Strangers in Strange Lands

Greetings luvvies!

Apologies for the long absence! Your correspondent has been gadding about the country with barely enough time to catch her breath, much less write film reviews. Some of you have let me know that you watched a film I’ve written about, so thank you for that!  It’s nice to know, in these troubled times, that there is still beauty to be found, if only cinematic. I hope this blog can help shine a little light in the corners where people still care about such things…Onwards!

One of the things I love to do when in a strange city is (surprise) go to the movies!  There’s something about sitting in an unfamiliar setting, with exotic snacks and strangers on either side that adds an extra frisson of excitement to one’s viewing experience. This week’s column is dedicated to Watching While Travelling.

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First stop:  New York City!  The Big Apple, one of my favorite places on earth, and one that I was sorely missing of late.  I made a flying visit over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, to immerse myself in friends, family, and art, and of course, found time to take in a picture. On Saturday night I wended my way through the cobbled streets of the West Village, avoiding crowds of merry-making locals, to enter the dark hall of the IFC Center (formerly the Waverly Theater) on 6th Avenue. I was greeted warmly by the gentleman who tore my ticket, and made to feel welcome at once. The theater is meant to be an offshoot of AMC’s IFC Channel, and accordingly shows primarily art house and independent films. That night’s selection was Transit, directed by  Christian Petzold, based on Anna Segher’s 1942 novel about Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism during WWII. A well-trodden road, to be sure, but here’s the twist:  The novel has been transposed to present day France, giving it a timeless, Kafka-esque feel. The characters are stuck in Marseilles, waiting for papers that may or may not come, living in fear of being taken away by an enemy we never see. It’s a bit like Waiting for Godot, but with better scenery. I enjoyed the film, although the main character’s resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix was so strong as to be somewhat distracting (as was his slight speech impediment), but I can’t say I loved it. Maybe it was the jet-lag, but the film all-too-convincingly conveyed the anxious, clammy quality of being trapped in a maze, doomed to making the same mistakes over and over…kind of like modern-day air travel! (Never Look Away‘s lovely Paula Beer also appears as the enigmatic love interest.) However, I thoroughly enjoyed the theater and its friendly staff, and scored a fetching Agnès Varda shoulder bag  to boot (little did I know my beloved Agnès would be leaving us so soon – look for a post dedicated to her work at some point in future.) If you find yourself in the Village with nothing to do, I highly recommend the IFC Center.

Next up – the City of Angels (and some devils…)

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Stuck in a hotel room on my first night in town, I was itching to get out but fancied a walk (a rare activity in LA, to be sure), so imagine my delight in finding that there was a super-luxe movie theater just a block away, with a film I actually wanted to see! Full disclosure – the IPIC Westwood is not somewhere I would normally frequent. For one thing, it’s hideously expensive. If I hadn’t been travelling for work, I never would have gone there.  But I just couldn’t resist the lure of a theater with reclining leather seats, pillow, blanket, and free popcorn, and all this BEFORE you press the little glowing button on your table and order dinner and a cocktail from a cute eager waitperson. Only in LA, my friends…we’re talking serious decadence here. I ordered shrimp tacos and a ginger beer-based cocktail, and both were surprisingly good. Alas, I didn’t have room for the “Childhood in a Jar” chocolate pudding cake dessert…one has limits, afterall!

I wish I could say I enjoyed the film as much as the food:  I really wanted to like Us, since Get Out was one of my favorite films last year – creepy, funny, thought-provoking and disturbing all at once (and I’ll watch anything Catherine Keener does, since seeing her debut in 1991’s Johnny Suede.) But alas, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort felt just that:  a bit sophomoric. Although based on an interesting idea (something about the haves and have-nots of America, and how one influences and controls the other…or something,) the concept was too muddled to capture my imagination, and wrapped up too neatly to satisfy my need for ambiguity. It was all just very bloody and very confusing. Peele’s stated goal was to create a classic horror film, starring a black family in danger, and he did just that, but despite the great cast, who all acted their hearts out, I need more than buckets of blood and gore to sustain my interest. I look forward to his next film.

Thoughts?  Opposing views?  Did I miss something?  I welcome your comments.

Until next time,

Trixie

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Don’t Look Now

never look away

Greetings, Gentle Readers! And thanks for being here!

