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.

 

 

Offbeat pairing animates WWII drama SUMMERLAND

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SummerlandAlice (Gemma Arterton) has well earned her reputation as the town crank in her small seaside village. So nasty is she that you half expect the townspeople to start shouting, “Burn the witch!” She has that effect, but her surliness does not mean she is not expected to do her part as World War II ravages Europe. Volunteerism is thrust upon her – a woman without an ounce of maternal instinct or selflessness – when Frank (Lucas Bond), a young refugee from the London Blitz, is put in her care. So goes the set-up of Summerland, Olivier award-winning playwright and theater director Jessica Swale’s big-hearted feature writing/directing debut.

“Stories have to come from somewhere,” Alice, a writer, tells Frank. They also have to be going somewhere and where this one is headed is evident from the first meet-mean between a guardian who wants nothing to do her charge and a boy blessed with a sweet disposition and endless charm. An opening scene set 30 years in the future with an aged Alice (Penelope Wilton), still living in the same cottage and pecking away at what looks like the same manual typewriter she’s used since at least the 1940s, only underlines that Summerland is a tale following a predictable path. But plot mechanics scarcely matter in this endearing film. It is the personalities of Alice and Frank, and the endless small details that make up their lives that matter.

The title refers to the pagan idea of an afterlife, a concept Alice introduces to the child. Summerland is part of her research into myths and legends. She also brings Frank to a seaside bluff to look for Fata Morgana, the mirage of the sea. In this case, what she hopes to spy is an image of a nearby castle, seemingly floating in the air. The ideas capture Frank’s imagination, his enthusiasm creating a small chink in Alice’s armor.

Frank also bonds with new schoolmate Edie (Dixie Egerickx), united in shared interests. Separated from his mom in London and his dad off fighting the war, his prickly guardian and new friend are a balm for his loneliness. Frank’s presence in Alice’s house begins to have the same effect on her, even as it reminds her of how she came to be so bitter and isolated in the first place after a breakup with girlfriend Vera (a luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The wound simply never healed.

Shot in Sussex along the region’s glorious white cliffs and gorgeously lenses by cinematographer Laurie Rose, Summerland offers picture-postcard views of the English countryside. But what makes the drama so inviting are the sharp characterizations of Alice and Frank, and the performances. Arterton, a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace and, more recently, Vita Sackville-West in Vita & Virginia, has never been better as she essays a role where thorniness is Alice’s defining trait yet she must also suggest just enough heart to make it believable when Alice’s ice begins to thaw. Bond is terrific as a child thrown into a lion’s den at a time when his life is already unsettled, yet who finds a way to thrive.

Together, the actors’ chemistry is irresistible. Summerland is a resolutely old-fashioned movie that wears its sentiment on its sleeve. That could have been a disaster, but Swale’s confident storytelling never cloys. Instead, she spins a captivating tale, shot through with gruff humor. Alice’s village might reject her; audiences will gladly spend time in her prickly world. –Pam Grady

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

THE RENTAL: Scarebnb

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There is such a thing as “too good to be true.” That is the terrain actor-turned-director Dave Franco explores in his feature directing debut, The Rental, a chameleon of a film that morphs from relationship drama to edge-of-your-seat thriller in a compact 88 minutes. What The Shining did for isolated mountain lodges, The Rental stands to do for luxury home shares. Be afraid, very afraid of what might be lurking just below sleek surfaces and a host’s five-star rating.

The house is huge, really too big for two couples, Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie), and Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and Mina (Sheila Vand), on a short weekend getaway. But the home’s beauty and its placement on a bluff overlooking the ocean are the perfect backdrop for the celebration of business partners Charlie and Mina’s latest success. At least, that is the theory.

Mina’s immediate dislike of Taylor (Toby Huss), the property’s caretaker, and faint but evident fissures in both couples’ relationships cast discreet shadows over the trip, but part of the beauty of the script that Franco wrote with mumblecore veteran Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas) is that he spins a yarn where the audience is far more clued in than the characters.

