches abound as Paz celebrates Babenco’s life in a rich, impressionistic style that bits her subject and his oeuvre.

Babenco: Tell Me When I Die does not yet have a US distributor, but it is screening Jan. 22-Feb. 11 as part of the California Film Institute (CFI)/Smith Rafael Film Center’s 17th annual For Your Consideration: A Celebration of World Cinema. The virtual program comprised of over two dozen of the 93 films eligible for the international feature Oscar this year is available for streaming nationwide on the CFI website. –Pam Grady

Oh to be in GREENLAND at the end of the world

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Oh to be in GREENLAND at the end of the world

They call the comet “Clarke” in the new movie Greenland. How sweet. What a cute name for a comet so long that astronomists cannot even see its tail. As it hurtles closer and closer, the media quotes the scientific consensus that the space object will come so near Earth that anyone looking up will be able to see it in the sky, even in daylight – but it is harmless. Even as pieces start breaking off, speeding toward Earth, the world is reassured the shards will land harmlessly in the ocean.  Of course, were that to happen, there would be no drama and no movie.

That scenario of an event that begins innocuously enough only to threaten all life on Earth is not new. Even Lars Von Trier had a go at the scenario with Melancholia and managed to turn an action trope into an existential drama about a family facing the enormity of apocalypse. But Greenland stars Gerard Butler, he of the Fallen series, so it is an action movie – about a family… trying to catch a plane.

No joke. Clarke is about to cause an extinction level event. For structural engineer John Garrity (Butler), Allison (Morena Baccarin), and young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), their own shot at survival is to make their way to Greenland and a place in one of the sweet underground bunkers the US government has set up there. Originally among the chosen few selected for a spot, when through circumstance, their official ride falls through, it is a race through the night to catch a plane that John hears about through random, end-of-the-world gossip.

Greenland is a film that raises so many questions. Why Greenland? The US has bases all over the world and within the United States, so why are the only bunkers in that Danish territory? Why was Garrity picked, among all the many structural engineers in the US, as a designated survivor? Was there a secret lottery? And how often is the apocalypse-survival master list updated? Why would parents entrust their diabetic child to carry his own insulin in a backpack with his blanket and toys? Why is the media so calm while reporting their own impending deaths? Why did Morena Baccarin take a role that mostly consists of crying and near-hysteria? Is the middle of a pandemic the best time to release a movie about an event with dire, world-altering consequences?

Those and many more questions are bound to come up as one watches a film in which the consequences are high stakes, but the action needed to reach an ultimate conclusion is unconvincing. Director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) handles the action scenes competently enough, but Chris Sparling’s script is weak.  He’s cobbled together a series of unfortunate events that add roadblocks to the Garrity family’s ultimate goal, too many not entirely believable. Also, since there is so little attention paid to character, beyond John is stoic and capable, Allison is emotional, and little Nathan is precocious, it is hard to care whether they make it to Greenland or not. Why this family? Why not that other family? The stakes are high, but Greenland is more of a video game—and not a very exciting one at that—than a movie. And the outcome is never in doubt. Everybody dies. Well, almost. –Pam Grady

THE LAST VERMEER sketches out Dutch artist’s postwar peril

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Guy Pearce as Han Van Meegeren in TriStar Pictures’ THE LAST VERMEER.

Guy Pearce, who played Andy Warhol in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, plays yet another 20th-century artist in Dan Friedkin’s The Last Vermeer, Dutch painter and art dealer Han van Meegeren. Imbuing the character with equal parts charm, arrogance, exuberance, and a deep well of humor that never deserts him even as van Meegeren faces the gallows, the actor is riveting in this delicious slice of historical drama.

In the Netherlands in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Dutch judicial system is running full speed to punish those who collaborated with the Nazis. Among the targets of the investigations is van Meegeren, who sold one of the country’s national treasures, a rare work by 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer, to Nazi leader Hermann Goering. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, The Square), a former Resistance fighter, is the man leading the inquiry. At first certain of the artist’s collaboration with the enemy, that conviction wavers in the face of van Meegeren’s spirited defense that casts his actions in a vastly different light.

