poster-orson-wellsToday is opening night of Miami Dade College’s 32nd Annual Miami International Film Festival, and this year the festival seems to be asking cinephiles to bring their curiosity. Last year, the festival had many big names. This year, not so much. Last year also featured an emphasis on local filmmakers, and this year there is even more emphasis on local filmmakers with a section called “Florida Focus.” The festival is also shining its spotlight on our neighbors in Cuba with its “Emerging Cuban Program.” Cuban filmmakers are being held in such high regard this year that they will be bestowed with this year’s career tribute award, instead of a celebrity, which is the usual routine (last year it was John Turturro).

However, there will be one icon of the film world who the festival will celebrate: Orson Welles. The legendary director/writer/actor graces this year’s poster — a rare shot of him on Miami Beach — on the year of what would have been his 100th birthday. The Miami Beach Cinematheque kicked off the retrospective yesterday with The Lady From Shanghai, and will continue to present a mix of classics and rarities for the month of March. The festival is also using the Bill Cosford Cinema as a venue for this year’s “From the Vault” series, presenting Welles’ rarely seen The Stranger on Saturday with an introduction by film scholar Scott Eyman.

But, for the most part, the festival is asking viewers to be adventurous. There are focuses on French cinema and Asian cinema featuring lesser-known directors or directors early in developing their careers. I have only previewed a few films but none, so far, have blown me away. Some have had clear narrative issues, like Everybody Leaves, a Colombian film that was shot in Cuba with Cuban actors about a little girl in the middle of a custody fight between her mother and father, which could not decide if it’s tone was precious or brutal. However, I cannot judge the festival on these few films alone. There is so much more to see.

On paper, the films that are really standing out are the documentaries. I have only seen Architecture of Color, a film about the Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes. It’s a wonderful examination of how one of the world’s most important women painters works. There are many potentially great documentary films premiering at the festival. Fresh out of it’s Sundance premiere, we will get the Florida premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which has been getting rave reviews. Music is a big part of the documentaries. There’s the world premiere of The Record Man, about Henry K. Stone, a key figure of the ’70s era disco scene in Miami. Sweet Micky for President examines the rise of Michel Martelly, aka Sweet Micky, from beloved Haitian pop star to presidential candidate for Haiti.

There are also a pair of Miami-produced documentaries of note including the return of Billy Corben to the festival with Dawg Fight. It looks like another vicious subject for the documentary filmmaker but also seems to offer an empathetic examination of the hopelessness of some of Miami-Dade County’s communities. These are young men hoping to find their way to some sort of prosperity by street fighting, after all. Speaking of desperate measures involving the sacrifice of one’s body, there’s also Hot Girls Wanted by former “Miami Herald” journalists Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus. Their film follows a 19-year-old girl as she enters the amateur porn industry.

Another overview I wrote about the film festival can be found in “Pure Honey,” where I spoke to festival executive director Jaie Laplante. You can read more about some of the other movies playing (there are 125), including some of Laplante’s personal recommendations by jumping through the “Pure Honey” logo below:

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My first of more specific articles about the festival and its films appeared yesterday on the art and culture blog “Cultist” of “the Miami New Times.” It’s a conversation with actress Paz Vega mostly on her role in The Pilgrim: The Best Story of Paulo Coelho, a movie scheduled to have it’s international premiere at the festival this Saturday. The film is about the pre-fame years of one of the most popular international writers in the world.

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More articles will come during this week, including reviews and interviews. Finally, on a personal note, I have been asked to be on the jury for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriter Award. I will not be writing about any of these movies. You can see the films I have to judge here. I will be deliberating the merits of screenplays by first-time screenwriters with two other jurors, the owner of Miami’s local bookstore chain Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan, and a principal at the Tilia Family of Companies, Gary Ressler (The brother of the award’s namesake, and I read he once worked at Disney Studios). You can read more about all of this year’s jurors here.

One more note, at 12:40 p.m. I will be on Miami’s NPR affiliate WLRN to talk more about the festival, including what I have seen and what I plan to see and what others should see. You can tune-in online here (there’s a “listen live” button in your upper left corner of that page) or listen to it on the radio at 91.3 FM.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

final2.inddAmong our favorite film genres is the mockumentary, and one of the best is This is Spinal Tap. There is something so pure and funny about an actor earnestly adopting a seemingly real character to deconstruct their persona and re-imagine its possibilities. In What We Do in the Shadows, a camera crew presenting themselves as objective observers follow four vampires ranging in age from 183 to 8,000 years old in a style very similar to the portrayal of a rock band in This is Spinal Tap (Not long into the film we learn the crew is safe from vampiric impulses because they are wearing crucifixes). The foursome share a house in suburban New Zealand and have to cope with all the mundane problems of flatting together, such as sharing chores and dealing with different personalities. The squabbles between the vampires are reminiscent of the early days of “the Real World,” with humor drawn from vampire movie classics, from Nosferatu to Twilight. For instance, when a house meeting is called by one of the roommates, the topic of conversation is dish washing. “You have not done the dishes in five years,” complains one about the other. This acute awareness of the minutiae in daily life juxtaposed with the idea of eternal existence is one of the brilliant recurring themes of the film.

