By William Wolf

MY JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA  Send This Review to a Friend

The next best thing to taking a course in French cinema, and maybe even a better idea, is to see veteran filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema.” This 190-minute, super-intelligent documentary covers an incredible range. Shown at the 2016 New York Film Festival, it is now in release.

I have casually known Tavernier over the years, and in addition to having directed an impressive array of films, he is extremely knowledgeable about French film history as well as contemporary French cinema. The films that he has directed include “The French Minister,” “Safe Conduct,” “Lest We Forget,” “Beatrice,” “Coup de torchon,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Mississippi Blues” and “The Judge and the Assassin,” to name just a few.

Tavernier’s overall experience is vast and his acquaintances are voluminous. He examines the work of such greats as Jean Renoir, and he looks at the films of Jean-Luc Goddard, as well as films by a host of other French directors. He also has broad knowledge of the world, important literature and social problems.

In this remarkable film, Tavernier leads us through the impressive history of films that have come from France, from past masters to important newcomers.

This is not just a lecture, but the film contains a fascinating number of clips that will stir nostalgia among those who have long been followers of French cinema and should create interest among younger filmgoers who are just shaping their tastes.

It is a pleasure to listen to Tavernier comment on what he has assembled. He is very personable and in addition to dispensing a spectrum of information, he expresses his viewpoints with conviction and communicates a movie buff’s love of cinema. Tavernier is not only a good teacher but very good company. A Cohen Media Group release. Posted June 21, 2017.

MOKA  Send This Review to a Friend

What can happen when the passion for revenge takes over a woman’s life? Such is the engrossing theme of “Moka,” directed by Frédéric Mermoud from a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and starring two actresses always worth watching, Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.

Diane (Devos) is devastated by the loss of her teenage son, Luc, who was killed when struck by a car in a road accident. The driver sped from the scene and has never been found by police. Diane, who sneaks out of a sanitarium, where she was apparently being treated for her emotional upset, returns to her home in Lausanne, Switzerland. She is consumed with a mission—finding and bringing to justice the hit-and-run driver, reported to have been a woman with blonde hair. The detective hired to help is seeking clues.

This is a commitment she pursues on her own. Her husband, Simon (Samuel Labarthe) tries to persuade her to count on the police eventually having success. But Diane is resolute. There comes a break in the case. The detective has located four Mercedes cars that could have hit Luc. Diane drives around to seek the right auto. She finally fixes on a mocha colored Mercedes in Évian, France, and observes the owner, Michel (David Clavel) and his partner Marlène (Baye). Diane notices some repaired damage to the front of the vehicle, which is for sale, and buys it from Michel. Marlène, a blonde, owns a beauty salon. Convinced that Marlène is the guilty driver, Diane inserts herself into Marlène’s life. The two become friends, although Marlène is suspicious about all the questions Diane asks, yet confides that she believes her Michel may be having an affair.

Meanwhile, Diane meets a young drug dealer, Vincent (Oliver Chantreau), whom she finds attractive and invites for a drink. While the possibility of sex seethes in fitful encounters, Vincent gets her what she is really after-- a gun. Thus armed, she is ready to take justice into her own hands.

All of the above is suspenseful teasing for what develops in film noir fashion. Director Mermoud carefully leads the narrative to a complex climax. You may have your suspicions as the film moves along about where the truth lies. What we are not allowed to lose sight of is that Diane is a resourceful, determined protagonist, but also has inner humanity that governs her behavior. Devos captures the complexity of Diane’s charachter perfectly, with the aid of a moment of screenplay gimmickry.

“Moka” is a film that can stealthily and entertainingly keep you on edge, and the director, his stars and the supporting cast combine to achieve that goal, even if you might find some of what happens a stretch. A Film Movement release. Reviewed June 16, 2017.

HARMONIUM  Send This Review to a Friend

An intense, absorbing but sometimes frustrating film from Japan, “Harmonium” has been effectively directed by Koji Fukada. A good cast portrays a collection of characters intertwined with secrets of the past that provide explosive results in the present. Mystery pervades the story, partly with respect to the viewer, but mainly with regard to characters who must learn upsetting things that determine their outlook and their fate.

