The latest promo to drop on Rocketman is all about the fashion. To see Elton John back in the ’70s would have been an experience: Not just the music, but the clothes, the glasses, the larger-than-life flamboyancy. From the looks of it, Rocketman captures that. Certainly, star Taron Egerton wears it well. Whether the movie lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but for now, bravo!
People know the name “Stockholm Syndrome,” but few know its etymology. Writer/director Robert Budreau aims to correct that with his new drama Stockholm. The condition in which hostages begin to trust and ally with their captors owes its moniker to a 1973 bank robbery turned hostage situation in the Swedish capital, recounted here–more or less. Names have been changed, and so have other details. And the lead kidnapper was most definitely not an American, which he is for the film’s purposes. But that alteration makes way for Ethan Hawke, who delivers a charismatic performance that’s not only larger than life, it’s larger than the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Lars Nystrom (Hawke) enters the bank alone but is soon joined by his friend Gunnar (Mark Strong in bad hippie hairpiece—actually, so is Hawke, but his is supposed to be a wig). There are three hostages and the bank is surrounded by cops. Lars is a charmer. It doesn’t take him long to gain the sympathy of his captives, particularly bank officer Bianca (Noomi Rapace). Heavy-handed police tactics only encourage the hostages to trust Lars and Gunnar.
Stockholm is entertaining enough, if ultimately forgettable. Hawke is the best thing about it with the rest of the cast saddled with playing characters that are not particularly well drawn. Also, the whole problem with making a movie about the roots of “Stockholm Syndrome” is that the crime for which the condition is named pales in comparison with another caper associated with the syndrome: the 1972 robbery of a Chase Manhattan bank that inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 thriller Dog Day Afternoon. That movie with a livewire Al Pacino and John Cazale as his dim-witted sad sack partner set the standard for hostage taking movies where the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play. Stockholm is diverting but Lumet set a high bar that is almost impossible for other films to reach. –Pam Grady
Terry Gilliam has been tilting at windmills for 30 years, trying to get his passion project, his spin on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century novel Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, made. Most famously, French actor Jean Rochefort donned Quixote’s helmet while Johnny Depp played commercials director Toby who becomes Quixote’s Sancho Panza in an aborted 200 production that was immortalized in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. Among the actors attached or considered for the role of Quixote in subsequent years were Gerard Depardieu, Robert Duvall, Gilliam’s fellow Python Michael Palin, and the late John Hurt (diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just prior to what was supposed to be a 2016 production start state) with Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell cast as Toby. This was a production clearly never meant to be, yet sometimes, giants are vanquished and miracles do happen as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote arrives in theaters with Gilliam’s Brazil star Jonathan Pryce as the grizzled Quixote and Adam Driver as Toby, the ad man begging for comeuppance.
The film represents probably the only opportunity to ever see Driver do an impression of vaudeville and early movie star Eddie Cantor, which he does with an inspired performance of “If You Knew Susie” that would be worth the price of admission alone even if Gilliam’s 30-years-in-the-making dream project was an utter failure. Which it isn’t, far from it. It was a given that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would be an eyepopping production. It couldn’t help but be that, not with Gilliam’s longtime cinematographer Nicola Pecorini’s gorgeous photography, Benjamín Fernández and Gabriel Liste’s exquisite production design, and resonant locations in Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands that evoke both the 17th century of Quixote’s time and our modern era. What couldn’t be anticipated was just how well Gilliam succeeds in telling his story. Those three decades and all the cast changes have not gone for naught. This is the director’s most satisfying film since The Fisher King 28 years ago.
Driver is one of those rare actors that doesn’t need to be liked, which a good thing, since Toby is such a pill: arrogant, rude, craven, betrayer of his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and just a general pain in the ass. On location in Spain where he is shooting his latest commercial, he stumbles on a DVD of his student film, a Don Quixote story shot in a nearby village. Nostalgia coupled with a need to escape his current circumstances sends him on a visit back to that ancient town where he discovers that his old leading lady Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has gone away and become an escort, while the cobbler (Pryce) who was his Quixote has fallen into the delusion that he is the character. Reunited with Toby, he’s found his Sancho Panza.
