Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gene Wilder - A Gentle Comic Genius

Gene Wilder, 1933-2016

"Yea, but I shoot with this hand." - Gene Wilder, as The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974)

How nice to see the tremendous outpouring of sympathy for Gene Wilder, who passed away at the age of 83. You don't often see this for a comic actor; in fact, it's one of the few things in recent news that has seemingly united Americans across the board.

Why has that happened? There are two main reasons, in my opinion. One, he was truly a class act, not only on the screen, but also in real life. It was well known that he married Gilda Radner, who died a mere five years later, the victim of ovarian cancer. Wilder, without much self-attention, began to become involved in ways to promote cancer awareness. He help found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Research Center in Los Angeles and was co-founder of Gilda's Club, a support group aimed at raising awareness of ovarian cancer. While other celebrities have done some kind acts over the years, few did it with so little fanfare as Wilder.

With Zero Mostel in The Producers (1968)

"I'm in pain and I'm wet and I'm still hysterical." - Wilder as Leo Bloom in The Producers

The second reason why there has been so much love for Wilder is the fact that people were truly impressed by this man. Here was a comic actor, one who was absolutely brilliant. Maybe it was the fact that he played lovable losers or charming dreamers, but we could identify with this man onscreen.

He was a first-rate comic actor, easily one of the finest of the last fifty years. I wouldn't think it to be an exaggeration to list him alongside Chaplin or Keaton as one of the best cinematic comic performers of all time. Could anyone even think that about the so-called comic actors of the past two decades, many of whom emerged from Saturday Night Live? Many of these actors were marginally funny on television, and their film careers have rarely been an improvement. Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey? People know who they are and they sometimes delivered some mild laughs in the cinema, but would you put their movies on a list of all-time great comedies? I couldn't imagine! Meanwhile, Wilder starred in The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Yes, Mel Brooks was the primary creative genius behind these films, but he needed actors to flesh out his best roles, and Wilder created performances that are simply unforgettable.

Then there was his arguably his most beloved performance as the title character in Willie Wonks and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's been years since I've seen this film, but it's hard not to remember the charm and subtlety he lent to this role. What little boy or girl wouldn't love to be escorted around this wonderful fantasy world by this lovable, kind man?

Gene Wilder, R.I.P.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Haskell Wexler, R.I.P.

Haskell Wexler (1922-2015)
Photo ©Tom Hyland

Haskell Wexler, one of the 20th century's most talented and influential cinematographers, passed away on Monday at the age of 93. His son Jeff, told CNN that his father died peacefully in his sleep.

I met Wexler once, at a special evening at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2011; I wrote about that memorable occasion in this post. At 89, Wexler was engaging, direct and humorous; let's hope we're all that lively if and when we get to that age.

I've always been someone attracted to visuals; it's this sensation that gives a sense of wonder and magic to films, in my opinion. When a director of photography can create the proper mood with lighting as well as depth of field (no matter how shallow or deep) it adds to the emotional power of the movie. I can list numerous examples, but few accomplished this feat as well as Wexler.

He started out working on documentary films in the 1950s, eventually finding success in Hollywood, with one of his first notable accomplishments being the cinematographer for Elia Kazan's America America in 1963. It was only a few years later in 1966 that Wexler's work would be honored for his black and white photography for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols. While Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton delivered searing performances, and Nichols directed with great urgency, it is impossible not to credit Wexler's work as any less important in this marvelous film. At times gritty, at times dreamy, at times stark, but always beautifully honest, Wexler's photography perfectly captured the raw nature of this work; he justly received an Academy Award for his contribution.

Wexler would work in color for most of his career; I especially loved his efforts on In the Heat of the Night (1967), directed by Norman Jewison. This particular scene, pictured above, has always been one of my favorites as far as photography, as the colors here are relatively cool, lending a tranquil setting to this moment. This serenity will soon be at odds with the characters in this scene, as Sidney Poitier, the detective, slaps the elderly gentleman for his bold statements; it's a jarring moment, one about racism that doesn't scream as such, thanks in large part to Jewison's staging as well as Wexler's lighting.

