Saturday, May 30, 2020

Don Millar's BOTERO: Info-filled hagiography about a divisive-though-popular artist

Viewing the 2018 bio-doc -- just now getting a virtual theatrical release here in the USA -- about artist Fernando Botero proved a pretty bizarre experience.

While TrustMovies has watched and enjoyed bio-docs about all kind of artists, from those whose work he actively dislikes (Mark Kostabi) to those whose work he loves (Ursula von Rydingsvard), this may be the first time he's seen a bio-doc about someone whose work he doesn't care much about, one way or the other.

I've long imagined that Botero had made his mark on the art world by absolutely nailing, in his own adorable-if-repetitive manner, the increasing trend in our western world toward obesity. But, no -- the director of this film, Don Millar (shown at left), begins his movie with the following quote: "You can't go creating something that's a work of genius without first being controversial." 

That controversy, as we haltingly learn during the course of the film, has to do with how the critical establishment tends to view his art. Which is not, shall we say, in high esteem. (The single naysaying critic we're allowed to hear from in this documentary refers to Botero's work as the Pillsbury Doughboy of art.)

Still, Botero (shown above, as a younger man), according to the film, is the artist with the most museum exhibitions in the world, has had the most books published about his art, and is the most popular living artist in the world. Which is rather like saying that, critically speaking, the Star Wars franchise ought to have won every Oscar in every category over the past few decades.

For fans of Botero, and they are legion, the movie provides a good look at a lot of his output, along with some interesting information in terms of his and his family's history in his native country of Colombia and how he began as a newspaper artist (that's he, above, in more recent times) and then traveled to Spain, the USA, and other European countries. We hear most often from his adult daughter (shown below) and son about his life and work, and we view that daughter and some workmen opening a long-sealed vault where more of the artist's work -- unseen for years -- is now unveiled.

Via archival footage, we learn about the artist and of the automobile accident in which he lost his youngest child. In terms of crtical assessment (other than that Pillsbury reference), we hear mostly from family, friends and fans, some of which are indeed part of the art establishment, and who tell us of the artist's keen sense of humor that is included in much of his work, along with his consistently going back to the great masters -- from Piero della Francesco to da Vinci to Rubens -- and retooling their work in his own special style. We also learn how he moved from painting into sculpture.

Most interesting to me was seeing and hearing how various current events -- from the drug cartels and violence in his home country to the USA's prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib -- influenced his art. It is encouraging to see something other than his sunny colors and charmingly rotund figures for a change. (It does seem odd, though, that he can despise the torture in Iraq but not seem to mind that accorded to the bulls in the "art" of bullfighting.)

The film ends with a lovely gathering of Botero's extended family, just preceded by references to his many contributions to museums -- of his own work and that of other artists -- as well as a look at his famous sculpture of The Dove, which was deliberately bombed, and which he decided to leave on display with its damage intact, while placing a new Dove sculpture right next to it.

Despite the barely camouflaged hagiography on near-constant display, the film does offers a lot of information about Botero. But for me, the artist's non-stop, in-your-face, fat, flat stylization remains a deal-breaker. The unintentionally funniest moment in the film comes as one of his fans explains that his work is so much more than merely "a recognizable style. After all, Hello Kitty has a recognizable style." Exactly.

From Corinth Films and running 83 minutes, the documentary opened in virtual theatrical release earlier this month. Click here to view a list of virtual playdates, cities and theaters.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Finally, one hellava artist worth knowing and viewing -- Daniel Traub's URSULA VON RYDINGSVARD: Into Her Own

After watching quite a few documentaries over the years about visual artists of some note, and finding them ranging -- to my taste, at least -- anywhere from so-so to very good, what a knockout it is to encounter URSULA VON RYDINGSVARD: Into Her Own. This merely 57-minute (not one of those wasted) movie, directed by American filmmaker Daniel Traub, introduces an artist new to me, the work of whom opened my eyes (and mind and maybe even soul) in ways I did not expect.

