Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A cinematic event 40 years in the making, The Other Side of the Wind is the long-lost final film by legendary filmmaker Orson Welles. Having spent nearly two decades in Europe, Welles returned to the United States in 1970 to begin production on a project that would not be completed in his lifetime. He spent most of the 1970s working on The Other Side of the Wind, completing principal photography in 1976 and editing it into the 1980s. Welles died in 1985, leaving the film unfinished, seemingly destined for the dustbin of history.

That is until the rights were acquired by Netflix, with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (who also starred in the film) finishing what Welles started, making its triumphant screen debut at long last in 2018, premiering at the Venice Film Festival before being released on Netflix's streaming platform.  It may seem something of an inauspicious end for the fabled final film of the man who directed Citizen Kane, yet the very existence of the film is something of a miracle. Here we are in 2018 watching a brand new Orson Welles film, and the results are nothing short of electrifying.

Mirroring Welles' own experiences in faux-documentary style, The Other Side of the Wind is the chronicle of renowned filmmaker Jake Hannaford (played by similarly renowned filmmaker John Huston) who returns to the United States from European exile in order to make what would become his final film. Welles follows Hannaford on the final day of his life, examining the troubled production of his film, The Other Side of the Wind, an experimental piece filled with gratuitous sex and nudity  meant to attract investors to help him complete it. This film-within-a-film becomes the crux of Welles' blistering critique of Hollywood and the industry that had spurned him. Hannaford travels from screening room to screening room, followed by sycophants, journalists, and hangers-on, each time met with screening difficulties that shut the film down. Eventually there is no audience left at all, and Hannaford is left to die alone, his film all but forgotten.

It's an eerie mirroring of Welles' own experience in making the film, although he vehemently denied such parallels, claiming instead that Hannaford was based on novelist Ernest Hemmingway, along with other storied "macho" filmmakers such as John Ford, Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman. Regardless of its inspirations, The Other Side of the Wind is a thorny, troubled, angry, work of radical cinema the likes of which are rarely seen. It is at once a work of painful self-reflection and bold defiance, a giant middle finger to an industry that had turned its back on Welles. This is Welles both gazing at himself as at outsider and looking deep within himself as a filmmaker in twilight - a lion in winter and one-time wunderkind who made what many consider the greatest film of all time at the age of 24, and spent the rest of his career refusing to be but into a box.

“Every man contains within himself the whole condition of humanity," whispers one woman about Hannaford at one point, a line that seemingly lays bare Welles' almost limitless ambition in his twilight years. Here, a man who started his career making avant-garde silent shorts and radio dramas creates one of the most brazenly modern films of his career, a work of experimental cinema that takes stock of the industry as Welles saw it - from the New Hollywood Cinema of Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, to the European art house cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (mercilessly lampooned in Hannaford's film-within-a-film). This is cinema as voyeurism, for both the filmmaker and the audience. Is cinema a means to an end or simply an end? A journey or a destination? A penetrative act or a reflective act? Here, Welles dismantles the male gaze, the camera as a phallus, positioning cinema as an act of rape that destroys that which it seeks to exalt. It is a daring, reckless, uncompromising film that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place in the pantheon of great things - the final film of an American master who, 33 years after his death, has shown the world that he is just as vital and brilliant as ever. The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND | Directed by Orson Welles | Stars John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Random, Susan Strasberg, Joseph McBride, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge | Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

It can be tough to be a Tyler Perry apologist in the face of films like Nobody's Fool. To be fair, nothing about Nobody's Fool feels like a Perry film - it feels like a substandard director-for-hire project that somehow ended up with Perry behind the camera. That's not the case here, unfortunately, Nobody's Fool is Perry's through and through; but it is completely devoid of the personality and charm that are often present even in Perry's most pedestrian works.

Billed as a star-vehicle for Tiffany Haddish, a hot-commodity following her star-making performance in Girls' TripNobody's Fool instead wastes Haddish in a supporting role and turns the focus on her sister, Danica (Tika Sumpter), an uptight marketing executive who is dating a man she has never met. After Danica picks her foul-mouthed, over-sexed sister, Tanya (Haddish), up from jail, Tanya immediately sets out to find out the real identity of Danica's mysterious boyfriend to find out if Danica is in fact being "catfished." All the while, her perfect man may be staring her in the face, a handsome barista named Frank (Omari Hardwick) who greets her with coffee and a rose every morning and his coffee shop.