Wexler would win a second Academy Award for his color photography on Bound For Glory (1976), director Hal Ashby's at times laid back, at times stirring tribute to folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie. The setting of this film is the depression of the 1930s, and the spirit of the film owes much to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, especially in the desolation of the land as well as the honesty and good spirit of the impoverished farmers and their families as they struggle with their everyday fate. The visuals are stunning, from a recreation of an apocalyptic dust storm that fills the screen to several scenes of Guthrie and others riding on top of trains, often to hide from the authorities. The color pallete that Wexler worked with in this film was based on earth tones, with dark browns and muted yellows; you feel at once transported to that era and its forlorn realization. 

Wexler would use Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, in this film for a scene in a labor camp; it is a tracking shot that lasts about three minutes, taking Guthrie (and the viewer) through a heartbreaking tour of the conditions the migrant workers must endure. While Steadicam is a mainstay in filmmaking these days, be it a multi-million dollar epic or a moderate budget independent production, this use in Bound For Glory was the very first in a Hollywood film. 

I was so impressed with Wexler's images in Bound For Glory that I wrote a separate post about it a few years ago (link here). Roger Ebert also pad tribute to Wexler's work on this film when he wrote, "there are images in Hal Ashby's Bound For Glory so striking or so beautiful I doubt I'll ever forget them." (Ebert's full review can be found here.)

Haskell Wexler was also a director, most notably on Medium Cool (1969), a documentary about the turmoil in the streets of Chicago during the troubled 1968 Democratic National Convention. This was his most successful film as helmsman; he would also become involved in Latin American politics with documentaries such as Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971) and Latino (1985). Activism was part of his DNA; Wexler would also direct films about the Occupy protests in 2011 in both Los Angeles and Chicago (his hometown); he was also instrumental in changing work laws in Hollywood after a fellow director of photography fell asleep while driving home after a 20-hour day on the set. Wexler's 2006 film Who Needs Sleep? would tell the story of his colleague.

While I was continually impressed by Haskell Wexler's work behind the camera, I was also fascinated by the man. A striking portrait of the man emerged in the film Tell Them Who You Are (2004), directed by his son Mark; here was a riveting look at how Haskell carried himself in his everyday existence, perfecting his craft, but also looking out to make the world a better place. His socialist politics were at odds with his son, giving this film an unforgettable human element, but it is the elder Wexler's strong personality and unshakeable belief in justice for all that stayed with me as I watched this film.

Yes, I'll always remember Haskell Wexler for the images he created on screen, but his faith in his fellow man will also stir my memories of this remarkable individual.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Serious - and not in the right way

Spotlight is one of those films with a serious story to tell; the problem is that is takes itself way too seriously. What could have a been an enlightening movie is instead a somber, rather dull film that preaches its seriousness at almost every turn.

The title refers to a small investigative unit at the Boston Globe; the time is 2001 and a new editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has taken over. A quiet workhorse, he expects nothing less that the maximum effort from his employees, all the while realizing that he was hired to regain readership. With that in mind, he tells the editor of the Spotlight team Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) that he wants them to look into the stories of abuse of young boys by Catholic priests. There are a few reports that the paper has been made aware of, but Baron and Robinson know that they cannot get into a "he said, he said" argument with the Catholic Church; rather they must get to the root of the problem and learn the truth about the Church's dealings with the scandal in the large picture.

Thus the film starts off promisingly, as the reporters delve into their new assignment, while trying to deal with the whims of their new boss. On this level, the film has some life to it. But after that, it falls under its own weight of seriousness, as we get repeated scenes of the reporters looking up files, interviewing victims and answering phone calls. There's nothing particularly cinematic about this and Tom McCarthy's leaden, obvious direction does nothing to bring this film to life.

Make no mistake, this is an important story and bravo to the reporters at the Globe for their dedicated work in taking on the church, especially when Boston was (and remains) heavily Catholic. This could have been a gripping film, but about halfway through I couldn't wait for it to end. This is a talky film and while much of this is expository dialogue that helps explain the story and specific actions taken by certain characters, it's done in such a preachy way. There is a scene more than halfway in the film when one of the reporters, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, in a ridiculous haircut), argues with Robinson about the getting their damaging reports in print before a rival local newspaper gets the jump on them. It's one of those ACTING moments that you see in lesser films and here it's treated as though we were hearing about the apocalypse. McCarthy directs this scene with a sledgehammer as he fills the screen with Ruffalo's face, basically hitting the filmgoer over the head with the message that what the actor is saying is IMPORTANT. It's just too much and it ruins the moment.