At times, The Last Vermeer takes on the suspenseful tones of a thriller as Piller finds himself at odds with a judicial bureaucracy that has already made up its mind and is out for blood. But eventually the film settles into an involving courtroom drama. That van Meegeren’s guilt has been predetermined is understandable. Even without the receipt of sale for the looted Dutch masterpiece, the artist’s opulent lifestyle in a country where most of the population has suffered deprivation and hardship simply looks bad. How was he able to keep his fortune in a country occupied by Nazis? In defending him, Piller has his work cut out for him, and part of the pleasure in watching the film, is watching that defense unfold. The question of van Meegeren’s actual relationship with the German high command lingers tantalizingly over the proceedings. Is he innocent? Guilty? A trickster who is both at once?

In contrast to Pearce’s ebullience, Bang offers a sober portrayal of a man trying to do the right thing. A Jewish man who covertly fought the Nazis, Piller is well aware of what collaboration with them meant, even if collaboration in this instance was selling a piece of art and not overtly aiding the Nazis’ war/genocidal efforts. A man of conscience, he seeks justice, not revenge, which puts him at odds with the prevailing mood. His insistence on following the case wherever it leads sets him against an unforgiving system. He is the beating heart of the film, a hero of the resistance who is still fighting the good fight.

Based on van Meegeren’s tribulations after the war and adapted from Jonathan Lopez’s book, The Last Vermeer shines a tantalizing light on a small chapter of World War II. Weaving together biography, the force of two strong personalities, and the legend of a Dutch master, it is a potent blend of drama with the history of art and war. –Pam Grady

The Last Vermeer opens in theaters November 20.

A monster in the White House in ’70s-era THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON

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The Nixon administration and its misdeeds inspired this queasy horror comedy set in the august halls of the White House. Writer/director Milton Moses Ginsberg could have gone for a more on-the-nose scenario with vampires sucking blood out of bodies and the body politic, but instead he unleashes a malevolent hound on the Oval Office. In this curio from 1973, playing on the Metrograph‘s virtual screen Oct. 16-22, Dean Stockwell is the hapless assistant press secretary for whom things get a little hairy at the full moon.

It is the director’s cut that the Metrograph is screening and Ginsberg has added a note to the beginning of the film that it has taken him 40 years to come to terms with Nixon’s presidency and find the right cut to The Werewolf of Washington. The statement seems innocuous enough until you watch this slim – only 70 minutes – but wild feature and are left to wonder what ended up getting cut and what might have been restored at some point. This film is bonkers.

Among the few oblique references to the actual Nixon administration is newly minted deputy Jack Whitter’s (Stockwell) address in the Watergate apartment complex. A one-time reporter who used to cover the White House and dated the president’s (Biff McGuire) daughter Marion (Jane House), Jack leaves his latest post in Hungary to take the new job. But he brings a little bit of Eastern Europe back with him in the form of a curse, something Jack only becomes aware of at the first full moon after his arrival.

Ginsberg juggles two narratives, one a satire of Washington politics, with a boorish blowhard (no, really) installed in the Oval Office. McGuire is terrific as a crass pol who never listens to anyone and blusters his way through every situation. In one of the film’s funniest moments, the president is bowling in the bowels of the White House when his ball gets stuck in the return. He insists that Jack accompany him down the lane to retrieve it. The site of McGuire and Stockwell gingerly making their way down adjoining gutters is hilarious.

The rest of the movie is taken up with Jack and his problem. He tries to explain it to Marion’s fiancé (Beeson Carroll), a Navy psychiatrist, only to be met with derision. As the body count around Washington mounts, Jack’s panic mounts, but no one will take him seriously. He is tortured and cannot stop staring at his hands, but the president and others are not sympathetic. Instead, they question Jack’s masculinity.

A two-time acting award winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 for Compulsion and 1962 for Long Day’s Journey Into Night and a future Oscar nominee in 1989 for Married to the Mob, Stockwell attacks his role here full-throttle. He makes grand use of those expressive eyebrows of his as he begins his transformation, signaling another wild night out on the town. It is not a subtle performance, but Jack is a role that cries out for over the top and the actor delivers.