The problem here is that it doesn't seem like Perry can make up is mind as to what he wants Nobody's Fool to be. The catfishing plot-line is quickly dropped, segueing into a romantic comedy in which the stuck-up Danica can't get over her hang-ups about Frank's criminal past. Then, just when it appears to be coming to a close, it hits us with a totally unnecessary third act twist that not only derails the plot, it destroys any remaining sympathy we may have had for Danica. It's a clear attempt by Perry to subvert romantic comedy tropes in which a man gets to make mistake after mistake, only to be forgiven and taken back by the woman. But Danica is just too flawed and too arrogant to root for. She's the kind of character that would normally be a villain in Perry's films, yet here she is as a romantic lead that's impossible to root for or care about.

The film is saved from complete oblivion by Haddish, but Perry's improvisational directorial style doesn't do her a lot of favors, giving her ample room to play, but her anarchic presence is often more than the film can handle. It's also got quite a bit more language and graphic sex than the typical Perry joint, which isn't in and of itself a problem, but it feels incongruous with Perry's style. It's as if he's trying to break out of the faith-based comedy mold that made him famous into something more edgy (see also his other 2018 film, Acrimony, where it felt more natural), but it just doesn't fit the film, coming across as a naked attempt to be more mainstream rather than serve the film. It may not feature some of the same instances of sloppy directing present in his last two films, Acrimony and Boo 2, but it's much more of a narrative mess - devoid of Perry's usual affable charm or melodramatic flair; and no amount of Haddish's spirited comedic patter can save it from itself.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

NOBODY'S FOOL | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Whoopi Goldberg, Missi Pyle, Amber Riley, Chris Rock | Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, and for drug material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, November 09, 2018

There's never been a film (or series of films) quite like Patrick Wang's A Bread Factory. Essentially one film told in two parts, Part One: For the Sake of Gold, and Part Two: Walk with Me a While, A Bread Factory examines the plight of a small-town arts center about to be gentrified out of existence by a foreign conglomerate.

Wang, who first appeared on the American independent film scene in 2011 with the remarkable drama, In the Family, has a style like no other, a kind of point-and-shoot aesthetic that nevertheless feels staunchly formal. His actors occupy spaces that at once feel tightly controlled and yet assembled on the fly, creating something that feels wholly organic yet incredibly specific. In For the Sake of Gold, Wang introduces us to Dorthea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari), longtime parters and proprietors of a community arts center in Checkford, finding artistic truth in charmingly DIY productions. The Bread Factory, long a space for personal exploration and community engagement, is deep in rehearsals for a performance of Euripides' Hecuba, when a couple of performance artists from China bring a major conglomerate onto the block, vying for the same arts council funding as The Bread Factory. Facing the end of their life's work, Dorthea and Greta rally a cast of oddball characters, including a local journalist and her plucky intern, in order to convince the local council to save their funding and stop the government corruption seeking the use the newcomers for personal gain.

In Walk with Me a While, Wang changes the ballgame, examining the aftermath of the events of the first film and how they affect the community. Strange tourists begin to descend on Checkford, and it becomes clear that the foreign conglomerate's showy, impersonal brand of art may be changing the little town forever. Walk with Me a While is a more melancholic film than its predecessor, but both films are filled with a quiet sense of hope. What sets Part 2 apart is how Wang deftly melds genres together, introducing musical sequences to differentiate the tourists from the citizens of Checkford. It's a bracing stylistic experiment that beautifully examines life in a changing world. Of the two films, it is perhaps the strongest. Yet taken together as two parts of one whole, these films are a celebration of not just the arts, but of small town arts programs.

Wang shoots in long static takes, often in medium close-up, capturing his actors' performances in totality. It's like a high wire act without an act, the lack of cuts putting emphasis on the performers and what they’re saying rather than directorial style. By filming entire performances, including the climactic performance of Hecuba at the end of Walk with Me a While, Wang immerses us deeply into the world of these characters, allowing us to live alongside them for a while. By splitting the story into two films, Wang takes us beyond the plot and into these characters' lives. Yet it's more than just a four-hour film split in two, the cut feels natural. Both films feel like complete entities that are nevertheless inexorably a part of the same whole.