Taika Waititi Jonathan Brugh Jemaine Clement WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Photo Credit Unison Films

The script comes from two of the lead actors in the film, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, who also co-directed. With What We Do in the Shadows, they take on a familiar narrative and question its assumptions to make a smartly winking film to hilarious effect. The camera introduces us first to Viago (Waititi). His character is 379 years old and dresses in frilly shirts and waistcoats like Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. The 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement) derisively refers to him as a 17th century dandy. Viago is a neat freak and a romantic. His heartbreaking story-line involves following a love interest to New Zealand by cargo, many decades ago, but getting lost during shipment.

Vladislav, also known as “Vlad the Poker,” is labeled the “pervert” of the group. His characterization channels an oversexualized vampire that will remind many of Gary Oldman’s version of Dracula from the Vlad the Impaler myth in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon is the youngest of the group. At 183, he is the cool kid or “the bad boy,” as the others refer to him. Then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), aged 8,000. Petyr is the “classic” vampire with a look and feel that stems from that first vampire movie: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. He sleeps in a stone crypt in the basement riddled with human remains. He is exempt from household chores and meetings. You’ll also meet a newbie to the group, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who, while trying to pick up women at a bar, can’t keep from boasting, “You know the guy from Twilight? That’s me.” 

Jemaine Clement WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Photo Credit Unison Films

The mash-up of vampire influences in each character is not only a tribute to the vampire movies across the decades but also allows for each personality to standout. It’s similar to recognizing a favorite member of a boy band, wherein the characters fulfill their stereotypes and play with familiar tropes that we have become accustomed to from popular movies and reality shows.

Though What We Do in the Shadows sometimes takes a turn into black humor (there is going to be death in a vampire movie), much of the gags deliver great laughs, like the ongoing rivalry between the group of vampires and a pack of werewolves. For those vampire genre connoisseurs that may not easily be amused, the film also includes montages of storytelling that use vintage images of the character’s story lines. Since there were no video cameras when these characters were turned into the undead, besides old photos, we also get paintings and archaic woodcarvings to illustrate their early years, which achieve a different level of humor. There’s one great running gag of Vlad’s arch nemesis “The Beast,” seen in a primitive woodcut as a rotund creature with the head of a bird, small arms and possibly a penis protruding from its chest. When Vlad finally has an opportunity to confront “the beast,” the reveal of the monster will surely get hearty laughter in a most unexpected way.

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The characters take on modern life, with all the vicissitudes it poses to the undead. Another of the great jokes among the roommates is posing for each other before they go out at night. As one of the symptoms of being a vampire means they are prevented from using mirrors, the vampires look to each other for fashion advice. There is also a couple of humans in the mix, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) plays a subservient role to Deacon, a modern type of Renfield who craves the promise of eternal life. Jackie helps lure other humans for the gang to feast on, and that’s how they meet Stu (Stuart Rutherford). In another running gag, the vampires are so taken by Stu, a computer analyst who teaches them about Googling and Facebook, they make a pact to spare his life.

What We Do in the Shadows was awarded the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and the Audience Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival; an indication of the crowd-pleasing qualities of this film. This is one of those movies that can easily become a repeater, as soon as we finished watching it we were ready for an encore. What We Do in the Shadows is one of those independent films that will have crossover appeal from art-house theater-goers to avid TV watchers. For us, this was a gem, and we were happy to have been invited to preview it.

Ana Morgenstern and Hans Morgenstern

What We Do in the shadows runs 86 minutes and is not rated (expect violence, language, sexuality, gore and some scares but most of it for humor’s sake). It opens in many U.S. theaters on March 6. In South Florida, it’s playing at the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale. For listings around the world click here. The film’s PR company provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. Clement, by the way, self-funded the movie’s U.S. distribution via Kickstarter.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
The filmmakers on the set of Gett. Photo by Amit Berlowitz

The filmmakers on the set of ‘Gett.’ Photo by Amit Berlowitz

It’s no small feat to create an intense drama in one room for the duration of a feature length film. But Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem stands as one of the best examples of such a drama that you will ever see (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review). In the film, the brother and sister directing and writing duo Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz present a married couple in Israel who have arrived at such an impasse they can no longer communicate. The wife, Viviane, played by Ronit — who is also a major acting force in Israel, wants a divorce, but the husband (Simon Abkarian) does not. Since he is orthodox, they need to address this before a rabbinical court of three rabbis. In Israel, for devout marriages, the only way out is a ceremony called a gett. These getts have long been secretive affairs that happen behind closed doors where wives are treated as property of the husband. If the woman wants a divorce but the husband does not, the rabbis cannot grant the gett, which makes for a Kafkaesque version of divorce proceedings.