Mr. Traub (shown at left, who both directed and shot the movie) does a fine job of combining Ms von Rydingsvard's family history with her art -- regarding its theme(s), provenance and psychology.

It is the artist herself (below, center) who narrates a good portion of the documentary, recalling her early life, her hugely abusive father and more kindly mother, and the positive ways in which art impacted her and how, now, she continues to pay this back in kind.

The movie begins with the sound of what could be the finale of Ibsen's A Doll's House; then we're told that "touch" is the hallmark of this artist's unsettlingly beautiful work (von Rydingsvard herself tells us that she dislikes the word "beautiful").

Still, her sculptures in wood, copper and bronze seem to TrustMovies to be among the most magnificent, immense and utterly organic he has ever seen. One interviewee here -- these include friends, family, artist, critics and gallery owners -- calls her work "monumental," which proves yet another potent and choice description.

Von Rydingsvard and her family were formally "displaced persons" post-World War II, and her early life was difficult, even after the family of nine emigated to the USA and settled in a working class town in Connecticut. When Ursula marries (that's she as a young woman, above), it is to someone  -- perhaps not surprisingly -- who possesses a little too much in common with her father.

Striking out on her own, as a single parent of one young daughter (whom we see as child and meet as adult), she comes to New York City, and with the savings she's managed to accrue, buys her own loft and begins her real career. Fortunately the documentary offers up a lot of her work through the years, so we can see her change and growth -- including one unusual sculpture that actually moves.

By the time this near-hour has ended, I think we know the woman and her work about as well as could be possible in this short a time frame. At 77 years old, she is still going strong, and as friend and fellow-artist Judy Pfaff notes at the conclusion, "I always thought that when Ursula had achieved a certain level of success, then she could finally relax. What was I thinking? That ain't gonna happen."

From Icarus Films, the documentary opens at New York City's Film Forum in "virtual" release tomorrow, Friday, May 29. For more information on how to view the film, click here.

Note: Join Film Forum for a live, virtual Q&A 
with Ursula von Rydingsvard & Daniel Traub, 
director of Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own
 on Sunday, May 31, 5:00 PM EST 
 FREE ADMISSION (first come, first served)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

TYPICALLY BRITISH: A Personal History of British Cinema by Stephen Frears is one reason (among many) to subscribe to OVID

This utterly charming, entertaining and information-crammed documentary begins with a wonderfully ridiculous quote by the late François Truffaut so redolent of that peculiar French snobbery (coupled to Anglophobia) that you almost can't believe this great filmmaker would have been stupid enough to say it. Well, never say never.

The short documentary's subtitle is apt, as well. "Personal" indeed -- as Stephen Frears (shown above and at right) tells us within the first few minutes how he learned about both punishment and sex from movies and his school's headmaster. Not to worry: There's nothing really actionable here. What there is, however -- as with Bertrand Tavernier's delightful, informative (and a good deal longer and deeper) French counterpart -- is a grand run through several decades of a country's cinema (including some fascinating bits about British television) that, while hardly inclusive (there's a list of movies at

the finale Frears apologizes for leaving out), manages to touch a remarkable amount of films and filmmakers in a brief, intelligent and thoughtful manner.

Co-directed by another filmmaker and documentarian, Michael Dibb (shown at left), TYPICALLY BRITISH: A Personal History of British Cinema by Stephen Frears will reacquaint you with some of the leading lights of Brit film, as well as with some names you probably have not even heard of but will want to learn more about (and maybe view some of their work).

The film sits Mr. Frears down with two sets of two British film personalities of different generations: the first with writer/director Alexander Mackendrick and screenwriter Gavin Lambert, the second with filmmakers Michael Apted (below, center) and Alan Parker (below, left; that's Frears on the right). Both sessions are wonderfully rich with pertinent, occasionally gossipy movie-insider information.

What helps set the documentary apart is all this very interesting detail about filmmaking via these five men, all of whom have worked in the film industries on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to history and critical analysis, this adds some genuinely telling information about the filmmaking process, as well as about those working behind (but not so much in front of) the camera.

