Capone's Art-House Round-Up with GENIUS, DE PALMA, RAIDERS!, THE AMERICAN SIDE, and OUR LAST TANGO!!!
Published at: June 17, 2016, 3:18 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
GENIUS The relationship between a writer and his/her editor is rarely the focal point of a film outside of stories about journalists doing major investigative pieces. But the film GENIUS is about one of the most famous such pairings, that between Scribner’s legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), who worked together on Wolfe’s first two novels “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River.” Told primarily through the eyes of the economical Perkins, it’s clear that the life and editing lessons he attempted to teach to Wolfe were both critical and largely ignored by the brilliant author who held to the philosophy that “More is more,” in both writing and living, regardless of who he hurt.
The specifics of their working relationship are exhaustively documented—Wolfe would pour his guts and emotions on the page, and the two of them would go line by line through thousands upon thousands of words, often reducing an entire page into just a handful of words. Perkins would often do so despite admitting that the longer, more flowery version of the work was beautiful and eloquent beyond words. But believing Wolfe’s word that he wanted critical and popular success, Perkins edited accordingly, and the resulting, seemingly endless process was akin to giving birth every night.
In the early scenes of Perkins and Wolfe working side by side to craft Look Homeward, Angel, the movie has a wonderful, harrowing flow that feels like the type of controlled chaos that often results in a qualified masterpiece. Perkins operates at such an even keel (perfect for an actor like Firth) that he somewhat balances out Wolfe’s manic, flailing demeanor. Their partnership is often threatened by Wolfe’s lady friend, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a costume designer who left her husband and family to be a professional muse. She is particularly threatened by the closeness Wolfe has with Perkins, because she’s fully aware that Wolfe will drift to the person in his life who delivers creative results, which is increasingly becoming Perkins.
Perkins also has a family (including playwright wife Louise, played by Laura Linney, one of the few American actors in the production) whom he frequently must ignore in order to keep all hours with his client. At the point in the film that deals with the editing of the monster manuscript that becomes his second novel, Wolfe goes from eccentric genius to celebrity cliché, and the story gets decidedly less interesting. It’s not that watching a movie about an artist who falls to pieces can’t be interesting, but first-time feature director Michael Grandage (the British theater director and producer who won a Tony in 2010 for directing the play RED) treats Wolfe’s transformation from Southern charmer and great man of letters to selfish, paranoid, substance-abusing, womanizing asshole as if he invented the persona.
I happen to think Jude Law is a phenomenally underrated actor year after year, but he goes flying so far off the rails in his portrayal of Wolfe that I grew to absolutely loathe his over-enunciated Carolina accent, coupled with textbook drunken, lumbering walk and slurred speech. Even if that’s exactly how Wolfe behaved, on screen it comes across as paint-by-numbers acting, something I’ve rarely, if ever, seen Law guilty of prior. His COLD MOUNTAIN co-star Kidman doesn’t fare much better, but I felt the flaws here were more in the severely underwritten and oversimplified nature of her character and less about performance.
Working from a screenplay by John Logan (based on the biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg), GENIUS works best when it concentrates on Perkins. Historically, Wolfe is the more interesting subject, but Perkins makes for a more nuanced movie character. The exchanges with his frustrated wife are believable; they’re marriage is strained but not on the rocks. He knows he’s being a terrible father and husband, but he also knows writers like Wolfe come along so rarely that to put them off would be criminal—and this from the man who discovered, edited and published F. Scott Fitzgerald (played here in his post-fame agony by Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (still in his adventuring prime, as portrayed by Dominic West).
Films about artists, especially ones that show the artistic process (of which editing is a key component for writers), are tough to get made and even tougher to make cinematic. GENIUS is far from a complete failure. It does a remarkable job of capturing the give and take, the heated negotiation between author and editor in a way I’ve never before seen done. And when the movie sticks to the work, it’s a rousing success. But the downslide in the quality of the production is noticeable and speedy when we enter the final third of the story, when Wolfe gets famous, rich and so full of himself, he begins to believe that Perkins has been stifling the quality of his novels with such severe cuts. He commits the cardinal sin of getting precious about his words, and he pays the price for it.
