By William Wolf

BECOMING ASTRID  Send This Review to a Friend

Put “Becoming Astrid” down as among the best films of 2018. It is a deeply moving fact-inspired drama that I heartily recommend, both for the lead performance and the subject matter--the shaping of the life of Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the renowned Swedish writer of “Pippi Longstocking” and a host of children’s books published throughout the world. Her works have been translated into 85 languages, with some 165 million copies printed world-wide. “Becoming Astrid,” astutely directed by Danish filmmaker Pernille Fischer Christensen, takes us back to show how it all began and reveals emotional elements in Lindgren’s life that fused with her desire for independence and literary success.

At the heart of this movie triumph is the performance by actress Alba August as Astrid. She is luminous and dynamic, appealingly effective every step of the way in a demanding, emotional role. (The star is the daughter of Danish director Bille August and Swedish actress and director Pernilla August.)

We first see Astrid as an elderly woman sifting through letters from children who want to tell her how important her books have been to them. The story then swiftly moves back in time to when Astrid was a teenager living with her church-going mother, father and siblings in rural Sweden. She aspires to write and is delighted when offered the opportunity to become an assistant to Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen, excellent), the editor of a local newspaper.

Blomberg, so much older, is smitten with her. She is attracted to him and with the nerve of youth, makes the first serious move, and they start an affair. When Astrid finds herself pregnant, the horror of scandal for her and her family arises. Blomberg, who is married but separated and loves Astrid, does the honorable thing and wants to marry her, but unless he gets a divorce, he is in danger of being convicted of adultery in the moralistic atmosphere of the time and place. The situation sets off a major plot direction, including the need for Astrid to have the child in Denmark with the assistance of a kindly woman, Marie, played with sensitivity by Trine Dyrholm, who looks after children whom others are temporarily unable to care for.

“Becoming- Astrid” fascinates on so many levels. We see attitudes of her parents, and her mother not wanting her to marry Blomberg unless Astrid really loves him. In the context of the time Astrid weighs whether marriage is what she wants at the moment in light of Blomberg’s traditional expectation of a wife as a homemaker and mother, a reflection of the role of women in that society. There is also the issue of employer-worker sex, which resonates with the discussions going on today. There is the older man, younger woman issue that still upsets some people.

There is also the question of to what extent Lindgren can fill the role of a mother, and how a child must learn to relate to a mother he has rarely seen. We are privy to the feelings of Astrid that influenced her later accomplishments writing stories for children.

All of the above is solidly placed in the director’s portrait of society in that era, with excellent cinematography showing assorted locations. The screenplay, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson with director Christensen, works to keep one engrossed in Astrid’s life, the various characters depicted and the ultimate romantic outcome, neatly handled without unnecessary elaboration.

On all counts this is a film that works splendidly, and once having seen Alba August, you are likely to fondly remember her extraordinary performance. If there is any justice, she should be considered favorably at awards time. So should the film. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed November 16, 2018.

AT ETERNITY'S GATE  Send This Review to a Friend

Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” is especially important for two reasons. It provides a new look at the final days in the life of artist Vincent van Gogh and excellent actor Willem Dafoe gives an extraordinary and memorable performance as the artist.

Collaborating on a screenplay with the eminent Jean-Claude Carrière and also with Louise Kugelberg, director Schnabel peers into the sad fate of van Gogh and the pitiful situation in which he never sold a painting. The screenplay also depicts the artist’s death in a way that counters the more accepted idea of his having committed suicide.

Throughout Dafoe is superb in the portrait he gives us of van Gogh, a nuanced look at what his life was like in intimate terms. The supporting cast is first rate too, including Rupert Friend as his supportive brother, Theo, Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, Mathieu Amalric as the important Dr. Gachet, Emmanuele Seigner as Madame Ginoux and Mads Mikkelsen in a key role as a priest.