In the waning term of our own century’s shambolic presidency, a scant two-and-a-half weeks before the election and two weeks before Halloween, the time is right for the return of this monster mashup. It’s a howler. – Pam Grady

A woman warrior claims her destiny in MULAN

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Disney blinked and more’s the pity. Mulanis a rip-roaring, sweeping epic, action-packed, involving, and colorful. It deserves to be on the big screen. But hemorrhaging money as COVID imposes its misery on the happiest place on earth, the company is hoping to recoup some of its losses with a $30 surcharge to its Disney+ subscription. It’s a small screen, after all.

A quasi-remake of Disney’s 1998 animated tale, this live-action Mulan dispenses with songs, the dragon, and other elements of that first adaptation of the Chinese folk tale. In this version of the story, a young girl, Mulan (Crystal Rao), is already practicing her warrior moves, influenced by her father Zhou’s (Tzi Ma) stories of his experiences on the battlefield and in thrall to the sword that his prized possession.

She grows into a beautiful young woman (Liu Yifei), but even as her father warns her that a female warrior would bring disgrace to the family and her mother Li (Rosalind Chao) reminds her that a woman brings honor to her family when she makes a good marriage, Mulan never loses that independent streak. Her chance comes when the government seeks conscripts to defend the kingdom from the nomad would-be usurper Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his horde. Disguising herself as a male, Mulan goes off to war.

Mulan Is at its lightest in the film’s training camp scenes. A soldier’s life is something she has anticipated and trained for her all her life. Skill sets her male counterparts are just learning she already possesses. She is awkward out of necessity – not only does she not know the world or experiences of boys, but she does not dare do or say anything that might give her away. The deception tugs at her conscience even as her heart tells her that this is her destiny.

Director Niki Caro, who rose to prominence with Whale Rider (2002) before going on to make such films as North Country (2005) and The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), takes the reins of the most expensive movie ever made by a woman and every bit of that $200 million is apparent on screen. The battle scenes are tense and thrillingly choreographed. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is crisp and luminous. Grant Major’s production design, Anne Kuljian’s set decoration, and Bina Daigeler’s costume design blend into a kaleidoscope of often jewel-toned color, adding a sense of richness even to Mulan’s modest home village.

Mulan represents Disney’s latest step away from the princess-in-need-of-rescue narrative that was the company’s bread and butter for so many years. As portrayed by Rao and Liu, the girl who will be a warrior is a strong, resilient young person with the courage and fortitude to make her dreams a reality. A fierce conviction that the battlefield is where she belongs and that it is her duty and her destiny to protect her family and her country animate her. Mulan has lessons to teach the patriarchal society she was born into – and to a contemporary society watching her ancient battles on screen. –Pam Grady

Bert Stern Recalls A SUMMER’S DAY

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Dinah WashingtonNote: This interview was conducted in June 2000 and originally appeared on Reel.com. Then the interview ran in conjunction with the DVD release of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Twenty years later, it is running as the 4K restoration of the 1959 documentary opens in virtual cinemas.   

In a career that spans nearly 50 years and is still going strong, Bert Stern has racked up quite a resume as a still photographer and director of commercials. He photographed Marilyn Monroe and designed the infamous, heart-shaped sunglasses poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. In 1958, Stern took a break from photography and shot his only film, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a breathtaking, tune-filled documentary on that year’s Newport music festival. With the film recently released on an eye-popping DVD by New Yorker Films, Stern took some time from his busy schedule to chat with Reel.com about his acclaimed detour into filmmaking and why he only made the one picture.

Q: The liner notes interview from Jazz on a Summer’s Day states that the film is less of a documentary than a happening. Is that how you perceived the project going in and why?

Bert Stern: I think it is more of a music film and a happening. In fact, it was an event, which was the Newport Jazz Festival. It was just an opportunity to make a movie out of a musical event, which is what intrigued me, plus the fact that jazz took place in Newport, which seemed unusual.