Fascinating tidbits abound, such as Laurence Olivier's narration for the documentary about the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an event, we are informed, that sent so many Britishers out to purchase television sets (then relatively new) that this hastened the decline of the British film industry. (Ah, yes: Yet another thing that obnoxious royal family has to answer for.)

Mr. Apted has much to say about how important was the very good British television of his time, while Mr. Parker provides huge enjoyment via his reminiscences and willingness to admit certain things. Regarding the "art" cinema that turns so many heads in the 1960s, "I thought Ingmar Bergman was the one who appeared in Casablanca." And as the men discuss the multi-Oscar-winning movie Darling, "Did you dream about Julie Christie?(she's shown below) Frears inquires. "I did more than dream about her," Parker shoots back.

From Hitchcock to Powell & Pressburger, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Loach to producers such as Michael Balcon and David Puttnam, if they are not all here, well, plenty of them certainly turn up. Near complete agreement seems to arrive from our fellows regarding the films of Ken Loach, in particular Kes (below), as one of the "greats" of British film. First to last, this doc is a consistent delight and a necessary reminder of just how much Britain has contributed to cinema down the decades. So: Fuck you, but I still love you, M. Truffaut!

You can watch Typically British: A Personal History of British Cinema by Stephen Frears (74 minutes long) now via OVID, the subscription streaming service that, as much as does some better-known and much-longer-around streaming services for art films, provides a remarkably rich and varied menu of narrative and documentary film. Click here for more information.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Sasha Joseph Neulinger's REWIND: The sexual-abuse documentary to end them all. (If only.)

It is simply so strange to call a documentary about sexual abuse "wonderful." But, really, REWIND -- the first film, perhaps the only one necessary from fledgling director Sasha Joseph Neulinger -- is exactly that. More than anything else, I think, the reason for this is that Mr. Neulinger explores sexual abuse -- his own and that of his sister -- in such a way that, although the abuse indeed comes across as truly awful, the movie leaves not a trace of the usual sleazy, voyeuristic aftertaste that so many other films, despite perhaps their best intentions, nonetheless provide.

There is something so honest, direct and, well, kindly (yet not necessarily forgiving) about Neulinger's approach to everything and everyone we meet here (the filmmaker is shown at left) that his relatively short movie proves consistently riveting and finally inspiring. And god, no, I am not talking about yet another piece of "triumph-of-the-human-spirit" nonsense. His film is instead a terrible story and generational family saga told about as well as it could be, given the time, effort and rather small budget involved.

Sasha's family (that's mom and dad with their infant, below) had a video camera since the child was born and which his father often used -- his mom early on called it "a wall" (an opinion which I suspect many of us can easily relate to) -- and which Sasha himself begins using at a surprisingly early age.

This kid (below) was very bright from the get-go, but then, between kindergarten and first grade, that brightness dimmed -- why, by whom and for what reasons the remainder of the documentary explores from many angles and in surprising depth, considering its short, 86-minute length.

To go into much detail would spoil the film in a number of ways. Enough to say that, as Sasha delves into his and his family's past, speaking with everyone from family members to social workers, doctors, lawyers and police, what he uncovers and further explores is not merely unsettling and deeply disturbing but, due to the filmmaker/participant's combination of intelligence, perseverance and generosity, we emerge from the movie chastened and enhanced. As Sasha himself seems to do.

Certainly -- of course -- it would have been better had none of this horror happened. But it did. And it in the annals of "making the best of things," it seems to TrustMovies that Mr. Neulinger has done his share and one hell of a lot more. The end credits give us a proper update on everyone involved here. The participants include a very well-positioned and powerful cantor at Manhattan's most prestigious, Upper-East-Side synagogue, and even some majorly sleazy power players such as Rudy Giuliani and Cyrus Vance, Jr. (You may remember some of the reportage from the late-20th-Century time that all this was taking place.)

I could be wrong, since no one ever knows -- inadvertently or purposefully -- everything about anything, but this family would appear to have come through these events about as well as could be expected. So does the viewer. (That's Sasha and his younger sister Bekah: above, as children; below, as adults.)

