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Review: With Varda by Agnès, a Giant of Cinema Looks Inward

The film is, essentially, a lecture, with Varda’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre.

2.5

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Varda by Agnes
Photo: Berlinale

Agnès Varda has been directing films continuously since 1955. At one time she was best known for the narrative features she made during the first four decades of her career, but many of those films had a tenuous relationship to fiction, featuring as they do non-professional actors, having filmed exclusively on location, and, in the case of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, taking place in real time. At the turn of the millennium—when Varda was 72—she and feature fiction finally broke up for good, and since then she’s made three celebrated documentaries: The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places.

The brilliant, charming, and, frankly, adorable Varda centers herself in these essayistic films, which have cemented her reputation as a cherished icon of international art cinema; there’s even an extended sequence in The Gleaners and I in which the septuagenarian films herself in the mirror with her new digital camcorder. But she exudes such generosity of spirit, and so skillfully bridges the gap between personal and philosophical reflection, that the films have never seemed indulgent. Unfortunately, this changes with her new film, Varda by Agnes, the basis of which is a series of talks the artist delivered at museums and theaters on her work.

Varda by Agnes is essentially a lecture, with Varda’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. There are three moments in making art, she says: “inspiration, creation, and sharing.” The structure of her review of major works is informed by this belief, as she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 (fear of cancer, the nature of time), details the creative process (including an interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, star of Varda’s Vagabond), and offers her thoughts about the films with us.

While her other documentaries have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnes finds the filmmaker far less physically mobile than a decade ago, and far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. During the film, some of her collaborators appear on stage or in archival footage with Varda, and she’s never hesitant to cite and even celebrate their contributions. But Varda by Agnes ends up being little more than a digest edition of the filmmaker’s complete works. Those familiar with her filmography, for example, will get little out of her discussion of shooting La Pointe Courte on location, or of the influence of impressionism on the aesthetics of Le Bonheur.

True, many of the films she discusses are less well-known, and her later museum installations have hardly been knowable if you weren’t at MoMA at the right time. Still, what Varda does here mostly is describe and cite works that exist on their own. Because the other documentaries she’s made are already made up largely of reflections on her own work and methodology, the sections of the film that handle those feel particularly repetitive. It’s a bit odd for Varda to hold forth on how much she loves beaches in Varda by Agnès, given that a decade ago she released a well-known essay film on precisely that topic.

Varda allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous; she’s letting us in on the somewhat guilty pleasure she took in landing a major Hollywood star. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work.

Varda by Agnès is somewhat like the handwritten memoirs Varda recounts Demy giving her from his sickbed, an attempt to sum up a life in a few memories. The subtext of the film would then be that, for Varda, her art is her life, and, as suggested by the film’s title, that means it’s been a life she was able to have ownership of. Ultimately hard to begrudge a 90-year-old, particularly such an accomplished one as Varda, for being indulgent.

Director: Agnès Varda Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Mapplethorpe’s Take on an Artistic Legend Is Fierce in Its Reductiveness

Here, Robert Mapplethrope is just another tormented queer destroyed by his tendencies toward vice.

1.5

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Mapplethorpe
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Pictures

The life story of Robert Mapplethorpe is inextricably tied to the art that became his legacy. As a photographer, he worked primarily in black and white, his subjects often framed against empty backgrounds. The erotic images that he eventually became known for, often exploring BDSM iconography, are famous now for the controversy that they generated related to notions of obscenity and public funding for the arts.

Mapplethorpe, though, was also one of his generation’s most accomplished portraitists. His photograph of Patti Smith for the cover of her 1975 album Horses is perhaps the most recognizable of his work among the general public, but he also photographed figures as famous and far-ranging as Andy Warhol in the year before his death and a nude Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his bodybuilding career. And, of course, Robert Mapplethorpe himself. Mapplethorpe was a master of the visual autobiography, always staring directly into his own camera as if daring his eventual audience to look away even for a moment.