I stopped watching the Academy Awards when they became more about fashion than films, and this year proved that I haven’t missed a thing: If there was any justice in the Oscars world, my two favorite films of the year would have gone home with gold: Roma, for Best Picture (for which it was submitted), and Cold War, for Best Foreign Language Film. Re: Roma – a Best Picture in a language other than English you ask? Why not?Enough of English-language chauvinism! (Interestingly, both these cinematic gems were produced by television studios. The way of the future? Perhaps. Also perhaps the reason they weren’t given the attention they deserved from the Academy. Just sayin’.)

Another film submitted to the Foreign Language category that didn’t win this year was by the splendidly-monikered, six-foot-nine, ginger-‘fro-topped German director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck, whose name I love repeating aloud almost as much as “Trixie Friganza.” You may remember Herr F. H. von D. as the director of 2006’s The Lives of Others, the best film about covert surveillance since 1974’s The Conversation. The film captivated me when I saw it on first release, and I’m glad to say it bears up on repeated viewing, mostly because of the intense and intensely human gaze of its main character, the gray-visaged East German Stazi Captain Gerd Wiesler, played by Ulrich Mühe, who tragically died shortly after the film’s release and missed out on seeing it win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film also stars the impossibly handsome and charming Sebastian Koch as a surveilled playwright, the only uncompromising (and un-compromised) character in a world where no one can be trusted and nothing is as it seems (more about Herr Koch later.)

The Lives of Others veers towards melodrama a few times (mostly due to the overwrought performance of Martina Gedeck as the playwright’s lover,) but the scenes with Mühe are mesmerizing. My  favorite moment comes towards the end, when Wiesler, banished to a lifetime of steaming open letters in a gloomy basement, hears the news that Die Mauer is open. He sets down his letters, puts on his jacket, and simply walks out, followed by his fellow letter-steamers. It’s an incredible moment, one that illustrates so simply and beautifully how history can change in the blink of an eye.

(It’s easy to forget that the Berlin Wall came down just over twenty years ago. I was in that city before and after this historic event, and witnessed the changes it wrought, some welcome, some not so much. Post-Mauer, I asked an East German friend if, now that the Stazi files were open to the public, he had any interest in seeing his. “Not at all,” he replied. When I asked why, he answered, “Because I don’t want to know who informed on me.” I realized he meant anyone, including family members. Chilling indeed.)

The latest offering from Herr Von D., Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor auf Deutsch), is an epic saga of art, love, and history, and how these themes tragically merge. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is loosely based on the life of German superstar artist Gerhardt Richter (“Kurt Barnert” in the film), and if I didn’t know this beforehand I might have found the whole thing ridiculously over-dramatic. Having said that, the film flies by: every time you start to think “What more can happen?” something else does, often to shocking effect (indeed, one event from Richter’s life, the rape of the his mother by Russian soldiers, was thankfully left out.) The central mystery of the film is never quite revealed however, and for this I thank the director.

The creative process is always difficult to capture on film and often fails dismally. It usually goes something like this: talented youngster comes to the big city with a dream, finds it harder than s/he thought, stares at blank canvas/page/keyboard in mounting frustration, has some kind of epiphany, and Lo! the floodgates open. Sex usually ensues (why is that, I wonder? If I’m really on a tear creativity-wise, sex is usually the last thing on my mind!) This film follows a similar pattern, but there’s more to it, a LOT more, and I loved the way the director hinted at the artist’s internal process without spelling out exactly what was going on inside his head. One pivotal moment: after completing a perfectly lovely mother and child portrait, Barnert blurs the image with horizontal brushstrokes of gray paint (a signature technique of Richter’s.) It takes a classic work of art from the mundane to the sublime, beautifully illustrating the unreliability of memory. The central mystery of the film is also somewhat “blurry” (How much does Barnert actually know? Do others know he knows? Do the paintings know more than he does?) It’s the first time I’ve seen the subconscious process portrayed on film so delicately, and if the ending is somewhat enigmatic, I’m fine with that.

The artist in question is played by Tom Shilling, who I enjoyed watching as an East German “Romeo” agent in The Same Sky (Netflix.) Growing up in 1930’s Dresden, site of one of the worst bombings of the second world war, Barnert’s life is marred by tragedy almost from the start. Having survived the war, he becomes a renowned Socialist Realism muralist under the Communists, which he find less than fulfilling. After  defecting to the West with his young wife, Barnert ends up at the University of Dusseldorf, where he’s taken under the wing of an art professor very much styled after Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys, complete with a sprig of coyote fur on his lapel. Schilling is a somewhat bland choice as leading man, but he has an androgynous appeal that goes with the sensitive character he portreys. With his soft voice and slight physique, when he tells his soon-to-be-wife that he wishes they could meld into one body, you see a man who is fully in touch with his anima. In fact, women surround him throughout the film, providing a welcome alternative to the horrors perpetrated by the men in his life, notably his monstrous father-in-law, played by Sebastian Koch, who hasn’t seemed to age since The Lives of Others.  Unlike the free-living sensualist Koch played in that film, here he is chilling as the Nazi eugenics doctor Carl Seeband, whose story is inextricably bound with Barnert’s.  And that’s all I will say about that, for fear of spoiling the many secrets the film contains.

