~Harry H Long
THE CELLIST: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky
2017 / BBP Films / 103m / $24/.95 / NR
Lovers of classical music will have a feast with this biography of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. I confess I’d never heard of him before but he was quite renowned and even dubbed by many as the greatest string player of all time – it bears noting that a plethora of string performers lived before recordings could be made so “of all time” can scarcely be considered a definitive conclusion. He was certainly an exceptional musician even at an early age. Born 1903 into an impoverished Ukrainian family he was encouraged to take up music by his father and settled on the cello because he liked the look of it. He was playing with a group called the Beethoven Quartet when the revolution occurred (he was 13 at the time) and the group was forced to rename itself the Lenin Quartet (supposedly Lenin himself told Piatigorsky that Beethoven was more appropriate but the new designation stuck). Two years later he auditioned for and was chosen as the principal cellist of the Bolshoi Ballet. He wanted to study in Berlin but was forbidden to leave Russia so he smuggled himself out. Playing in a café to earn money he was heard by Wilhelm Furtwängler who hired him to be the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic (he was still a teenager!).
With the Nazis taking over Europe he and his second wife took off from France for the USA where his career continued to be exceptional. He performed with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and formed a group with Arthur Rubinstein (piano) and Jasha Heifitz (violin) that was referred to as “the millon dollar trio” and toured extensively. Composers, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, William Walton, Vernon Duke, and Igor Stravinsky created cello works for him. (How is it I’d never heard of the man? Maybe because died in 1976 – the same year he gave his last performance – which is about the same time I was becoming immersed in classical music?) He lived an amazing life which is lovingly documented here. His musicianship is attested to by the likes of cellist Yo Yo Ma and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. There are abundant clips of Piatigorsky performing (and teaching) and my only complaint is that they are all too brief. Fortunately there’s a wealth of his performances on YouTube. Luscious stuff. I suggest you check them out after watching this film.
A FAREWELL TO ARMS
1932 / Alpha Video / 88m / $6.98 / NR
Frank Borzage is one of the great Hollywood Golden Age directors of whom you’ve likely never heard. But I’m guessing if you checked out his IMDb page you’d spot a number of titles that prompt an “Oh, I love that film!” amongst his 107 credits from 1913 to 1961 (when he was replaced by Edgar G. Ulmer on “Journey Beneath the Desert”). He may be Hollywood’s only true romantic and his lush, eclectic style resulted in films you don’t so much watch as sink into. There’s “7th Heaven” from the silent years and “Little Man What Now”, “History is Made at Night”, “Strange Cargo” and “The Mortal Storm” and so much more from the 1930s and 40s. He was the first director to win the Oscar. Reportedly his heavy drinking resulted in his bouncing from studio to studio in the sound era and his career was in tatters by the 1950s (following a stay at Republic Pictures – quite a fall from Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel was made for Paramount at a time when Gary Cooper was not yet craggy and was often found in a tuxedo (hence the line in Cole Porter’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”). Here he’s in uniform as Frederic, a World War I ambulance driver who meets and promptly falls in love with English nurse Catherine (Helen Hayes). Frederic’s superior, Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou, slimy as always), who also has the hots for Catherine, has him reassigned but he’s injured and ends up in her care. She becomes pregnant and goes off to Switzerland to have the baby; Frederic goes AWOL to find her and, well, love doesn’t exactly conquer all.
Borzage was an odd choice to direct Hemingway’s cynical work and he transformed the story into one about the imperishability of love. Hemingway reportedly disliked the results (purists may want to steer clear). Visually the film is lush – as much a compliment to the production design (by Roland Anderson and Hans Drier) and camerawork (Charles Lang) as it is to Borzage whose innovative approach to camerawork and lighting make this film look unlike any other Paramount production of the period (except maybe those of Josef von Sternberg) . You can tell the director learned his craft in the silent era; the compositions are arresting, often Expressionist, and advance the story as well as being striking – there’s almost no need for spoken dialogue. Borzage was one of the great visual stylists of Hollywood and his films were often spiritual as well as romantic – see especially “Strange Cargo”. (Thank goodness Alpha has a gorgeous print so the visuals can be fully appreciated.) But Borzage isn’t loathe to get gritty as in the montage depicting Frederic’s harrowing journey through war-torn Europe. If there is a weak spot it is the vapid performance of Hayes who’s simply vapid (it’s clear why her early attempt mat a Hollywood career went nowhere). Cooper may have had a limited range but he could do sincere like nobody’s business and that’s essentially what’s required of him here, And Menjou is… well… Menjou. If you need an introduction to the director this is a fine, economical place to start.
