Kubo and the Two Strings.
By Milos Stehlik
If you want to have a wonderful, memorable dinner, you’re not likely to choose a restaurant which is part of a chain with 3,000 outlets. At a small restaurant, perhaps on a dark, industrial street, you might wonder where to park and the menu might need some translation. Isn’t that a part of the wonderful experience?
Finding a great restaurant is pretty much the same as finding a great movie. It takes a bit of effort. Why then, are so many of us so lazy that streaming a mediocre film or stumbling into the nearest multiplex is preferable to making an effort to find an amazing movie gem?
One such gem just arrived in the theatres: James Schamus’s Indignation, based on a late Philip Roth novel, set in the ’50s and inspired by Roth’s own college experience. Marcus (Logan Lerman in a truly great performance), the son of a kosher butcher in Newark, goes to a small college in Ohio where he discovers sex, the constraints of his upbringing and religion. Indignation is a nuanced portrait of the ’50s — a decade during which some of us spent some time in a car just “necking.” Olivia, the free-spirited girl Marcus meets in the film, goes further, ultimately creating a crisis for Marcus. Sarah Gadon is terrific as Olivia, and Tracy Letts ominous as the oppressive Dean Caudwell. See it if you can; you almost never get the quality of intelligent writing and dead-on performances in a contemporary American film. This is cinema as it was once thought to be — a cinema for adults.
I didn’t much like the new documentary Norman Lear as a film. It’s frenetic as it speeds to cover “all” of Lear’s very full life (he’s 94 today). But Lear is an amazing character who not only transformed American television and attitudes with his groundbreaking sitcoms like All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but then had the courage to leave television behind and start working for the rights of women and social justice.
Captain Fantastic is an indie film which starts with a family led by a father (a good performance by Viggo Mortensen) living off the grid in the wilderness. Early in the film, they learn that the children’s mother, who suffered from mental health problems, has died, and so the father and kids journey by bus to Arizona. Captain Fantastic is not only a look at the American landscape, but a film about growing up, about rites of passage, independence and the meaning of family. When I interviewed filmmaker Matt Ross, he said the idea for the film emerged from his thinking about his own two kids — what were the life values he wanted to share?
Kubo and the Two Strings.
Children’s or family films are so dominated by Pixar and Disney that parents have little chance to know anything else. Laika Studios — headquartered in Portland, Oregon — is that rare animation studio which is independent and makes imaginative and creative films. It doesn’t hurt that the brother of studio chief Travis Knight is Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. I’m looking forward to Kubo and the Two Strings, based on an ancient Japanese fairy tale, and made in 3-D stop motion animation. Kubo, the main character, has to battle gods and monsters to save his family and solve the mystery of the death of his father, a samurai warrior, when he accidentally unleashes an evil spirit. It’s the first film with Travis Knight in the role of director.
Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which stars, in Oscar-worthy performances, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, may be criticized for its distanced view of a historical case. In 1967, Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial married couple were forced to live in “exile” in Washington, D.C., because Virginia law prohibited interracial marriage. They ultimately sued and took their case all the way to the Supreme Court — changing history. The film is not so much about the court case as it is a true love story of two quite ordinary people, told without excessive sentimentality. The characters, rather than the “schmaltz” of Richard and Mildred, become the driving force of a film which is ultimately profound and moving.
People often ask me what I am watching, and I never know how to answer because I am always in-between so many different films. So a true confession: A few minutes ago, I just finished watching Fritz Lang, a new film by German director Gordian Maugg, who made the buried-treasure-of-a-film The Olympic Summer some years ago. The Olympic Summer is the story of a love affair between a young man and an older woman set against the background of the Munich 1936 Olympics. Maugg clearly likes subjects set in the past and cleverly intercuts archival documentary footage with contemporary reconstructions — a technique he also uses in Fritz Lang.
The film is, as its title clearly suggests, about the famous one-eyed film director (he lost his eye in World War I) Fritz Lang. As his relationship with Thea von Harbou, his wife and screenwriter-collaborator, is falling apart and Lang searches for a theme for his new film, he chances upon the case of the unstoppable and brutal murderer named “The Vampire of Dusseldorf.” This became M, Lang’s first sound film, with that indelible performance by Peter Lorre. Two years after the completion of M, Lang left for Paris and the U.S. Von Harbou stayed behind and became an ardent Nazi supporter. Not yet bought for U.S. distribution, watch for it in independent cinema venues like Facets later in the year.
Famous lovers Romy Schneider and Alain Delon starred together in The Red List.
Sometimes, out of nowhere and for no ostensible reason, I think of directors, themes or actors. Most recently, I’ve been thinking of Romy Schneider, perhaps because in some ways she is so antithetical to the movie stars of today. Beautiful and unashamedly feminine, there was nothing false or manufactured about her. Her personal life was stained by periods of drugs and alcohol abuse (not unlike Marilyn Monroe). She had two marriages and a high-profile love affair with Alain Delon. She suffered the tragic death of her son who was impaled on a fence. Her enormous popularity stemmed from her Sissi trilogy, the story of princess Elisabeth of Austria. These films oddly remain relatively unknown in the U.S. despite their enormous popularity elsewhere.
If you look at Schneider’s considerable filmography — and she was only 44 years old when she died — it’s evident that she chose to work with (or was chosen by) very smart filmmakers, including Luchino Visconti (notably her performance in his Ludwig), Claude Chabrol (Innocents with Dirty Hands), Joseph Losey (The Assassination of Trotsky) and Bertrand Tavernier (Death Watch). She had a long creative association with Claude Sautet with whom she made four films including César and Rosalie and Max et les Ferrailleurs, a terrific film set in the fashion world that I saw for the first time a couple of years ago at the Telluride Film Festival. Film historian Serge Bromberg (who lived for a year in Chicago and worked for Audio Consultants in Evanston) restored L’Enfer, in which Romy Schneider starred and which was never completed mostly because of the poisonous, manipulative relationship between the film’s director, Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diabolique, The Wages of Fear, Forbidden Games), and Schneider. (The poison was all on Clouzot’s side). You can see this film on DVD.
I think “why” I began thinking of Romy Schneider was because Facets just acquired a rare DVD copy of Mädchen in Uniform. This is a 1958 remake by Geza von Radvanyi of the 1931 film classic of the same title, directed by Leontine Sagan, an early woman director. Often cited as the first lesbian-themed feature and based on a play, the film is set in an aristocratic but harsh boarding school in which Schneider falls in love with a progressive governess. It was a risky role for Schneider, who had just come off the Sissi films, but marked a turning point in her career in shaping her as a serious actress.
Romy Schneider as a school girl in Mädchen in Uniform.
No, Mädchen in Uniform is not a comedy, but if you take a chance and watch it, you’ll still have a very happy movie summer!