When I watched this scene, I couldn't help but wish that someone with a similar approach as the late Otto Preminger would have directed it. Preminger was famous for showing us multiple characters in a scene and only using closeups when necessary. Thus, we as a filmgoer can look at the image as we wish - we're not told to look at one particular character. But in this scene, we are force fed Ruffalo's diatribe and it's all too much, which ruins the moment, as the message is not as important as the image.

We are also treated to too many of the same shots of reporters sitting in their office, asking each other questions about the progress of their work. Again and again, we get this similar scene, or else we get them talking on the phone about the investigation. They may be collecting evidence necessary to the plot, but we sit there wondering when we will see something different. This kind of storytelling hems in the actors - here we have talented performers such as Keaton and Ruffalo not being given any breathing space. We don't get Keaton's personality in this film - contrast his performance here with his brilliant work last year in Birdman. In that film, director Alejandro Gonzalex Iñarritu literally let Keaton soar; here all Keaton can do is sit in meetings and recite his lines. It's not a bad performance, but there's no substance here, as too often we listen to him utter dialogue such as "Good work" or "We can't run it yet."

At the film's conclusion, I was tired of how smug and self-important the filmmakers came across. They tried to make another All the President's Men, but failed on a large scope, as this film has none of the visual flair or subtleties of that wonderful Alan Pakula film.

If the tone of this film wasn't enough to turn me off, the final title cards surely did the trick. These mention how many other cities had to endure similar child abuse scandals; these title cards go on for a few minutes. Then we see a logo for SNAP (Survivors' Network for Abuse by Priests); talk about getting hit over the head! We got the message, already!

Finally, when I left the media screening of this film a few weeks ago, I was greeted by a woman who was a member of SNAP, who handed me her card. Honestly, I was insulted by this behavior. Couldn't I just see the film and make up my own mind?

P.S. One of the few positives I can report on with this film is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, attorney for the victims. Giving us a character who can never be pinned down and whose alliances shift over the course of the film, Tucci gives us a complex character, the only one in the film. He is the single actor in this work who sheds the lead boot of McCarthy's pompous direction.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kent Jones on Hitchock

Prominent film critic Kent Jones was in Chicago this past weekend for a screening of his new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, which was shown at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival. The film, which opens in theaters in early December is brilliant, a superb look not only at the details of the famous interview in 1962 between Alfred Hitchcock and French director François Truffaut, but also an examination of several scenes from Hitchcock's finest works, as analyzed by such notable current film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin and several others.

Per agreement with the film's distributor, I cannot post my full review until the film's theatrical release, but I was able to conduct a brief phone interview with Jones. While technical issues on my end precluded me from transcribing the entire interview, I can give you some highlights.

I mentioned to Jones that I thoroughly enjoyed the musical score by composer Jeremiah Bornfield; subtle, quiet and edgy, the music recalls the spirit of Bernard Herrmann's finest work for Hitchcock without ever borrowing from it.

"That's interesting, " Jones commented, after thanking me. "We purposely didn't want a Herrmann-like score for this film. I was looking for something like what Johnny Greenwood wrote for There Will Be Blood. "But I'm extremely pleased with Bornfield's score."

I asked Jones, about his beginnings in film- did he go to film school? "I did, but I didn't stay very long- film school and I weren't meant to be," he replied. He mentioned, however, that he was stirred on by the tv documentary series in the 1970s, The Men Who Made the Movies, produced by film critic Richard Schickel. "It influenced me greatly," he told me. "I discovered there was such a thing as a director and an editor."

I asked Jones, who has just turned 55, about his first viewing of a Hitchcock film. "It was a 2-D print of Dial M for Murder," he replied, which he saw in college. Later on, his mother took him to see old prints of such Hitchock classics as The 39 Steps and Psycho.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, there is a sequence in which Martin Scorsese describes one particular shot in the film Topaz (1969), in which a character turns his head a little to answer a question. Scorsese points out the slightly overhead angle of the camera so that we, the audience, can see this person's eyes faintly shift; for Scorsese, this shot tells us that we know the character is lying. It's a remarkable piece of analysis by Scorsese and of course, a marvelous, subtle piece of directing by Hitchcock.