2018 / Icarus Films / 109m / $26.98 /NR
Prepare for a verrrry sloooow burn – not to mention an initially puzzling one – if you decide to tackle this Argentine thriller. The opening long shot is of a house from which people emerge carrying household goods; this continues for awhile and a man enters the place. The next scene takes place in a restaurant where lawyer Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) waits for his wife. A rude younger man (Diego Cremonesi) insists he should get the table because he is ready to order, not waiting. Claudio finally gives up the table but lectures the man on his bad manners until the man responds violently and is escorted from the place. When Claudio and his wife leave the establishment they again encounter the man who shoots at them but then puts a bullet through his head. Claudio tells his wife he’s going to take the man to a specialist but instead dumps him (dead? dying?) in the desert. Some months later Claudio is approached by a friend to act as a straw man in a slightly shady real estate deal involving the house from the prologue. Said friend also reveals he has hired a detective to try locating his wife’s brother who went missing a little while ago. Guess who?
The tension only begins at about the halfway point with the detectives’ (Alfredo Castro) visits to Claudio. They seem low key but his questions clearly infer he strongly suspects the lawyer’s culpability. But even in this portion of the film writer / director Benjamín Naishtat retains a dispassionate approach, saving all for the final confrontation between the two men. It’s a helluva scene though I’m not certain it quite compensates for a film whose sense of menace is ever present but well below the surface – just as the lawyer and his friend (and others) keep their corruption hidden under the veneer of respectability. That’s hardly a new message either but it is one that bears repeating. And here it’s set in the last days of the Peron regime when people simply disappeared frequently (the owners of that empty house were simply gone one day) – and would continue to do so under the equally corrupt regime that followed the coup. Disappearing is a leitmotif here, from a cheesy magician’s act to a sequence involving a solar eclipse. The political climate of the time is only mentioned in passing throughout but the information in the final scene – that the coup is rumored to happen that night – sets up a highly ambiguous ending. There is much to admire here but the pacing might make it a rough slog for some.
TIM HEIDECKER: MISTER AMERICA
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 88m / $26.98 / R
Not all political campaigns are successful and you can be 95% certain from the very first few minutes of this film that Tim Heidecker’s is going to bomb spectacularly. The candidate is also his own staff as he goes door to door collecting signatures to get on the ballot running for district attorney of San Bernardino county. He’s never studied law but he did represent himself in a trial for the murder of several people from tainted marijuana vape (a hung jury set him free) and his sole reason for running is revenge against the D.A. who prosecuted him. The judge who presided is interviewed and declares that Heidecker turned the courtroom into a circus with his bizarre behavior and video footage of the trial bears this out. His behavior as a candidate is no less outre and on occasion even illegal (a camera put down but not turned off reveals he and his campaign manager forging signatures to the petition). He’s too stupid to grasp how stupid he is (when the election supervisors spot the chicanery and refuse to put him on the ballot he asks if the election can be delayed until he corrects things).
You might feel sorry for this schlub until more and more xenophobic garbage comes out of his mouth (his attempts to connect with voters of color are hilarious and cringe inducing) and his displays of anger non-management display his lack of fitness for being a public servant. He comes completely unglued when his co-host of On Cinema at the Cinema shows up at his sparsely attended town hall and peppers him with questions about the vapes. (Said co-host insists Heidecker’s campaign is a virtual remake of “The Shaggy D.A.”) By the time he gets to his congratulations phone call to his opponent, which transforms into a vicious, profanity-laden rant against the man, I was glad we had one less moron in office. Which thankfully could never have been the case because this is a goof – a satirical mockumetary played so straight – and so realistically close to its obvious character inspiration – you’ll be suckered in if you don’t know that in advance because it’s more WTF? than LOL.
