By William Wolf

THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING  Send This Review to a Friend

If you remain someone who likes to think that art is valued only for its creativity, “The Price of Everything” should straighten you out. Directed by Nathaniel Kahn, this documentary takes you deep inside the contemporary art world and exposes how money and marketing trump creavity.

Not completely, of course. Differences in taste play a role, but by the time you have viewed this incisive film and listened to the battery of interviews it contains, you will have a broad picture of the crassness that exists.

Kahn takes us into various galleries as well as the operation of auction houses. We see what may determine values on particular works and reasons people collect, sometimes because one enjoys a work, but often purely as art investment. The art market flourishes on buying to park one’s money and eventually sell.

An artist will become especially hot for the moment, so that his or her work is a good investment. (You may either enjoy or recoil as some of the paintings you see.) There is also the problem that if someone buys art enthusiastically to hold in one’s personal collection, that takes it away fom the public’s opportunity to see it.

Popular Jeff Koons is extensively interviewed. Among the many others on whom director Kahn focuses are gallery owner and art dealer Mary Boone as well as artist Gerhard Richter. Larry Poons, whose popularity declined but who is coming to the fore again, is another interviewed.

“The Price of Everything” stands as an important, informative and often entertaining tour through today’s art scene and anyone interested in the subject would do well to see what director Kahn has achieved. An HBO Documentary Films release. Reviewed October 20, 2018.

THE GUILTY  Send This Review to a Friend

It is surprising how much tension can be expertly worked up n a film that almost completely focuses on a cop on the telephone trying to solve emergency call-in problems. Such is the case in “The Guilty,” a Danish film directed by Gustav Moller and starring Jakob Cedergren in a compelling performance as the police officer. Moller wrote the screenplay with Emil Nygaard Albertsen.

We learn a lot about the dogged personality of Asger Holm, who takes problems seriously and tries to intervene to the best of his ability, often against procedure. There is always the risk of his efforts going awry.

Gradually we learn of why he has been assigned to phone duty and is due to face a court case the following day, with his fate as a cop hanging in the balance. But mainly he is seen—and heard on the phone—as attempting to save a woman who phones and says she has been kidnapped by her husband. There is the problem of finding where the van in which she is riding is, and dispatching police to intervene.

Holm is also deeply concerned about two children left alone at home, and he talks to a little girl to inform her that police have been sent and to let them in to help her and her baby brother. Holm makes one phone call after another to keep the ball rolling and solve the situation, partly by sending a colleague to help. The relationship with the colleague is an issue in itself, as he has made up a phony story in Holm’s defense and can be left compromised should Holm decide to tell the truth about what happened that led him to court.

Ultimately, things aren’t as they appear, and that provides the intense drama that both shocks him and touches his humanity. Little by little the truth unravels, and director Moller keeps the film constantly intense and gets us caught up in all that happens, as well as in the persona of Holm.

Wisely, the direction and screenplay never gets to a court scene. We have been given all te information to digest and speculate as to what happens after the immediate crisis has been resolved. A Magnolia Picures release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.

WILDLIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Growing up is difficult for Joe (excellent Ed Oxenbould) in “Wildlife,” shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in release. He must deal with the disarray in the lives of his parents in the film directed by Paul Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.

Set in the 1960s in Montana, the story focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson, a man who can’t find a satisfactory place in life. He works on a golf course, but gets fired for being too cozy with members with whom he likes to chat, and when he is offered the opportunity to return, his sense of dignity leads him to refuse no matter how badly he needs money for keeping up with expenses.

Carey Mulligan plays his wife, Jeanette, who stoically tries to cope as best as she can with the difficult circumstances. But her patience runs out when Jerry suddenly get a bug that he can fulfill himself and gain self-satisfaction by enlisting to fight forest fires raging in the state. Jeanette is appalled that he would go off to risk his life when he has a family.

Jeanette gets a job as a swimming instructor, and soon she is being pursued by one of the enrollees, Warren (Bill Camp), who has a successful automobile business. Warren, although older and not especially attractive, is Mr. Nice Guy, and an affair blossoms while Jerry is off battling blazes.

I’m not sure I buy the personality transformation Jeanette undergoes, although the affair itself has its logic. She also doesn’t hide her liaison from Joe, and it is from his viewpoint that the film achieves its greatest poignancy. Joe must learn to fend for himself emotionally no matter what the situation with his parents becomes. Oxenbould does a fine job in portraying Joe, which is a highlight of the film.

One gets caught up in wondering how it will all turn out, which is a tribute to this first directorial job by Dano and to the screenplay. Sympathy is engendered for the parents, as well as for Joe, thanks to the solid acting by Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, and “Wildlife” emerges as a solid drama. An IFC Films release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.