I asked Jones if he thought that any evaluation such as this was being taught in film schools today. "I can assure you that it is not being taught in film schools," was his reply. I mentioned that this sort of analysis was not something the average film goer would pick up on. Jones agreed, but added, that Hitchcock, "was doing something that wasn't going to be noticed. It's just a fabric of what he was trying to achieve." Excellent scrutiny by Jones, as well!

I also asked Jones if he interviewed everyone he wanted to for commentary in this film. He said basically he did, except for Brian de Palma, whom he had asked, but opted to decline, as there is a new documentary coming out about him; thus de Palma was reserving his comments. When I asked Jones as to why he didn't talk to Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who has written at length about Hitchcock's films, Jones basically told me that del Toro's work is in print for anyone to read.

Jones concluded the interview by stating that he is not into the idea of Hitchcock's perversity, as was suggested by critic Donald Spoto in one of his books (written, incidentally, after Hitchcock had passed away.) "There is so much moralizing throughout the culture today," Jones stated. "People love to point the finger." He continued on this topic by saying that "these conversations about women - they're not real issues in the film."

Clearly, Kent Jones admires the art of Alfred Hitchcock; his documentary is solid proof of that. It's also arguably the finest film ever about the great director. I highly recommend it - congratulations, Kent!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Man Behind the "Madnesses"

Jeremy Carr (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Writer/director Jeremy Carr was in town recently for a showing of his first feature film Other Madnesses, which was screened at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival. The film is the story of a New York City tour guide named Ed Zimmer (James Moles) who may or may not be imagining evil deeds taking place in the immediate world around him. Reminiscent in some ways to Taxi Driver, this is a highly effective film about an individual and his private hell, stylishly directed by Carr.

I sat down with him for a one-on-one interview to learn about his experience in the movie business, the realities of making this movie and if he was influenced by the film Taxi Driver, when he made this work.

Tom Hyland: Are you from New York?

Jeremy Carr: I grew up in New Jersey, the town of Westfield, nearby New York City. I went to school at Boston University and attended film school there. Afterwards I moved to New York City, thinking this was going to be temporary, this will be a pit stop on my way to Los Angeles and I ended up staying in New York for sixteen years.

It’s just something that happened. It’s like New York has a way of pulling you in and keeping you there. 

TH: What did you do for 16 years in New York?

JC: Initially I came out of film school and I wanted to keep making films. In school, I had made several short films. At this point, I was shooting a film in 16mm and came out of film school and the reality was that I had to get a job, so my first job was at Miramax. I started out as a temp at Miramax and worked my way into a job in their post-production department. So it gave me a sense of what was going on in the industry and how a film company actually works. It allowed me to meet a lot of interesting filmmakers.

TH: Is that still owned by the Weinsteins? They now have their own company, right?

JC: Right. I believe the Weinsteins sold it. I think there is new ownership.

TH: The question that I’m sure you have been asked a lot and will be asked a lot is “were you influenced by Taxi Driver when you made this film?” Tell me about this film. Is any part of this autobiographical? What about the main character Ed? Is he based on anyone you know or is he a composite of people?

JC: Sure. The impetus for the story came from my own experiences. I lived in New York City for sixteen years and at that point, I had been living there about eight years. It was a combination of things. One, was I kept a journal and I would write down anecdotes about things I observed in the city. Usually bizarre things, things that I thought were strange or surreal, or creepy. I would collect those little anecdotes.

At the same time, I was going through a period in my life where I was having really bad recurring nightmares. So I started researching lucid dreaming, how to use lucid dreaming to overcome nightmares, which was a technique that I picked up from a book called On Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge. It actually really helped me. It helped me figure out how to become aware and conscious while I was dreaming, and I was able to stop the bad dreams from happening.

TH: Did the dreams start in New York?

JC: Yes. Mostly I think it had to do with my general state of paranoia of living in the city, surrounded by people all the time. Coming close to getting mugged a couple of times. Mostly having these dangerous moments that I compiled, but I worked through it using this dream therapy.

That’s when I started writing the screenplay. I had this idea for a character not like me, necessarily, but going through a similar thing I was going through, having recurring dreams and wondering what that means. I wanted to take it to the extreme level of what if you started to think your dreams were more than fantasies, what if they actualy signified something? What if you had a character that was becoming unhinged and thinking that the dreams were premonitions and were somehow important to his life, and they were like puzzles and he needed to understand them, what they mean and what to do about them.

