Mini-Review: 9.79*

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

9.79*

ESPN’s 30 for 30 is back, and I’m glad. More than ever it seems like the landscape of sports fandom and coverage is more reactionary and instantaneous. We’ve almost devolved to the point where we’re immune to revisionism because there is less and less focus on the past, history, and progression of certain sports. Not to sound overly dire or pessimistic, but sometimes perception is reality. However, what the ESPN Films documentary series does is goes back and finds milestones, overlooked stories; and traces the trajectory of the events, themes, and trends involved.

Therefore, 9.79* about Ben Johnson’s disqualification after winning gold with a record-shattering time in 1988 Seoul Olympics starts by tracking each of the finalists (some more than others) following the events that lead to that fateful day and the fall out since. It’s not a story told in precise chronology, there are jumps, and clearly new interview footage will reflect the past, but it tracks the phenomenon of doping rather well, exposes the testing issues of the time, and leaves a lot of great tidbits dangling for your interpretation. One of the more astounding anecdotes is one that gets hinted at early then dropped like a hot potato until very late in the film. In a way, it makes the capping of the story even more potent. There are quite a few players in the game here. My interpretation is that it’s all a moral quagmire when in this era doping was rampant, harder to prove, and everyone was seemingly guilty of something. It makes the situation fascinating almost like a “sports noir” tale. No one’s angel, but you fall on one side of the issue or another, and maybe even side with one camp or another on certain claims.

Not only is it an event that I wanted to be more informed about (and now I am) but Daniel Gordon does great work reconstructing the narrative from an impartial place and bringing forth all the opinions and information known and presenting it in a compelling and dramatic way.

9/10

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Mini-Review: The Diplomat

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

The Diplomat

As I was a young when the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, documentaries like this that take a more focused look at things are really beneficial. For example, I was under the impression that it was just because I was young that it felt like the wall’s coming down was fairly sudden; as it turns out, it was, compared to other similarly seismic sociopolitical touchstones. However, that’s a detail about a larger event. What this film does is take the diplomatic, athletic lightning-rod that was Witt and examines East Germany, both their sports regimen (pro and con) and the Stasi (only cons) through that guise and billows out from there to close relations and the everyman – and it has great and significant interview subjects on the matter. However, it’s also about Witt, some of conflicting feelings about the time, about her relationship with her coach; and how her coaches struggle molded her path to an extent. It’s a film that made me want to delve into that period, into other films about East and West Germany, made me want to see Carmen on Ice; in short, I wanted more and lots of it, and there’s hardly a higher compliment one can pay a film.

10/10

Mini-Review: Pat XO

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Pat XO

Here’s another Nine for IX title that takes an unexpected avenue. Not only was I unaware for Pat Summitt’s early career, both in being Head coach at such a young age and also her close-calls, but it tells the story mostly through her and her son, Tyler Summitt (recent University of Tennessee graduate), reminiscing and other colleagues, former players, etc. The film reflexively talks about how it likely helped her remember things she wouldn’t have otherwise (Summitt recently retired due to early onset dementia). Therefore, aside from being a great piece on her life and career it also becomes a living document for her and her family and all those she coached and helped along the way. The film could end up being far too loose with such a format but it crafts itself into a very neat and highly effective narrative.

9/10

Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge – Interviews: Liv Ullmann

Introduction

This post is part of the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. This particular title pertains to the blogathon by being a collection of interviews that serve as a biographical account of sorts as they are collected over a number of years, there are some personal questions, and Ullmann is speaks at various times of her life with evolving perspectives.

Interviews: Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann (2006, University of Mississippi Press)

I’ve written about Liv Ullmann here before. Naturally, having written about the films of Ingmar Bergman in the form of a list, and most recently a specific scene she was in that Bergman directed. I also posted a piece called Liv Ullmann: Between Stage and Screen here. This was something I wrote as a reaction to a speaking engagement she had in 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was held in conjunction with her directing a show there and touched on her career as an actress in both media. Following the engagement I got this book, as I have a tendency to do; it ended up in a pile of books for a while. A similar practice applies to movies as well. I’m trying to use Goodreads and Letterboxd to deal with both issues.