The weekend never quite goes as either couple plans – Michelle is on a different wavelength than everyone else when it comes to having fun, Charlie and Mina both have reasons to question their relationships, and  Josh has a troubled past that affects his relationships with his sibling and his girlfriend. So far, so mundane, but Franco privileges the viewer with another point of view, one that hints of malevolence in the offing, Someone is watching. The question that hovers is whether the trouble in the offing will come from within or outside of the house?

Performances are uniformly excellent, even if it is hard to work up much sympathy for characters that are whiny, entitled, and sometimes downright awful. The plot is set at a low simmer, only coming to a full boil in the last half hour or so. The sedate tempo, Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriians’ eerie score, and the pea-soup fog that surrounds the house at night blend into a menacing atmosphere. The tension slowly ratchets up until at last the house reveals its horrifying secrets. For this sleek, suspenseful film’s director, it is quite a calling card. –Pam Grady

The Rental is playing in drive-ins, theaters, and digital and cable VOD platforms.

 

 

 

Ross brothers find truth in fiction in BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS

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bloodyCharles Bukowski would recognize the habitués of Las Vegas dive bar the Roaring 20s. So, would you if you put in any time in a bar that is welcoming enough and has been around long enough to attract a dedicated family of regulars. One of those places that doesn’t call itself a “cocktail lounge” and doesn’t employ mixologists, but a joint for a beer and a shot among strangers who become friends. And for the regulars at the Roaring 20s in Bill and Turner Ross’ shambling, engaging documentary, it is time to spend one last night together there as “last call” really is just that for a watering hole about to close forever.

The twist is that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is not a documentary at all. There never was a Roaring 20s in Las Vegas. The Ross brothers shot some of the shabbier, off-the-Strip streets way back in 2009 shortly after the big financial implosion. But nearly a decade went by before they circled back around to that Sin City footage. In the interim, the siblings upped their profile with the releases of Tchoupitoulas (2012), Western (2015), and Contemporary Color (2016).

Revisiting their Las Vegas idea, they opted not to revisit Las Vegas, instead auditioning bars in their own city New Orleans, eventually finding one with the right timeworn but inviting ambiance. Then they populated the place with a large ensemble of barflies, some actors, others one suspects not, and allows them to improvise their way through the Roaring 20s’ last hurrah. The Rosses make no attempt to hide their cameras, so the film crew, too, becomes part of the mise en scène.

Anchoring the story’s kitchen-sink realism is weathered, white-haired Michael Martin, playing a homeless regular who is the first customer in the door in the morning and the last to leave in the wee hours of the next day. He is gruff but friendly, helpful, and he has no illusions about his life. As the final minutes count down on the Roaring 20s, he counsels Pete (Peter Elwell), a young musician following Michael’s same path of dissipation, “I’m 58. I look 70. I used to be an actor and I used to be pretty good at it… You need to get out of here while you’re still a musician.”

Not all of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is that heavy. There are moments of humor, scenes of affection between people who exist together only in this space and know they may never be together again, the nostalgia that comes from the realization that something is coming to an end, and the petty, drunken spats that erupt when booze flows like water.

From the opening frames as Michael makes his way down a shabby street on his way to the bar, Buck Owens’ ’60s country classic “Big in Vegas” striking a plaintive note on the soundtrack, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets sets a bittersweet tone. Set in the here and now (the day after Trump’s election, in fact), the muted tones of the cinematography and the nature of tipplers who scarcely seem to exist outside of their favorite dive give the film a timeless quality: It could have been set at any time in the last 50 years and little would change, except at one time Michael would have been the young actor on the receiving end of a friendly lecture.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an impressive feat for the Ross brothers and their large ensemble. For all of its artifice, a kind of truth emerges. Maybe not actual facts, but there is an undeniable sense of emotional veracity that imbues every frame. The film might not fit a documentary’s traditional parameters, but the emotions and personalities that inhabit it lend it a verisimilitude that make it more real than any reality show and far more resonant. –Pam Grady

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets plays at the Roxie Theater Virtual Cinema starting July 24. Bill & Turner Ross will take part in a Zoom discussion, 5 P.M., July 29.