As one has come to expect from Schnable, he creates an impressive artistic atmosphere that in this case creates a vivid sense of the time in which the artist’s final days unfold. The superb cinematography by Benoît Delhomme helps enormously in achieving the affecting visuals.

An unusual mourning scene is chilling, with van Gogh’s coffin in the center of a room, and his paintings on surrounding walls, as visitors select art that he could not sell during his life. The scene is an inkling of the fame that will eventually embrace him posthumously and the enormous prices his work will ironically command. A CBS Films release. Reviewed November 16, 2018.

SHOAH: FOUR SISTERS  Send This Review to a Friend

Claude Lanzmann has gone down in history as the primary film chronicler of the Holocaust, leaving a profound legacy of testimony on screen. The final work he has left us, “Shoah: Four Sisters,” stands as further evidence of how horrors unfolded in different ways. Lanzmann was 92 when he died last July.

The women whom he interviewed in this two-part film are not actual sisters, only spiritual sisters in the sense of what each endured in different ways. There is an installment for each in the footage, which he shot originally for his “Shoah” masterwork. Taken together they are deeply moving.

Symbolically, one episode that haunts me was reported by Ada Lichtman in the part titled “The Merry Flea.” Her job in an extermination camp was to clean and prepare dolls taken from executed Jewish children so that German personnel could give those dolls to their own children. More than the process itself, is the harrowing thought of Germans callously giving such dolls to their own kids, and taking the step further, the thought of German kids innocently playing with dolls that belonged to murdered Jewish children.

More directly obscene was the intimate tale told by Ruth Elias in a section titled “The Hippocratic Oath.” Elias, a Czech Jew, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of Josef Mengele when pregnant. Mengele seemed to befriend her during her pregnancy. But there was something on his mind that he did not reveal. After the birth of the baby, he gave orders not to have the baby fed. He wanted to see how long a baby could live without nourishment. The baby, of course, eventually died as a result of one of Mengele’s experiments, a loss with which Elias had to cope.

Another interviewed was Hanna Marton in the segment titled “Noah’s Ark.” She is a Hungarian Jew saved as a result of a deal negotiated between Rezso Kasnztner and Adolf Eichmann. In another segment, Paula Biren, a Polish Jew and survivor, epitomizes various Jews who managed to come through but harbor guilt about managing to live while so many others died. In her case she functioned in the Lodz ghetto in a Jewish women’s police force and speaks candidly about her experiences there.

Viewing this film, one is subjected to accounts of very different experiences by women with different personalities, adding up to further testament as to the horrors of what the Nazis inflicted. For those revelations we owe thanks to Lanzmann and the four who agreed to tell him—and eventually us—their stories despite the obvious pain they must have felt in digging into their recollections of the suffering they endured. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed November 14, 2018.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS  Send This Review to a Friend

Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to come up with a film that’s different, as they have with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release. They have created a half dozen Western tales, presented as if based on a book, which is fictional and evidence of the extensive imagination shown by the Coen brothers.

The first episode makes it seem as if we are entering a blaze of satire. It is an often rollicking look at a singing cowboy, The Kid, played by Tim Blake Nelson. He is fast on the trigger, and when he walks into a bar, watch out. Nelson is extremely amusing in the role, and the Coens have come up with a gunplay variety, including one that is a particular hoot.

But the leading hilarity gives way to a mix, some of it also funny, but other portions serious, wistful or tragic. The Coens show storytelling command throughout as they spin tales set in the atmosphere of old west. The casting is smart too.

James Franco is Cowboy, who robs banks, which gets him into deadly trouble. In another episode, very sad, Liam Neeson runs touring show exploiting a deformed man who draws spectators. But when would-be customers turn their attention to another attraction, the impresario switches gears at the expense of his former lure.

Among the many cast members are Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays, Bill Heck, Granger Hines and Saul Rubinek. The segments vary in length, and at times one may wish the brothers had shortened the 132-minute opus.