So that’s where I started from and your question is about Taxi Driver. I consider myself a bit of a cinephile and I do watch a lot of films and I went to film school and I certainly love that movie. I would say I wasn’t super conscious… it wasn’t as though I was writing an updated version. I felt like I thought I had a good first draft of the script, I remember having a moment where I questioned, “is this too much like Taxi Driver? Am I doing anything new? Is there anything new I am bringing to the table?

What I decided what I really liked about the story was that it did have sort of a nod to Taxi Driver, but it felt more contemporary. The character felt different to me. The character of Ed, unlike Travis Bickle, who was a Vietnam vet, Ed Zimmer is college educated, he’s sort of a college dropout. But in the movie, I like this idea of being a more educated and post-9/11 Travis Bickle, if that makes sense.

And that puts a new spin on it and obviously, once we started filming, you start pointing the camera and you find really interesting locations in New York City in all five boroughs. What I wanted to do was contrast, thing such as Times Square, the Statue of Liberty and all the iconic landmarks of NYC and contrast that with the seedier moments you might find in the Bronx or in Brooklyn or in Staten Island. Once you start doing that and point the camera at those places, you can’t help but feel, is this the Taxi Driver vibe?

TH: I like the idea of having Ed be a tour guide on a bus, so he’s everyman, so those fears and nightmares become more real. Also the fact that he’s seen all of the city, he’s seen all the sickness; he’s not some advertising agent working in an office on Madison Avenue.

JC: Right, well, he’s seen both sides that the tourists aren’t seeing. And it’s through the eyes of a tour guide that he spends all day talking to tourists, saying, “on your left is the Empire State Building and he says “New York City is the greatest city on earth” and he repeats it as it’s a mantra. “The greatest city on earth. The greatest city on earth.”

And then we see him go home at night. It’s anything but the greatest city.

TH: I like how you use space, as you have that cramped apartment where Ed can barely think as opposed to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, although there is a certain claustrophobic effect to that as well.

It is, and NY has so many interesting locations. What I tried to do was to frame each scene to be a reflection of Ed’s state of mind. In large part, it’s a story about loneliness and the lonelieness of living in a big city such as New York. And even though you’re surrounded by people, sometimes it’s the loneliest place to be, because you’re anonymous and they’re strangers. I wanted to show that element that Ed lives in.

TH: I love the opening shot as well, with the lightbulb flickering in the dark apartment. It sets the tone for the film perfectly. Now when you’re making this film, how are you hiring these actors? Are these people you had known or were they recommended to you or did you work with a casting director?

JC: To backtrack a little bit, this is a truly independent movie. Very small crew. Dawn Fidrick and I produced it together. It took us eight years essentially from beginning to end. We shot for six years in the city and we did put out ads. Six years, as people’s schedules would allow us, as we would raise finds and shoot when we could. Then we would work day jobs.

One of the trickiest parts was keeping the continuity straight. James (Moles, who plays Ed) was great at that, keeping his hair a certain length. The basic part was his acting, becoming that character again and again. Not only sustain that role for that long period of time, but we were shooting out of order – you don’t shoot in continuity. We would talk about it a lot when we were preparing to do a scene. He had a real knack for keeping in mind where his character was on the arc. For example, his character is a different personality by the end of the movie that he was at the beginning of the movie and there’s a whole range in between. I give him credit. I didn’t know if he could do it, but James could pinpoint where he was in that spectrum. He would ask me to remind him where that scene falls in the story so he could know emotionally where to be at that point.

He comes from the theater, which really helps. His background is a stage actor, so I think for him, doing that sort of mental preparation. He likes to rehearse a lot and work on a scene.

TH: I thought that Natia Dune, who plays Lucya, was great. How did you happen to hire her?

James had become a friend by this point, as I had seen him do some theater work. To answer your previous question, Ed Zimmer is an amalgam of different people, James a little bit, maybe myself a little bit. Also Crime and Punishment plays into the story, so I wanted that Raskolnikov in the character, that sort of paranoid Russian character and then I’ve done tons of research on true crime. It’s something I’m fascinated with. This sort of ties in more with the kilers in the story. Researching from everyone from Ted Bundy to Jeffrey Dahmer, pulling from their personalities.

