Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ingmar & friends

Bergman with son Daniel
and wife #4 Kibi Laretai
     Ingmar Bergman, who Woody Allen once called "the great cinematic poet of morality" as well as "the finest filmmaker of my lifetime", was not quite the legendary recluse some have made him out to be. Although notoriously opinionated about some of his fellow film makers (he once called Godard "a fucking bore") and critics (he referred to as "executioners"), he frequently met face-to-face with many of the people who influenced him (and those in turn he influenced) over the years. Bergman once wrote:

"My play opens with an actor walking down into the audience, where he strangles a critic, then reads aloud from a little black book all the humiliations he had noted therein. Then he throws up on the audience, after which he exits and puts a bullet through his head."

Bergman with colleague and mentor Victor Sjöström (whom he directed in Wild Strawberries, 1957) director of The Phantom Carriage (1921) one of Bergman's favorite films; He Who Gets Slapped (1924) with Lon Chaney; and The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish.

Bergman with Charles Chaplin in Stockholm; November, 1964. Chaplin was there to promote the release of his autobiography. Bergman wanted to meet one of his idols. Chaplin's The Circus (1928) also appears on Bergman's top eleven films list from 1994.

Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann visit with Federico Fellini on the set of Fellini's Satyricon in January, 1969. The two masters, and beloved admirers of each other, had met one year before this encounter with plans to collaborate on a film project. The aborted anthology which was to be called Three Stories About Women (later Love Duets) was originally intended to involve a third segment directed by Akira Kurosawa (who declined citing health reasons). Bergman and Fellini's individual efforts soon began to drift apart and eventually the two films were made and released on their own (Bergman's The Touch in 1971 and Fellini's City of Women in 1980).

 Bergman with Walt Disney on a visit to Sweden, 1959. It is not known whether Uncle Walt had an actual interest in Bergman or his work, or if Bergman's studio was just another stop on the itinerary. On a not so completely unrelated note, a particular Donald Duck cartoon has aired on Swedish television every Christmas Eve without fail since 1959 and has become a family tradition in that country.

Bergman shaking hands with director John Boorman (Deliverance; Excalibur; Hope and Glory) in London, 1982. With film historian Peter Cowie and National Film Theatre head Ken Wlaschin in the background.

Bergman with Peter Sellers in costume on the set of Murder by Death (1976); Burbank, California, 1975.

Bergman meets Bruce the shark (one of the three original Bruces) from Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). This photo was taken by photojournalist John Bryson on a studio back lot several months after the blockbuster film's release. Bergman admired the populist work of Spielberg, as well as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Soderbergh.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street review

Jonah Hill
     The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) has a familiar ring to it. It harkens back to the criminal antihero structures of Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) without being as prescient or foreboding as Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) which gets at least one tip of the hat in Scorsese's sex, drugs and Elmore James-fueled romp through the underbelly of penny stock boiler rooms.

The biggest problem for me, next to the film's gargantuan and unwarranted length (scenes stretch on and on for what feels like an eternity), were the moments intended to shock and amuse (snorting cocaine out of a hooker's asshole) that seemed less grotesquely funny than some of the same bits of college humor I've already seen done more constructively in the Harold & Kumar (not to mention Jackass) franchise.

Everything in the film is intended to be real (stockbrokers flipping their clients off on the phone) yet comes off as flippant and cartoony because that's the way the characters and performances are drawn. There is a genuinely funny scene at a country club where DiCaprio (who for most of the film floats bewteen manic-De Niro, Sam Kinison and Carrot Top mode) can't get into a Lamborghini because he's just taken too many Quaaludes. Incidentally, DiCaprio has already picked up the Golden Globe for his performance.

The rest of the principle cast (introduced in similar Goodfellas roll-call narration fashion) is largely interchangeable with one another except for Jonah Hill whose Chiclet-toothed, Lawng Island-accented caricature overstays its welcome. I was most surprised to see Rob Reiner in an extended cameo that for me stole the whole film.