There’s a section titled “The Mortal Remains,” consisting mostly of a stagecoach ride. Those assembled may make you think of the John Ford classic, “Stagecoach,” and I particularly enjoyed Tyne Daly as a passenger with a mission as she rides along with others and the talk becomes intense.

The effect of seeing this latest Coen film is like having gone back in time for a trip prompting thoughts about what made American westerns so unique, yet also standing as a hip modern take on it all from the perspective of two movie buffs who enjoy being different. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 8, 2018. `

THE FRONT RUNNER  Send This Review to a Friend

Exploring the sad story of Gary Hart in “The Front Runner” raises a question of comparisons. When in 1987 Senator Gary Hart had a lead in the race to capture the Democratic nomination for president a saucy picture of Donna Rice on his lap on a boat named Monkey Business escalated in the press to the point at which he had to withdraw his candidacy in the whirl of infidelity accusations. In the current era boasting about grabbing women by the genitals and having sex with a porn star haven’t rubbed off on Donald Trump. Nor did an Oval Office episode derail Bill Clinton, as his impeachment was defeated.

Hugh Jackman is cast as Hart in the film, directed by Jason Reitman based on a book by Matt Bai, and with a screenplay by Reitman, Bai and Jay Carson. Jackman does a good acting job, although the personality he projects shows more anger and bitterness than one finds in the YouTube clips of the real Gary Hart expressing himself in the wake of the scandal. The point argued by the screen Hart and the real Hart is the same: personal life is none of anyone’s business when it comes to the political arena, and in that sense the film is faithful to the actual position taken. However, Hart exhibited more charm than Jackman does on screen.

But the film hits its mark in depicting the rush to judgment and the speed with which Hart was derailed. (He tried to get back in the race after having withdrawn, but had to back out again.) In the film Hart, as the real Hart did, foolishly challenges the press to follow him around. Indeed they do, staking out his home on the information that Rice is there, with nastiness and a scandal sheet approach, notably by the Miami Herald. A correspondent for the Washington Post, pursues the story too, but as a matter of duty, not sleaziness. As the pressure mounts, Hart is cornered, even though he denies infidelity with Rice.

The portrayals are excellent. Sara Paxton plays Rice as a pretty, rather clueless woman caught in circumstances beyond her control, which dwarfs her credentials as a serious and well-educated person. Molly Ephraim plays Irene Kelly as a Hart representative who pretends to befriend Rice but manipulates and sabotages her. Vera Farmiga is Hart’s wife, Lee, who stands by him but is angered and resentful over what she assumes was a dalliance, depicted as not unusual for him.

There is a superb performance by J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon, who manages the campaign and is hard-nosed about the reality of the situation and tries to get Hart to realize the depth of his plight in the face of Hart’s bitterness and insistence that he knows how to handle the crisis.

“Front Runner” is a political tale for our time. The story and research one might now do may make one wonder whether we lost the possibility of having the good president Hart possibly might have been if only he hadn’t let himself fall into that compromising position. A Columbia Pictures release. Reviewed November 6, 2018.

SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

One of the two most thrilling interviews in my career was my talk with Ingmar Bergman at his home on his cherished Swedish island of Fårö. The other was with Charlie Chaplin at his home in Vevey, Switzerland. (Both recorded audio conversations are included in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.) Thus it was with very special interest that I viewed the new film “Searching for Ingmar Bergman,” directed by Margarethe von Trotta, with co-directors Felix Moeller and Bettina Böhler.

The film, which von Trotta scripted with Moeller, is a treasure trove of clips from Bergman’s many films and an assortment of interviews with him and those who have worked with him. The cumulative effect is a probe of what the great director has attempted to accomplish and inside insights into his methods and approaches, as well as the observations of those whose professional lives he has touched and drawn upon. The film has been timed to mark Bergman’s centennial. (He was born July 14, 1918, and died July 30, 2007.)