WRINKLES THE CLOWN
2018 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 70m / $26.98 / NR
I don’t know quite what to make of this documentary – or is it a mockumentary? – and the only way to explain why necessitates SPOILERS, so you might not wish to proceed with this review. Some few years before this two year old documentary was made a video went viral depicting a ghastly looking clown emerging from the drawer under the bed of a sleeping little girl. Now I’m not one who suffers from Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns (yes I Googled it; I didn’t know that word off the top of my head) – but it’s a pretty creepy bit of footage supposedly captured by a security camera. This was followed in time by more videos of Wrinkles stalking through back yards, peering in windows and so forth, freaking out the occupants. This much at least is fact as is the appearance in Florida and some other southern states of stickers with a photo of Wrinkles and a phone number. Word spread that this hideous clown – purportedly a retired gent bored by having too much time on his hands – was for hire to scare naughty children into good behavior. And Wrinkles apparently doesn’t even have to make a personal appearance; we are treated to voicemails of parents calling the clown’s cell with the sound of their tots wailing in protest. (A psychologist shows up briefly to assert that, yes, this is child abuse.)
Wrinkles was tracked down and agreed to be interviewed so long as his face was blurred out. He lives out of his RV – the better I assume to travel throughout the south fulfilling his mission. Except it isn’t Wrinkles at all but an actor impersonating Wrinkles. (I had my suspicions while watching “Wrinkles” smearing some sort of red substance on a wall and on his mask that some persiflage was afoot.) Something like 10 minutes before the end the real Wrinkles (supposedly) shows up, backlit in silhouette to explain all the videos were just that and, no, he doesn’t get hired out by parents. So is the reason for this documentary to school us not to trust everything on the world wide web? (We do after all know about the activities of those Russian troll farms.) It could explain the footage of young people doing the Bloody Mary thing with Wrinkles’ name and the extensive footage of overweight children and their fascination with Wrinkles. There’s more of this than seems necessary, especially since neither child is very interesting (and how much of this was staged for the cameras?). It feels like padding to take about 30 minutes of subject to over an hour. And if the point is not to take everything on the internet at face value – and possibly not even what’s presented in this documentary – what we may have is a filmmaker with a subject and no idea what to do with it. I confess I don’t know which conclusion to make.
KING KONG (1933)
Early warning: The original 1933 “King Kong” is roaring and rampaging its way back to movie screens across the country this March. Fathom Events and the TCM Big Screen Classics series are giving the legendary adventure its first nationwide theatrical release since the early 1970s when it was presented for the first time since its original run with its censored scenes restored. More than 600 movie theaters across the country will play King Kong for one day only: Sunday, March 15.
“Kong” is perhaps not a great movie but its technical achievements were groundbreaking and still look mighty impressive. It’s still the greatest stop-motion movie ever made. For those of you who don’t understand the term it refers to taking jointed, scale model models (the Kong puppet was about 18 inches in height), placing them in scale model sets (and/or melding them with live action footage) and animating them by moving the models slightly and shooting a single frame of film – and then moving them a bit again and exposing another frame. Lather, rinse, repeat. Tedious, time consuming work that can give the illusion of life. Just how successful an illusion depends on the skill of the animator and few can rival the great Willis O’Brien. Admittedly he did not personally do all the animating but even his assistants, when working for others or on their own, didn’t accomplish the sense of life achieved here. You believe Kong and the various dinosaurs are living creatures.
And supporting the astonishing technical work is Max Steiner’s magnificent score – rivaled only by his “She” and one of the earliest full scores for a talkie (producers initially scorned them because they fear audiences would wonder where the music was coming from). Thundering and Stravinskiesque it caused Oscar Levant to claim the film was a Steiner concert… with pictures.
The cast is B-list – though Fay Wray was having a good run at the time; “Kong” was one of 11 films she made in 1933. Robert Armstrong was more often a supporting player and often a villainous one (his Carl Denham is no choirboy) and Bruce Cabot – whose heavy drinking would scuttle his career – was making his film debut. The script by Ruth Rose is admirable for its economy in setting things up without lengthy exposition. The first line has a character inquire “Is this the moving picture ship?” and within a few more lines we find out that it contains the filmmaker known for walking up to a lion and telling it to smile pretty for the camera. Denham’s occupation and character are fully sketched out in a brief exchange. The writing may seem bare bones but achieving such simplicity is no easy task.
You’ve probably seen “King Kong”, possibly multiple times. But you haven’t really seen it until you’ve seen it on the big screen where its spectacle can be properly appreciated. Don’t pass up the opportunity.