From FilmRise, Rewind was to have opened theatrically this past March but is now streaming via VOD. It also had its broadcast premiere on PBS' Inde-pendent Lens earlier this month. However you choose to view it, do see it.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER gets Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD treatment

With the new release of both Blu-ray and 4K ultra high-def transfers of THE DEER HUNTER, yet another Best Picture "Oscar" winner joins the ranks of the embarrassingly over-rated. While certainly better than movies such as Crash, Around the World in 80 Days or The Greatest Show on Earth (to name but three of many), this film, directed by another Oscar winner Michael Cimino, with a screenplay (dialog as utterly prosaic as you could ask for) by Deric Washburn, who was Oscar-nominated, does have attributes still apparent enough for us to understand why it so impressed critics and movie-goers at the time of its 1978 release.

The war in Vietnam had ended but three years previous, and here was a movie that tackled that subject, seemingly in spades. The late director Cimino (shown at right) did a brave thing by tossing his audience into a day and night in the life of small-town Pennsylvania, using a Russian Orthodox wedding and its after-party as the way to introduce us to the film's large array of characters. Unfortunately almost all those characters prove to be unrelentingly dumb and drunk.

The exception is Michael, played by Robert De Niro, with a partial exception of another, Linda, played by Meryl Streep -- both of these, shown below, actors whose intelligence is difficult to keep under wraps.

Washburn's script underscores Michael's separation from the pack too obviously and heavily, with the uber-symbolic deer hunting sequence(s) set to embarrassingly awful music that tries to make the killing of a deer somehow a religious experience. Sorry: Even if the killing is done, as the movie would have it, via a single shot -- no dice. Instead it offers a look at Cimino's sentimentality in full swing.

The entire first hour of this three-hour-plus film is devoted to that pre-wedding, wedding and post-wedding party, and then the movie plops us into Vietnam, again with none of the usual basic-training or explanatory scenes we usually get in our war films. We're just suddenly thrust into post-battle, as the massacre of women and children, followed by a bit of vengeance, takes place. Soon our three heroes, Michael, along with his pals Nick (Christopher Walken, below)

and Steven (John Savage, below), are conveniently reunited, only to be, next moment, imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese, in a scene featuring a form of Russian Roulette that was controversial at the time of theatrical release and remains so today. It works quite well, however, as a trigger for melodrama, the easy psychologising of Nick's character, revenge and a full-circle finale -- while providing a nifty action set-piece midway through the film.

Post-Vietnam-War we're back in Pennsylvania again, as our boys Michael and Steven pick up the very damaged pieces until, for the finale, Michael returns to Vietnam to "rescue" Nick. A lot of coincidence dots the movie, which, to my mind, prevents it from being taken nearly as seriously as a lot of critics did and do. As does the film's embrace of somewhat schlocky sentimentality posing as stark drama. (Plus, the scene at the wedding between our boys and that Green Beret at the bar seems cribbed from a class in Foreshadowing 101.)

The movie's view of the Vietnam War is utterly ahistorical in that it looks at the whole thing from the viewpoint of a small American town completely in thrall to both religion and patriotism. This is certainly true-to-life and it is also a valid viewpoint for a writer and director to take, should they choose it. Forty years on, this part of the film holds up, I would say, as well as it did upon original release. Even if you were dead set against this war, as I was , I think you must somewhat bow to the viewpoint here -- even if you might also wish that the filmmakers had included maybe one single atrocity by us Americans. But, hey, nobody so in thrall to religion and patriotism could ever see -- let alone admit to -- something like that.

What does not hold up, if it ever did, is the idea of The Deer Hunter as movie art. Even the performances struggle to rise above the obvious, with Ms Streep giving what may be the least interesting one of her entire career. Characters are mostly one- (very occasionally two-) note -- the men dumb and drunk, the women present to serve and/or be abused -- and the prosaic script gives them little chance to do much about this. Among supporting performances, the most interesting comes from George Dzundza, above, the least interesting from John Cazale, shown below, left.