ON HER SHOULDERS  Send This Review to a Friend

The abuse of women and forcing many into sex slavery is a world-wide issue these days, and the stunning documentary “On Her Shoulders,” directed by Alexandria Bombach, dramatically brings the matter to the fore in human terms.

The film focuses on victim and heroine Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old survivor of the 2014 genocide against the Yazidis in northern Iraq. She has become a spokeswoman for ending assaults on women, and she was awarded the 2018 Noble Peace Prize in recognition of the role she has played.

Murad comes across as somewhat shy and not seeking the spotlight. One gets the impression that her coming forward was out of a sense of duty rather than self-promotion. But her firmness is sharply depicted.

Addressing the United Nations is a highlight, and we see all the preparation that went into her ultimate appearance. Her story is a compelling one, including how ISIS made her a sex slave, as has been the case with so many women victims. After her escape, she felt it important to tell about her plight in order to help other unfortunate women by raising the international community’s awareness of what has been happening.

One comes away with great respect for Murad and appreciation for her courage, as well as appreciation for Bombach in making such a fine and moving documentary. An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ  Send This Review to a Friend

Kurt Waldheim, who achieved status as a former president of Austria and a former UN Secretary General, is exposed in “The Waldheim Waltz” for his Nazi activities, and persecution of Jews in particular. Director Ruth Beckerman, who narrates her documentary, meticulously and convincingly outlines the case against Waldheim.

The subject is a strident example of how the past of accomplices has been covered up or brushed away, and it is historically important to nail such perpetrators. Waldheim made excuses to the effect that he was not personally involved, but the film belies his contentions.

Exposing Waldheim, by means of film clips and analysis, is important today in the atmosphere of right-wing gains in Europe. How Waldheim could have been elected president of Austria even in the light of all that was known is shocking.

One of the accusations against him was that he took part in the deportation of more than 60,000 Jews from Greece during World War II. There was also the accusation that he was involved in the massacre of Yugoslav partisans. Waldheim accused others of having a vendetta against him and insisted that he was just an ordinary soldier.

Beckerman, including with use of her own footage, exposes Waldheim. The film reminds us of how Austria, which falsely claimed it was Hitler’s victim, was a hotbed of anti-Semitism and proof that it still was pervasive could be found in the fact that Austria elected Waldheim president in 1986.

“The Waldheim Waltz” does a major service in setting the record straight. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.

A STAR IS BORN (2018)  Send This Review to a Friend

A special compliment one can pay to the 2018 “A Star is Born” is that it stands solidly on its own as if there were no previous versions. Enhanced by the charisma of its stars, the film bears no signs of a remake. Yes, those who have seen previous incarnations cannot help but reference the past films. But stripped of history, this “A Star Is Born” seems totally fresh.

I have seen three previous versions: the 1937 original starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; the 1954 one teaming Judy Garland and James Mason; the 1976 remake starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Now we have Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, with Cooper also directing and co-author of the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. The writing credits are also “based on” previous screenplays.

The plot, although similar to the past films, seems very current in its contemporary setting. Cooper plays Jack, a famous country rock star with a weakness for alcohol and drugs. Lady Gaga is Ally, a straight gal whom Jack discovers when watching her perform in a drag bar. Smitten by her naturalness and impressed with her song-writing ability, he encourages her to perform and create. being true to herself, and takes her on the road with him.

Rez, a manipulative manager whom she eventually acquires, played by Rafi Gavron, hones her into a glitzy image. While she becomes a dynamic composer and performer who wins a Grammy, Jack tragically descends into his addictions, and after rehab, decides he must make way for Ally to flourish on her own after Rez, without Ally’s knowledge, convinces him that he stands in her way.

What mainly makes the film work is the charisma of its stars. The camera loves Lady Gaga, who demonstrates her acting skills as well as her singing power. Her eyes look seductively right at us, and she proves a larger than life force on screen.

Cooper, as well as showing once more what a fine actor he is, also is adored by the camera. He too looks at us with piercing eyes, and he radiates charm as Jack romantically woos and wins Ally. Together these stars ignite the film and make one believe the story as it spins toward triumph and tragedy.

Credit another good performance by Sam Elliott as Bobby, Jack’s older brother, who raised him after the death of their father and has guided his career despite ups and downs in their relationship. A well-chosen supporting cast fleshes out the film, which also explodes in the rock concert scenes of mass adulation. Cooper proves that he has skill as a director that complements his acting prowess.

There are portions of the film that slow a bit, but that’s nothing serious. The film is primarily dynamic, with enough reality to produce some inevitable audience emotions. And, of course, there is the collection of songs, with Cooper showing skills in his singing, and Lady Gaga doing what we have come to expect from her as a colorful singer who consistently dazzles, as in her duets with Tony Bennett.