Q: Why did that seem unusual to you?

Bert Stern: Because I always associated jazz with the South — [music] for poor people, you might say, and Newport with the North and rich people. And at that time, it seemed strange to me that the South and North would be together. It doesn’t seem strange anymore, but, at that time, it was strange.

 Q: Jazz on a Summer’s Day benefits not just from having the eye of a great photographer, but also that gorgeous film stock. What went into your decision to shoot color rather than the more documentary-standard black-and-white of the era?

Bert Stern: Well, it was 35mm Eastman color negative. I think basically when I had the idea, I kind of envisioned green grass and sunny days and stuff. It was an outdoor festival. I always thought Newport as being a beautiful, rich place. I didn’t think of it in black and white at all. Also, most of my photographs are in color.

Q: You’ve also said that when you think of jazz documentaries, you tend to think of them as being more downbeat than your film. Did that go into your decision to shoot in color as well? Did you want to bring jazz out into the light?

Bert Stern: Well, you might say that. I like to think that most of the movies that are made about jazz or music were black-and-white and downstairs in little rooms, and I thought that was somewhat depressing. Whereas music should be uplifting.

Q: You originally envisioned this as a short. When did you realize that you had a feature film on your hands?

Bert Stern: I think that when we started to plan it, I said maybe I could put a story to it and make a full-length feature.

Q: And then the story ended up?

Bert Stern: On the cutting-room floor.

Q: You were a photographer but you had served in the motion picture unit in the Army. When you decided to make the film, what kind of tests did you do prior to actually shooting the film to re-familiarize yourself with cinematography, or did you just go on the fly?

Bert Stern: Just went on the fly. I did news photography for the Army in Japan and I was familiar with movie cameras from that.

Q: You did adapt telephoto lenses for the cameras that you used.

Bert Stern: I adapted a long lens which I use a lot in my still work and put it on an Arriflex, which gave me a chance to shoot all the close-ups because we weren’t allowed on the stage.

Q: You had five cameras on the shoot, how did you decide who would shoot what?

Bert Stern: We didn’t have five all the time. But basically, long shot, medium shot, close-up and two medium shots, made one on each side.

Q: Did you plan in advance who was doing what?

BS: No, we just had — like I was the close-up camera looking towards the stage on the left which is most of the close-ups in the movie. So that was my camera. But we had a long one in the back and we had two other people roaming around on the right and center below.

Q: Some of the most stunning footage in the film is the aerial footage from the America’s Cup races. Did you always have it in mind to shoot those races or was that something that you came up with after you arrived in Newport?

Bert Stern: I think it came up after I arrived in Newport. When I got a feeling of what was going on in the area, it seemed to add dimension to the idea; instead of just shooting people playing musical instruments, to bring in the things that were happening around the event. The birds, the boats, children, all kinds of things. I guess that came out of shooting the music. The first thing I shot was Jimmy Giuffre, which is the opening of the movie. And first I put the camera on and just listened to him. I just pictured the seagulls flying around, which led me to shoot the next morning out at the dock. But there were no seagulls, so I shot reflections on the water and put that to his music.

 Q: I know you shot the party sequence later on Long Island. There are also cutaways to a Dixieland band driving through town and playing at what looks like an amusement park and also on the beach. Was that all staged as well and if so, why did you chose those particular images?

Bert Stern: The band in the car was a group that came to town on their own and we just asked if we could shoot them. So, we just followed them around a bit when we weren’t shooting the festival. The kids on the merry-go-round were kids on a merry-go-round but the footage of the party on the roof was done afterwards because we needed a little bit more cutaways and we set that up in Long Island in a similar-looking area.

Q: [Music supervisor] George Avakian determined who you would shoot on the basis of what music you knew you would be able to clear later on?

Bert Stern: Right.

Q: There were people you didn’t shoot at the festival, like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Ray Charles, I guess because you couldn’t get the permissions to use their music. Do you regret not getting some of them on film?