But I digress…

I’ve not made a habit of reading interviews exhaustively. However, it’s fascinating in this case because they are legitimate interviews that take a number of projects and topics into considerations and not as much of the junket/talk show nature is in there. Having them span years you can see certain progression, changes in perspective and priorities, and different career phases. The time when her career began, and the type of films she was usually involved in, I’m sure contributed to the meatiness of these interviews. Plus, she doesn’t give the short shrift to any answers.

The 1970s: The Bergman Years

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

If we’re being literal Ullmann’s “Bergman Years” began in 1966 with the release of Persona. However, these interviews begin in 1972. It was a different time and cinematic era, therefore, she only came over to the US and started doing interviews around the release of The Emigrants (Dir. Jan Troell), which garnered her a Golden Globe Award and her first Academy Award nomination.

Therefore, many of these interviews concern films like Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Troell’s epics The Emigrants and The New Land; Face to Face, Autumn Sonata; and her brief, mostly unsuccessful, in box office terms, but fun forays into Hollywood and the Broadway stage.

One can trace the growth of Ullmann as a person and her mastery over he instrument through these years. Always emotionally attuned she gives tremendous insights into her philosophy on life, art, the place of her craft, and the world in general.

The 1980s: UNICEF Ambassadorship and Broadening Horizons

Liv Ullman (U.N.)

When asked to visit refugee camps, and eventually asked to be a UNICEF ambassador; Liv Ullmann admits to a personal epiphany. In a prescient way she talks of the power of the media, and the positive change celebrities can affect by using the media. This is even more true today. She fascinatingly comes to terms with her acting as a profession, something she does for income, but sees this ambassadorship as her new, truer calling.

The 1990s: Sitting in the Director’s Chair

Liv Ullmann

Whether in Hollywood or abroad, the difficulty female actors face landing roles for the same time window of time as their male counterparts is a reality many have to deal with in an inarguably sexist industry. However, Ullmann seems to have found a new direction that personally satisfied her and coincided fortuitously with her entering an age range where actresses struggle to even see scripts much less good ones. Her transition to directing is well-documented, and openly explored.

Her first two films were quite personal yet also included departures. Ullmann is typically seen as a modern woman, emotionally open, intelligent and confidently independent found period pieces to tell her first tales. The first film Sofie is a story of a 19th century Jewish family (Ullmann herself is Christian but has always had Jewish friends and affection for the culture) who pressure their daughter to marry the man of their choosing. Her second feature is a cinematic adaptation of a classic Norwegian saga Kristin Lavransdatter. Also, clearly a temporal departure.

The 2000s: Bringing Bergman Back to the Silver Screen

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

Even with only a handful of screen directing credits Ullmann herself has already seen phases. First, were her personally befitting period-pieces, and then after Bergman’s initial retirement from film (one he really only broke for Saraband, which Ullmann participated in) she tackled two Bergman adaptations Private Confessions, as a lengthy TV project and edited feature project based on a novel Bergman wrote, and Faithless, an original Bergman screenplay she piloted solo on his insistence.

Conclusion: All the World’s a Stage

Liv Ullmann (Chicago Film Festival)

Whether it’s been as a legendary screen luminary and muse, activist and force for change, or emerging director; Liv Ullmann has never seemed to back down from a challenge starting from the moment she started Persona not 100% sure what she was getting into and how she was going to pull it off. These interviews cut-off about a decade ago and it shows.

In researching this piece I learned that Ullmann has made her debut directing in the English language with her own adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie starring Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain. This doesn’t quite surprise me that much as I read some of her thoughts on Strindberg, and her saying she does not see language as an obstacle to directing.