What follows is a kind of wondrous delirium. Reality and fantasy intertwine, complete with cameos from a gallery of Gilliam monsters. Toby resists and embraces his new role, displays cowardice and courage, and wrestles with the idea that his little student film changed the course of people’s lives, and not for the better. Pryce and Driver, even at loggerheads, share a delicious chemistry. Pryce is excellent, imbuing Quixote with warmth and a gentle daftness, while Driver is magnificent as he portrays Toby’s evolution from a brat to a human being who just might reclaim his soul.
Thirty years from idea to execution is a long time to embrace a dream. It was worth the wait to see its reality. Bravo, Terry Gilliam. –Pam Grady
As boxer Roberto Duran might say, no mas, Tim Burton, no mas. A director whose films used to be greeted with excited anticipation now only summons dread. Somewhere along the way, Burton lost his mojo. Dumbo is merely the latest evidence that he is not getting it back anytime soon, a banal exercise in faux sentimentality and overdone CGI. He doesn’t shoulder all the blame. Disney needs to stop using its back catalog of classics as a springboard for films that lack anything resembling the enchantment of the original films.
Scarcely over an hour long, the 1941 Dumbo is one of Disney’s most tear-jerking features. Humans barely exist in this colorful, musical cartoon about a baby circus elephant who is made a laughingstock because of his extra-large ears before he becomes a star when those ears act as wings allowing him to fly. Adding to the baby’s woes is the separation from his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, locked away from the other pachyderms as a mad elephant. But from Dumbo’s tragedy comes triumph and within that short running time is a scene of sublime brilliance in “Pink Elephants on Parade” as surreal imagery dances before the eyes of a drunken Dumbo and Timothy Mouse.
Burton’s Dumbo pays homage to that number in a scene involving pink soap bubble elephants, but all that does is emphasize how bereft the new film is of inspiration and magic. The now CGI elephant, who has curiously empty eyes, is more or less a supporting character to a cast of humans that include motherless children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins); their one-armed, WWI vet and sidelined circus trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, who really needs to stick to independent fare; his Hollywood movies tend toward the terrible); and Max Medici (Danny DeVito), owner of the threadbare tent show to which Dumbo is born.
As in the original film, Dumbo is separated from his mother, leaving him a grieving elephant, but he also seems to be the key to emotionally repairing the heartbroken Farrier family, and once his aeronautic talents are discovered, to insuring the financial health of the circus. But then big city impresario (and megalomaniac sociopath) V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, whose reunion with his Beetlejuice and Batman director only serves as a reminder of what used to be) and the star of his show, trapeze artist Colette Marchand (Eva Green), sweep in with their own proposal to unite the two enterprises at Vandevere’s Dreamland (think Disneyland meets Coney Island, both on steroids).
There are a lot of “toos” here: The children are too precocious to tug much at heartstrings no matter how much they refer to their dead mother (who seems more of a plot device than someone who actually lived). Their father is too passive to be a true hero (an odd wrinkle in that that missing arm suggests valor to spare). Medici and Vandevere are too cartoony. (And Alan Arkin, in a cameo as a banker who holds Dreamland’s fate in his hands, steals his scenes from DeVito and Keaton with his impeccably dry delivery.) And Dumbo is too CGI. (His 1941 cel animation counterpart seemed far more real).
