Thursday, July 28, 2016

Third Coast Review: New DVD Reviews

Third Coast Review published my reviews of new DVDs being released by Kino Lorber; Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man (2015), State of Control (2016) and Foodies (2014)


Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Big Picture: Orchestra Rehearsal Review

The on-line film magazine, The Big Picture, published my review of Federico Fellini's "Orchestra Rehersal" (1978), as part of their Brilliant Failures section.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Third Coast Review: 6th Annual French Film Festival

Third Coast Review published my article on the 6th annual French Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as well as other French films playing through the city.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Film Review: Orchestra Rehearsal

"Orchestra Rehearsal"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Life is a song in Federico Fellini's "Orchestra Rehearsal" (1979).

Growing up the son of a musician it wasn't unusual for me to travel with my father when he performed with various orchestras. I would sit back stage and watch the musicians as they rehearsed and as everyone scrambled on the big day of the performance.

Musicians, in particular classically trained musicians, are funny creatures. There are a lot of egos in an orchestra. Everyone feels they are an extremely talented musician. Their talent is not being properly acknowledged. They are artists. When you sit down and observe musicians you will notice they are rather pretentious, especially those in an orchestra.

But, can an orchestra be used as a metaphor for life? The legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini seems to think so. "Orchestra Rehearsal", which runs approximately 70 minutes, was originally intended as a made-for-television movie. It comes to us at a time when the great Fellini was seen to have lost his talent. His best films were behind him; "La Strada" (1954), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963).

"Orchestra Rehearsal" usually gets lost in the shuffle and is ignored by the general public. "Orchestra Rehearsal" is not a bad movie but it is a movie which lacks a definitive point-of-view. It is not difficult to see Fellini and "Orchestra Rehearsal" are making a social commentary and are using the orchestra as a metaphor but to what end? What is Fellini ultimately telling us?

The movie begins as musicians slowly enter a church, which dates back to the 13th century, where they will begin their rehearsal. A television crew would like to make a documentary on the orchestra. Immediately some of the musicians are upset. Union rules they cry out! They are not being compensated for the documentary. Why should any of them participate?

Soon though many of the musicians volunteer to be interviewed. Each musician speaks passionately (or pretentiously) about their instrument and why it is so vital to the rest of the orchestra. Is that not how it is in real life? Each person has a role, a function in society and to help us get through the day we pretend what we are doing is important. Some foolishly take pride in their job. They defend the company they work for as if their employer would ever do such a thing for them (let alone remember their name). Their job, their function, provides a great service.

As each musician speaks we suddenly notice a conflict between the musicians (society) and the conductor (the leader). The conductor likes to see their role as the person in charge but has limitations put on him. In the case of "Orchestra Rehearsal" much of that limitation is due to union rules. One musician protest when asked to play a few bars as he notes, he has already played the bars twice. A third time would be in violation of union rules, the entire section of the orchestra must play together.

The movie also has fun with union delegates negotiating over the phone. We can never hear the person on the other end but we hear the delegate say things like, "even if you need one clarinetist, I'm sending four. And you must accept it." At one point the delegate even says he is sending someone over who doesn't do anything but the person must accept it. Union rules!

The question becomes, why are we union bashing? What is the point? What is the alternative? If unions are bad, what is the better solution? For this Fellini and "Orchestra Rehearsal" have nothing to say. The movie hits on politics, unions, society, class warfare. We can even interpret the orchestra as a metaphor for a movie set. Each person on a movie set assigned a task, doing their job, with a director (conductor) trying to bring everything together. The problem is, when you try to make a movie comment on everything in the end it says nothing.

Without much rhyme or reason the musicians revolt against the conductor. They will not continue to make music for others. The music is theirs. They will no longer be exploited. Instead of a conductor the musicians will use a metronome. The conductor is replaceable. An unnecessary figure.

Is the lack of a point-of-view in "Orchestra Rehearsal" the message? We live in a society where people are revolting and protesting and they don't know why? Is the message we live in a world which is in a contest battle between dictatorship and freedom? Do the musicians represent different countries? Different personalities in society? Does the orchestra represent Europe? Perhaps the European Union. The answer is probably yes to all of the above but "Orchestra Rehearsal" feels too subtle to make any major statement.

Fellini was known for making movies which presented characters as caricatures of society. "Orchestra Rehearsal" could have used more comical exaggeration. It would have helped satirize the issues it presents. It should have also limit its focus.

As it stand now "Orchestra Rehearsal" doesn't have any real characters. The movie doesn't give the musicians any personality truly distinguishing one from another. Everyone say their lines and then disappear from the rest of the movie. There is no coherent plot to follow. Perhaps the movie relies too heavily on its metaphor that it willing to sacrifice plot and characters.