 

THE 11TH GREEN tees off

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11TH GREENWhat if aliens really did walk among us? What if they brought us technology that could solve the world’s thirst for energy without destroying the planet? What if there were government entities whose sole mission, going back decades, was to keep all of this a secret in order to preserve the status quo? What if every American president was in on it, but was prevailed upon to never reveal the truth? What if a gadfly reporter stumbled upon all this? These questions are the starting point for writer/director Christopher Munch’s sometimes intriguing, sometimes silly sci-fi drama The 11th Green.

Munch, who previously made Letters from the Big Man (2011), the tale of a woman’s involvement with a sasquatch, goes X-Files with a film that runs on two tracks. In one, journalist Jeremy Rudd (Campbell Scott) travels to California when his Air Force officer father, Nelson (Monte Markham), dies. Revelations from Laurie Larkspur (Agnes Bruckner), his dad’s comely last assistant, and the old man’s protégé Larry Jacobsen (Currie Graham), a slippery intelligence operative, convince Jeremy he is on to a big story. Meanwhile, the president of the United States (Leith M. Burke) – nameless, but clearly Barack Obama, right down to a childhood connection to Hawaii – communes with President Dwight Eisenhower (George Gerdes) and an ET named Lars (Tom Stokes), receiving the country’s most closely guarded secrets.

While seemingly tailormade for the QAnon conspiracy aficionados among us – that phrase “Deep State” gets bandied about a lot – The 11th Green is entertaining even for those unwilling to buy into its lunacy. The main location in California’s high desert is evocative and occasionally amusing with the golf course the title refers to providing a bridge between the Eisenhower era and the present day. Scott brings his low-key charm to the tale, while Graham is cheerfully sleazy and Burke makes a convincing stand-in for Obama.

At times, one wishes that someone like David Lynch were the director. In particular, it is easy to imagine the scenes involving the President, Eisenhower, and Lars achieving the eerie aura of Twin Peaks and its Red Room, but Munch never quite gets there.

Also, what is the deal with Lars? He looks like white, European Jesus and Stokes’ stilted performance is perhaps meant to suggest an extraterrestrial’s otherness, but he only comes across as jarringly artificial. And a subplot involving James Forrestal (Ian Hart), the United States’ first Secretary of Defense, a man who in real life suffered from depression and committed suicide, is tasteless.

The 11th Green is handsomely shot with exceptional production design, two more pluses in one mixed bag. It is one of those movies that is both entertaining and irritating, sometimes at the exact same moment. Ultimately, Munch manages to avoid most of the sand traps and other hazards he sets for himself and keeps The 11th Green on the fairway. Mostly. –Pam Grady

The 11th Green is playing at the Roxie Virtual Cinema.

 

 

 

 

Ganz takes a lovely final bow in The Tobacconist

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Tobacconist 3Bruno Ganz famously played Hitler in Downfall. Now, in one of his final roles in Nicolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist, he steps into the role of Sigmund Freud, a man who might have been one of the Fuhrer’s victims had he not been to flee to England. Ganz’s delightful performance portraying the warm, soft side of the father of psychoanalysis is a ray of light in this otherwise dark drama set in pre-war Vienna.

Freud is not the protagonist of the tale, an adaptation of Robert Seethaler’s novel. That would be Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a young man sent by his mother from the rural hinterlands to Vienna to apprentice with tobacconist Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch). The big city proves eye-opening for Franz, who quickly becomes besotted with flirty, gap-toothed Bohemian immigrant Agnezka (Emma Drogunova), a spiritual sister to Cabaret‘s Sally Bowles. At the shop, Freud is among the regular customers, and the two form an unexpected bond, the older man compassionate toward Franz’s romantic travails and providing an ear for the youth to talk about his vivid dreams.

Set in another era, The Tobacconist might have been a sunny coming-of-age tale of first love and offbeat friendship. But this is Vienna during the rise of the Nazis. From Otto, a World War I vet who gave up a leg for the Fatherland and will not bow to the Nazis, Franz learns as much about politics as he does about the care of Havana cigars. From Agnezka he learns about the vagaries of love. From Freud, he learns that he is not in the world to find answers, but to ask questions. From Freud and Otto both, he learns just how far he is willing to go for a friend, a lesson that takes on new urgency under the pall of Nazi occupation.