Von Trotta, who saw Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” in Paris when she was 18 years old, has said, “Ingmar Bergman inspired me to become a director. Making this film, I tried to create a path that would lead to him, but in so doing also reflect who I am as a creative artist.” She has admirably succeeded.

The director captures a sense of place in Bergman’s life when she visits Fårö and photographs the island in its combination of bleakness and charm, as well as visiting the Bergman home there.

Among her interviews elsewhere, she speaks with Liv Ullman, one of the main women in Bergman’s life. There are perceptive comments from Gunnel Lindblom, the star of Bergman’s “The Silence,” a brilliant film that I showed for many years to NYU students. French director Olivier Assayas talks at length in analyzing Bergman’s films and creativity. Among others who contribute to the panorama are Bergman sons Daniel Bergman and Ingmar Bergman, Jr.; writer-director Mia Hansem-Løve; writer Jean-Claude Carrière; writer-director Carlos Saura and actresses Gaby Dohm, Rita Russek and Julia Dufvenius.

But in the end what fascinates most are the clips assembled from Bergman’s films, including the encounter between Max von Sydow as warrior Antonius Block and Bengt Ekerot as Death in the landmark “The Seventh Seal” (1957). Other film clips range from “Wild Strawberries” (also 1957), for example, through his latter works, such as “Autumn Sonata” (1978).

Those familiar with Bergman films may delight in seeing vividly remembered moments, while those of a generation less familiar with the works of the master may be stimulated by glimpses into intriguing scenes that demonstrate his skills and may stir interest in looking up and seeing his films.

This is a film for both scholars and film fans, and also a testament to the career of von Trotta herself, whose being inspired by Bergman led to her direction of such noted works as “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” “Rosa Luxemburg” and “Hannah Arendt.” An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Reviewed November 8, 2018.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND  Send This Review to a Friend

I wonder what Orson Welles would have thought of the completed version of his “The Other Side of the Wind,” which has been finally brought to light after years of rights battles and professional efforts to piece together the footage left incomplete in Welles’s lifetime.

The New York Film Festival has provided a service by showing the film in its revivals section and Netflix deserves credit for bringing about its release. Now it is up to the public to judge and the results are bound by the very nature of the enterprise to be mixed. First, it is important to attempt to surmise what Welles was trying to do when he began shooting in 1970.

From the reconstruction it would seem that Welles was attempting to cast a satirical eye on the process of making movies, with particular attention on the odd gang of people involved in the making. His vision is a turbulent, dark and often comic take behind the chaotic scenes, including a sprawling party in honor of a director’s 70th birthday. One may think of Fellini’s “8½,” also about a director trying to make a movie.

Story-wise the result is an odd conglomeration, as per the screenplay credited to Oja Kodar and Welles. Kodar, born in Croatia, was Welles’s significant other in the latter years of his life. Their collaboration added a further personal dimension.

On the plus side there is fabulous imagery throughout. John Huston, cast as the director, Jake Hannaford, has a face that is totally impressive and it is repeatedly shown in commanding close-ups. His imperial manner is also there, and one of the film’s pleasures is watching him in this central role.

There are also scenes with the beautiful Kodar playing the leading actress, including many nude shots of her, and they are extremely arresting as seen from various camera perspectives doting on her.

The cast also includes Peter Bogdanovich as a disciple of the director, a role played in real life. It is interesting to see the shots of him in his youthful days. His extensive appearances are especially appropriate, as he has been an expert on Welles and a force in pursuit of getting the film freed and completed.

There are impressive appearances of Lilli Palmer, Susan Strasberg, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart and Robert Random. In fact, one can enjoy the nostalgia of seeing such notables as Edmund O’Brian and Cameron Mitchell. Claude Chabrol, Stephane Audran, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky are also on hand.

Other pleasures are to be found in the set pieces, including a sequence in a drive-in theater. As you might expect, Welles amassed many shots in keeping with his reputation for trying to be unique, and the film is a visual treasure trove.