The relationship between art and its audience is based on the establishment of trust, and you can tell just by looking at a Mapplethorpe print that the artist whose eye brought the image to life was someone with keen instincts with regard to the careful collaboration between content and form, not to mention a deeply original point of view. But Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe, a film that sets out to present a biographical account of the artist’s life from his young adulthood until his death in 1989 due to complications from AIDS, has absorbed none of its subject’s singular precision and focus. The film’s flatness and its relentlessly obvious narrative choices consistently undermine its potential to communicate anything more than the specifics of a timeline, and the constant reminders of Mapplethorpe’s genius at portraiture—his work is liberally represented throughout—do the comparatively bland film no favors at all.

Beginning with scenes that are air-lifted directly from Just Kids, Patti Smith’s acclaimed memoir of her and Mapplethorpe’s origin story as young lovers and budding artists experimenting and collaborating in relative obscurity, the film trudges through the already well-trod elements of Mapplethorpe’s biography as if responding to a particularly uninspired prompt, checking the boxes without elevating the form. But Matt Smith plays the artist with an involvedness that belies the banality of much of the dialogue that he’s been made to speak, capturing in the film’s stronger moments Mapplethorpe’s internal struggles both with his sexuality and with the direction of his increasingly complex artistic practices.

A beautiful scene early in the film depicts Mapplethorpe flirting concurrently with both the next phase of his sex life and the next phase of his work, impulsively tying up a future male lover in a bondage pose and snapping those first few photographs before succumbing to the other man’s embrace. Smith’s performance in the scene is at once seductive and aloof, full of both the nervous excitement of unfamiliar desire as well as the potential for violence in what is one of the film’s most raw expressions of the artist’s inner turmoil.

But it often seems like Smith has wandered from the set of Mapplethorpe and stumbled into a generic made-for-television depiction of an artist’s coming of age in New York City in the latter part of the 20th century, lazily rendered and lacking specificity. At the beginning of what is essentially the third act of the film, a title card indicates that the year is now 1981 just as Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”—which wasn’t released until 1984—begins to play. And that’s just one of several distracting details poised to throw discerning viewers.

Never mind that the biographical elements are essentially accurate; it’s the way that they’re so predictably strung together that begins to grate. The chronological events of a human life feel random without the connective tissue, the beating heart that brings us back again and again to the pleasures of narrative as art—stakes and tension, an intricate sense of causality and surprise, a sense of purpose. Look at the way Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate incorporates Vincent van Gogh’s particular artistic aesthetic into the film’s cinematography as it brings to life an entirely interior world by embracing the quotidian, the everyday life of its subject. The content of Schnabel’s film directly influences its form.

In Mapplethorpe, the ultimate purpose of the film seems to be the reductive portrayal of the artist as yet another tormented queer destroyed by his tendencies toward vice. The cliché of tedious representations of rampant drug use and illicit sex that inevitably lead to an early death of AIDS is on full display here, similar to the way that Freddie Mercury’s extravagant descent into depravity is represented in Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, excessively played out (in a cringingly fallacious timeline) only for the audience to applaud his redemptive return to the stage by the film’s conclusion. And even Smith, in an otherwise loving portrayal of his subject, slips in Mapplethorpe’s last act into a theatrical and affected performance of vanity that shuts out the audience completely, the pathos of his younger Mapplethorpe replaced with a self-absorption that feels easy and unexplored.

Cast: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kerry Butler Director: Ondi Timoner Screenwriter: Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alanne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Some Like It Hot, a Funhouse of Sexual Exposure, Tickles Anew in 4K

The film is an outrageous, hilarious, and amazingly unpretentious trip through a funhouse of sexual identities.

4

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Some Like It Hot
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first time Marilyn Monroe, in the role of the perfectly named Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, walks onto the screen in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, even the train cat-calls her with a whistle of steam. Heading off to front the Sweet Sues, an all-girl brass band starting a residency as the house band at a posh Florida hotel, Sugar Kane has vowed to land a rich hubby, and the way she retrieves a flask of whiskey from her garter, it’s hard to imagine any man passing up the opportunity. And yet, most men that enter Wilder’s frame are far more interested in Joe (Jack Lemmon) and Jerry (Tony Curtis), dolled-up in drag to secure places (as upright bass player and tenor saxophonist, respectively) in the Sweet Sues and hide out from the gangsters they witnessed mowing down a snitch and his associates in a garage—a recreation of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Even the gangsters, late in the film, openly flirt with Joe and Jerry on an elevator, thinking they’re really women.