Miss Julie (2014, Columbia TriStar)

Also, considering that Bergman was her closest collaborator who himself had a fascinating theatrical mash-up of Ibsen, Stringberg, and himself it’s not as surprising.

All the works I touched upon hardly scratch the surface as there is much to find in this book for fans. She talks of her evolving relationship with Ingmar personally and professionally, marriage in general, her relationship with her daughter, aging, fame, social issues, gender inequality, her theatrical works, coming to Hollywood as a newbie, interesting insights in to the film industry and specific films in general; and more.

Sure, as with any interview collection that at times features a few talks from the same year there will be some redundancies, certain titles will come up more than other ones, certain information will be redundant or slightly contradictory; but with minimal editorializing, and many Q & A transcriptions it really is speaking for herself and allowing us a window into her heart, mind, soul, and art. Fans and film enthusiasts should be willing to take a glimpse.

Mini-Review: Branded

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Branded

Out of the recent Nine for IX series this is the one film that takes on a rather broad subject: marketing female athletes. It takes a chronological look from the early days of the first athletes to sign endorsement deals in the still very sexist world of the ’70s through to today. While many of these titles excel in part due to their truncated nature (50+ minute stories formatted for an hour-long TV slot) this one could’ve dealt with more time. I would’ve welcomed the overlap of discussing Sheryl Swoopes, or delving into the Martina Navratilova/Tracey Austin rivalry more.

The insight that women athletes much choose between a vixen image or wholesome All-American girl to land deals is appreciated if rather obvious. It’s also one of the installments where one of the more memorable moments is an interview not acquired. There is a clip of Anna Kournikova walking out of an interview angered, but no new footage of her looking back on her career. That would’ve been great to put a perspective on the idea of conscious marketing decisions women make simply because her popularity at one point was so great.

That ground is well-covered by Gabrielle Reece and Lolo Jones, especially the former who does well to mention that there is a three-year window when American Olympic athletes can’t get sponsors looking their way. All in all, it’s another very solid installment of the series even if it did leave me wanting more a bit more.

8/10

Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: What is Cinema? Vol. 1 by André Bazin

Introduction

This post is part of the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. This particular title pertains to the blogathon by being a work of film criticism that discusses some classic films and then-new approaches to adaptation of stage plays and novels and other developments in the early history of film.

What is Cinema? Vol. 1

What is Cinema? Vol. 1 (All Rights Reserve)

With the recent shutdown of The Dissolve, one of the most celebrated and well-respected film criticism sites in the past two years; a site created in part as a response to the closing of Cinematical; it’s not unusual that the discussion of “Is film criticism dead?” firing back up. When you pair that with the fact that I recently took to reading What is Cinema? Vol. 1 by André Bazin, and I started to give this some serious thought; seeing as how Bazin’s essay collection encompasses five volumes and only two of them exist with modern English translation. Usually, I leapfrog from one film thinker to another based on having read one and heard them talk of another. However, the last two names I came across I were met with similar lack-of-translation issues. René Tabard being the last one prior to Bazin. Tabard practically invented film history, and jumped to mind again after he was featured in Hugo.

I think this collection from Bazin proves there is still a relevance if we are willing to engage and seek out such writing, as will be detailed to follow. So “Who is André Bazin?” you may be asking. André Bazin was a film critic and theorist who founded one of the most influential film publications of all time, Cahiers du Cinema. It was Cahiers where the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, among others, got their start. It was Truffaut’s references and admiration that lead me to him.

The contents of the book are as follows:

Ontology of the Photographic Image
The Myth of Total Cinema
The Evolution of the Language of Cinema
The Virtues and Limitations of Montage
In Defense of Mixed Cinema
Theater and Cinema: Part one and Two
Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson
Charlie Chaplin
Cinema and Exploration
Painting and Cinema

The title seems simplistic but bear in mind that when Bazin was working cinema was about 60 years old. Synchronized sound much younger still and many things were being addressed for the first times on film. Furthermore, to establish a foundation of what the study of an artform is defining and delineating it is a necessity. Furthermore, when aesthetic precepts and styles change, or are challenged, chronicling the process and debating the pros and cons of said approaches has much validity. In trying to define the then-youngest artform it mattered to compare and contrast it to those arts that came first.