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If you have never heard about such a thing, it’s only because the subject has been taboo in Israel. Speaking via phone from Los Angeles, the brother of the filmmaking team notes that there would have been no way he and his sister could have made this movie 10 years ago, when they began a trilogy of movies in tribute to their mother. The first film, 2004’s To Take a Wifewas more autobiographical, he notes. In it, Viviane is a young woman who only dreams of divorce while trying to raise three children with an unloving husband who married her for tradition’s sake. The second film, 2008’s 7 Days follows the same family, as its familiar loveless conflict continues during the seven days of shiva after the death of a loved one. With Gett, however, they decided to write Viviane a different ending. “We call it the imaginary biography of her in the sense of what would have happened if a woman like our mother would have gone for a divorce trial in Israel,” says Elkabetz.

In their film, as noted in the still image of trailer at the end of this article, the trial lasts a long time. Still, there have been divorce trials in rabbinical courts that have lasted as much as 20 years, notes the filmmaker. Elkabetz understands reality can be stranger than fiction, so to allow the film to have more of an impact, he and his sister tried not to make their movie as extreme.ronit “One of our initial thoughts was that we were not going to take the worst case because there are horrible cases. We tried to take cases where there is no violence, there is no physical abuse. The kids are grown. Everybody left home. She’s an independent woman. She has her own salary. She wants only one thing. She just wants to be free, and we took this case and said, What happens if we put this case in the Israeli law system? Let’s see how the Israeli law system copes with that one woman who wants to be free and wants to get a divorce where the husband says, no.”

The film has since become a phenomena in the sibling’s country. It opened in Israel at the end of September 2014, and it’s still in theaters. The co-director admits that he and his sister never saw this interest coming. “It became like a political movement,” he says. “It was beautifully accepted, and it was on the news everyday in every media, in the late edition, in the state papers and on the blogs and on the Internet. The film was endorsed by ministers, by parliament members, and the most amazing thing that happened was that the chief rabbi from Israel was repeatedly asked, ‘Have you seen, Gett? Have you seen, Gett?’ His response was always, ‘I never went to the cinema, and I don’t go to the cinema, so I didn’t see Gett.’ And he was repeatedly asked and asked, and he eventually came back … and he said, ‘Listen, we have decided to screen Gett in the annual rabbinical convention this year.'”

The debate in Israel has been intense to change matters. The result of that screening can be read in this short article: “Rabbis cry gewalt after watching Israeli film ‘Gett.'” To sum it up, the rabbis at least acknowledged they have an image problem on their hands. Elkabetz says since no cameras have ever been allowed to document a gett, and they are not open to the public, he and his sister interviewed people who have been through one. But the drama in their film is a fiction based on characters they have followed for 10 years.

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Some may wonder how can a nearly two-hour film in one room, with nearly the same characters, ever offer a tightly paced drama. “I don’t want to be pretentious and say we always know what we are doing,” offers Elkabetz. “I don’t want to say I have a key to make it happen, but we knew that the story is very radical, and we knew that we are facing a sort of a mission to make it happen from second to second.”

He notes that dialogue was important but not so much what is said as what the characters do not say. “We were very attentive to what is happening around us on the set and in the script,” he says. “We were trying to listen very carefully to what the characters are saying, but even more to what they’re not saying because our main character doesn’t talk in this film.”

Visual presentation was also important. As these characters are trying to defend different points of view, the filmmakers came to a smart decision in how to present them visually in the space. “Our first important decision was not to take a master shot in this film,” reveals Elkabetz. “We didn’t take a director’s shot, which describes the whole picture. We said we’re only going to place the camera where the characters are sitting, meaning we’re only going to see what somebody sees, so the whole film is basically shot from the different points of views from the characters in the court, meaning you’reElisha always in a subjective place and you change your stance from one minute to another or one second to another, and by that we hope that we will have the ability to stretch the room because the minute you change the point of view, you change your opinion, and we change the whole atmosphere, and we change the whole essence of one moment, adding to it many different complexities and adding a sort of tension. The tension between the characters could be transferred from what they see and how we think they are interpreting what they are experiencing.”

The key to capturing the drama of varying perspectives, especially those in an intimate life together like a marriage, is subjectivity, not objectivity. “We hope by eliminating objectivity, we create a more truthful, a more suspenseful moment for each one of the characters and eventually for the whole situation,” notes Elkabetz.

The filmmaker adds that he and his sister had doubts they could pull this off, but they allowed that to challenge them. “We went into this film with a lot of good fear, I would say, because we had all these questions like would it be possible to stay in this room for an hour and a half and could we hold the story and still engage people, and if they’re not engaged, we can’t make them think about it.”

He again brings up the importance of subjectivity, not only in the characters of the film, but also acknowledging that every audience member in a movie house brings their own baggage to Gett 2a film. There is always a subjective view outside, looking in. “We can’t make them be involved,” says Elkabetz of the audience. “We want people to be intellectual about it, and we want people to be emotional about it. We want the cinema to turn into a court where each one of the spectators that are coming to the cinema are taking a stand from a very internal point of view, so in general that was our idea for the shoot.”