This 2018 “A Star is Born” emerges as one of the important films of the year and obviously an award contender for its stars and as a film. A Warner Bros. release. Reviewed October 8, 2018.

PRIVATE LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

The obsession of a couple wanting to have a baby is examined with a mix of pain and humor in “Private Life,” a main slate feature in the 56th New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. Written with wit and directed by Tamara Jenkins, the film is highlighted by superb cast members who skillfully capture the angst involved and the effect on a marriage and related relationships.

Why is it so important and defining to have a child? Rachel, a writer with a novel about to be published, is played by Kathryn Hahn, who communicates the desperation of a wife whose life begins to be defined by her total obsession with giving birth. Her husband, Richard, is played by Paul Giamatti, a businessman, who goes along with Rachel’s longings until the situation becomes stifling, resulting in an absence of sex between them. We see them living in a lower East Side Manhattan apartment, and Hahn and Giamatti make the couple painfully believable, including in situations colored with humor. Picture Richard, for example, in an isolated room and haplessly watching porn, which is supposed to stimulate his delivery of sperm for the couple’s attempt at in vitro fertilization.

They try everything. Richard’s can ejaculate but there is no effective sperm. Rachel turns out not to be fertile. They try the adoption route by answering surrogate ads, and that leads to a road trip and disappointment.

Richard has a niece by marriage, the 25-yeqr-old Sadie, who is at sea academically and trying to find her place in life. She is impressively played most sympathetically by the excellent Kayli Carter. The film takes a desperate new turn via the close relationship Richard and Rachel have with Sadie, who looks up to them and becomes sympathetic to their goal. As one might expect, that leads to complications with Sadie’s mother.

As I watched the toll on Rachel’s and Richard’s marriage, as fine as the acting is, I began to become impatient with this child-bearing obsession. In light of such an all-consuming desire, one might wonder that if Rachel and Richard ever managed to acquire a kid whether they would make good parents. One could envision their parental lives fraught with fresh anxieties.

The film is successful in the convincing manner that writer-director Jenkins focuses on the issue and prompts thoughts about what other couples may also be going through. Despite society’s current efforts to view women as emerging from the confines of traditional domesticity, “Private Life” suggests that in some, motherhood still defines a woman’s being and those who cannot achieve it may feel deprived and left out. In that sense this film is an engrossing and sometimes wry look at one couple’s symbolic struggle. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 5, 2018.

STUDIO 54  Send This Review to a Friend

Zeitgeist Films, in association with Kino Lorber and A & E IndieFilms, is distributing a fascinating documentary that should endure as an important historical look at a tumultuous period in New York City’s nightlife. As any good documentary does, “Studio 54,” directed by Matt Tymauer, reflects much more than the immediate subject and sheds light on the period in which the elaborate and popular disco exploded onto the scene and flourished until events combined to end the binge.

Those who lived through that period and were part of the Studio 54 scene in the establishment on West 54th Street will find plenty of nostalgia in the array of rare film clips included. Young folks today should be intrigued watching the incredible scene that they missed.

Partners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, college friends from Brooklyn, in an effort to create something big, founded Studio 54, without realizing the huge effect it would have. The club flourished for 33 months from 1978-1980. The partners took over a vacant theater and turned it into a light-flashing, disco-blaring extravaganza that was an immediate hit. Clips show the throngs of New Yorkers lining up to get in, but many could never make it. Celebrities were readily ushered in, as were people with colorful dress and looks that would add to the luster and free-wheeling nature of the massive party that made it the place to be. Velvet ropes became a nightly barrier that many schemed to pass.

Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen there—notables such as Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli, for example, and an assortment of stars, politicians and socialites who made the scene of wild disco dancing and exhibitionism. There was no sexual or racial discrimination. Some habitués were scantily dressed (clips show protruding breasts), others flashed flaring outfits, all captured in the film records used in the documentary. For a while the barrage clips begins to seem repetitious, but basically, the portrait of what was going on is brilliantly recalled.

Drug use was reputed to be rampant, and the place oozed sexuality. New Yorkers and others seeking to let themselves go to a disco beat stormed the place. Those who were turned away grew angry and resentful. Studio 54 was a night club Mecca. This was also a period when AIDS began to take hold, the ravages of which are also dealt with in the film.

The bubble burst when Schrager and Rubell were arrested for tax evasion by skimming and hiding money from the take. Invading lawmen also found drugs in the club. The two were convicted and sent to prison, but had sentences reduced when they fingered others for illegalities, a deed that Schrager is not proud of but nonetheless says that he felt he needed to do at the time. He is candid in talking about mob connections of his late father, and notes that his father would have frowned upon his informing. Both Schrager and Rubell eventually received presidential pardons.