I was rooting for GENIUS to pull it out in the end, but it never quite does. It’s a closer call than you might expect, and perhaps the filmmakers’ ambition for tackling the complex Wolfe as a subject earns them points, but the final work just doesn’t hold together the way it needs to.
DE PALMA There’s not much more to say about the documentary DE PALMA, a film-by-film conversation with filmmaker Brian De Palma, beyond the fact that it’s wildly entertaining and highly amusing. De Palma was clearly born to tell stories about his career, some of them wildly inappropriate, with a bravado that says “I’ve been doing this so long, I don’t care who I make look bad, including myself.” Although one suspects that De Palma has told some of these stories at countless cocktail parties over the decades, having them extracted and compiled by co-director Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow feels essential.
With very few exceptions, nearly every film in De Palma’s catalog is covered to some degree, and he readily admits that a great number of them were flops, either critically or financially—often both. From his early post-film-school days, palling around with Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, De Palma speaks with great fondness about his early indie works such as HI, MOM, THE WEDDING PARTY, and GREETINGS (all made in 1968-70), but he began to gravitate toward the more genre-oriented work that brought him his earliest success in films like SISTERS, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, OBSESSION, and his first blockbuster, CARRIE.
With each new film discussion, De Palma weaves in details about his dedication to technique and coming up with a visual language that became easy to spot and, for some, a source of contention. De Palma digs into the claims that he “ripped off” certain tricks from Alfred Hitchcock; De Palma maintains that he’s one of the few filmmakers who admits to being influenced by Hitchcock and actually uses the great master’s tools in his own movies, in such great works as DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT, and BODY DOUBLE, and in more recent years in RAISING CAIN, SNAKE EYES, and FEMME FATALE (yes, he does discuss his use of split screen).
Not surprisingly, the film spends a great deal of time on De Palma’s most influential works. The section on SCARFACE deals almost as much with the impact the film had on hip-hop culture as it does with the actual film (although the story about kicking writer Oliver Stone off the set is priceless); while the section on the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films opens up a fascinating window into the mind of Tom Cruise. Naturally, I wanted two hours on just the making of THE UNTOUCHABLES, a film that changed the way I looked at the city I’d moved to just a year before its 1987 release.
As any filmmaker would, DE PALMA takes the opportunity in the interviews that make up this movie (he is the only interview subject) to defend some of the misconceptions about his work. His points on such maligned works as CASUALTIES OF WAR and THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES are genuinely passionate, if not always convincing. He also addresses charges of exploitation and misogyny, but with a minimal amount of conviction. He simply states that he likes the way women move, which is meant to explain the reason he features them naked so often, but it doesn’t quite get us to an explanation of the angle we see the giant drill go into its victim in BODY DOUBLE. I saw that film as a horny high schooler, and even I knew that phallic weapon was fucked up. I also wish the makers of the doc had asked (or included) De Palma about the rumors that he directed adult films in his financially strapped years. I think he would have made substantive connections between them and his commercial work. But he does talk about directing Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video, so that’s cool.
DE PALMA is just a man in a chair and a whole lot of film clips, and sometimes that’s all you need, especially with clips featuring the work of Brian De Palma and ones from the films that transformed him into the artist he became. He’s quick to laugh at the absurdity of the situations in which he’s been involved (both in front of and behind the camera), the studio peons who have attempted to manipulate his work, and others in power that tried to tell him how to make a movie. He didn’t always win the battles, but he never gave up the fight, and sometimes the films paid the price. He’s vocally not happy with the way some of his works turned out, but he learned valuable lessons from each failure and worked to make better films as a result. DE PALMA is a terrific learning experience, a cautionary tale, and an inside-showbiz account that you can’t get anywhere else.