Scene after scene endures past the point it should, adding to the huge length, so that by the film's finale, we can mostly sigh and shrug, Yeah, yeah: We get it. And then there's that final "deer" epiphany, accompanied by some more crappy, inspirational music. The Blu-ray transfer looks good but not great (TrustMovies does not have the equipment to view the 4K ultra HD disc), and among the bonus features, the interview with critic and film historian David Thompson is the most enjoyable. Even when I disagree with Thompson, I find this guy a delight.

From Shout! Factory/Shout Select, the two-disc boxed set of The Deer Hunter (Collector's Edition) will hit the street this coming Tuesday, May 26 -- for purchase (and, I would hope, rental). 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Florian Opitz's SYSTEM ERROR: Another major and majorly important documentary hits DVD

To hear one of the barons of Brazilian agribusiness droning on about "progress" and the glories of BASF is to feel your very brain slipping away. And then this privileged asshole (shown below, TrustMovies believes) adds insult to injury by asking for "More profit boost, please!"

Ah, Capitalism! And growth. And the impossibility of continuous, sustained economic growth. Which is what SYSTEM ERROR, the latest documentary from German filmmaker Florian Opitz, is all about.

Herr Opitz, shown at left, has a lovely, gracious, never-intrusive way of making certain the camera (cinematography by Andy Lehmann, editing by Frank J. Müller) remains on the interviewee for a few seconds longer than might seem required, particularly when that interviewee is answering questions about, oh, say, the result to the environment or the economy and is clearly either outright fibbing or simply lying-by-omission.

Consequently, we have time to observe the face of said fibber in a quiet but clearly uncomfortable position. This happens a number of times, and each of these proves quite telling and, in its odd fashion, nastily entertaining. It's as though the prevaricator, so far as our learning the truth is concerned, has stuck his head in the noose and jumped off the chair.

It is by now clear to quite a number of the world's citizens that Capitalism has run its course and shown its true colors. "Financial markets are able to heal themselves," is one of my favorite quotes here, but the end of that statement, which might go something like, Sure -- when given a trillion-dollar-bailout by the government is nowhere to be found in the mouth of this particular money maven.

On the side of reality against conformity and propaganda is our ofttimes host, British economist Tim Jackson, of the University of Surrey. He keeps popping the balloons of one after another It's-as-clear-as-the-nose-on-your-face Capitalist propagandizers (consistent sleazebag and former Trump associate, Anthony Scaramucci is among these), who spout the prepared-and-typical only to be undercut by the ideas and statistics offered by the quiet Mr. Jackson (above).

Smart and highly appropriate quotes from a certain Karl Marx dot the documentary and are as pertinent as they are often surprising (unless, unlike me, you've read a ton of Mr. Marx). I rather wish that Opitz has not led off his film with so much info on the state of Brazil because, over the past three years since the film was made, much has changed there (for the worse), and the world is quite aware of all this. Yet even that section is interesting for the way in which Opitz conducts his interviews.

We hear about deregulation, the Flash Crash and other financial sector happenings along the way. By the time an ex-investment/trading guy, very high-level, tells us, "The idea that markets are somehow going to support a very large base of the population and somehow produce returns for that population -- when, in our space, all we try to do is eliminate those returns: I mean, that was our job. It's a very different world than is advertised to the general public," I suspect you will be ready to laugh in the face of those "investment" ads you see all the time on TV.

System Error is an absolutely terrific documentary: smart and measured and full of necessary information. Do stay through the end credits to hear Jackson quote the famous Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci about the particular combination of pessimism and optimism needed to perhaps survive our current time.

From Icarus Home Video, in English, German and Portuguese, with English subtitles as needed, and running 96 minutes, the movie hit home video on DVD at the end of last month and is available now for purchase (and rental via streaming, too). If you were unlucky enough to read the very foolish and dismissive NY Times review of System Error publised a few weeks ago, ignore that and take a chance on this very important film.