I have never been convinced an orchestra is a good metaphor for society. There have been other movies since "Orchestra Rehearsal" that have tried to use music and the orchestra as a representation of society and Europe specifically. The Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo tried it in "Meeting Venus" (1991) as well as the brilliant Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda with "The Conductor" (1980). Both movies I believe fared a little better than Fellini's film precisely because they didn't take on as much as "Orchestra Rehearsal".

Fellini was one of the grand masters of cinema. His films should be watched repeatedly. But, "Orchestra Rehearsal" is a mid-level movie, not the work of a master storyteller. It is however better than other movies Fellini was releasing at the end of his career.

If you chose to see "Orchestra Rehearsal" only do so after you have seen his early classics from the 1950s and 60s.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Big Picture - Sweet and Lowdown Review

The on-line film magazine, The Big Picture, has published my review of Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999) as part of their Lost Classic collection.

Here is a link to the review.

Film Reviews: Toyen & Stardust Stricken

* 1\2 (out of ****)

Artist responding to the world around them through their art. That is the common theme found in both of these DVDs released earlier this year by Facets; "Toyen" (2005) and "Stardust Stricken" (1996).

"Toyen", directed by the one of the "fathers" of Czech cinema, Jan Nemec ("A Report on the Party and the Guest" (1966) and "Diamonds of the Night" (1964), is an experimental "documentary" on surrealist painter Marie Cerminova, better known as Toyen.

Born in 1902 Prague, Toyen became known for her erotic paintings and sketches. Fearing capture of the Nazis during World War II she lived underground, sheltering a Jewish painter. After the war the two eventually left Czechoslovakia for Paris before a Communist takeover in 1948. She remained in Paris, where she died in 1980.

To call "Toyen" a documentary may be somewhat misleading. "Toyen" would be better described as an experimental video diary. It lacks a traditional linear narrative going over Toyen's life from birth until her death. That is what ultimately hurts "Toyen" more than anything. There is no sense of Toyen's life provided to the audience. If you are not Czech you may not know who Toyen was. In fact, I can't even be certain if you are Czech you would know who Toyen was because filmmaker Jan Nemec never explains the impact Toyen's paintings and sketches had on society. Is Toyen remembered today? Was she an influential figure in the surrealist movement of the 1920s & 30s? "Toyen" doesn't tell us.

Primarily what is shown on-screen are re-creations of Toyen's life with actress Zuzana Stivinova playing the role of Toyen as a narration is heard (presumably by Mr. Nemec) reading Toyen's diary. Many times the images do not match the narration. "Toyen" also shows us the real sketches and paintings of Toyen as the narration is heard. This may have had more of an impact on the viewer if we knew what the paintings were meant to represent. What exactly was happening in Prague during the time of these paintings and sketches?

Admittedly I am not familiar with the life and work of Toyen but was it not the responsibility of Mr. Nemec to supply the audience with a sense of this artist's work? Clearly Mr. Nemec wanted to tell this story. There was passion on his part. Does he truly feel this is the best representation of Toyen's life? In the end it feels as if "Toyen" was made for people who already knew the work of Toyen, are familiar with Czech history, are interested in avant-garde cinema and the surrealist movement. Anyone that doesn't fit into these groups is not welcomed.

"Stardust Stricken"
 ** (out of ****)

"Stardust Stricken" is a documentary about the life of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Mr. Makhmalbaf has directed more than 20 films. His best known films to American audiences may be "The Cyclist" (1989), "Kandahar" (2001) and his most recent film, "The President" (2016). He also acted in fellow Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami's (who sadly passed away recently) "Close-Up" (1991).

Unlike the case with "Toyen" the subject matter for this documentary is still alive and thus able to be interviewed yet oddly enough, like "Toyen", the audience still lacks a true understanding of who this artist is. The majority of "Stardust Stricken" has Mr. Makhmalbaf sitting in front of a camera talking about his life as scenes from his movies are cut in to show the relationship between his life and art and how his life has made it into his films.

The biggest problem with this technique is lets assume you do not know who Mr. Makhmalbaf is and you happened to watch "Stardust Stricken", instead of listening to this man talk about himself would it not have been more insightful if Iranian movie critics were also interviewed discussing Mr. Makhmalbaf's films and the impact they had on (or lack of) society? How about including actors that had worked with the director discussing their reaction to reading his scripts or discussing his directing technique. How about other filmmakers, Iranian and those from other countries, discussing their reaction to his films. Would that not help put Mr. Makhmalbaf and his films into a better perspective? It is one thing to hear someone talk about themself and how they view their work or even themself as a person, but it is another to hear the opinion of others in connection to it.