But Natia Dune is someone I met from doing auditions. I auditioned 200, 300 actresses and she just rose to the top.

Jeremy Carr (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

TH: As far as Ilya Slovesnik who plays the stranger, how did that character come about?

JC: That ties in with the Crime and Punishment angle. As you know, Ed becomes obssessed with reading the book Crime and Punishment. When I was writing the script, I was sort of obsessesd with Crime and Punishment and that’s how it came into the story.

I had this idea that when Ed is reading Crime and Punishment he would be also walking around Times Square observing things. He sees a prostitute working on a street corner. He sees a sign in the window that says, ‘just one buck.’ All these little things that are clues to what’s going to happen later. The film is very subtle.

It all kind of works together. In a way that he’s connecting things and elements of Crime and Punishment keep resurfacing in real life.

And one of the things… this character called the Insepctor that Ilya Slovesnik played.. when I was writing it, my approach to writing the script was that I didn’t want to follow the standard three-act structure, like the old way of writing screenplays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanted to take a more novelistic approach to it. So let me start with this character and the dilemnas he’s having and the nightmares he’s having and doesn’t know what to do about them and let me just follow him around and see what he does.

So the story begins with that problem and we just follow Ed on a strange journey that just sort of meanders about. I wanted it to feel more realistic. I kept asking myself.. I didn’t want this to be a genre, horror type movie in the sense of having things jumping out at you to scare you. I didn’t want to fall into those tracks. I wanted it to be more character driven than that.

That’s how I got to the third act. I felt like we needed to turn the pressure up a little bit. We need to have a reason why Ed would abandon this vigliante mission he is on. I felt that the cliché would to be to intrdocue this cop character, somebody that is trying to capture him. I felt it would be much more interesting to have a stranger, this mysterious character turned up and statred talking to him and stalking him. And we don’t really know who he is and Ed doesn’t know who he is. And it would feel as though he stepped right out of the pages of Crime and Punishment.

Again, it ties in with this idea that Ed might be imagining this and might not be – it might be real, it might not be real.

TH: You seem like a confident person, but were there ever moments of doubt over the years you took to make this?

Oh, there were definite dire moments, but time was on our side. There was no real deadline for the film. The only deadline was would the actors stick around?

JC: Time was on our side and it also allowed me to have more creative control. We had a studio in Brooklyn and we built the sets in there. We could pre-light the sets, film a rehearsal of a scene and then take that film to edit it and look at what was working, to be able to test it out. It became a really interesting process of crafting and refining the film.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Chicago International Film Festival 51 - Initial Thoughts

Chicago International Film Festival 51 - opens this week!

The longest running international competitive film festival in the United States returns for its 51st edition, starting this week in Chicago. Opening night is Thursday, October 15 with the screening of the Italian film Mia Madre, directed by Nanni Moretti. 

I have seen this film and will review it soon. Here are notes on the first three films I have seen from this year's festival:

Breakfast at Ina's - directed by Mercedes Kane. This is an uncomplicated documentary about a lovely woman, Ina Pinkney, who managed Ina's, a breakfast restaurant in Chicago's West Loop, that became a local institution. The film covers the action of the final month - December 2013 - of the restaurant, which Pinkney was forced to close due to her health; she contracted polio in her youth and still suffers today from post-polio, as she has trouble walking. 

If this film is not as gripping as it should be, it is a very good and even-keeled look at Pinkney's life, which has had many ups and downs. The most engrossing part of this documentary has to do with Pinkney recalling her marriage in the 1960s to a black man; interracial marriage of course, being somewhat of a taboo at that time. Clearly, Pinkney's experience with this matter, both in Brooklyn where she lived at the time and soon after, when she moved to Chicago, shaped some of her outlook on life. 

This is a film with a good heart, as it keeps things simple, offering us Pinkney talking about her management style, the everyday travails of running a breakfast restaurant and her future. She comes across as one of the most genuine people you'll ever meet. 