Schrager is interviewed at length and makes a colorful subject full of recollections about the period. There are lots of clips of Rubell, who died in 1989, as well as of others who had a part in running the operation. Rubell fell ill with AIDS, which devastated Schrager in view of their long-time friendship and working relationship. Studio 54 collapsed after their imprisonment despite their trying to get it going again. They subsequently went into the hotel business, and Schrager has since built a chain of hotels.

In the heat of their troubles their lawyer was Roy Cohn, and the clips of the devious Cohn are sickening. Just watching him maneuver recalls his disgraceful role as an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the red-scare days, as well as his having been close to Donald Trump. Cohn died of AIDS in 1986.

“Studio 54” has a thumping disco score to help keep up the atmosphere, and the overall effect is to sweep us back into that era, along with oversight and insight into the significance of the period. (Note: Today Studio 54 is a Broadway theater, and Feinstein’s/54 Below is a popular, nicely appointed cabaret in the basement and a regular venue for cabaret acts.) A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber and A & E IndieFilms. Reviewed October 5, 2018.

FAHRENHEIT 11/9  Send This Review to a Friend

Michael Moore has unleashed a powerful new film that agitates for massive resistance to the Trump era that he sees as a menace to the very core of our democracy. Along the way during his in-your-face alarm he lacerates injustices, such as the poisoning of water in Flint, Michigan. Given Moore’s gift for humor, he provides entertaining segments, as when he loads a truck with Flint water and sprays it on the lawn of Michigan’s governor, who has dissembled about the lead poisoning that has infected Flint’s children with potential lasting and devastating results. His attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of the governor is a very funny moment.

Moore carries his anger to extremes, but not without justification. He surveys the enthusiastic crowds lauding Hitler in Germany, an obvious comparison to the hysterical approval by members of Trump’s base at his rallies. He examines the ranting of Hitler in German, and substitutes a voiceover of Trump ranting. Far-fetched? It is a could-happen-here warning.

Moore, who predicted a Trump victory based on his knowledge of unrest and dissent in areas that he especially knows, dramatizes at the outset the utter shock and disbelief when Trump won based on the Electoral College system.

The film, loaded with a multitude of film clips smartly included in savvy editing, a focuses on the upsurge of action by teachers and by students reacting to high school shootings, and the extent of mass protests that are occurring. “Fahrenheit 11/9” sees hope via building political resistance. Trump stresses the need for change among Democrats by youth replacing the old guard. However, he obviously is enthusiastic about the more militant goals embodied by oldster Bernie Sanders.

Yes, Moore deals in extremes as he paints a picture of what is happening in America today. But his main thesis dynamically expressed via his filming expertise and ability to tie elements together can make one think about the unthinkable—the country being led toward a path of fascism by the policies of Trump and a Congress that goes along with them. His film dynamically and frighteningly sounds the alarm bell for needing to act before it is too late. A Briarcliff Entertainment release. Reviewed September 21, 2018.

TEA WITH THE DAMES  Send This Review to a Friend

Imagine getting the opportunity to sit down with and listen to what Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright, all grand women of British film and theater, have to say about their lives and careers. It would be a great treat. Well, the next best thing is seeing “Tea With the Dames,” an entertaining and illuminating film directed by Roger Mitchell, who had the wisdom of getting these stars together for a friendly chat.

We see the four sitting and engaging in the exchange of comments, often witty, about their experiences. Also tantalizing is the collection of film clips showing what they looked like in their youthful performances. What we see then and what we see of them now is a reminder of how age may take its physical toll, and yet the life experience has served to sharpen their reflections and observations.

Joan Plowright, now 88, is suffering from blindness and needs help in getting around. She was married to Laurence Olivier so we get to hear a bit about that liaison. Maggie Smith has a gift for wry comments, some reminding us of various characters she has portrayed, and she professes to have never seen an episode of “Downton Abby.”

Judi Dench, who has appeared in an assortment of films as well as on stage, is noted popularly for her acting in James Bond films. But she and others in the group especially treasure their theater work. Eileen Atkins, for example, made her Broadway debut in 1966 in “The Killing of Sister George.” They are all skilled in the classics.

It would take a lot space to list all of the awards the four have received in Britain and in the United States. But at this tea they come across as four friends exchanging stories and bitchy remarks covering their colorful lifetimes of experience, including work with assorted leading men.

Here is a chance to sit down with them and, in addition to enjoying what they have to say currently, see archival evidence of why they have received the collective stature that provides the reason for his film. An IFC Films release. Reviewed September 22, 2018.


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