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) owns and operates a machine shop. He is married to Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and they have a daughter, Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), who is learning to play the harmonium. Into their lives walks handsome Mr. Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a man from Toshio’s past, and Toshio gives him a job and living quarters. We learn that Yasaka has spent 10 years in prison for killing a man under circumstances not disclosed. There is more to eventually learn about the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio, and for Akie to learn as well.

Of course, we can expect that an attraction will brew between Yasaka and Akie, who doesn’t seem to have much of a romantic or sexual relationship with her husband. Trouble breaks loose when a a shocking event occurs. Yasaka is discovered standing over an unconscious Hotaru. Did he rape her? Attack her out of jealousy imparted by the secret he holds against Toshio? Or did he merely witness a young woman having a stroke? Yasaka promptly disappears.

The result is that Hotaru is inexplicably paralyzed. She is unable to utter more than sounds, and her left hand is frozen in an awkward position. What could have really caused that condition? The years go by and the married couple wants to find Yasaka. Akie has imaginative visions.

The plot thickens when a newcomer given a job in the machine shop turns out to be Yasaka’s estranged son, who subsequently wants to be loyal to his employer and wife. The story and the painful relationships intensify step by step until a tragic ending occurs. The film at that point is moving, but a viewer may also be somewhat frustrated by the Greek tragedy-like conclusion. A Film Movement release. Reviewed June 16, 2017.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER  Send This Review to a Friend

Salma Hayek has a choice role in director Miguel Arteta’s searing “Beatriz at Dinner,” which pits her as a Mexican immigrant against a rich, Donald Trump-like wheeler-dealer and exploiter with no social conscience. Since he is played by the superb John Lithgow, the battle line is drawn at what turns out to be a dinner party from hell.

In the screenplay by Mike White, Hayek plays Beatriz, who makes a living giving massages in California and helps cancer patients in a healing center. She leads a spiritual life as a person who longs to do good and takes solace in keeping animals. The set-up for the confrontation occurs when her car breaks down while she is visiting Kathy (Connie Britton), whom she has come to massage one day and with whom she has a friendly relationship. Kathy invites her to stay overnight and for the dinner party at the mansion in which she resides with her husband Grant (David Warshofsky).

As the guests arrive it is clear that Beatriz is like a fish out of water. She is dressed simply and cuts an insignificant figure in the upscale company. Lithgow as Doug Strutt is flamboyant, brags about his business acumen and also about his success as a big game hunter. Grant is involved in a deal with Doug. Beatriz is stunned when she realizes that Doug is the same developer against whom she and others protested as an exploiter of people in Mexico.

Beatriz, with an air of firm authenticity, is no shrinking violet, and when she speaks her mind and challenges Doug on moral grounds, the stage is set for the film’s intense examination of relative values in life and the downtrodden versus the rich. The dinner party becomes wracked with embarrassment and a call is made for someone to come to haul Beatriz’s car away—along with Beatriz.

How will it all end? The director and screenwriter resort to trickery that gives us a double ending—what we think happens and then what really happens. I prefer the first ending, but see for yourself and come to your own conclusion.

Either way, the film is a solid indictment of Doug and his ilk in contrast to people like Beatriz, who stand for those who are exploited in the cause of profits and points to the lack of concern for lives that are destroyed in a society in which capitalists run rampant. And, we might loosely add, can even become President. A Roadside Pictures release. Reviewed June 9, 2017.

MOSCOW NEVER SLEEPS  Send This Review to a Friend

Here is an entertaining film with a most unusual pedigree. “Moscow Never Sleeps,” a perceptive blending of stories about interesting Russian characters by Irish writer-director Johnny O’Reilly, is a Russian-Irish co-production. Yes, all looks thoroughly Russian, but the approach of an outsider who has spent 12 years living in that country adds a special perspective.

At the outset, the credits give the film a flair. Unless I am mistaken, as the cast members were listed, I detected their names in Russian also attached to buildings in the background. As the story unfolds, the various character threads are meshed, a bit confusing at first, but gradually effective as we become involved with the people, the issues, and the overall picture of life in Moscow as O’Reilly sees it.