And what a beautiful whole it is. A Bread Factory is a warm-hearted ode to local arts programs, how they serve not only as a place of belonging for everyone in the community, but as an outlet for people of all ages to explore themselves. Over the course of two films, Wang examines the Bread Factory's impact on its community, and the community's impact on the Bread Factory and its proprietors. They're two lovely, altogether wonderful films that find a deep humanity in their subjects, demonstrating a clear affection for its idiosyncratic characters and the niche they've carved out for themselves in Checkford. And yet there's a kind of sadness that hangs over these films, a kind of mourning for the role of money in the arts, a necessary evil they both rely on and are torn down by. In the end, the quality of the work matters little in the face of public indifference or lack of funding, and that's the inherent tragedy at the core of both films.  Passion can only go so far, but sometimes that passion is worth more than anything money can buy. In A Bread Factory that passion bleeds through every frame - it's an endlessly charming labor of love that firmly establishes Wang as one of the most unique and vital voices in American independent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A BREAD FACTORY PART ONE: FOR THE SAKE OF GOLD | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry-Macari, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Glynnis O'Connor, Philip Kerr, Jeanine Garofalo | Not Rated

A BREAD FACTORY PART TWO: WALK WITH ME A WHILE | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry-Macari, James Masters, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Zachary Sayle, Jessica Pimentel | Not Rated

Both films are now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Perhaps America's foremost living documentarian, Frederick Wiseman's expansive documentaries have covered everything from prisons to the Paris Opera Ballet to the New York Public Library to the halls of Berkeley University to French cabaret clubs. Each one an incisively observational slice of life, chronicling the minutiae of life in their respective milieus. 

In his latest film, Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman turns his camera on the goings on in a small mid-western town in America's heartland. Here, Wiseman invites us to sit in on town council meetings, observe farm life, attend a Masonic lodge ceremony, and even bear witness to a funeral. Wiseman's films always unfold as if we're watching life as it is lived in real time, dipping in and out of daily activities like a dispassionate observer quietly going door to door. Monrovia, Indiana is no different, but at a comparatively svelte 143 minutes, it feels quite brief by Wiseman's standards.

It also seems to be purposely avoiding the elephant in the room - and that's Donald Trump. This is deep in the heart of Trump country, something that Wiseman vaguely alludes to in shots of bumper stickers for sale at a street vendor showcasing slogans supporting God, guns, and America, love it or leave it. Yet, as his way, Wiseman never comments on the violent undercurrent of some of these messages, and they never come up again. There's something to be said for a film in our increasingly partisan times that simply observes, showcasing flyover country life for Wiseman's more coastal audiences. That is, after all, Wiseman's style - observe but don't comment. He simply shows what he sees. But here he almost seems to be actively avoiding the subject.

Perhaps the overwhelmingly white population of Monrovia, Indiana doesn't have politics on the mind as much at the moment because Trump's policies aren't affecting them negatively. Perhaps Wiseman chose to avoid it altogether. But it does seem like an odd choice to briefly acknowledge the virulent undercurrents running beneath the otherwise pleasant town meetings and friendly socializing only to never mention it again. It's a strange misstep in an otherwise stellar film, one of Wiseman's most purely emotional works. It makes riveting cinema out of a vote to appropriate funds for a bench in front of the local library, and a a town hall debate about a fire hydrant. These sorts of seemingly mundane business are Wiseman's forte, and his ability to find beauty and wonder in the moments of life that would end up on the cutting room floor of most documentaries is what makes him such a special filmmaker.

But perhaps the most masterful touch of Monrovia, Indiana is Wiseman's decision to end the film with a funeral. The final 30 minutes of the film is spent in the company of a woman we likely never met, and yet by the time the film is over we felt as though we knew her. We mourn with her family, their tears become our tears. She could have been anyone, but for a moment her funeral becomes a projection on which the audience projects its own losses. She's our grandmother, our aunt, our sister, our mother. In fact, it's almost as if Wiseman is mourning the very way of small town life chronicled here. As the small towns of America's past fade away, little pockets like Monrovia still cling to their memories, seemingly untouched by time.