RAIDERS!: THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE Yes, this documentary has been floating around the festival circuit for more than a year, and it features a lovely segment about an event I attended (Butt-Numb-a-Thon) at which the shot-for-shot remake of RAIDER OF THE LOST ARK by a group of Mississippi kids was first played in front of a large crowd. But the real reason this ADAPTATION touched me so deeply when I first saw it was that my brother and I used to do something very similar in our youth.
My family was the first on the block to own a VCR and video camera, and my brother and I used to make “original” episodes of “Star Trek” and “Buck Rogers” in and around our home, sometimes with our friends. Our crowning achievement was an entire sequel to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, made some time in the three years between that film and Return of the Jedi. I don’t know where that tape is, but it’s out there. The one thing we never considered doing was remaking something, which in retrospect would have been so much easier on our young brains. So watching a good portion of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: THE ADAPTATION for the first time at BNAT, it tapped into a very specific young film fan mindset at the time, which was that it wasn’t enough to love these movies and television series; we had to be a part of them.
Watching childhood friends Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala (who directed the ADAPTATION) and Jayson Lamb find unbelievably creative ways to either re-create scenes from RAIDERS or find clever workarounds is what I will never forget about that first viewing (I saw their complete film a couple years later). The film led to an extended feature in Vanity Fair and eventually a book chronicling the kids’ ambitious and years-in-the-making adaptation. And now we have Raiders!, a film that not only covers much of the ground the book did, but adds a significant update to the story, one that involves “finishing” the ADAPTATION by finally getting to shoot a major action sequence 30 years later, one they effectively skipped for their version.
RAIDERS!’s co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen move back and forth between chronicling the original project and the labor-intensive process in shooting the sequence in which Indiana Jones (played by Strompolos) fist-fights an oversized, shirtless German, which leads to the big explosion of a fighter plane. The now-grown men completing their film risk life and limb, financial ruin, and their day jobs in order to get this sequence completed, and it’s as tense and unnerving as any Hollywood production.
Not that the original Mississippi production was any less interesting, and the kids (and doc filmmakers) have the outtakes to prove it. Filmed over summer vacations across seven years (so let’s just say the Indy from the beginning of the film looks and sounds a lot different from guy who finishes it), the ADAPTATION is the living embodiment of commitment, one that, years later, Steven Spielberg himself watched and praised. But there were personal struggles among the key cast and crew, and even a love triangle involving Strompolos and Zala that destroyed their friendship and took years to get over. But the best material involves simply watching the love of this classic film take over and drive their formative years. They never dreamed anyone would see this film; it wasn’t about that. And they fact that these genuinely good people have become famous from this is almost more extraordinary.
You’d seriously have to hate movies or hate life to not be moved and thoroughly entertained by RAIDERS! It’s one of the funniest movies you’ll see all year, and certainly one of the most touching for film lovers who have ever considered making their own movie or been tempted to pay tribute to your favorite movie. The doc features some great interviews with key players involved in the making of the ADAPTATION, as well as people who aided and abetted in the discovery of it years later. RAIDERS! is a love letter to fans who create love letters to the movies they adore.
THE AMERICAN SIDE I was impressed, if for no other reason, with the ambition behind this Buffalo-based indie crime thriller from writers Jenna Ricker (who also directed) and Greg Stuhr (who stars). THE AMERICAN SIDE is set with the backdrop of Niagara Falls where a curious suicide has taken place, one that is being investigated by private detective Charles Paczynski (Stuhr). Like many modern stories about gumshoes, this one is largely overwritten and unnecessarily complicated, but that’s par for the course because the plot isn’t really the point. The twist with THE AMERICAN SIDE is that it dives headfirst into the mysteries surrounding the designs of engineer and futurist Nikola Tesla and subsequent suppression of his ideas by all manner of clandestine organizations during his time on earth (he died in 1943).