Of course, Joe and Jerry are the only men who seem interested in actually courting Sugar Kane, a fantastical suspension of disbelief that goes hand in hand with the idea that no one can tell that Curtis’s Josephine and Lemmon’s Daphne aren’t hiding something under their Orry-Kelly dresses. At first, the setting is prohibition-era Chicago (right as the Great Depression was beginning to sink in), where Joe and Jerry play as part of a small jazz band in a speakeasy run out of a funeral parlor by criminal kingpin Spats Colombo (George Raft). A raid puts an end to Joe and Jerry’s paychecks, but it fails to capture Spats, who orders—and is present for—the massacre, as are the two out-of-work musicians. Finding themselves the targets of a statewide hunt by both the cops and the mob, Joe and Jerry powder their noses, jump a train, and join up with the Sweet Sues, only to find themselves pursued even there, this time by horny bellboys and elderly millionaires dealing with their umpteenth divorce.

The brilliant rat-a-tat dialogue is courtesy of Wilder and his regular writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, who had conceived Some Like It Hot as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor. Only Curtis remained on throughout the project’s entire gestation, as the unbeknownst romantic lead to Monroe’s romantically challenged showgirl. Indeed, Sugar Kane falls hard for Joe, but only as he takes on the guise of Junior, the preposterously wealthy heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in a bid to get the voluptuous singer in the sack. Cynicism, as throughout Wilder’s career, is pervasive here, and once she hears about Junior’s fortune, Sugar Kane can barely keep her dress on in front of Joe, who, as Junior, mimics Cary Grant in yacht-owner drag.

Sugar Kane’s willingness to indulge in the perverse proclivities of the rich is more grounded here than that of Monroe’s Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but then, Some Like It Hot is a more ambiguous affair than Howard Hawks’s extravagantly ludicrous musical. Up to and including the film’s legendary final line, spoken by the great Joe E. Brown as Jerry’s chief suitor, Wilder’s sex comedy regularly toys with sexual definitions, even obliterating them at times, most noticeably through Lemmon’s fearless comic performance. At first attempting to suppress himself from taking Sugar for a roll in his bunk, Jerry later comes back from a date with Brown’s Osgood, shaking maracas and walking on air; Joe insists he repeat “I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a man” as a sort of mantra. Money, more than gender or even sexual attraction, is the ultimate aphrodisiac here, and if this deeply cynical belief is slightly upended by the film’s ending, as in The Apartment, the idea is never entirely dispelled by the narrative.

Panned by nearly every critic with a pen or typewriter upon its release, Some Like It Hot became a box office sensation, garnering six Academy Award nominations and, decades later, a place at the very top of the AFI’s list of the 100 best American comedies ever made. Wilder’s film was a triumph over intellectualism, and it came to be worshipped by intellectuals who, after coming to terms with the fact that the film wasn’t co-written by Rudolf Arnheim, noticed the precise auterism at work within it. Magnificently paced and terrifically funny at nearly every turn, Some Like It Hot was imbued with an inherent distrust of capitalism and big business that Wilder regularly expressed in an only slightly covert manner. Here, the stiff, quasi-charming man who says he will one day run Shell Oil is, to put it simply, a liar and a sneak. It’s a blunt indictment of a popular U.S.-based company, but nevertheless a long ways away from the manic, radically profane cynicism that Wilder deployed in One, Two, Three, wherein Coca-Cola has more or less become America itself.

