“Nico, 1988”: A Biopic Worthy of Its Beautiful, Enigmatic Subject

August 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

Trine Dyrholm in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988”

Nico Circa 1988

It means a lot to me that the only two theatrical releases I saw in July, both excellent, were directed by women: first Deborah Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” and then Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988.” When I arrived in Los Angeles with filmmaking ambitions in 1989, any untried young male had a better chance of directing than the most qualified woman, and screenplays by women were generally rejected because they didn’t appeal to the coveted 14-year-old boy demographic. Thus it’s gratifying to see that women directors are now being given a chance, and even some money, to make their films.

I had no particular expectations of “Nico, 1988,” though I was very interested in its tragic subject. For those unfamiliar with Nico, she began as a teenage model and actress in the late 1950’s but achieved her greatest fame as an Andy Warhol Factory girl in the mid-late 1960’s. During those years, she starred in some of Warhol’s films (notably “Chelsea Girls”) but more importantly reinvented herself as a musician, singing with the Velvet Underground and making important connections in the music world–not only with Lou Reed but Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Two of her early hits, “These Days,” and “The Fairest of the Seasons,” were written for her by the teenage Jackson Brown, and decades later brought Nico a new audience and respect when Wes Anderson used them in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

Nico Circa 1965

I was a young child when Nico first appeared on the scene, and can remember the universally low regard she enjoyed as a performer. The general opinion was that Warhol paired her with the Velvet Underground solely for her looks, which happened to be spectacular: long blond hair, huge green eyes, high cheekbones, bee stung lips. Nico’s singing voice–low, droning and German-accented–was compared to a foghorn, which was not a compliment. The only critic I know of who saw beyond her Teutonic pulchritude was Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, who wrote, “She sings in perfect mellow ovals. It sounds like a cello getting up in the morning.” (Nevertheless, he made a point of calling her “half goddess, half icicle.”)

By the opening of “Nico, 1988,” Warhol’s goddess is unrecognizable. Pushing fifty, she’s a longtime heroin addict with a heavier frame, rotting teeth, bad skin and dark hair. Living badly in Manchester and performing in tiny clubs, she’s a has-been. Though the only similarity between the current Nico and the old is her bangs, all she’s ever asked about is her Warhol-Velvet Underground days. Steering interviews toward her current music is as difficult as turning a cargo ship, but she never stops trying. “Call me Christa,” she says at one point, but almost no one ever uses her real name. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad. Nico has continued to write and record music, and her new songs have a power Lou Reed never guessed at. Her performing style has evolved, too: no longer a laconic mannequin, she belts out “Janitor of Lunacy” like the punk rocker she is.

Nico has a manager of sorts, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a club owner who is secretly in love with her. Richard soon takes her on the road with her marginally talented band, cramming everyone into a Land Rover for a European tour of unmatched grottiness. After some dispiriting dates in France and Italy, they go to Prague for what turns out to be an illegal concert. Worse yet, there’s no heroin. Nevertheless, Nico gives an electrifying performance before the police arrive, forcing the entire group to flee for the border. Around this time, Nico is also reunited with her son (by Alain Delon) Ari (Sandor Funtek), who by his mid-twenties has followed his mother into heroin addiction and suicide attempts. Improbably, they both embark on methadone treatment and, when the film ends in the summer of 1988, seem to be recovering.

Nico is wonderfully played by the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, who manages to sound exactly like her when she sings. Unfortunately, Dyrholm looks nothing like Nico apart from her hair, and Nicchiarelli makes no attempt to increase the resemblance. Still, the film is beautiful, its dream-like qualities enhanced by Jonas Mekas’s footage of Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the real Nico. Archival footage is sometimes a distraction, but in “Nico 1988” it slips in effortlessly, before evaporating like the gorgeous memory it is.

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Remembering Shinobu Hashimoto, Japan’s Greatest Screenwriter–and the 20th Century’s

July 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa in the 1950’s

Few centenarians’ deaths come as a shock, but last Thursday’s announcement of Shinobu Hashimoto’s passing at 100 marked the end of an era. Hashimoto, whose blazing career with Akira Kurosawa began with “Rashomon” and continued through the decades with such classics as “Ikiru,” “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” and “Dodes’Ka-Den,” was a giant of cinema, and not just in Japan. His screenplays, whether written alone or in collaboration, have resonated throughout the world since 1950, their relevance unfaded by time and trends.

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru”/Courtesy Toho Films

Though deservedly famous for the samurai films that brought fame to Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, his most important leading man, Hashimoto was equally renown for his contemporary films. Poverty, wartime devastation and existential dread were his themes, and he explored them with compassion and an unsparing eye for everyday cruelty. In “Ikiru,” my favorite film of all time (if I had to choose just one), Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, not only finds life’s meaning in his remaining two months but does so in secret because his doctor has withheld his fatal diagnosis, as was the Japanese custom until recently. Watanabe’s only son treats him with disdain and his daughter-in-law regards him as a nuisance; neither will listen as he tries to break the news of his impending death. So Hashimoto, after granting the abstemious Watanabe a brief period of hedonism, sets him on a path to greatness: creating a park from an urban swampland, against almost insurmountable odds.