As usual, Burton seems to have paid most attention to his production design, the rendering of the tatty Medici circus and its sideshow and Dreamland. Dumbo is overstuffed visually and undernourished narratively. The clunky script credited to Ehren Kruger (whose credits include Scream 3, Reindeer Games, and three Transformers sequels) is charmless and prosaic. There is precious little within the movie to delight and enrapt children and even less to keep their parents awake through the long slog. Where Dumbo and its story of a flying elephant ought to soar, instead it crashes and burns. –Pam Grady
The strong bond between man and animal lives at the heart of actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature directorial debut, The Mustang, a drama with roots in a real prison rehabilitation program in which convicts train wild horses. Shot on location in a decommissioned Nevada prison and grounded by a deeply empathetic performance by Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, the film captures the ugly realities of prison life while depicting one very unusual method for changing lives for the better. While these convicts break horses, the horses in a way are breaking the men and restoring them to humanity.
Roman (Schoenaerts) could easily be irredeemable. Serving a long sentence for a terrible act of domestic violence and a frequent guest of solitary confinement, he is a sullen man who seems only able to express himself in outbursts of anger. He has a 16-year-old daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), with whom he is desperate to connect, but communicating his feelings is a Sisyphean challenge for him. He does not appear to be the most likely candidate for rehabilitation, nevertheless he is chosen for the program in which mustangs—recently captured in their natural habitat throughout the American West—are made ready for auction by getting them comfortable with humans.
The first meetings between Roman and the irate buckskin who wants nothing to do with people aren’t promising. They are a matched set, as Myles (Bruce Dern), the head of the program, and Henry (Jason Mitchell), a fellow convict who has developed into a talented trainer, can see. Roman, as uncomfortable around animals as he is with people, doesn’t appear to have the skill set for calming a wild animal, not when he doesn’t even know how to calm himself. But that’s the point. In learning how to handle the horse, Roman is learning how to handle himself.
At times, the story is a little too on the nose with Roman and the horse he names Marquis being so perfectly in sync in their temperaments, while a subplot involving a prison drug ring adds an unnecessary element of melodrama. Those are minor quibbles. With Schoenaerts, Dern, Mitchell, and a terrific supporting cast (including some non-actors, ex-convicts who graduated from programs like the one depicted and have successfully reentered society), The Mustang is a film with a lot of heart and one with an unusual take on America’s prison-industrial complex. The world tends to fixate on punishment, but most prisoners get out at some point, and then what?
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Ruben Impens, The Mustang makes the most of its desert setting and one terrifically suspenseful scene where a driving storm threatens the horses. Clermont-Tonnerre imbues her film with a variety of tones from the simmering tensions of the prison yard to the uncomfortable atmosphere in the visitors’ room where Roman and his daughter fitfully communicate through his guilt and her anger to the camaraderie and sometimes surprising exuberance to be found among the horse trainers. The Mustang began when the director read an article about programs like the one she portrays and she has parlayed that into an impressive first feature. –Pam Grady
Real coal miners appear on the screen during the closing credits of writer/director Eddie Mensore’s sophomore feature Mine 9, which makes its world premiere March 8 at the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in Silicon Valley. They talk about their work and how it is a family tradition and how long a workday is and how many years they’ve been going down in the pit. Mensore pays respect to these men in this way, even as the story he has just spun is chilling and leaves the viewer with a question: Why in the world would anyone do this kind of work?
Set in a bucolic Appalachian community and against an evocative soundtrack of country, folk, and blues songs – a few originals, mostly traditional – performed by Atlanta musician Max Godfrey, Mine 9 neatly sets up the circumstances facing a group of miners. They know conditions aren’t safe, but they don’t really have much of a choice except to descend two miles down into the earth and go back to work. Economic conditions are so harsh in the region that the choice comes down to risking one’s life for the sake of a job or starve. All except 18-year-old Ryan (Drew Starkey), joining the family business as he starts his first day of work, have families to feed.
Mensore paints a vivid picture. From the grime that encrusts the men from head to foot to the claustrophobic conditions of working in the pit, this is pitiless, backbreaking work. And that’s before the methane explosion that leaves them with caved in walls and scant oxygen. Given that the concerns expressed by Zeke (Terry Serpico), the miners de facto leader, have been utterly ignored by management, can they even expect rescue or are they truly on their own?