Putting the film together in editing was another element. Early in the shooting process, the sibling filmmakers knew they had to test out their approach in the editing room. “What we did was we shot three days in the manner that we wanted to shoot, and we went into the editing room, and we edited one scene to see if the method of shooting that we want to do is working, and we were very pleased with what we saw. We didn’t understand completely what we saw, but it worked. It was suspenseful, and it was personal, and it was global, and it was public.”

In the end, they also had an array of perspectives to put together in a certain way, which was its own challenge. “We shot over 110 hours, and the film has over 1,300 cuts,” he says. “Just in the span of over seven days we shot 40 hours, and we have 60 cuts in the film, so there is this thing that we had to discover ever day when we came to the set and we really tried to pay attention to. I mean, we loved what we saw, and we hoped that it would work as a whole, also. I think it’s hard for every filmmaker. You have an idea, but the final results is almost a mystery, so combining everything together to see how it works as a whole is something that nobody has the answers for, of course. If we did, all films would be amazing and great, but the question is investigating the moment and pinpointing the crucial moments for certain circumstances.”

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Even when watching this film alone at home, in preparation for an introduction of the movie during the Miami Jewish Film Festival, this writer could tell there were moments that the subjectivity of the audience had been so powerfully harnessed, that you could feel the moments when the audience might react to the images. Elkabetz admits he and his sister knew they created a potent film, but they could have never anticipated the reaction they witnessed at Cannes when the film premiered at the director’s fortnight. He says people were shouting at the screen. “In the moment when they are asking Elisha, ‘Are you going to give her a divorce?’ not only in the end, but throughout the film, people are saying, ‘Yeah, give it to her, give it to her!’”

As Gett went on a tour of film festivals, Elkabetz witnessed an array of reactions at different points of the movie. “People are laughing and people are reacting in various different moments,” he says. “For me, the only experience that is like it is a moment when I was a kid, when I used to go to the cinema with my dad, and people were very noisy. They speak to the screen, they speak to the characters, and it’s an experience. In my other film, 7 Days, people laughed a lot, but this film, there is something else that makes the audience really active, in many ways, so throughout the film, there’s a lot of clapping, there’s a lot of laughing. We expected the reaction, but we didn’t know the reaction was going to be … so intense.”

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You can read more of my interview with Shlomi Elkabetz in the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:

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Hans Morgenstern

Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Images in this article are all courtesy of Music Box Films, except where noted.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

David_Cronenberg1420507221As noted in my recent review of Maps to the Stars and in an article “Miami New Times” published a few days ago (read it here), the concept of the flesh is an important element in understanding the films of David Cronenberg. “I’m an atheist,” says the 70-year-old Canadian director speaking via phone from Toronto. “I don’t believe in an afterlife and so on, so for me that is what we are.”

Some film critics have deemed him redundant, even antiquated in his thematic interests. When, in fact, his focus on the flesh exists as a foundation that makes his films more than schlocky shock cinema. Since the early ’70s he has brought an eerie humanism to horror, perfecting it in the later part of the decade from Rabid (1977) to the Brood (1979). He reached a pinnacle in the ’80s from Scanners (1981) to Dead Ringers (1988). In more recent years, he has extended his interests in the body to more grounded, psychological, if not still visceral, disturbing fare. A History of Violence (2005) stands as one of the greatest examples.

Cronenberg arrived on the independent film scene during an era of filmmaking known for challenging the boundaries of taste. The word “exploitation” and “gore” were often bandied about. But Cronenberg had a deeper connection to the post-60s era of disillusionment. There was something sad and foreboding in his horror. It’s even empathetic. The reason the exploding head of Scanners disturbs so fundamentally is how Cronenberg sets up the character with humanity, despite his possession of an otherworldly talent to enter the minds of other people.

There have been supernatural elements in many of his movies, most recently including several appearances by phantasmal apparitions that come to haunt a couple of his characters in his latest film. Still, the director confesses he does not believe in anything mystical, supernatural or even spiritual. To a man who describes himself as an atheist, the flesh is sacrosanct. “I mean the more we accept that and recognize it, I think the better off we’d be,” says Cronenberg about his concept of the flesh, “but in any case, the body is what you go to. It’s the primal fact of our existence, so it’s always been a significant thing for me whether metaphorically or literally. When you think of it, what does a director direct? What do we photograph most in movies? Well, it’s the human body. We’re photographing flesh.”

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Despite the harsh dissection of Hollywood and those who work in the industry/city in Maps to the Stars, he admits to a great empathy for those who enter the gauntlet of Hollywood, noting there is no one in that machine who gives more to it than the actor, for, he says, “Flesh is their instrument.” His new film features some incredible performances by Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, who respectively play an aging actress and her assistant. Havana Segrand hires Agatha Weiss, who bears scars of a childhood fire, upon the recommendation of Carrie Fisher (who plays herself in the film). Fisher tells Havana she became friends with Agatha via Twitter. But Agatha’s priority goes beyond penetrating the inner circles of Hollywood. She is on a quest to reunite with the Hollywood family that disowned her. She has a younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird), an actor who, at 13, has just been released from rehab. Their mother Christina (Olivia Williams) is eager to get the kid back to work. Meanwhile, their father Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a new age guru who hosts an “hour of power” on TV and makes house calls to celebrities like Havana, who is struggling for work and being haunted by visions of her legendary mother actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who perished in a fire at a young age.