Newport

Bert Stern: Probably. I’ve never been a big Duke Ellington fan so I was very happy with Louis Armstrong. I think basically, I had to choose between the two of them. Didn’t have enough budget to afford both. And Coltrane I wasn’t aware of at the time.

Q: How did you finance the film?

Bert Stern: By shooting photographs during the week.

Q: So, this was totally, totally self-financed?

Bert Stern: Well, not just totally self-financed. There was a little money here and there that was raised and finally to finish the film, we met a man named Milton Gordon, who became the distributor and who put up the final amount that we needed to pay Louis Armstrong and finish the film. The budget was, I think, the total cost of the film was $215,000.

Q: I know your relationship with the Avakian brothers was somewhat contentious. What was it like editing with Aram Avakian? And prior to going into editing, did you have a game plan going in or was editing more or less improvisational?

Bert Stern: Aram is a great editor and is the brother of George, of course. I think Aram is a different kind of filmmaker and he kind of objected that I was so improvisational. He was much more structured in the way he went about making films, and many times I had to tell him I didn’t want to do the kind of cutting he was normally accustomed to and to leave it alone. So, it was my decision finally to decide what to do. But he was a wonderful editor, and it was very hard putting all that footage together. I think it took him at least six months. It was a very difficult task since it was before video tape and everything.

Q: You’ve never made another film after this film. Did you decide you couldn’t be both a still photographer and a filmmaker?

Bert Stern: Pretty much. But I did do some Twiggy specials in 1967 when she came to America. I did three specials for ABC and I did a lot of commercials, of course. But I never decided to give up still photography and just make movies, because that is what it would take.

Monk

Q: Have you ever had any regrets that you didn’t make more movies?

Bert Stern: No, I think I would have been a good filmmaker, but that would have been my career instead of still photography.

Q: You are probably most famous for your wonderful portraits of Marilyn Monroe and you’ve also had great successes as a still photographer, a commercial director, and you made the one film. What do you regard as your greatest achievement?

Bert Stern: Surviving. I guess. Photography. I think there is something very Americana about my photography that I like. I am very much an American kind of photographer.

Q: Is that what you would like to be remembered for?

Bert Stern: I don’t know. The Marilyn pictures I like. I like my pictures so I don’t know — I guess I will be remembered for them because you can look at them. There is something nice about a photograph because you can have it around all the time. A movie you have to project and sit down and watch for an hour and a half.

Q: What do you remember at this point? It has been over 40 years since that jazz festival. What do you remember most about it now?

BS: About the jazz festival?

Q: Yes, and about making the film. What stands out in your mind more than anything else?

Bert Stern: That is hard to say. I guess just the idea of being there and being able to capture that kind of material on film and a group of people that weren’t usually together. There are very few times that there were so many musical stars at a festival. That was probably the only time. I just liked the idea and I liked doing it. –Pam Grady

Jazz on a Summer’s Day opens virtually at CinemaSF and BAMPFA on Aug. 12 and the Roxie Theater on Aug. 14.

 

JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY basks in new restoration

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Louis Armstrong

Photographer Bert Stern, best known for his pioneering ad work –he was the “original mad man,” according to his official bio – and glamorous portraits of Marilyn Monroe, made only one film in his career, Jazz on a Summer’s Day. That documentary, freshly restored to 4K, is enough, though, to make one regret that Stern – who died in 2013 – chose to stick to still photography.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day is Stern’s impressionistic chronicle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. At its core, the film is a record of the performances that include sets from jazz greats Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Sonny Stitt, Gerry Mulligan, Big Maybelle Smith, George Shearing, Dinah Washington, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, as well as rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. For anyone who loves the best of music from that era, this is bliss, from Giuffre’s instrumental that opens the film to Dinah Washington’s soulful rendition of “All of Me” (during which she playfully joins in on vibraphone during the song’s instrumental break) to Armstrong’s energetic “Tiger Rag” to Jackson climaxing the film with a soulful “Lord’s Prayer.”

America's Cup

Beyond the world of the stage, Stern sought to capture the full essence of Newport on that tuneful weekend, roaming the town and the concert grounds with his camera. A Dixieland band riding in an open jalopy brings its joyful noise to the city’s streets, horns blaring. Stern follows along, later catching the young musicians playing on the beach at sunset. Children frolic in their yards and at a carnival.