Ever in the background is Moscow itself, a city of 15 million people. O’Reilly, director of photography Fedor Lyass and production designer Ekaterina Zaletaeva capture the look from everyday locations to an overview, with the film set primarily on a Moscow City Celebration Day. Themes run through the film— abusive political power, family problems, the more caring versus the selfish, anti-social behavior, personal relationships, and life and death.

An excellent Russian cast makes the assorted characters come vividly alive as the multiple stories evolve. Of special interest, for example, is the portrait of Anton, played by Alexey Serebryakov, who is involved in a real estate development deal and is being screwed by the powerful among Moscow’s corrupt business elite, but refuses to knuckle under even though it results in his need to flee to New York to avoid arrest. This means leaving the close relationship with his young son, who lives with Anton’s former wife. Anton has a mistress, Katya (Evgenia Brik), a young singer whose career he is promoting and is asked to come to America with him. She has broken off with a former boyfriend, Ilya (Oleg Dolin), in hope of the better material life Anton can give her. Ilya is desperately stalking her and fights against his abandonment.

In another situation, one feels for Vera, touchingly played by Tamara Siricheva, whose eyes rather than words signify her feelings. She is a fading, elderly grandmother being shipped off to a home by her son, more to be rid of her than for her well-being. But in a prime example of caring, her grandson Stepan (Sergei Belov), resents what is happening and takes matters into his own hands.

There is not much humor to be found in the film. What exists occurs in getting-even reprisals. Yet one of the most colorful characters is Valery, a comedian well-known for his television shows, colorfully portrayed byYuri Stoyanov. Valery, fatally ill and not given much time to live, escapes from a hospital to find time alone and enjoy alcohol forbidden him, only to be kidnapped by young hooligans who want to show off being with a celebrity and and take souvenir photographs.

After he breaks free, Valery decides to introduce his long-standing mistress to his wife—both have known of each other’s existence but have never met. The scene is set for the women to be at Valery’s bedside as he predictably exits.

You will follow other stories that are well-drawn and in some ways related. The acting is convincing and affecting, and by the time this portrait of life within the “Moscow That Never Sleeps” is over, you are left with a vision of lives and situations that, although very Russian, might parallel other lives and situations elsewhere, say in a New York that never sleeps, all filtered through the eyes of a man from Dublin. A Lambert Releasing release. Reviewed June 8, 2017.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME  Send This Review to a Friend

Movie buffs should find special interest in this documentary directed by Bill Morrison and rich in cinema history. So should film preservationists. “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is both a colorful excursion into the silent movie past and also the story of Dawson City itself, located in northwestern Canada and once a colorful gold rush center, later with subsequent highs and lows.

Back in 1978 when digging was done for construction, an important film discovery was made. There were cans of silent films found buried. The trove was traced to the days when silent films became part of the past, and as the movie companies sometimes no longer wanted them returned from theaters, they were simply dumped. The films were found to be in various stages of deterioration, some better preserved than others.

Morrison has taken those films and used excerpts from them to recall those long-considered-gone silents, and added other clips from the silent era to construct a fascinating film. In the process he has also used footage that tells the story of Dawson City.

The result is a unique film that covers much ground, cinematic and sociological. There is some feeling of repetition that sets in during the film’s two-hour running time, but on the whole there is great pleasure in viewing this impressive archaeological movie dig. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed June 9, 2017.

WONDER WOMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

The leap from comic strip to a film blockbuster, “Wonder Woman” is notable for multiple reasons. Most importantly, it gives women moviegoers an all-powerful heroine to cheer as a refreshing antidote to the onslaught of male action heroes over the years. It is also a film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, in an industry marked by the scarcity of women directors. “Wonder Woman" also has as its star the dynamic, towering Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who as Princess Diana soars as a dynamic action figure, a sight to behold as she battles all-comers with her karate chops, sword-wielding and magic Amazon powers. She looks spectacularly beautiful.