Agatha had been “put away” to the far away reaches of Jupiter … Florida … in a mental institution to receive treatment for her pyromania. But now that she is 18, she is free, released on her own recognizance. She is also a person transformed by fire both inside and out. Though her family has achieved a level of success, no matter their dysfunction, it is Agatha who has transcended her experiences, and her ultimate confrontation with her family, so absorbed by the superficial world of Hollywood, will indeed make for fireworks. “She’s experienced things that they had been kind of denying and covering up,” says Cronenberg, “and she’s experienced all those things and has the marks on the body to prove it.”

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Asked why he made the film, Cronenberg says he was more interested in the family drama instead of making a critique of Hollywood. “Well, it was primarily Bruce Wagner’s script, the characters, the dialogue. It wasn’t as though I’d been obsessed for years about Hollywood … In fact, I have great affection for Hollywood, the way most people do, and I would have never thought that I would make a movie about Hollywood. It wasn’t really in my portfolio until I read Bruce’s script.”

Cronenberg notes Wagner brings a lot of experience to the screenplay, having written it while he was a limo driver in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, similar to Robert Pattinson’s character in the film, who is somehow dragged into Agatha’s web. But the director has also had experience with Hollywood, though he prefers to work as an independent filmmaker. He notes there were projects that fell though for him in the big studio business and recalls varied successes in the industry, which he admits a sort of ambivalence toward. “I live in Toronto and most of my movies have been co-productions between Canada and Europe, so there’s not been much of Hollywood involved, but on the other hand, there have been many projects that had almost happened and also movies like M. Butterfly and The Fly. There were Hollywood studios that were distributing the films, like Warner Brothers or FOX and so on, so I’d had meetings with studio executives about casting, about distribution, about script, about all kinds of things, and I can certify that what Bruce portrays in the movie is accurate.”

He says what he knows of the surreal and absurd reality of the Hollywood industry was something he could channel in Maps. “Although it isn’t the totality of my life, it is certainly something that I had dipped my toe into and can confirm from my own experience, and I’m sure that it helped me make the movie resonate, to feel real because I knew the reality.”

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But it all comes back to the people and characters in the film, which Cronenberg agrees stands as a protest against a system that dehumanizes people for the entertainment of others. “There is that element,” he admits. “It’s kind of a bubble city—Hollywood. It’s not a city, technically, but the concerns are so incestuous, which is another theme of the movie, but everybody thinks the same way; everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants to be an actor or writer or director. It would be a difficult town to live in if you weren’t obsessed with the business, you know? And though I am a filmmaker, I’m not obsessed with the business, and that’s why I still live in Toronto, my hometown. I could never live in Hollywood as a result.” He then offers a warning to those who aspire to enter the Hollywood business: “I think that obsessiveness can deform people. As I’ve often said, Hollywood’s like this incredibly dense planet with a huge gravitational pull. It pulls in people from all over the world, but then it’s very hard to break away from that, and the force of that pull can deform you and your relationships and the course of your life of which you aspire to. It’s all very insular.”

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Finally, the director does not want anyone to read too much into the delay of his film to reach the home country of Hollywood. Maps to the Stars premiered at the Cannes Film Festival early last year. Cronenberg says it was only logistics that delayed the film’s release in the U.S. “Focus World took on the distribution in the U.S.,” he notes, “and they felt, given the time we made the deal with them, and what was happening at the end of the year when so many movies get released because everybody’s thinking about Golden Globes and Oscars and stuff, they thought it would be a very crowded marketplace. I think that’s correct, and I think they thought they would have a much clearer road to potent distribution if they waited until this year.”

He does admit that the fact the film is already available on home video in other parts of the world besides the U.S. is a bit odd for one of his movies. “It’s very unusual because it’s been released in Canada,” he admits. “It’s been released everywhere in Europe already, very unusual for the U.S. to be so late, but it’s just the way it happened. It’s really Focus’ call, and I’m assuming they know what they’re doing.”