As with "Toyen" some audiences may not know who Mohsen Makhmalbaf is, of course someone will say, why are they watching this in the first place if they don't know who he is. If that is true, are fans of Mr. Makhmalbaf also going to deny this documentary would have been better served by including more voices discussing the work and maybe influence of Mr. Makhmalbaf's films?

There may have been legitimate reasons people were not included in this documentary. Budgetary reasons for example or because the subject matter is controversial. The government has banned certain films directed by Mr. Makhmalbaf. Perhaps filmmakers and actors feared retribution from the government if they participated. But the job of a critic is to look at the final product and express their opinion on the quality of a movie. How effectively does it get its point across?

"Stardust Stricken" has value in that the viewer is able to hear from the director as he discusses his life. Fans may find that very interesting. But "Stardust Stricken", which was directed by Houshang Golmakani, doesn't feel "complete". It doesn't demonstrate to Western audiences what makes Mr. Makhmalbaf stand out among other Iranian filmmakers.

Audiences should watch the films of Mr. Makhmalbaf and devoted fans will want to see "Stardust Stricken" but you may gain more insight into Mr. Makhmalbaf by simply watching his movies.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Michel Gondry Interview

Third Coast Review published my interview with filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) about his new movie Microbe & Gasoline.

Here's the link -

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Third Coast Review: Napoli, Napoli, Napoli Blu-Ray Review

Third Coast Review has published my review of Abel Ferrara's docudrama "Napoli, Napoli, Napoli" (2009). It will be available on Blu-ray July 12th for the first time in the U.S.

Here is the link -


Film Review: Bourek

** (out of ****)

Making its Chicago premier over the weekend, Vladan Nikolic's Greek / American film "Bourek" (2016) gets its name from a desert yet there is nothing sweet about the movie.

The world is in chaos. Stock markets are crashing, there is a heightened threat of terrorism, wars in the middle east, climate change and television pastors predicting the end of the world is at hand. What is wealthy businessman W.C. (William Leroy) to do? Heeding the advice of his pastor (Paul Sevigny) W.C. takes his wife, Lilly (Christina Aloupi) to the Greek island of Khronos, as the pastor predicts the island will be the only safe haven once the world ends.

"Bourek" wants to be a timely socially, politically, economically aware movie hitting on the issues in the headlines today. Ultimately the movie makes no firm statement about anything. It brings up the current issues but what is "Bourek" and its writer / director Mr. Nikolic's telling us? The movie is referred to as a social satire but what is it really satirizing? The lack of viewpoint is what hurts "Bourek" most of all. The third rate actors don't help either. The movie feels like nothing more than a really good amateur film. "Really good" meaning the camera is steady, the actors are in focus and appear to have remembered all of their lines and the audio is good.

The normally deserted island soon becomes a melting pot as tourist of different nationalities all end up on the island. Besides W.C. and Lilly there are two Serbian brothers (Branislav Trifunovic and Sergej Trifunovic) who have come to the island mistakenly believing it will be a good place to pick up women. There is performance artist Fujiko (Mari Yamamoto) who has come to be close to nature, as Khronos is the least visited of all the Greek islands. And there is a Lebanese refugee  (Al Nazemian) and a man (Jason Grechanik) who has lost his memory, after being hit on the head. They are all staying at a hotel run by Eleni (Katerina Misichroni) who is in debt due to the lack of business.

Is this supposed to be a commentary on our global economy? Does each character represent a different social standing? Are these characters a metaphor for the European Union and the debt crisis in Greece? Maybe. Maybe not.

The movie also does such a poor job of creating fully realized characters for the audience to believe in.  The audience can't accept anything on-screen. Even if this was a satire and the characters were not meant to be real characters but rather exaggerations of different factions in society the movie doesn't do that either. Nearly nothing is heightened to make a strong social commentary.

If there is one bright spot to the movie it would be Ms. Misichroni. The character is not original; young woman trying to hold on the the family business after her parents have died, but Ms. Misichroni provides us with the only human character. Unfortunately a romantic sub-plot written for the character doesn't work as yet again, it is not developed. The audience not does buy into the romance and attraction between the two characters.

A movie such as "Bourek" could have been made into a good movie. It is timely. There is material there to satirize or even make a dramatic film on but director Vladan Nikolic (whom according to IMDb is an associate professor of film and new media) doesn't do anything with it. I can't even decipher the symbolic meaning (if there is one) of the movie's title.

"Bourek" is a well-meaning movie but outside of one good performance everything about the movie is amateurish or average at best. Too bad.