While thriving on typical comic book nonsense, the screenplay by Allan Heinberg, holds interest by flashing back to the childhood of Diana through her emerging as an idealistic woman who wants to stop the carnage of World War I. We get the heroine’s background as the daughter of Hippolyta, the Amazon queen played by Connie Nielsen, in the setting of an isolated Mediterranean isle gorgeously photographed. Hippolyta wants to protect her daughter from becoming a warrior, but Diana’s aunt, Antiope, portrayed by a vigorous-looking Robin Wright, secretly starts to train her for combat.

The plot ticks forward when handsome Chris Pine as pilot Steve Trevor plunges into the sea in his plane and do-gooder Diana dives to rescue him. He is an Allies spy pursued by Germans, which provides an excuse for the Amazons to battle Germans landing on the island.

The film becomes sexually cutesy when Steve emerges naked from bathing, and Diana, who in her sheltered Amazon life has never seen a man, gazes at him an asks if he is an average man. “Above average,” he informs her. The set-up for a romance is formed.

There is humor when they head off to London, where Diana wears customary clothing while carrying her sword and shield, as well as invading Parliament in accompanying Steve in his duty rounds. Much is made of Diana’s naive view of the world and her being appalled at people trying to kill one another. She assumes the mission of wanting to end World War I. On the German side there is the evil woman inventing lethal chemicals to be used in the warfare, and the plot involves possession of her secret book.

As one might expect, the story becomes increasingly ridiculous as Diana makes her way through the trenches on the battlefields and fights with her hand-to-hand combat skills and ability to fly through the air, as well as deal with her relationship with Steve, who is ready to sacrifice himself to stop the chemicals from being used.

The message for peace delivered via Diana’s anti-war sympathies is loud and clear amid the noisy destruction and the thundering music. Will Diana be ready to stop World War II, then prevent World War III? A Warner Bros. release. Reviewed June 6, 2017.

DEAN  Send This Review to a Friend

The trouble with a nerd trying to find himself is that an audience member might not care very much about watching his quest. Writer/director Demetri Martin, a comedian, has cast himself in the role of Dean but the character is not very compelling. Mourning the loss of his mother, Dean is at sea and is clumsy in attempting relationships. He has a gift for funny sketching , and is working on a book. His sketches (by Martin), often involving the Grim Reaper, are the most amusing elements in the film.

Dean is at odds with his father, Robert, played by Kevin Kline, who is also mourning the loss. Dad’s instinct is to want to get on with his life, despite the emotional difficulty, and he wants to sell the family house, which Dean clings to, and father and son issues linger uncomfortably.

Kline, always the skillful actor, provides a more interesting aspect of the film, especially when he becomes increasingly attracted to Carol, his real estate agent, played with welcome warmth by Mary Steenburgen, who is attracted to him. Their relationship is the best part of the film, and when Robert has trouble getting further involved because of his lingering love for his late wife, Steenburgen is emotionally touching in her response, with the film’s best line about her finally meeting a man whom she likes and finding that he is married.

The stuff involving Dean gets increasingly annoying when he goes to Los Angeles and becomes involved with ditsy characters. He develops a thing for Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), who is only casually attracted to him because her life is otherwise engaged.

The film seems much longer than it is. I would have preferred an entire movie about Robert and Carol rather than having to suffer through Dean’s nerdy angst and endure the vapid characters in his limited world. A CBS Films release. Reviewed June 2, 2017.

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY  Send This Review to a Friend

Let’s give three cheers for the gallant, feisty women depicted in “The Women’s Balcony,” and let’s give another three for the film itself, a captivating, entertaining import from Israel. Although it delves into the serious problems of rigid Orthodoxy, the tone is spiritedly amusing and graced with appealing performances portraying women who rise up against their being shunted aside and overridden. It is clearly in tune with efforts to defend and expand women’s rights the world over these days.

Trouble begins during a bar mitzvah when the women’s balcony in an Orthodox synagogue in a Jerusalem neighborhood collapses and seriously injures the rabbi’s wife as well as leaving the place a shambles. The elderly rabbi has been ill and somewhat out of it, and therefore is unable to rise to the need for leadership in restoring the synagogue.