You can read much more about my conversation with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why the flesh is the pinnacle of our beings:

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Then there is also this small piece I wrote in the Miami Herald where he discusses Hollywood some more and Wagner’s script. He also talks about how Moore was one of the earlier actresses to commit to the role despite some financial hardships in getting the production off the ground. Jump through the logo below to read that:

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Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

Maps to the Stars opens Friday, Feb. 27 in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. On opening night at O Cinema’s 9:15 screening, I will introduce the film and probably stick around for a second viewing and chat for a bit afterward. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this interview. All images in this article are courtesy of Focus World.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

gett_ver2In their new film, the Israeli sibling writer/directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, pull a sort of magic trick in cinema. Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem closes out a trilogy of films following the same characters over a period of 10 years. But this film stands on its own for all the drama and tension created in one room. Earning a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, the sibling team of directors from Israel also wrote the script together and Ronit, a notable actress from Israel, plays the lead, as she did in the previous two films of this trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008). In Gett, she once again plays the role of Viviane Amsalem, who in the previous films endured the tension of a loveless marriage, and now finally takes concrete steps toward divorce. However, in the religious state of Israel, a divorce — or a “gett” in Hebrew — must be agreed upon by the husband, as tradition holds that a wife is the property of the husband, and her devout husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) has refused to grant her the divorce. With this imbalance of power, a gett stands more as a ceremonial affair rather than a real trial. It is even adjudicated by a court of three rabbis. The directors focus on this imbalance of power and make it the crux of the film’s drama to powerful effect.

The movie runs 115 minutes and the drama unfolds almost exclusively in the rabbinical courtroom. The only other setting is the anteroom where some small but important exchanges also happen between characters. But the directors do not waste a second in this movie. There is all kinds of tension between all of the movie’s characters, be it the husband and wife, Viviane and her lawyer (Menashe Noy) —  who is implied early on to have an affectionate relationship with his client — and everyone between the varied trio of rabbis who try to sit in judgment but come to empathize with Viviane as the trial drags on (I won’t spoil its length).

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Viviane has no complaint about her husband except that she does not love him. This is not a woman complaining that her husband beats her or cheats on her, which heightens the stakes in an interesting way, making Elisha’s denial for divorce all the more disturbing. This becomes a battle of wills for something bigger than personal differences, which is hard to deny between these two who yell at one other almost every time they have an exchange in the film. You get a picture of a marriage long frayed, although Elisha is not presented as a mere plot device; he is a man with a conflicting and powerful array of feelings. There’s anger, but there’s a devoted sense to tradition favoring patriarchy. In that sense, the film calls attention to the problem of tradition as adapted for civil matters, especially the absence of a woman’s voice in tradition, making the film a powerful feminist commentary on a patriarchal system.

On another level, Gett presents a tightly knotted drama where the viewer is also forced to consider perceptions and the impossibility of presenting a person to another person that is fair to that person being held up for scrutiny. This is much more than he-said/she-said argument that drives the film’s tension. The writing by the two directors shows a brilliant capacity to create drama by withholding information. Too often, Hollywood screenwriters concern themselves with characters explaining how they feel, what they will do, that it saps the drama of mystery, but Gett shows how valuable mystery is to drama, as the directors never bog down the pace of their movie to explain the differences among the characters. Instead, they allow them to gradually reveal their issues through action.

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There are also a great, varied array of witnesses who offer their own perspectives, some of whom gradually reveal flaws about themselves as they try to judge the couple. All of them, down to the court aide (Gabi Amrani) are efficiently drawn characters, carrying heavy burdens of perspective. It also comes across in the creative framing and the varied angles the directors find when presenting these various characters, reflective of new points of view. Gett is a very deliberately crafted film that never feels overcooked. By turns hilarious and disturbing, Gett stands as one of the most remarkable films I saw last year. To create suspense in such a simple, enthralling way while making such a strong statement for women’s rights will surely blow many viewers’ minds.

Hans Morgenstern

Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Music Box films provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review, and I introduced this film at one of its screenings during the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

You can also read an interview I conducted with Shlomi Elkabetz, which was just posted by the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:

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(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MTSVOD_401420754923Considering the story of Maps to the Stars, you may be forgiven for questioning David Cronenberg’s feelings toward Tinsel Town. It follows a family of recognizable modern-day Hollywood archetypes. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a bratty 13-year-old child actor fresh out of rehab. His “momager” (Olivia Williams) cares less about the boy’s mental state than his next big paycheck reprising the title role in Bad Babysitter 2. His father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a new age guru less involved with his family than his persona as a host of a self-help TV show, “The Hour of Power,” and making house calls to celebrities like Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) where he practices a form of Reiki mixed with platitudes from the school of Carl Jung.

Then there’s the ostracized Weiss daughter, 18-year-old Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Fresh off a bus from Jupiter (Florida), the abandoned older sister has a face deformed by burns from a childhood case of pyromania. She wishes to “make amends” after her release from a mental institution on the other side of the States. Slithering back into the family after taking a job as a “chore whore” for Havana and warming up to a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) who has aspirations to write, direct or act she also rekindles old traumas.

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Then you have Carrie Fisher playing herself. Her appearance is more than a bit of stunt casting. In real life, Fisher has had no shame in talking about being a young actress born of Hollywood royalty (singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds) and its affects on her persona. She’s done it with a similar tone of dark humor that Maps after toys with. She achieved pop culture fame in Star Wars at only 19 years of age. Then, as an adult, she wrote about the dark side of Hollywood success in Postcards From the Edge and Wishful Drinking. There’s something meta-poetic about her being the one who recommends Agatha to Havana as an assistant, after “friending” the young women via Twitter, of all places.