Bazin breaks down many things specifically: the frame itself, the incorporation of multiple disciplines, film grammar, editing with a different approach that Eisenstein had, as well as tackling specific performers (encapsulating Chaplin’s genius) discussing specific titles and subgenres. Further some of these essays have slight overlap which make the order make sense, and give you the sense of an ongoing dialogue that developed over time.

Those essays are followed by notes inserted by the translated for further contextualization. These are vital. For while Bazin was not shy about writing lengthy, at times multiple page, footnotes to make elliptical tangential points there are times where there is no clarification that you wish were there. On a few occasions they occur in the final line of the essay and the point is obfuscated if not lost entirely.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Criterion)

I, as a reader, am not shy about doing searches or seeking definitions extemporaneously. However, some of them only made sense with the notes; hence their vitality. I usually consider the introduction optional but Jean Renoir sets the stage very well and gets you in the mood and proper frame of mind to start this book so I’d recommend it though it’s not as vital as the notes.

Online I found some reader reviews that cited excessive liberties in editing, re-arranging essays. However, those changes are cited in the back and it does not say if it’s unique to the English translation. As for the arguments I saw about reading the original French text, clearly if you have a level of fluency in the original language of the text that’s alway preferable, but a translation is better than not ever having read a text at all. I have experimented with reading in French but cannot claim proficiency, and translation is imprecise, which is why new translations happen, and I have read multiple versions of a work when interested enough. It’s just always something to keep in mind.

Regardless of the transcriptive liberties either taken or not, I found the ideas communicated clearly, even through their complexities, and the compact, polysyllabic style Bazin appeared to have is evident without being so dense it reads as if its intended for academics only. It’s certainly challenging but a foundation in film makes it accessible. It’d have been further illuminating if I had the level of exposure to French literature and theatre he did, the other works of art, but even without the specific contextual framework what he’s saying is clear. Furthermore, reading always begets reading so it’s good to have some ideas of what to look for.

André Bazin

I wouldn’t say its introductory level stuff, nor does it supplant film history supplements, but Bazin’s work is a foundation that is still relevant for film is in a constant state of evolution. Therefore, to question what makes a work cinematic, and what the form entails, is critical food for thought for all those who love the seventh art.

Review: Michael

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Michael (2011)

I generally remain vague about plot descriptions in my reviews. Philosophically I believe that if you happened upon my review you know enough about the film and you’re just looking for some further information. With a film such as Michael one does need to be forewarned: while not sensationalistic or exploitative this film does chronicle about five months in the life of a pedophile. You will be disturbed and affected by it: I guarantee it. What is most effective is that the film does so almost exclusively through implication.

The film edit of the film is tremendous and much of the dialogue on reflection implies so much more than is said. One example of how the film communicates horrible consequences while doing little is a simple visual: Michael and Wolfgang, the child he has captive, are setting up a bunk bed in his room. That scene has made its point and hits you in the gut.

What makes the film most harrowing is the humanistic portrait painted of Michael. With an act as awful as child abuse, whether of a physical or sexual nature, some films overplay their hands. Meaning they feel the need to make the antagonist over-the-top and borderline cartoony as if to re-emphasize the inherent villainy and cruelty of their actions. Yet more often than not that kind of writing takes a viewer out of the moment. This film takes things as mundane as decorating a Christmas tree, talking to a neighbor, or a haircut and tinges them with malignancy and implications that belie the simplicity of the line spoken or the action taken.

You also have in this film two performances that make this film work and they are those of Michael Fuith, who used his awkwardness to endearing effect in Rammbock, but here is intimidating, frightening, awkward, and charming as needed. Then there’s also David Rauchenberger, who while not in the film a tremendous lot, has the unenviable task of playing the victim who as times dour, at times detached, at times a child and also rebellious.