Mine 9 delivers on its premise as a thriller. Mensore’s storytelling is economical as he sets up a situation in which survival is always in question. Characters are only lightly sketched, but terrific performances by Serpico, Starkey, and the rest of the cast give the tale emotional weight. Mine 9 isn’t a horror movie, precisely, but it might as well be. It is certainly horrifying. –Pam Grady
One of the more unusual thrillers to come down the pike in recent years, The Hummingbird Project revolves around the construction of a high-speed fiber optics cable to facilitate high-frequency stock trades where every millisecond counts. The project pits cousins Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (an almost unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård) against their high-flying trader ex-boss Eva (Salma Hayak) who is determined to put a stop to the upstarts’ attempt to usurp her business. The Orchard release debuts in March.
Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Poland, but moved to England with his mother when he was a teenager. After studying literature and philosophy at Oxford, he established his career as filmmaker, first with documentaries before turning to fiction with such films as Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2003). But then he traveled back to his native country to make his 2013 Academy Award-winning drama Ida about a 1960s era novitiate who receives life-changing news about her identity. In making the movie, Pawlikowski realized he was home. Now, he has made a new feature, Cold War, about the tumultuous relationship between a singer (Joanna Kulig) and a jazz musician (Tomasz Kot) who fall in love in Stalinist, post-World War II Poland. Pawlikowski won the directing award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The film is on the shortlist for the foreign-language Academy Award; won five European Film Awards, including best European film; and received four BAFTA nominations, among other honors. In October, Pawlikowski was feted with a tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was during that visit to the San Francisco Bay Area that this conversation took place.
Q: You spent most of your career in the West. What brought you back to Poland?
Pawel Pawlikowski: Many things. I reached a certain age, I suppose, where I needed to change something. My kids grew up and left home. My wife died. I didn’t originally plan to move back to Poland, but when I started preparing Ida, I just started feeling very at home there. A friend, Agnieszka Holland, lent me her flat in Warsaw, very near to where I used to live. I felt very at home. It was very peculiar. Driving around Poland looking for locations, I recognized landscapes from my childhood. I suddenly felt like this is where I feel most at home. It has something to do with age. Half of one’s life, one tries to escape from somewhere and the other half, wants to get back somewhere. Poland just feels like home. It’s like finding a pair of slippers that feel very comfy. Of course, I chose a very interesting time politically—a couple of years later after the election [of Poland’s right-wing President Andrzej Duda], it doesn’t look so cozy.
When I dreamt of something, it always tended to be some corner of Warsaw. It’s also a city I feel very sentimental and affectionate about, partly because we grew up among ruins. Not literally ruins, I’m exaggerating, but I was born 13 years after the war and there were still bullet holes in the walls of my house. With every step, you find history. Here’s where 300 people were executed during the Warsaw Uprising. Here is the entrance to the sewer, just outside my flat now, the entrance to the sewer through which the insurgents were escaping to another area and here is the Ghetto. It was flattened and it’s completely different. It’s haunted. Warsaw is a haunted city. It’s not a tourist attraction, but if you have imagination, it’s the most fascinating city in the world. I actually love it very much.
Q: Since you’ve been back, the two films you’ve made Ida and now Cold War take place during the Communist era. Does that time have a particular pull for you?
PP: There are several reasons, I suppose. It’s a world in which you can tell stories where digital technology is not important and where everything you do has huge consequences. It seems like people, whatever they do, there’s something kind of fatal about it. You can look across a table or look across a room and see somebody fall in love. Where moral problems are focused. I think in today’s world it’s very difficult to find that. Some directors do it very well, like Ruben Östlund [Force Majeure, The Square] who makes fantastic films about today with moral issues. But that [earlier era] is where I feel more confident and more attracted to, as well. I like a world that is less cluttered with images, information, sounds, where everything becomes quite expressive and you can really look properly. I find today there’s too much stuff that washes over you. For me. It’s a midlife crisis thing.