Agatha enters the story as an interloper on fire, playing the acting game at an almost spiritual height that is as disturbing as it is riveting. While everyone struggles to maintain a front in order to find a way to matter, she slithers among the Hollywood inhabitants to get what she wants. She’s viscerally in touch with herself. She becomes — if you can forgive the Jungian reference — a disturbing kind of anti-hero enlightened by fire and her scarred flesh. As in so many other films by Cronenberg, the flesh is essential to the drama. Agatha recites “Liberty” by the great French surrealist poet Paul Éluard a number of times in the film.

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name

Benjie also recites the poem, revealing a link between brother and sister that could very well threaten the frayed link between their parents. Indeed, it all builds to a disturbing climax that’s one for the Cronenbergian canon. You only wished he had more money for the special effects, but those are the sacrifices of an indie filmmaker. Cronenberg still delivers with his cold framing and the otherworldly delivery of some of Wagner’s dialogue that hums with a “dead inside” malaise from the Weiss family. Except for Agatha, who strides in with bold, creepy purpose that everyone else, so lost in themselves and aspirations, can hardly notice.

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Special note should also be given to the always game Moore, who could have very well been nominated for best actress for this role had the film been released earlier, and — more importantly – if Hollywood could dare show as bold a sense of humor as Moore herself. Her character features echoes of Lindsey Lohan. She plays with a bubbly voice and offers a broad range of personal suffering, from passive-aggressiveness to deep sadness that also make Havana sympathetic, even when she’s sitting on a toilet struggling from a backup by Vicodin, reciting a list of chores to Agatha while trying to worm into her mysterious assistant’s personal life.

Though it’s easy to consider the film from Cronenberg’s perspective, it is Maps to the Stars screenwriter Bruce Wagner who brings a broad range of experience from Hollywood to his writing (he’s the man behind Dead Stars and Wild Palms). This was one of the first scripts he wrote as a limo driver in Hollywood on the early ’90s, not unlike the role Pattinson plays in the film. The scenes are loaded with an undercurrent of disdain for the city. The characters are archetypes of the business; charm stands as superficial but underneath there’s almost a psychotic desire for success and recognition that has rotten their souls. It’s blackly funny at times but mostly cringingly disturbing.

It could have easily become a tiresome movie, but Cronenberg has such a light yet effective quality as a director, another layer, hidden beneath the superficial struggle of conflict rustles below, like the flesh gun trying to puncture through the TV screen of Videodrome. That tension arises from Agatha’s unwanted reappearance. It speaks volumes not only about celebrity-obsessed culture but the weight of maintaining false fronts for ulterior gains. Hollywood is the milieu, but greed and the sacrifice of identity and humanity for profit and popularity is the theme. Agatha is the flesh scorned by family and scarred by flames, and she’s here to bring a warped sense of balance to a warped world.

Hans Morgenstern

Maps to the Stars runs 111 minutes and is rated R (cursing, violence to the flesh and sexual situations). It opens Friday, Feb. 27, in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami (where I will introduce the film at 9:15 p.m.) and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this article courtesy of Focus World.

Also, read my interview with with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why “the flesh” is the pinnacle of our beings:

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You can read even more of my interview in this blog post:

Legendary director David Cronenberg on “the flesh” and the “deforming” properties of Hollywood in Maps to the Stars

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

duke 1sheetIt’s funny that the 50 Shades of Grey movie will hit the multiplex on the same day as The Duke of Burgundy enters select art house theaters. I haven’t seen 50 Shades, but there’s no way it can present as complex a picture of a relationship between a sadist and a masochist than The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland, who also wrote the script, presents a bold vision of S&M that not only tests the limits of its value in a relationship between an amorous couple, but he makes the couple women. He heightens the relationship further by placing them in a world only populated by women (the title actually refers to a variation of a genus of butterfly, but there is no “Duke” in the film, per se). Furthermore, Strickland also adopts a cinematic style that recalls early 1970s Euro sexploitation films like those by Jesús “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin.

The atmosphere of the film is so on point and other-worldly, the viewer will forgive any superficial judgment of the two women at the center of the film, as the director explores the dynamic break-down of the relationship that gradually frays feelings and questions the roles between these two women, the lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover and servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who reveals an amateurish interest in the moths and butterflies Cynthia studies. The film’s opening scene immediately seems to fetishize atmosphere. We meet Evelyn in a velvet cape sitting by a babbling brook, her back to the camera. Smash cuts to close-ups on some green moss that coats the bottom a tree trunk and protruding, brown mushrooms emphasize a fantasy world. Then there’s a cut to the brook and its sparkling surface reflecting the sunlight that dapples through the leaves overhead.