F. H. V. D.* is clearly in love with his material, and spent ten years interviewing Richter and researching his life (Richter disavowed the film, but is thanked in the credits.) However, as much as I enjoyed the experience, I do feel he could have killed some of his darlings and had an even more effective (not to mention shorter) film: No one needs to actually see what happens when mental patients are herded into “shower rooms” by Nazis. We know. Likewise, when the Beuys character tells his protege a (possibly apocryphal) story about being cared for by nomads after crashing his plane during the war, we don’t actually need to see his scars, our imagination will provide. But these are my only quibbles with what is an exhilarating cinematic and artistic experience. Go see it, and keep your eyes open.

 

* The director’s full name is: Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck

From Poland With Love

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Greetings Gentle Readers, and (not so) Happy Valentine’s Day!

Although I find our culture’s insistence on the heteronormative couple (and the marketing that goes with it) irksome in the extreme, I hearby decree that this blogspace be devoted to love in all its myriad forms, today and every day! In that spirit, I offer up three films that at first glance hardly exemplify typical love stories…but really, is there such a thing? You be the judge…

If you haven’t heard the name Pawel Pawlikowski, you soon will very soon. His sleeper hit, Ida (2013), a black and white 80-minute film about a young nun in post-war Poland, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2015, and his newest offering, Cold War, is likely to do the same (unless Roma scoops it up – go see it on the big screen while you can!)

Ida was remarkable for its spare, nearly dialogue-free storytelling, and its low-light, monochromatic cinematography. Framed in a square aspect ratio that gives you the feeling of  watching a foreign film from the early 60’s – Bergman and Bresson have been invoked in other reviews – the film seems to have been unearthed from another era, indeed, from the period when the film itself takes place.

Without giving away its secrets, of which there are many, Ida concerns a young novice nun who, shortly before taking the veil, is sent to meet her only living relative: her aunt Wanda, a somewhat embittered state prosecutor (known as Red Wanda for her ruthless sentencing,) who spends her time away from the bench drinking, smoking, and bedding random men. Wanda is played by the marvelous Agata Kelusza, who must surely possess one of the greatest faces in current cinema. She’s right up there with Anna Magnani or Gena Rowlands (more on her later.) What the naïve young nun discovers, and how she and Wanda react to that hard-won knowledge, is where the film derives its considerable power. Steeped in the history of Poland – the horrors of the Second World War followed by the repression of the Soviet takeover – there is tenderness, even love, in the story as well: The novice’s devotion to her faith, the growing bond between the two women, the admiration of a young Coltrane-playing musician, and ultimately, a woman’s love for her child.  Ida was one of my favorite films the year it came out, and it deserves to be seen – again.

If you fancy another film about nuns and Poland (hey, it’s a thing), you might try The Innocents (2016), now streaming on Netflix. A Polish-French production, it also concerns women facing unspeakable tragedy, but unlike the two other films reviewed here, it’s based on a true story. Directed by Anne Fontaine, it tells the story of a French Croix Rouge nurse played by Lou de Laâge, who discovers a group of nuns living in a remote convent. They too, harbor secrets: many of them were repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII, and are now in the late stages of pregnancy. The Mother Superior, who holds some fiercely-guarded secrets of her own, is played by our friend Agata Kelusza, in a role that only someone with her steely gravitas could pull off and still retain our sympathies (Joanna Kulig appears as well, as one of the nuns.)  There’s a Jewish doctor who’s in love with the nurse, but she has bigger issues to deal with, since once she learns of the sisters’ plight she feels compelled to help them, jeopardizing her own career and safety. And what about love, you ask? The male figures in The Innocents are peripheral, as they were in Ida, except as figures of menace or ineffectual lovers. Rather, the film quietly celebrates the bond between the sisters, and the relationship that grows between the nuns and the nurse that cares for them. The end of the film, while not exactly happy, at least provides a degree of resolution, thank goddess.

