March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment
For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.
Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.
At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.
The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:
Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.
Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.
Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.
February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
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.
November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments
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.
September 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
As the countdown to “Blade Runner 2049” continues, it’s worth remembering that the original “Blade Runner” wasn’t met with the kind of reverence it enjoys now. When it came out in 1982, I was living in Berkeley and saw it in a packed theater on what I’m pretty sure was opening night. From the first scene–explosions over an ominous-looking Los Angeles–I knew “Blade Runner” was a masterpiece. I loved the dystopian future it depicted, from the constant rain to the Japanese-influenced motifs. I loved the fact that Deckard was an updated Raymond Chandler detective who lived in a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house. I loved the fact that the climactic chase scene was filmed in the Bradbury Building, George Herbert Wyman’s 1893 iron-and-glass masterpiece that, like the film itself, was years ahead of its time.
I was surprised, to put it mildly, when the critics didn’t share my enthusiasm. Janet Maslin, though she praised the movie’s special effects, called “Blade Runner” “a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned.” On their TV show “At the Movies,” Gene Siskel called it “a waste of time,” while Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up only for the effects. Twenty-five years later, Ebert reappraised it positively, in part because the once-futuristic lighted billboards had become a reality: “the story benefits…by seeming more to inhabit is world than be laid on top of it.” (Siskel died in 1999, so there’s no way of knowing whether he would have changed his mind.) The Hollywood Reporter called it “a Felliniesque journey into Dante’s Inferno, with Micky Spillane in tow,” though it also called it “mesmerizing.” Thanks to its decidedly mixed critical reception, “Blade Runner” was a box office dud.
The film’s reputation started changing with the release of Ridley Scott’s director’s cut in 1992. Shorn of its voice-over narration, “Blade Runner” gained a new following and began to be regarded as a science fiction classic. The lack of narration–tacked onto the original because some thought the story confusing–gives the film greater dynamism, as did additional footage that seems to affirm the theory that Deckard himself is a replicant. In 2007, the Final Cut, which I haven’t seen, expanded the unicorn dream sequence, remastered the haunting Vangelis score and added three scenes.
On October 6th, we’ll finally get the sequel: “Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it looks worthy of the original and will draw a massive audience of fans, including me. As for the critical reception, it’s safe to assume a much better response than the original received in 1982.
My ebook on “Blade Runner” is available here:
September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
Throughout his long career, which began in TV and movie Westerns and dramas in the 1950’s, Stanton was described as a character actor, one who excelled in secondary roles. The character actor label followed him even after he became a leading man in two 1984 films: “Repo Man,” and “Paris, Texas.” It was, I suppose, a reference to his anti-movie star looks: a slight build and a gaunt, weathered face that became more fascinating as he aged. Stanton’s nose, always prominent, came to dominate his face as the rest of his features receded. Increasingly, his visage looked less made of flesh than carved from wood.
But his looks had little to do with his acting. His method relied heavily on observation and stillness, two qualities that elude most actors and almost all movie stars. Lucky is a man of few words, yet there’s never a moment when Stanton isn’t fully thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. We see Lucky going through his day– getting dressed, shaving, brushing his teeth, exercising, venturing out to talk with fellow residents of his tiny town–quotidian activities made profound by Stanton’s acting. I wouldn’t have minded if the film had gone on in this way, like a more mundane “Groundhog Day,” but the screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja had a bigger theme in mind: mortality, and Lucky’s reconciliation with it. Filling out the story are colorful characters played David Lynch, Beth Grant, Ed Begley, Jr. and Ron Livingstone, but the film–and every scene in it–belongs to Harry Dean Stanton. For me the highlight is his unexpected, perfect singing of “Volver,” (“To Return”) at a child’s birthday party. More than a showcase for Stanton’s musical talents–he was an accomplished singer and guitarist–“Volver” is a song about memory, love, the passage of time and the inevitability of death:
To Return with a withered brow/the snows of time silvered my temples
To feel life’s a puff of breath/that twenty years are nothing
Through his performance of “Volver,” Lucky gains an acceptance of his own end, a moment of grace that affects everyone in the scene. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.
September 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s hard not to be puzzled by recent director changes in the “Star Wars” series. The latest to be fired is Colin Trevorrow, who was supposed to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX.” He follows Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired during production on the untitled Han Solo film (and replaced by Ron Howard), and Josh Trank, who was either supposed to direct the Han Solo movie or the Luke Skywalker one–no one seems to know for sure. Then there’s Gareth Edwards, who received directorial credit for “Rogue One” but was relieved during production by its screenwriters, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Because Weitz and Gilroy did extensive reshoots and fixed the third act, they are widely credited with the success “Rogue One.”
Producer Kathleen Kennedy’s formula for directors seems to be: find them at Sundance, give them a bigger picture and then move them up at warp speed to “Star Wars.” Hence Trevorrow, whose successful indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” led him to direct “Jurassic World.” The critical and box office failure of his latest, “The Book of Henry,” sealed his fate on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” but shouldn’t have been his modest resume? Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s animated hit “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” led them to “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie,” but none of the three predicted a successful transition to the world’s biggest franchise. Josh Trank’s indie hit “Chronicle” gave him the director spot on “Fantastic Four,”–again, not an obvious pathway to “Star Wars” glory.
As every knows, there has never been an experienced woman director of a “Star Wars” film, much less one with as little directing experience as these men. Women with critically successful first films tend to spend years trying to finance their second, not juggling action film offers from major studios as their male peers do. Often they wind up directing TV shows–hardly the purgatory it used to be, but not the same as having their name on the poster of the big summer movie. I can think of three excellent women directors with long resumes off the top of my head–Kathryn Bigelow, Mimi Leder and Ava DuVernay. All have successful action and effects films to their credit, but were they even considered for “Star Wars”? It’s easy to say they wouldn’t want the oversight that comes with the job, but I wonder if any of them were asked.
As it happens, Ava DuVernay–fresh off her Oscar nomination for “13”–is already directing the forthcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” for Disney, which owns “Star Wars.” She is the favorite candidate of many fans for “Star Wars: Episode IX” and a likely choice. Let’s hope Kathleen Kennedy thinks so too.
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.
“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.
“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.
“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.