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Next, there’s a wide shot of the mountain forest, what appears to be a Bavarian wilderness. Evelyn rides out of the trees on her bicycle, as the opening titles begin with the film’s theme song by the film’s composers, Cat’s Eyes, a duo from London, who have a sound comparable to the ‘60s-influenced Broadcast, the composers of the music in Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At a time when many Hollywood films are eschewing the opening title sequence in favor of cutting to the action, this moment in The Duke of Burgundy stands as a terrific musical testament to the importance of setting a mood for a film. First, the music sounds like a slight chamber pop song from the late ‘60s. Over the bright, pastoral rambling of an acoustic guitar, Cat’s Eyes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira punctuates the soft tap of a beat with staccato sighs. After a flute plays a circular, cheerful melody, shimmering, languid strings join the track, and Zeffira hushedly (maybe) sings, “One day you’ll be back … when you’re done dreaming … about lust.” Her breathy voice sounds as though it is coming out of the ether of a dream. Her partner in the duo, Faris Badwan, who also sang on the band’s previous self-titled record, has no vocal duties in the score, once again, keeping the film strictly female-centric.

As the credits appear, the pictures freeze, like what Ti West did with the opening of The House of the Devil (2009), another contemporary indie film interested in recalling a film style of the past. Strickland takes it further, washing them out to monochromatic images of various colors using flickering filters of various primary colors. Another funny detail in the credits: lingerie and perfumes are given credit. Early in this sequence, when Evelyn pedals her bike out of the forest, the music is interrupted as a distant voice calls out her name and a young woman on another bike travelling the opposite direction waves at her. Her echoing voice has a surreal, archaic quality that speaks to Strickland’s detailed tribute to the past style he is emulating.

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Sound is incredibly important in this movie. When the title song ends in a flourish of flutes, twinkling harpsichord, swooning strings and that sighing voice, the chirp of birds and the mundane rattle of Evelyn parking her bike and grabbing her hard leather bag sounds jarringly pronounced. After buzzing the doorbell, Cynthia opens the front door with a creak and greets her with, “You’re late.” Evelyn does not reply but follows. The sound of their footsteps even vary, speaking to Evelyn’s smaller size to the older and taller Cynthia. When they speak, there’s an almost disembodied character to their voices, as if the dialogue has been dubbed into English. One could go on and on about the sound in this movie, which gradually grows from scandalously suggestive (behind a closed bathroom door it won’t take much imagination to figure out what one of Evelyn’s punishments entails) to surrealistically evocative (in several montage sequences the dissonant sound of insects, from chirps to fluttering wings evoke the internal state of things).

One could also go on at length about the rich use of lighting and shadow or the dynamic camera work, which often highlights reflections and double images, not to mention the atmospheric set design and the loaded mise-en-scène within those refracted images, as duality and role-reversal abounds. It’s also important to note that none of this could be pulled off without the sincere, heartfelt chemistry between the two leads. The Duke of Burgundy is such a rich film that upon returning to the opening scene after the first watch, I could not help but notice the witty foreshadowing of the babbling brook and all the water Cynthia gulps down as the movie unfolds.

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Though it all might sound a bit salacious or gratuitous, the film never goes there. Strickland keeps much of it suggestive, and that’s where the sex appeal lies. I think there was only one nipple shot in the entirety of the film, and when Cynthia sits on a chair with her legs open, all you can see is darkness. It’s not about keeping it classy, though. Strickland seems more interested in evoking mystery. Who knows? Maybe the women in this world do not even have genitalia. There’s always a sense that something is missing. During a languid pan of the audience at one of Cynthia’s lectures, the camera reveals not only are there no men in the audience, but there are also some mannequins of women sitting in the audience. It’s a stylistic flourish that calls attention to something being amiss in a world of only women.

The film soon reveals that S&M seems to be the de rigueur choice for intimacy between women who have paired off in the world of this movie. At least in the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, it is also revealed that their relationship is so mannered that it is the master Cynthia who is actually obliging herself to the commands of her servant Evelyn, who leaves notecards with instructions of what Cynthia should tell her as her punishment looms. Evelyn’s desperation to be punished also makes it feel as though the passion between this couple might falter at any moment despite such declarations as Evelyn whispering to herself, “Cynthia, as long as I am yours I remain alive.”

As the film lumbers along to even more twists, scenarios are repeated between the couple that reveal the terrible thread they have hung their relationship on. The idea that the spice of sadomasochistic sex might heighten romance is profoundly questioned in this film lush with atmosphere and a disturbingly probing insight into relationships. I highly doubt 50 Shades of Grey will dare to go as far as The Duke of Burgundy.

Hans Morgenstern

The Duke of Burgundy runs 105 minutes and is not rated (this film features all sorts of advanced sexuality between women except for the kind you might expect). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, Feb. 13. It will later expand to the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 12. It could be playing in your area if it isn’t already on its way. It’s also available on VOD, but we always encourage the viewer to give in to the controlling mercy of the dark theater. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

Once you’ve seen the movie, you may want to return to the soundtrack. Stream it here for the time being, or you might want to just go ahead an pre-order the vinyl version here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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