In “I Live in Fear,” Nakajima, a foundry owner, is so convinced of a coming nuclear war that he decides to move his family to the safe haven of Brazil. His family responds by having him declared incompetent. “Dodes’kad-den,” explores the daily lives of impoverished shantytown residents, including a boy who lives in a fantasy world in which he imagines himself a tram conductor.

Beyond his work with Kurosawa, Hashimoto wrote for other major directors of his time. His screenplays for “Summer Clouds” and “Whistle in My Heart” became two of Mikio Naruse’s best late-period films. “Harakiri,” for Masaki Kobayashi, is considered a masterpiece.

Still, it’s not necessary to have seen any of these films to know Hashimoto’s work well. “Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven;” “Ikiru” spawned “Breaking Bad;” “Hidden Fortress” inspired “Star Wars.” And even the least cinematically inclined are familiar with “Rashomon,” which has entered the English language as a word for conflicting yet true accounts. It’s hard to imagine life without these touchstones, all of which sprang from the pen of Shinobu Hashimoto, who survived World War II and tuberculosis to forge an unparalleled and unforgettable body of work.

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in “Rashomon”

My related articles:
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/the-japanese-masterpiece-at-the-heart-of-breaking-bad-akira-kurosawas-ikiru/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/awakened-by-impending-death-the-transformational-heroes-of-ikiru-and-breaking-bad/

“Leave No Trace,” 2018’s Best Film So Far

July 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Deborah Graynik’s “Leave No Trace”


For years I watched several movies a week in theaters and more at home; hundreds per year. These days I rarely set foot in theaters, and the last film I saw in one was a documentary. As for features, what little isn’t of the superhero/action variety is usually unsatisfying, and often forgotten by the time I get home.

Further complicating matters are the increasingly compelling original series on streaming services. Nothing I’ve seen in this year has interested me as much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown,” so why make the trip to ArcLight? Fortunately, some relief has arrived via Deborah Graynik’s new film, “Leave No Trace.” Will, a war veteran with PTSD (Ben Foster) hides from civilization in the woods outside Portland with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Father and daughter live harmoniously in primitive conditions until their inevitable discovery by park rangers. Though their re-entry into society yields mixed results, there are no villains or platitudes in “Leave No Trace,” and no violence. Social workers are sensitive and kind, as are Will and Tom’s new neighbors, but Will’s problems have no easy solutions.

Foster and McKenzie are brilliant actors, though it pains me that American characters in this quintessentially American movie are played by an Australian and a New Zealander. Aside from that, I can find no fault with “Leave No Trace.” The film is visually beautiful, as would be expected from its Pacific Northwest setting, but more crucially it captures the passage of time as only film can do. For anyone who longs for movies about humans rather than superheroes, this one’s for you.

“First Reformed”: Paul Schrader’s Homage to (or Rip-Off of) Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”

May 14, 2018 § 4 Comments

Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater, May 10 2018/Hope Anderson Productions


Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”


In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.

Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.

Gunar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow in “Winter Light”


Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:

I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.

Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:

If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.

With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.

Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.

“Isle of Dogs,” and “Mozart in the Jungle”: White Men Try to Explain Japan To Us

April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

The Apocalyptic “Trash Island” of “Isle of Dogs”

Getting Ready for a Trippy Tea Ceremony in “Mozart in the Jungle”

I have mixed feelings about “Isle of Dogs,” just as I do about other Wes Anderson films. On the one hand, it’s an homage to Japanese culture, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. On the other, it’s a stereotype-laden tale that trots out (pun intended) every conceivable Japanese cliché: Cherry blossoms! Swords! Sushi! Megacities! Machine Politics! None of that offended me. What did were the references to World War II, particularly the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;the post-apocalyptic Trash Island; the kamikaze-like plane of Atari, the “Little Aviator;” and the island’s deformed and wounded native dogs, survivors of laboratory experiments. For those who might have missed those references, Anderson helpfully provides an explosion with a mushroom cloud.

Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola apparently love Japan and have spent time there. But like countless other infatuated gaijin, they can’t resist the urge to explain Japanese culture, despite their shaky and superficial understanding of it. It’s a long tradition among white males that began with Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Cypriot journalist and wanderer. As the first westerner to write extensively on Japanese literature and culture, the non-fluent Hearn got so famous that he attained a professorship–in English literature, a subject he was also unqualified in–at Tokyo University in 1896.