The craftsmanship of the film is what truly makes it work. There’s one scene that really doesn’t jibe with the restraint, and the ending is one I stewed on but decided it is earned, as a whole other film would start had it continued.

8/10

Review: Reckless

Reckless is the inverse of what we normally see as it is a foreign language remake of an English language (British) film, called The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Seeing as how comparative analysis is not something slipped into lightly here, I can only state in the interest of full disclosure that I never did get to see the original. However, a review is self-contained and it is not incumbent on a film to justify its existence in relation to a prior rendition of the same tale. It only matters if it justifies its existence on its own merits. Just recently I happened to see a remake and only became aware of it after the fact.

Reckless is the first title from Artsploitation Films that I had the pleasure to see. Like many independent distributors this company has a specific an precise credo that pulls into focus the kind of film niche they seek to fill. Theirs is one I readily identify with with:

Not strictly a genre label, ARTSPLOITATION FILMS looks for intriguing, unsettling, unpredictable and provocative films from around the world. Artsploitation’s focus knows no boundaries and we hope you’ll enjoy our unconventional cinematic tastes.  Artsplotation: International films with an edge.

That ethos is readily apparent if one synopsizes the film; it tells the tale of Victor (Tygo Gernandt) and Rico (Marwan Kenzari) who met in prison believe they have picked a perfect target for their kidnapping-for-ransom plot, Laura (Sarah Chronis), but secrets about the plan and the identity of the girl could unravel their plot in unexpected ways.

Reckless has a rather deceptive outward appearance. The bare facts belie the intricate web of interpersonal relationships that are motivating the plot. For as unsettling a scenario as it is it is a film that is not impelled by shock value or cheap sensationalism, but rather how these extremes in setting, situation, and circumstance put a strain on both the relationship between the kidnappers and on how they relate to their captive.

Sure there are many stories that breed discomfort and fright and the envelope does get pushed to a degree but never to the detriment of narrative progression. The film is tightly edited, artfully styled, and precisely acted ; and so organically such that the overtures at elevating more base story elements doesn’t feel disjointed.

The film is one rife with twists each of which further elevates the stakes, intensity and suspense of the proceedings. None of them seem out of place and things resolve themselves naturally and correctly based on the momentum accumulated leading up to the climax. It’s not a case where the ending needs to be forced to satisfy audience expectations, but really feels like the only one that is just.

9/10

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Had I not read that Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) directed this film I would’ve figured it out at some point and that’s due to the film’s pace and construction. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not an easy story to convey on the screen. It’s the type of film that has to put forth a very difficultly-attained and nearly intangible fascination that is usually the sole purview of spy capers and whodunits wherein you must be simultaneously enthralled by the intrigue of the narrative and rapt by the film; such that you can keep pace with it, on a mental level. I specify that pace because the temporal pace of the film is rather interesting. In a film such as this it’s information that’s flying at you tinged with foreboding, and the sense of a gyre closing, such that the story cannot speed along at a brisk 90 minutes but must unfurl at a more leisurely 120 yet also still have enough incidents within it to hold that bifurcated attention its worked to create. The film manages that easily and keeps the pace rather steady and the facts quick in coming. Even when in flashback sequences, which there are many, though the cuts may be quick the information does not overwhelm. That is not to say that a second viewing wouldn’t make the film more enjoyable or that nothing will be missed, I certainly can’t guarantee that as the film does play things close to the vest often but it does easily connect a lot of seemingly disparate incidents such that a vast majority of facts, and how the conclusion that occurs is reached, becomes clear. In the end, whatever vagueness the film may have is not something one can find in anyway distasteful as it recalls to me Bergman’s quote:

I don’t want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically… I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.

I have always taken that to mean that he wanted people to be moved one way or another by his work and if you’re actively trying to piece this film together and succeeding or failing it won’t bore you to the point of indifference I feel and I think it’s riveting.

9/10