And yet time marches on - it's the quaint contradiction inherent in Monrovia, Indiana. It feels like a film that would have felt much more impactful 2-3 years ago, but now it seems to stand as a stark reminder of what happens when isolated white communities ignore the world around them, and the noise of the Trump era howling around it can't be drowned out. It makes for a fascinating companion piece with Wiseman's 2015 film, In Jackson Heights, which chronicled a much more diverse, but no less engaged, neighborhood in Queens, New York - a kind of "two Americas" portrait that says as much about where we are today as any pundit on a 24 hour news network or a breathless 2 AM tweet storm from the White House. Wiseman is a peerless filmmaker, and Monrovia, Indiana is a testament to his talent as a quiet observer. Perhaps what he's really doing here is simply cutting through all that noise and listening to the people on the other side. In 2018, we could all use a little bit more of drowning out the noise and simply listening. Monrovia, Indiana may not be "America," but it's certainly a part of a greater community, and a brilliant tapestry of work that Wiseman has been weaving for decades.

GRADE - ★★★½(out of four)

MONROVIA, INDIANA | Directed by Frederick Wiseman | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, November 05, 2018

There is something uniquely droll about the humor of contemporary Romanian cinema that is often so dry that it's almost imperceptible. Take, for instance, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a film ostensibly about an old man dying from neglect by the Romanian healthcare system, being touted as "The most acclaimed comedy of the year" in all of its promotional materials. And yet, despite its tragic underpinnings, Mr. Lazarescu was funny simply because it was so absurd. It was a comedy of errors disguised as a tragedy, a darkly hilarious examination of a grim reality meant to help its audience "laugh to keep from crying."

Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) is similarly droll, if more overtly funny, taking aim at small town silliness regarding a point of local pride - a revolution that may or may not have happened in their little town years earlier. It has been over a decade since the so-called Romanian New Wave began, with filmmakers like Porumboiu, Puiu, and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) bursting onto the international scene with their austere social consciences and sparse style. While each filmmaker has their own unique style and thematic interests, Porumboiu has carved out a unique niche for himself as a kind of satirical cultural critic, examining bureaucratic nonsense in a way that demonstrates both a love for society's oddballs, and a penchant for taking a pin to the balloon of self-importance.

In his latest film, a documentary called Infinite Football, Porumboiu introduces us to Laurențiu Ginghină, a local bureaucrat who, after a childhood soccer injury left him with a severely broken leg, set out to revolutionize the game by creating new rules designed to prevent situations like the one that caused his injury. Ginghină proposes redesigning the field into an octagonal shape to prevent players from getting stuck in corners, dividing teams up into sub-teams each with specific rules, and eliminating off-sides rules by keeping all but a select few players on their own respective sides of the field so that they don't over-exert themselves by running up and down the entire length of the field for the whole game.

Ginghină is so singularly convinced that his rule changes will revolutionize the sport that he envisions himself as a kind of superhero posing as a mild-mannered pencil-pusher by day and acting as a savior of football by night. For his part, Porumboiu mostly steps back and allows Ginghină to explain his system, and then explain it again, constantly revising and and updating his plan when it proved impractical in real life until it becomes so complicated he can barely explain it to anyone. There are very few cuts in the scant 70 minute run time of Infinite Football. Porumboiu is content to point his camera, sit back, and let Ginghină fashion his own rope by which to hang himself.

And yet there is something endearing, and even a little sad, about Ginghină's obsession. Porumboiu essentially lets him explain himself for 70 minutes, and his case is certainly convincing because he himself is so sure of what he's doing, but one can't quite escape the feeling that this quixotic quest to change the way the world plays soccer is something of a fool's errand. At what point does confidence become delusion? Or is soccer, in this instance, just a metaphor for something more?

That's the real question at the heart of Porumboiu's drolly funny and strangely melancholy film. Is Ginghină a genius? Crazy? A pitiable figure? In a nation still coming to terms with its own past, is football a kind of flawed national institution that needs immediate reform, or a venerable body that is perfect the way it is?  Porumboiu doesn't answer those questions, instead positing that perhaps the thing that he loves (be it football or Romania itself) is fundamentally flawed and the ridiculous solutions to fix it are only making it worse. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the game of football (and by extension, Romania itself) is that bureaucracy is pinpointing all the wrong flaws while actual problems go over looked, then proposing all the wrong solutions to fix what isn't broken.

As for Ginghină, his crusade may not have brought him fame or glory, in fact it's brought him little more than indifference at every turn, as the problems he perceives (born mostly out of childhood trauma) are not seen as actual issues by anyone else. And yet it just might have given him personal fulfillment in the form of a life's work, even it if means nothing to anyone but him. Who then, Porumboiu asks, are we to judge?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

INFINITE FOOTBALL | Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu | Not Rated | In Romanian w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, 11/9, in select theaters.