Breakfast at Ina's will be shown on Sunday, October 18 at 3:30 PM; Thursday, October 22 at 12:00 PM and on Friday, October 23 at 4:00 PM


How to Win Enemies - directed by Gabriel Lichtmann. The less said about this film, the better. This is a movie for the Facebook crowd, as the characters are two-dimensional at best, the actors are all young and look beautiful, the lighting is bright, with saturated images, and worst of all, a silly story with a puzzle. The puzzle has to do with one of the main characters being robbed of a good deal of money, but we never believe for a second that his life will be all that difficult. While the dialogue isn't embarrassing, neither is it particularly clever and it adds up to very little. This isn't a disaster, as it's moderately watchable, but there isn't much substance, style or wit to this very short (78 minutes only, thankfully) film from Argentina.

How to Win Enemies will be shown on Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45; Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 PM and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 PM.


Other Madnesses - directed by Jeremy Carr. Much more ambitious than the previous two films I discussed, this is a harrowing look at an everyday citizen of New York City and how he views the horrors of the city. That makes Other Madnesses sort of an alternative version of Taxi Driver; clearly Carr was influenced by that seminal film when he made this work. A bus tour guide named Ed Zimmer (played by a somewhat gaunt and ghoulish-looking James Moles) charms tourists with his knowledge of Manhattan during the day (he is asked several times by tourists to have his picture taken with them - a nice touch), but is haunted by his nightmares, once he is back in his dingy apartment. The question the film raises on the surface level has to do with whether his visions are real or merely extensions of his fevered imagination. The film also asks us if we would do what Zimmer sets out to do - to right these wrongs. This is the first film directed by Carr and his imagery is often haunting - the first shot in the dark sets the proper tone for this film - and he takes time to slow the story down to give us an unusual relationship between Zimmer and a female tourist he meets on the bus named Lucya (nicely played by Natia Dune). While the film does not totally come to a full resolution, it is a fascinating journey into the hellish vision of one lonely man. 

Other Madnesses will be shown on Saturday, October 17 at 9:30 PM and on Monday, October 19 at 9:15 PM.

Note that all films will be shown at the AMC River East Theatres at 322 E. Illinois Street

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Sex, Love and God

More than fifty years after its release, The Night of the Iguana (1964), still has the power to move, amuse and shock us in its frank examination of how the human animal deals with sex, love and its belief in God. A journey into one man's hell and ultimately his resurrection, Iguana may not fully answer the questions it raises, but it is a film that takes us along a bumpy ride (literally and figuratively) that challenges us to refocus our ideas about our everyday existence.

Directed by John Huston and based on the famous 1961 Tennessee Williams play, Iguana tells the story of the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), an Episcopal minister who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, has taken a sabbatical from his religious duties and now leads tours in Mexico and the southwest United States. In the film's memorable opening scene, Shannon gives a sermon to his congregation that has packed the small church. After a few minutes, he understands they are in attendance not to listen to the word of God, but rather as a curiosity, as they have heard rumors that he had sexual affairs with a young woman. Shannon lashes out at them, and the crowd rushes out of the small worship room. We soon learn that Shannon was locked out of his church after this; we next see him, asleep in a square in a small town in Mexico, where he is overseeing a tour of mostly middle-aged women from a Baptist female college in America.

While the majority of the women are in their 40s or 50s, there is one 16 year-old named Charlotte (Sue Lyon, who had played the role of Lolita in the Stanley Kubrick film two years earlier) that has a crush on Shannon. Having been pushed out the door of his parish for his previous behavior, Shannon nominally wants no part of this young blond nymph, but he is tempted nonetheless. This is immediately noticed by Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), who is the den mother of the group; her attitude toward Shannon, a bit unsure from the start, becomes more untrusting as the journey continues.

Knowing that he is losing control, Shannon takes over the tour and drives the bus not to their appointed hotel in Puerto Vallarta, but instead to a oceanside resort run by an old friend Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). He is expecting to find her husband Fred, but is told by Maxine that he died; she now runs the resort, which is nominally closed as it is summer, the down time for travel in this part of Mexico. 

Into this scenario comes a self-described New England spinster Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her elderly grandfather Nonno (Cyril Delevanti), whom we are told is "the world's oldest living poet." Nonno is at work on his latest poem and Hannah is a sketch artist; neither has a peso to their name, so they must appeal to Maxine's kindness for a room.

A publicity photo for The Night of the Iguana - Richard Burton with (l. to r.), Sue Lyon, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner

This mix of characters is a memorable clash of wills, from the feisty Maxine and the lustful Charlotte to the repressed, angry Miss Fellowes (Shannon at one point calls her a "butch vocal teacher") as well as the turned-down Hannah, who is more or less, the moral center of this tale. It is Shannon's uneasy relationship with each of these women that give the story its passion and occasional fireworks. 