On to the main course: Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest love letter to his former homeland (he lives in the UK,) Cold War is a sweeping ode to Polish history, to music, and to doomed romantic love. Again, the cinematography is black and white and the aspect ratio is archaic, but unlike Ida, the entire film is sharp and high-contrast: shadows are inky black, and the female lead, the incandescent Joanna Kulig as Zula, is lit as if from within – she positively glows. Zula is discovered as part of an ethnographic music-collection project headed by the ruggedly handsome pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), who travels around the country with his partner Irene (again played by Agata Kelusza, who fades from the narrative far too quickly), recording folksongs and recruiting young hopefuls to be part of a state-run choral and dance group. Once assembled, however, the group is under the sway of the State’s director, who has a higher purpose in mind for the group – singing the praises of Stalin, with predictably reductive results. That the director proves to be racist, and has his eye on Zula, the epitome of an Aryan blonde, figures into the story to tragic effect.

Zula and Wiktor are the original star-crossed lovers, tossed on the stormy sea of history, whose mutual love of music draws them together and simultaneously keeps them apart. Wiktor escapes to Paris, where he plays jazz in a club and shacks up with a poet – but still refers to Zula as “the woman of my life.” Zula’s story is far less romantic, and one wonders what her motivations are. When my filmgoing companion questioned the character’s decisions, I could only answer “Humans are flawed.” Ultimately, the film is about choices and why we make them, especially when they don’t serve our best interests.

Pawlikowski shoots every scene beautifully, even when the characters’ lives are in shambles –  every scene is carefully composed, and fairly crackles with emotion. Kulig’s character holds our eye whenever she’s onscreen (she also played the chirpy blonde singer in the party scenes in Ida), and the men in her life are similarly dazzled. In a Paris club, she gets drunk and dances to “Rock Around The Clock,” flinging herself from one partner to the next, abandoning herself to the forbidden American music, her longing for freedom and release so strong she nearly dances right off the screen.  

The end of the film feels both devastating and somehow inevitable, but as with the rest of the film, it’s beautifully and discretely framed. If not your typical love story, Cold War is nonetheless a Valentine to Poland, to music, and to lost loves.  

 

The lights dim…the curtain rises…

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Greetings fellow cinephiles, and welcome!

In these days of multiple viewing platforms, streaming content, and diverse, uh, “devices,” it seems my conversations with friends and colleagues invariably come around to the topic of films: trash or treasure, new or old, small screen or large. I’ve been watching and forming opinions about movies since before I could read: my first cinematic experience was a double bill of “That Darn Cat” and “Born Free” at a drive-in on Long Island when I was four years old. Lasting impressions, folks. A few years later, I staged a puppet show with my older brother based on David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”  I was a precocious child. By now a confirmed addict, I made my parents crazy begging them to take me to the movies every weekend, and would have driven there myself if my feet had reached the pedals of our old Buick.

However, as I’m now a working and relatively able-bodied adult, and can go anytime I damn well please, I find myself somewhat in demand as an arbiter of all things celluloid (or pixelated.) Since I possess neither time nor temperament to run around broadcasting my thoughts to all and sundry on the latest offering from (insert director, festival, country, streaming service here), I decided to do us all a favor and go the public forum route. Goddess help me.

Every week, or month, or whenever I get around to itdammitgetoffmybackalready, I’ll post what I’ve seen, enjoyed, hated, or been bemused by in the wide world of cinema. I  may also write about television (gasp!), because these days, I find as much, if not more, interesting content on my home screen than on the big (not to mention that at home I am surrounded by comfort, and by comfort I mean dogs, and they don’t laugh in the wrong place or make inane comments, OUT LOUD FERCHRISSAKES, when I’m trying to watch a film, bless their furry little hearts. )

I may include things I wrote some time ago but find to be relevant to something I just saw. I may also invite very special guests to contribute. Who the heck knows? But trust that whatever I post will be thoughtful, grammatical, and hopefully amusing.  Keyword: hopefully.

Here’s something you should know: I have an opinion. And I’m not afraid to express it. You may share that opinion, or you may not. Feel free to share your own, as long as, and this is key: YOU DO SO IN A RESPECTFUL AND THOUGHTFUL MANNER. Rudeness and bigotry will NOT be tolerated (and please, try to uphold basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation. There’s only so much a body can bear.)

Having gotten that off my heaving bosom, let’s get on with the show!