Sailing trials for the America’s Cup were at Newport that weekend, too, and Stern is there, flying along overhead or skimming along the water with the boats. The images of a trio of yachts bobbing on the water cross-cut with Thelonious Monk performing “Blue Monk” are indelible.

The camera ventures into the festival audience capturing young lovers dancing, parents grooving along with their children, and the rapt faces of entranced fans. Pianist George Shearing appears in one of these asides, a huge smile on his face as he mimes playing a keyboard while Louis Armstrong wails on stage. The only sound in the film is the music itself, announcements from the stage, and the occasional off-camera remark, typically a conversation between festival organizers. The cinematography is a rich kaleidoscope of sounds and pictures.

Mahalia Jackson

Stern was 29 when he shot Jazz on a Summer’s Day, and already one of America’s premier photographers. For this project, he dispensed even with light meters, he and his fellow camera people Courtney Hafela and Ray Phealan using their own judgment when it came to setting exposures. They deliberately broke rules – shooting directly into stage lights, for example.

When Stern was done that weekend, he came away with a collection of gorgeous, color-saturated images. Jazz on a Summer’s Day is visually spectacular, never more so than 62 years after it was shot. IndieCollect’s 4K restoration amplifies the film’s beauty, the complement to its aural enchantments. The doc was always glorious, now its shimmering qualities have been enhanced. It is a pure delight.  –Pam Grady

Jazz on a Summer’s Day opens virtually at CinemaSF and BAMPFA on Aug. 12 and the Roxie Theater on Aug. 14.

A Neeson family affair: MADE IN ITALY

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Made+In+Italy+Still+1The echoes of two actors’ shared reality lend unexpected emotional resonance to this engaging Tuscany travelogue, actor James D’Arcy’s (Agent Carter, Homeland) feature writing/directing debut. What might have been a slight relationship drama between a fractured father and son takes on real weight when the father is played by Liam Neeson and the son by his own progeny, Micheál Richardson. In a story that touches on a young adult feeling like he can never measure up to a celebrated parent, Richardson proves that is not an issue in the Neeson household.

There are eerie parallels in the situation between Jack (Richardson) and Robert (Neeson) and that of the actors that play them. Jack lost his mother and Robert his wife in a car crash when the boy was a child, just as a skiing accident claimed Richardson’s mother and Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, when Micheál was in middle school.

In Jack and Robert’s case, the death opened a chasm between them that neither now knows how to breach. Robert, a respected artist, simply stopped creating as grief consumed him. Jack, only seven when his mom died, can barely remember her or a time when he belonged to a happy family. He brings his father to their old Tuscan villa not to strengthen any familial bond but because he needs money and selling the property is his only prayer of getting it.

There is no mystery about where all this is going, but that scarcely matters. The views are stunning, the villa at the top of a hill overlooking a verdant valley. In contrast, the long-neglected villa is decrepit and full of weasels, but somehow no less charming for it. Selling the property is clearly the height of insanity, but can Jack see that?

Valeria Bilello (Sense8) plays Natalia, a restaurateur who catches Jack’s eye, while Lindsay Duncan is Kate, a realtor tasked with selling the house who just happens to be age appropriate for Robert. Father and son returned to England after the tragedy, never to look back until now. What remains unsaid could not be clearer: In Robert’s inability to cope with his loss head-on only made a bad situation that much worse for father and son. Jack, in his desire, for quick cash has inadvertently backed his father and himself into a long-delayed reckoning with the hole in their lives.

A syrupy score and an over-reliance on Italian pop grate on the soundtrack, but mostly Made in Italy floats on the strengths of its glorious setting, the amiability of its storytelling, and the strengths of its performances. In particular, Neeson father and son are terrific, a coup of casting for a first-time director that pays off in the rich emotional shadings they bring to their roles –Pam Grady

Made in Italy is playing in drive-ins, theaters, and digital and cable VOD platforms.