Huston, who adapted the script along with Anthony Veiller, keeps turning up the heat and venom, while directing appropriately (he was spectacularly aided by the stark, moody, black and white photography of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figeuroa). The helmsman elicited some wonderful performances here, especially in the scenes between Miss Fellowes and Shannon (Burton was rarely better, while Hall was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress). She hates his supposed moral looseness and never lets an opportunity to threaten him slip by; he does his best to deflect her criticism, assuring her that things will be fine. Also, he must thwart the advances of Charlotte as well as help Hannah and Nonno in their plight, while also enlisting the trust of Maxine.

A major focus in this story is how each of the main characters has difficulties in dealing with sexual behavior. A brief analysis reveals:

Shannon - A man of the cloth - "the grandson of two bishops" we are told - should be above earthly temptations, but he is weak of flesh, tempted especially by young women. "People need human contact," he tells Maxine at one point.

Miss Fellowes - Humorless and uptight, the screenplay makes no bones that she is a lesbian (this is 1964, remember, so this is done somewhat discreetly). Her disgust toward Shannon's behavior with Charlotte may have to do with the fact that she herself is attracted to - and desires - Charlotte.

Maxine - Her sexual frustrations arise from the fact that her late husband, more than 25 years older than she, rarely made love to her late in their marriage; he preferred spending his time fishing (an obvious phallic reference). "I still got my biological urges," she tells Hannah; this is evidenced by her two young, tanned beach boys who serve the cravings of this saucy 40 year-old. 

Charlotte - All of 16, her sexual awakening began with a young man at her hometown in America; that failed and now she does everything in her power to lure Shannon.

Hannah - Never married, she has no need for sex in her life. In one of the film's most telling scenes, she reveals to Shannon her previous sexual "encounters," which were rather tame and more than a little sad. 

It seems that sex is a destroyer of human relationships for these individuals and that love is secondary, if achievable at all. A more immediate problem is conquering one's inner turmoil. When Shannon dives into the sea - "the long swim to China", as he calls it, his path of escape from his demons - he is captured and then tied up on a hammock at the resort. While both Maxine and Hannah try to settle him down as he struggles with his restraints, it is Hannah who tells him that in order to bring his life back to some sort of order, he must face his own problems and encounter them head on. She refers to "the blue devil" she once encountered and how she "showed him I could endure him." This explanation seems a bit simple, given the complexities of her - and everyone's life in this story - but it has given her inner peace. 

The symbolism of God is a strong one in this tale. On the surface level, Shannon is an Episcopalian minister and the women in the tour group are from a Baptist college - there is a natural struggle between these two (one wonders if Williams was arguing against religion in general here). Beyond that, Shannon talks of playing God when he agrees to cut loose an iguana that has been tied up at the resort, much as he himself was constrained a few moments earlier. He is cutting loose "one of God's creatures at the end of his rope," he tells Hannah. His life - and perhaps the lives of everyone here - is similar to a jungle animal, moving about any which way, yearning only for freedom. For the iguana, this freedom is spatial, while for the humans, it is freedom from failure and disappointment. Each character carries around a trunk load of baggage, and as they open up to each other, we see that only Hannah and her father, who yearns to finish his final poem, have freed themselves from their daily inner struggles; they are clearly at peace with themselves and the world. 

The scene of capitulation between Shannon and Maxine that marks the end of the film - how will she manage the resort following the death of her husband - is elegantly handled; the final shot is one of the most touching in all of Huston's films. Shannon's night of self discovery, under the lightning strikes (the hand of God?), tied up, listening to Hannah explain her path to inner peace, has given him a clear vision of the road ahead. That in turn lets Maxine transform her anger - she is mad at the world for any number of matters, not the least of which is her turning 40 - and see her future in simple, loving terms. 

The closing lines of dialogue between Maxine and Shannon are quite touching and serve as a lovely conclusion to this film. Now at peace, she tells him that they should go down to the beach, as the temperature is not too hot. "Well, I can get down the hill, but I'm not sure about getting back up," Shannon remarks. "I'll get you back up," says Maxine. "I'll always get you back up."