Q: Cold War is dedicated to your parents and was inspired by your parents, but the story is not about them. Talk about that inspiration and how it led to the tale of this couple.
PP: My parents had a very tempestuous marriage. Clearly, in the back of my head, I’ve had their story hovering over me for a long time. When they were still alive, it was just a source of amusement and irritation, horror, because when I was 13, they divorced. They were fighting all the time. And then I met their partners and it wasn’t great for a teenage son. I was the only son, so it was very intense. Then it became almost comical in a way in the way they couldn’t get on when they met again in the West. Then they died in total harmony, but after 40 years of [passionate conflict]. They were too tired to fight. When they died in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, just before the Cold War ended, I had this feeling that I’d been the witness to an amazing love story. It didn’t look like a love story most of the time, but it actually was.
That was somewhere in the back of my head when I was inventing other stories, but I always kind of went back to this jewel, two characters who are equally strong and who don’t give in, who spend a lot of time apart from each other and fantasize each other. They build each other up and then something happens that destroys that idea of themselves. That was always the matrix of all love stories, in a way. Ten years ago, I thought, “This would be a really good story to tell.” Not because I need to tell it, but it’s a good story. It’s a very difficult story to tell, because it’s so messy, but what’s good about is you have these strong, contradictory characters who are never quite good enough or bad enough, who live in historical times, which is always really important, the way history forces their hand. Occasionally, I tried to write it up, but I was always too close to the real thing. Dramatically, it was not that interesting. Ida gave me the confidence to tell things synthetically, elliptically. I didn’t have to be literal and explain everything. Around then, I also thought that music would be an important element, which would change things, take it away from my parents, who were not musicians. Music brings them together, keeps them together, and then kind of illustrates all the ups and downs and the changes in their relationship.
Q: The music from that era is so evocative, the jazz from that era, even album cover designs.
PP: Exactly, and there wasn’t such a glut of stuff. Everything was meaningful. Also, jazz was banned in Stalinist Poland, so if you played jazz, it meant something. You weren’t just playing jazz because you liked it, as one of many things you could do. Also, folk music was interesting. I started with genuine folk music. I found all these performers around Poland to perform these songs. Then you see them transformed into this folk ensemble with this orchestra. When something big like that comes about, of course, politics steps in and coopts it. That’s inspired by a real story of a folk ensemble that got coopted. The Communist regime decided that folk music was the music of the people as opposed to bourgeois, decadent jazz. Art wasn’t something that just happened; it was all pretty state controlled. The official doctrine of the Stalinist period in art was social realism. The formula for that was that the music should be popular in form and socialist in content. So, this folk ensemble that started innocently becomes the official art of the state. Then, in the West, the same number becomes a bebop number, a melody they dance to.
Music is always not just something people do. It has meaning. It has a kind of resonance. In terms of the film, the narrative, it tells you where we are and when we are. And then “Rock Around the Clock” crops up in ’57. Also, at that point, I didn’t think about it, but when I watched the film in Cannes, yeah, it’s true, because there is a 10-year difference between Zula and Viktor, and “Rock Around the Clock” he doesn’t react to at all. He just keeps talking to that other guy, whereas for her, the devil enters her and she goes off on this drunken solo dance. So, you can see the difference between them. This is a wedge between them that is generational, too. There was a 10-year gap between my father and my mother and she was much more crazy. So, yes, music is always both historical and psychological. You can use it in so many ways. It’s great that they are both musicians, so you can play with that.
Q: Both Ida and Cold War are in black and white and eschew widescreen for the narrower Academy ratio. What was your thinking behind those choices?