However—and this is a big however--the bottom line is that if a viewer cannot enjoy all of the above attributes from the point of view of a cinema junkie, one can become completely lost and exasperated in trying to follow what’s going on in the story.

Welles would have undoubtedly edited his film into more solid shape story-wise before he was finished. What we get now is a mélange of his footage. But it must be said with satisfaction that at last the fabled Orson Welles movie is out of the closet, and the mystery can be relegated to film history, the film now to be viewed as part of the great director’s body of work. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 2, 2018.

A PRIVATE WAR  Send This Review to a Friend

American-born Marie Colvin was an intrepid war correspondent for the London Times, and her life is depicted in this intensely dramatic “A Private War,” directed by Matthew Heineman with Rosamund Pike giving a compelling, heartbreaking performance as Colvin. More than just a bio pix, the film, written by Arash Armel based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, speaks to us right up to the minute as a plea for the world to take notice of the atrocities against civilians being carried out daily. Colvin passionately wanted to awaken the world to the immoral killing, and the film boldly echoes her passion for truth.

The plot is structured to lead up to the city of Hom in Syria, where the film’s climax is reached in 2012. Along the way we get a picture of Colvin convincingly played by Pike. She is a tough correspondent, a woman working among men and brave in risking her life to get to the truth of warfare slaughter.

While sending back dispatches from Sri Lanka, Colvin is hit by a grenade and loses an eye. Wearing a patch, she persists in adjusting and working. Her personal life suffers from her determination to be on the battlefields. She takes sex when she needs it, without personal ties, as much as a man may do. One liaison occurs with Stanley Tucci as Tony Shaw, a character who approaches life much in the same way. But understandably, he is captivated by Colvin.

The film is filled with brutal scenes of war and unconscionable attacks on civilians by the Syrian regime trying to retake Homs from resisters. Colvin is more and more swept up in her emotional feeling that she must get the story even at great risks. Her colleagues, notably brave photographer Paul Conroy, vividly portrayed by Jamie Dornan, try to hold her back, but her compulsion leads her on.

You can consult the records to know the ultimate outcome. But the film itself is filled with mounting suspense and Pike’s driving performance makes us root for her, and if what she intended her reportage to accomplish succeeds, one will feel similarly outraged and want to see an end to the tragedies that befall women, children, fathers and mothers, apart from the soldiers committed to fighting for the causes they deem just.

“A Private War” is a big picture on a huge and profound subject and it is evident how much work went into the filming with all of the elaborate shots of war and mayhem that had to be shown. Reviewed November 2, 2018.

MONROVIA, INDIANA  Send This Review to a Friend

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the small town of Monrovia, Indiana, with his fly-on-the-wall style to examine life in this example of American heartland. As of 2017 the population in Monrovia was 1063. Wiseman gives us a revealing look of what it is like to live there and what the people are like. The meticulously observant film was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release.

Wiseman focuses on conversations, not interviews, which lets his subjects talk among themselves. We see city council arguments about how to expand building without ruining the town. We get a look at students. In one segment we see the surgical clipping of a dog’s tail, depicted as serious an episode in Monrovia as a heart operation might be.

There is emphasis on farming, as well as idle chats between residents. One observation I came away with was how fat so many people are. We see an example of an overweight population typical of what we read in the country’s obesity statistics.

There is observation involving death, and there is one especially long—too long in my opinion—of a cemetery service and burial. But it does focus on family loss and the personal meaning of death.

By the time Wiseman has finished, and the film clocks in at 143 minutes, you get an in-depth tour of this community, and you can see why Indiana is such a conservative state and Donald Trump country.

Add “Monrovia, Indiana,” to the list of the many Wiseman films, such as "Titicut Follies" and "Hospital," that fascinatingly chronicle various aspects of American life. He is an invaluable documentarian to be lauded for his choice of subjects and for his dedication to digging into the fabric of America and shedding light on how people live and how they think. A Zipporah Films release. Reviewed October 26, 2018.

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.

  

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