Enter the at-large young Rabbi David, played with smooth, seductive villainy by Aviv Alush, who worms his way into leadership of the congregation and attempts to impose his ultra-Orthodox ideas. He delivers fierce, fundamentalist sermons that appeal mainly to the men and treats women as totally inferior. He orders them how to dress and even blames the fall of the balcony on women’s alleged immodesty. Instead of a reconstructed balcony, the women find themselves confined to an area that resembles a jail cell.

Banding together, women raise money for a new balcony, but Rabbi David schemes to appropriate the money and use it for new Torah scrolls that he deems more important in the eyes of God. But he doesn’t realize the gathering force that he will be up against.

Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon give the film a warm but comedic touch when the woman fight for control, drive out Rabbi David and get their balcony back. Along the way there is even a romance and a welcome assist by a principled young man in the mix, all adding to the enjoyment.

Two especially appealing performances come from Einat Sarouf as Margalit and Evelin Hagoel as Ettie, friends and companions in battle. But the entire cast is well chosen, and the characters well delineated in the busily plotted doings.

“The Women’s Balcony” is reported to be a major box office success in Israel, and it is easy to see why. The film taps into fights involving different and competitive religious outlooks and the effect on members of a community closely tied to religious life. Instead of being pedantic, the film clips along at an amusing pace and enlists audience sympathy, and there is a nifty ending.

To parallel an old advertising slogan once said about rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the issues and enjoy this film. Of course, it can’t hurt. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed May 23, 2017.

AFTERIMAGE  Send This Review to a Friend

The last film that the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda made before his death in October, 2016, is a profound and important stand for artistic freedom and a condemnation of censorship. “Afterimage” is also a deeply human story about a real-life artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who dared to stick to his vision of art ad theory in the face of persecution by the Communist regime in Poland during the early 1950s. It is one of the most important films of this year thus far not only because of the issues raised but because it is a fine example of Wajda’s principles and artistry.

Bogulsaw Linda gives a memorable portrayal of the controversial artist, around whom students gather to absorb his theory that the eye retains images from viewing art. We learn during the film that the reason he is missing one leg and one arm was a blast when he served during World War I. Strzeminski has learned to deftly deal with his handicap. His personality is partly established when students see him rolling down a hill as the easiest way for him to descend.

The artist has a teenage daughter Nika (13-year-old Bronislawa Zamachowska), who must grapple with her parents being divorced. (Her mother, Katarzyna Kobro, was a sculptor.) Nika wants a close relationship with her father, and it is clear he loves her despite his tendency to withdraw into his own world. A young student becomes attached to Strzeminski, who doesn’t want any intimate relationship with her, but when she begins to run things in his meager living quarters, Nika becomes jealous. As we see later in the film the artist harbors a lingering fondness for his ex-wife.

The most upsetting parts of the story involve authorities abolishing an exhibit of his work, defacing his murals and seeing that his opportunities for employment are squashed. He also loses food stamps and, with his lack of money, is literally going hungry. In one pitiful scene the woman who assists him withdraws a bowl of soup that she has poured when he can’t give her the back pay he owes.

The artist is attacked because he refuses to paint the kind of works that the authorities demand as part of the so-called Soviet realism. He is an avant-garde painter with his own stubborn vision. In real life Strzeminski was friendly with other important artists, including Marc Chagall. Students loyal to their mentor take risks standing up for him.

The film can, of course, be seen in the context of censorship anywhere in the world apart from the specificity of Poland at the time. Wajda is at his best in telling the story scripted by Andrzej Mularczyk. There are ample examples of the artist’s work, and the director accomplishes the challenge of keeping a focus on both the overall anti-censorship theme and the human toll that it can take. The tragedy climaxes when Strzeminski is reduced to doing work involving store window decoration. But nothing would compel him to abandon his principles right to the end of his life. “Afterimage” is a fitting finale to Wajda’s career that has included such vital films as “Canal,” “Ashes and Diamonds,” “Man of Marble,” “Man of Iron” and “Katyn.” A Film Movement release. Reviewed May 18, 2017.

  

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