Jon Favreau, another actor cum director gets a small bit too, and seems to have come full circle from his breakout performance in Swingers (1996) where his character once extolled the virtues of a classic Scorsese film (as evidenced by the shit-eating grin the actor wears on his face the whole time he's on screen in The Wolf of Wall Street: I made it, Ma...I'm finally in a Scorsese movie...top of the world!!!).
Favreau, DiCaprio & Reiner
At least to his credit, DiCaprio does have one or two moments in the film that reminded me of his What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) potential. Unfortunately The Wolf of Wall Street makes me pine for lesser Scorsese works of recent years that were more artistically successful; films like The Aviator (2004) and Gangs of New York (2002) that were at least ambitious failures; unlike Best Picture winner The Departed (2006) which was an unambitious, overrated facsimile.

Still, the material here, straight from real-life ex-con Jordan Belfort's book (manufactured or otherwise) seemed destined for a Hollywood feature. If not Scorsese, than by some other less polished auteur. At least with Scorsese we get to hear a few snippets of Howlin' Wolf and Billy Joel on the soundtrack.

The truth is, I'm getting a little tired of new Scorsese films. I haven't been in awe or thoroughly enjoyed one since Casino, which at the time I felt was a little derivative of Goodfellas, which in turn could be considered a riff on Mean Streets (1973). Is Scorsese really just a jazz musician with a lens finder (does a film director even use a lens finder anymore)?

Are his latest offerings really just the fanciful mix-tapes of an expert musicologist? Could he really just be a great cover artist? If that's true, I guess it still makes him the Miles Davis of Hollywood. I just hope he has one more Bitches Brew left in him. Sadly, The Wolf of Wall Street feels more like another greatest hits compilation.

Marty's walls

     Several framed movie posters hang on the walls of Martin Scorsese's office, seen in this photograph published by The Hollywood Reporter: Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950). Many consider these particular films (both early portrayals of Hollywood's dark side) to be two of the most culturally significant films in cinema history. There is another framed movie poster hanging in his office (not shown in this photo) of Jacques Tourneur's classic film noir Out of the Past (1947). Scorsese once called The Bad and the Beautiful

"the best drama about Hollywood's creative battles"

Films like these prove that some battles, creative or otherwise, are worth fighting. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

puzzles and paradoxes

Fellini the illustrator
     Federico Fellini loved comics. His first solo-directed film (The White Sheik, 1952) was centered around the Italian fumetti, a kind of comic book in photo strip form. He also kept profusely annotated accounts of his own dreams that were eventually published in a voluminous hardcover tome. His fascination with the comic strip as an art form began in his youth with the works of Frederick Burr Opper (Happy Hooligan; And Her Name Was Maud; Alphonse and Gaston) and George McManus (Bringing Up Father) and continued with the coming of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon. It was a fascination that remained with him his whole life. Fellini spoke of his "lasting gratitude" to comics and the influence they've had on his films as well as his high regard for James Steranko's book History of Comics in 1970. I think if Fellini had lived to see some of the recent comic book film adaptations (especially the Marvel franchise) he would have been zealously entertained. At least the ones that didn't trade their humor for all this dark-night-of-the-soul business.   

Fellini on the heroes of Marvel Comics:

"Without ceasing to be heroes, indeed becoming progressively more heroic, the characters in the Marvel group of comics learnt to laugh at themselves. Their adventures were advertised with a sort of schoolboy megalomania and carried out in the strips themselves with a kind of mature masochism; and yet there was nothing devious about the result, which was a lively, aggressive, naughty, never-ending story that kept starting over and over again, not giving a damn if things happened to be puzzling or paradoxical. Puzzles and paradoxes, if cheerfully stood up to, never killed anyone. The only thing that kills is boredom. And boredom, luckily, is something that steers clear of these comics."

Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012)
One of Fellini's own illustrations from The Book of Dreams, pub 2008 (above left); a poster for the 1982 Cannes Film Festival featuring Fellini's original artwork (above right).