By the end of Some Like It Hot, Sugar Kane is singing “I’m Through with Love,” but it’s a song she’s been singing all along, gossiping with Josephine about all the lousy musicians who’ve romanced her and then bilked her for all she’s worth. The lead singer of the Sweet Sues doesn’t show up until a solid 30 minutes into the film, but make no mistake, Monroe’s importance in this picture is second only to Wilder’s. A notorious presence on the set, the actress flubbed her lines, arrived late, and tested the saintly patience of her director and co-stars, but on the big screen, Monroe holds the audience in her gaze without a flicker of hesitation. Of course, Monroe’s behavior could partially be blamed on the tragic state of her private life; she had grappled with drug problems for months prior to the shoot and suffered a miscarriage toward the end of production. Nevertheless, whatever she put Wilder, Lemmon, Curtis, the crew, and their financial backers through was worth it for what’s on screen: an outrageous, hilarious, and amazingly unpretentious trip through a funhouse of sexual identities.

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Joe E. Brown Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond Distributor: Park Circus Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Buy: Video

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Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Sparks with Sensitivity and Gravitas

Chiwetel Ejiofor announces himself as a sensitive, shrewdly restrained filmmaker with his quietly assured directorial debut.

2.5

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Photo: Netflix

With his quietly assured directorial debut, Nigerian-born British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor announces himself as a sensitive, shrewdly restrained filmmaker. Based on the memoir of the same name by Malawian innovator William Kamkwamba (co-written by journalist Bryan Mealer), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the remarkable story of how, as a largely self-taught techno-wizard, William (played by Maxwell Simba) saved his village from famine by building a wind turbine from scrap metal and bike parts.

It’s a tale that sounds ripe for a blandly inspirational film, but Ejiofor eschews overt sentimentality and adds gravitas by exploring more than just the optimistic William’s perspective. From the start, Ejiofor takes care to place the famine in a broader geopolitical context, while digging into the cultural specificity of the Malawian setting. A leisurely opening act establishes a society caught between the push and pull of tradition and modernity—as symbolized by the recurring presence of the elaborately costumed Nyau brotherhood, a local cult that survived British colonial rule by making concessions to Christianity. William’s parents, Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), meanwhile, seem eager to reject all forms of religious superstition, refusing to adhere to the local custom of praying for rain when their crops begin to suffer, and prioritizing a broad education for their kids above all else.

But the Kamkwambas’ noble principles seem somewhat incompatible with the realities they face both as a family and as part of an increasingly beleaguered community. When droughts begin to decimate his income as a farmer, Trywell refuses to concede that he needs help providing for his dependents, even after he runs out of money to keep William in school. Glimpses of political corruption—including a sequence in which a dissenter is swiftly removed from a government rally and brutally beaten—make it abundantly clear that no benevolent deus ex machina is waiting in the wings. But in his stubbornness, and fixation on family hierarchy, Trywell fails to see that he might have something to learn from the younger generation, and that William may hold the solution to his woes.

Sometimes, Ejiofor’s understated directorial approach pays off handsomely. The action of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind begins in 2001, and the events of 9/11 (which play into later plot developments) are introduced via a radio news report, which William and friends swiftly tune out in their eagerness to listen to a soccer game. It’s a neat rebuttal to the Western-centric notion that the entire world came to a standstill during those fateful few hours.

In taking great care not to sensationalize the material, however, Ejiofor struggles to raise the dramatic stakes. Simba is charming as William, but the character is given few opportunities to emote; he mostly just processes the chaos unfolding around him and devours engineering books at the local library. There’s a few affecting final-act scenes in which a rift between father and son escalates, and Trywell is left seething with impotent rage, but Ejiofor never quite finds a way to sufficiently distract attention from the preordained feel-good climax.

In a similar vein, Dick Pope’s cinematography evokes an inherently dramatic landscape at the mercy of the elements, without resorting to poverty porn, or the clichéd chaotic vibrancy of Mira Nair’s Uganda-set Queen of Katwe. Aside from a hypnotic ritualistic dance performed by Nyau members, though, there are few truly memorable visual sequences. It all adds up to a film that’s unmistakably well-intentioned, if ultimately difficult to love.

Cast: Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Aïssa Maïga, Joseph Marcell, Lemogang Tsipa, Philbert Falakeza Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor Screenwriter: Chiwetel Ejiofor Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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