PP: With Ida, it was one thing. With Cold War, it’s another. Ida, I wanted to remove it from reality slightly, which is in color. Also, it was partially inspired by my family album, my photo album, which was all in black and white. Here, in Cold War, I started out thinking I was going to make a color film and then I just couldn’t find the right colors. Colors that would feel lively enough, Poland was very gray at that time. In a way, making it in black and white was a way of making it more colorful, more punchy and constrasty. If I was actually quite truthful to the colors of the time, they would have been really murky and monotonous. To invent some new colors or some different colors would have been fake. I thought black and white was more truthful. If the film had been set in the States, I would have used color, because in the States you had saturated colors in the ‘50s. I would’ve been thinking about that world, Hopper’s paintings, photographs. –Pam Grady
When future Watergate conspirator Egil Krogh is the most sympathetic character in a movie about the legendary 1970 meeting between then President Richard Nixon and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley, you have a movie that’s dead on arrival. That’s the case with Elvis & Nixon. Neither Michael Shannon (Elvis) nor Kevin Spacey (Nixon)—two of the greatest actors of the present era—emotionally connect with their characters to give more than a shallow impression (and not much of one at than in Shannon’s case) of the men they portray. Not that they have much to work with in this sorry comedy’s lame, lazy script.
The photograph memorializing the Yuletide get together between the leader of the free world and the pioneering rock star is an enduring image, but there is no record of the meeting that Presley asked for hoping to join the war against drugs as a specially appointed law enforcement officer, leaving filmmakers free to fill in the blanks. Elvis & Nixon is not the first time the tales been told. Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) made Elvis Meets Nixon for Showtime in 1997, framing the story as a hybrid between mockumentary and straight narrative with Elvis in the throes of a kind midlife crisis that sends him on a solo excursion to Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip before jetting off to Washington and his date with a hilariously out-of-touch Nixon. The new version spends a lot more time in that meeting with Elvis constantly breaking protocol and yet somehow winning over an initially hostile Nixon.
Spacey nails Nixon’s voice and mannerisms but still comes across as little more than a caricature. (In contrast, watch Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, or even Dan Hedaya in Dick.) But the big disappointment is Shannon who plays a character named Elvis Presley who does not remotely resemble the man named Elvis Presley. The gaunt actor would be a stretch in any case, but Shannon also can’t replicate the voice or the physical grace and he crucially never conveys the man’s charisma and he just plain looks uncomfortable in Presley garish wardrobe.
The most interesting aspect of Elvis & Nixon is the way both men are portrayed in relation to their handlers. Part of the Memphis Mafia, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville, in a sea of bad wigs, he’s stuck with the worst) have their hands full with man-child Elvis, spoiled, impetus, demanding their loyalty and attention to the detriment of their own lives. (In one subplot, Schilling is desperate to get back to Los Angeles in time to meet his girlfriend’s parents.) Nixon aides Krogh (the always reliable Colin Hanks, playing the character as a blend of political opportunist and fanboy) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) similarly manage their boss, here portrayed as a crank more interested in napping than affairs of state. As powerful as they are, both Elvis and Nixon are infants in need of constant minding. Director Liza Johnson and the film’s three screenwriters only skate the surface of these relationships, another missed opportunity.
Maybe the lesson in all this if you don’t have any real affection or feel for the story you’re trying to tell, perhaps it’s not a story you ought to be telling. There is little heart in Elvis & Nixon, and what little there is curiously belongs to Egil Krogh. But that’s all due to Hanks, the one actor who finds a way to transcend the thin material. It might be possible to make a funny, entertaining movie out of the president and Presley’s short conference (Elvis Meets Nixon comes close), but Elvis & Nixon isn’t it.—Pam Grady
by Pam Grady
The Coen family has taken over the Bay Area in the first half of 2016. First, Frances McDormand, wife of Joel Coen, played to sold out houses with her turn as Lady Macbeth in Berkeley Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Now, her husband and his brother Ethan are a star attraction alongside Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus/Criterion when the San Francisco International Film Festival awards its Mel Novikoff Award to Janus Films and The Criterion Collection on Saturday, April 30, at the Castro Theatre. The siblings’ first feature Blood Simple, the tense, bewitching neo-noir in which McDormand made her debut as barkeep Dan Hedaya’s cheating spouse, screens as well in what is sure to be a magical afternoon.
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