Leytner’s imaginative staging of Franz’s dreams – Franz confronting an iceberg in one, an apparently nude and recumbent Freud drifting a rowboat in another – and the flights of his imagination add a layer of surrealism to the drama. Even the most benign exchange with a Nazi amps up the tension, lending The Tobacconist the aura of a thriller. It has elements of romance in Franz’s awkward courtship of Agnezka. Then there is the friendship between Franz and Freud, an initially unlikely relationship the blossoms into a special connection for both men. The scenes between Ganz as the wise doctor and the naïve youth inject the film with welcome warmth.

The Tobacconist is not the last film that Ganz made before his 2019 death, but it is apparently the final one to screen in the US.  The actor’s performance is one of immense charm. His Freud represents a lovely final bow, as the curtain comes down on an acting giant’s 60-year career. –Pam Grady

The Tobacconist opens July 10 at the Balboa Theatre/Cinema SF and other virtual screening rooms.

Deneuve and Binoche discover THE TRUTH

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LA+VERITE+1An icon plays an icon as Catherine Deneuve steps into the role of a French cinema legend who reunites for a rocky reunion with her screenwriter daughter (Juliette Binoche) in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s elegant drama The Truth. The Japanese master delivers his first film made outside his home country, in French and English – two languages not his own, and loses not a step in an intimate drama that unfolds between the family home and a Paris soundstage.

What brings Lumir (Binoche) back into her screen star mother Fabienne’s (Deneuve) orbit is the publication of Fabienne’s memoir. Arriving with her American TV actor husband Hank (a delightfully rakish Ethan Hawke) and young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) at her childhood home (which somehow abuts a prison – no heavy-handed symbolism there!), Lumir has her back up, ready for battle with her difficult parent. The memoir full of Fabienne’s selective memories doesn’t help. Luc (Alain Libolt), the manager who has seen to all the little details of Fabienne’s life, is never mentioned in the book. More enraging for Lumir, neither is Suzanne, her mother’s late friend and fellow actress, and a woman with a warmer maternal instinct toward Lumir than self-absorbed Fabienne.

The fact that Fabienne’s latest role opposite rising star Manon (Manon Clavel) is a mother-daughter sci-fi drama only underlines the tensions in the real-life relationship. Nevertheless, even as Fabienne’s familiar brusqueness, selfishness, and lack of filter grate on Lumir, the daughter stays, going so far as becoming a kind of assistant, accompanying her mom to the set every day.

Fabienne is a monster mother, a narcissist who is at an age where she cannot even be bothered with social niceties, yet she is not lacking in self-awareness. Deneuve plays her brilliantly. Fabienne can be cruel – she does not hesitate to insult her son-in-law’s acting talent, for example – but on a certain level she understands what her egotism has cost her. She loves and needs her daughter. She understands how she hurt Luc in leaving him out of her book. She even grasps that her catty attitude toward Manon has less to do with an upstart taking her role in the spotlight than how the young woman reminds her and Lumir of Suzanne.

The film-within-a-film spins the tale of an astronaut, returned to Earth after a long voyage and untouched by age, communing with a daughter now older than she, and symbolizes the relathionship between Fabienne and Lumir. One has the impression, Lumir was the more emotionally mature one from a young age, and Fabienne is now just beginning to catch up.

Kore-eda begins his story in summer, ending his story as winter descends on Paris. It’s a delightful irony for a tale that begins with a seemingly insurmountable emotional iceberg between mother and daughter only to unexpectedly thaw. An exploration of love and anger, of a parent’s mistakes and a child’s resentment gradually transforms into something warmer and more generous, an acknowledgement that at least some of the time, it is possible to move past the hurt and forge a stronger bond. The performances by Deneuve and Binoche, these giants of French cinema, are spectacular, as they explore the tension and the love between two complicated women searching for, as the film’s title suggests, a kind of truth.  – Pam Grady

The Truth is playing in selected theaters and is available on VOD platforms.