These days, the explaining goes on less in books than in movies and television, but with the same mixed results. Roman Coppola does better in the current season of “Mozart in the Jungle,” which has several episodes set in Japan. There the orchestra performs on temple grounds and at a Tadao Ando-designed complex, among other picturesque locations. In other scenes, the Japanese love of classical music is depicted at a bar where patrons go to listen to recordings on high-end equipment. All of this culminates in a tea ceremony attended by the two leads (Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke) and conducted by a Japanese woman who is a master of the form. So far, so good, but then the characters drink the tea and find themselves in a Kurosawa-inspired bamboo forest, where they speak forbidden truths and achieve the enlightenment that they either were or were not seeking–I forget which because I’d already tuned out.

As in “Isle of Dogs,” the western fantasy of Japan collapses under its own weight in “Mozart in the Jungle,” and soon the musicians are back in New York where they belong. Japan clearly deserves better. It’s absurd that non-Japanese-speaking outsiders feel compelled to explain its complex culture to the world, but as long as there are white male Japanophiles, there will be attempts.

“Loveless”: Russia’s Entry for Best Foreign Film, and a Masterpiece

February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Alexy Rozin and Maryana Spivak in “Loveless”

I’ve seen many good dramas this season but only one great one: Andry Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” a searing portrait of marital dissolution and its consequences in present-day Moscow. Like the wintry landscape and sleek apartment blocks it depicts, the film is bleak, bracing and suspenseful. It’s also utterly devoid of cinematic bromides and head and shoulders above the competition. It deserves to win not only Best Foreign Film but Best Picture, despite not having been nominated for that award. For those who prefer movies based in reality, “Loveless” is an absolute masterpiece.

The film opens with a blond boy taking a meandering route home from school along a nearby river. Alyosha (Matey Novkov) is twelve, a loner and the only child of a middle-class couple. Though his family lives in a spacious modern apartment, Alyosha’s world is coming apart: his parents despise each other and are in the midst of an ugly divorce; the apartment is on the market. That night in bed, he overhears his father Boris (Alexy Rozin) and mother Zehnya (Maryana Spivak) fighting and learns that neither wants custody of him. When Boris says he can’t care for his son, Zehnya suggests putting Alyosha in an orphanage. The look of anguish on the boy’s face when he realizes he is–and always has been–unwanted by both parents is heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The next day, we learn that both parents have already found new partners: Zhenya a rich older man whose only daughter is not only grown but conveniently living in Portugal; and Boris a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Zehnya, after leaving work to have her hair and nails done, meets her lover for dinner and spends most of the night at his apartment, while Boris spends the night with his lover at her apartment. Zehnya returns home late and doesn’t bother to check on Alyosha. In the morning he’s missing, and Zehnya soon learns he skipped school the previous day and hasn’t been seen since.

On the advice of a policeman, Boris and Zehnya enlist the services of a private group dedicated to finding runaways. With admirable skill, they search the woods, riverbanks and a new but abandoned building where Aloysha and his only friend liked to play. When the search party finds no sign of the boy, they paper the area with flyers and search the stairwells, balconies and elevators of nearby buildings. There are visits to hospitals and the morgue, tips about unnamed corpses and a growing sense of despair. Early on, the group leader persuades Zehnya to visit her monstrous, estranged mother to see if Alyosha might have gone there. Their brief encounter is primer on what not to do, both as a parent and an adult child.

Compared with his icy wife, Boris seems warm and cuddly, but he’s just as much a narcissist as she is. A moral weakling whose main goal is to keep his job by deceiving his boss, a religious fundamentalist who fires divorced employees, Boris sleepwalks through the crisis of his son’s disappearance, unable to comprehend its meaning.

In the end, both Boris and Zehnya get new lives but not the fresh start they expected, and Aloysha’s disappearance is not transformative for either. Both parents remain irredeemably selfish in spite of their new partners and homes, and Boris loves his new baby no more than he did Alyosha. But life goes on as predictably as the children who sled outside the family’s apartment, now under renovation by its new owners.

It’s this refusal to indulge in sentimentality that ultimately makes “Loveless” great, as well as a welcome antidote to every film with a contrived ending. It opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles but should be more widely available soon.

In the Ongoing Sexual Abuse Scandal, the Myth of the Studio System Endures

November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments

Louis B. Mayer in his Office

Amid the daily revelations of sex abuse and harassment by entertainment executives, I’ve noticed a large number of online commentators asking, “Why aren’t all meetings held in offices at the studios?”, and “Why don’t actresses refuse to meet producers/directors/actors in hotel rooms?” The implication that everyone has an office in a studio is laughable; a couple of years ago, I read an article by a producer who worked out of his car, which he recommended because he was always driving from one office to the next. As for actors being able to refuse a meeting in a hotel, it’s hardly possible when agents send them there via written instructions on agency letterhead. That these assumptions exist at all is proof the enduring myth of the studio system.

From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.

Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.

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