Paczynski is more of a “catch-a-cheating-husband” kind of private dick, so naturally the rich and powerful people that are after a series of missing designs underestimate him at every turn, including the likes of Matthew Broderick as a rich Tesla enthusiast, and Robert Forster, as another type of enthusiast, who seems more about the hunt than actually building some of these legendary inventions that might solve the world’s power issues or be able to transport things from one place to another. Janeane Garofalo also shows up as an agent charged with protecting Paczynski and a mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) who seems to have more than a working knowledge of some of Tesla’s long-lost designs, which she claims to have destroyed.
THE AMERICAN SIDE is just strange and spirited enough to hold your interest and keep you guessing (assuming you can follow along, which is maybe 50 percent likely). I love that amid all of this talk of world-altering designs, many of the characters get the most excited talking about the history of people going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, especially from the far more dangerous American side. Stuhr is actually quite convincing as a modern-day private detective, who still talks like he’s a transplant from the late 1930s. It doesn’t hurt that the film’s femme fatale is played by Camilla Belle as Broderick’s sister, who seems quite unsure where her loyalties lie.
Fans of Tesla mythology—and I know there are many of you out there—will probably get a kick out of just how deep THE AMERICAN SIDE gets into his story and suspected impact in the scientific community. And it adds a fun science-fact/fiction layer to the proceedings that allows the film to feel fresh in such a tried and true genre. Throw in a completely off-the-wall cameo by Robert Vaughn, and you’ve got something that, at the very least, makes me curious what filmmakers Ricker and Stuhr are up to next. It’s always a treat to see promising talent, who have both been on the fringe for a while, finally show us what they are truly capable of.
OUR LAST TANGO Executive produced by Wim Wenders (PINA) and directed by German Kral (THE LAST APPLAUSE), OUR LAST TANGO is yet another unique documentary about the world of dance. The film tells the story of arguably the most important and compelling duo in the history of the tango, Argentinian dancers María Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes, whose artistic and personal history goes back decades. With an emphasis on breathtaking camera work and lusty music, the filmmakers not only present the story of this legendary duo, they also re-create portions of it using the very style of dance they helped to popularize.
Using other tango dancers as stand-ins, the story of Nieves and Copes is told during a series of separate interviews with the primaries, who are not speaking to each other. We hear about their lightning-bolt first meeting, which is reenacted by the younger dances playing the couple. But we’re also shown the rehearsals for these re-creations, often with Nieves looking on and offering advice to her counterpart about the style of dance 40-50 years ago.
Nieves states early on that her only regret concerning her professional relationship with Copes was that it got personal, something that lead to many troubles in both their lives over the years. Copes was a womanizer, sure, but he also saw Nieves as his discovery more than a romantic partner. Eventually, being hurt so often turned Nieves cold toward true love, and she began to have affairs as well, which strangely seemed to emotionally even out the duo and brought them back together as a great team.
The young dancers portraying the youthful couple are sublime and quite stirring as both performers and actors, and the staging is simple yet still manages to stir a wellspring of emotion in Nieves. The filmmakers take her from one old dance hall to another and have her walk through them to see how different or rundown they’ve become. This almost felt like an exercise in getting her weepy, and often it works.
In addition to the re-creations, there’s a great deal of archival footage of Nieves and Copes in their prime, moving as one, sometimes so quickly that it appears genuinely dangerous, especially in one well-known routine involving an intricate dance on top of a very high table. Nieves admits that she was always petrified doing that number, no matter how many hundreds of times they performed it.
It becomes clear at some point that OUR LAST TANGO is leading to something, perhaps a reunion or maybe simply a resolution of differences (I won’t ruin the ending). But even if the film had remained just two people talking in separate locations about their shared history, the movie would have been exceptional. So masterfully shot by cinematographers Jo Heim and Félix Monti, the screen pulsates with life and color and energy that you rarely find to this degree, even in other films about dance (take that, STEP UP movies!). It’s a passionate remembrance with only a hint of sadness for bygone days, and there is enough scandal, bitterness and jealousy to fill a telenovela. Most importantly, it’s another great achievement in filmmaking about dance from Wenders and Kral.