“Be curious. Stand up. Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.” – Robert Frank

What a terrific year this has been so far for documentaries. I just saw another great one, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, directed by Laura Israel. I wish I had time to write a more finished piece, but we’re leaving tomorrow for a week in Montreal and I want to post this before we go. Basically, I loved it! Anything that opens with The Mekons’ “Memphis Egypt” powering through the opening title montage has got me right off the bat. Here it is. You’ll see what I mean (though the clip ends a bit abruptly).

Laura Israel has helped edit Frank’s own films for the last twenty years. I’d always thought of Robert Frank as a still photographer, and was surprised to learn from Don’t Blink that he’s been making films for years. By the time The Americans was published in the United States in 1959, Frank had already made his first short film, Pull My Daisy. I was aware of only this film, along with Me and My Brother (1969) and the notorious Cocksucker Blues (1972), Frank’s documentary about the Rolling Stones which has never been officially released. Co-directed with Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy was written and narrated by Jack Kerouac (who also wrote the introduction to The Americans), and featured Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, and other Beat Generation figures. This reflects Frank’s continued involvement with poets and writers of the period. In Don’t Blink, he says he’s interested in “marginal people who live on the edge.” We see this in his films and in many of the photographs in The Americans,  as well as in the way he’s lived his life. Don’t Blink conveys this really well.

The Americans-coverFrank has made between twenty and thirty films (depending on which source you read), but he will be forever known — and justly so — for his monumental, hugely influential book of photographs, The Americans, published first in France in 1958 and in this country in 1959 . A Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Frank to drive across the United States in 1955, shooting what he saw in all levels of society along the way. Twenty-seven to twenty-eight thousand shots were edited down to the eighty-three that appear in The Americans. Here are five of them:

The Americans-flag over faceThe Americans-New Mexico hwy

 

 

 

 

The Americans-men's room shoeshine

 

The Americans-transvestites

 

 

The Americans-black nanny & white child

 

 

 

 

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 I was quite energized by Don’t Blink – Robert Frank. The music selected by Hal Willner played a large part in my reaction. The film includes tracks by The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, Patti Smith, and Johnny Thunders (“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” — great title). Here’s a complete listing of the song credits used in the film. What a hell of a soundtrack album this would make.

Don’t Blink was shot by Liza Renzler and Ed Lachman, both great cinematographers with a long list of credits. Renzler’s work includes Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), Pollock (2000), and the awesome Steve Buscemi film Trees Lounge (1996). Lachman’s many titles include Carol (2015), Howl (2010), Far from Heaven (2002), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Robert Frank is a constant presence in Don’t Blink, which has a fragmented structure that reflects Frank’s approach to his own films. We see him in many archival clips — one in particular in which he clearly does not want to be interviewed and is giving the struggling filmmaker a very hard time. But he clearly likes Laura Israel, whom he’s known and worked with for many years. His present-day thoughts about his life and work have a warm, friendly quality. It’s interesting, though, that despite the iconic stature of his most famous work, The Americans, he seems to feel closer to his filmmaking. Frank says at one point that films, no matter how old, are always alive, while photographs are “just memories to put in a drawer.” But he has also said of his films, “Each is their own short moment. I forget about them. They were so much time in the moment. But it’s in the past and you can’t go back. Have to go forward. Deadly to go back.” The thing that comes out of all of this — and you really get it in Don’t Blink — is that he can’t stand still. Robert Frank is a true artist in his life and in his work.

Near the end of the film, Frank says, “Be curious. Stand up. Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.” This is ostensibly advice to photographers and filmmakers, but I think it has a larger meaning. In addition to being a total gas, Don’t Blink is also deeply moving. — Ted Hicks

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank is playing at Film Forum here in New York through July 26.

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Supplemental material

Director Laura Israel interviewed by the Film Society’s Kent Jones when Don’t Blink was shown at last year’s New York Festival.

“Road Show: The Journey of Robert Frank’s The Americansby Anthony Lane — September 14, 2009, The New Yorker

Here’s a discussion of The Americans hosted by Executive Director Deborah Klochko at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, California.

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank     press notes

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank    Grasshopper Films website (includes screening schedule for other cities)

Variety review of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank

“A Mesmerizing Marathon of Robert Frank’s Movies” by Nicholas Dawidoff — July 12, 2016, The New Yorker

Finally, here’s Robert Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959). Robert’s son Pablo appears in the film, along with French actress Delphine Seyrig, who would star in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad two years later and many great films after that. Strange but true.

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Varieties of Human Experience: Recent Documentaries

In the last ten to twenty years, in addition to informing us in a journalistic sense, the best documentaries have been artistic expressions in their own right. The ones I’ve seen lately have been outstanding, uplifting, deeply moving, and extremely well made. Here they are:

Eva Hesse (Marcie Begleiter, director)  I’d never heard of Eva Hesse before seeing this film, but despite my ignorance, it turns out she’s an important figure in the art world. In the photographs and archival footage we see, she seems unassuming, smaller than life, yet she created amazing work. This film makes me want to know about her and her art.

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Francofonia-poster3Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, director)  Sokurov is probably best known in this country for Russian Ark (2002), a time-travelling wonder set in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, famously shot in a single, 99-minute take. It’s amazing. But the first of his films I saw was Mother and Son (1997), a slow-moving but far from boring film comprised of long takes in which virtually nothing happens on screen, but it’s mesmerizing all the same. Francofonia isn’t easy to pin down; it’s a mix of fact and fiction, history and imagination, with the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and art works from the Louvre at the center. There’s something very moving about it that’s hard to describe.

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Morgan Neville, director)  Neville has a strong resumé; his previous films include Best of Enemies (2015) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The Music of Strangers is just wonderful. The music is rapturous and transporting. The musicians profiled in the film come off as genuinely solid, firmly grounded people. They include Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, Wu Man of China, the awesome Cristina Pato of Galicia in Spain, and Kinan Azmeh of Syria. As Wu Man says at one point, “There’s no East or West, it’s just a globe.” The Music of Strangers opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 10; nationwide in June/July.

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Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus, director)  Garbus has had a long, impressive career. Last year she gave us the extraordinary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and years before the equally strong The Farm: Inside Angola Prison (1997), both of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Nothing Left Unsaid (great title) is sharp, witty, and powerful. Gloria Vanderbilt, who I knew little about other than her name and her line of jeans, has had an amazing life. She was married to Leopold Stokowski (!) and Sidney Lumet (news to me). Her last husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who died in 1978, was Anderson’s father. Gloria is 92 and sharp as a tack. Her relationship with Anderson is beautiful to see. Besides being mother and son, they seem to be really good friends. My friend Judith Trojan wrote perceptively about the film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when it was first shown on HBO this past April. You can read that here.

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Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, director)  This film is a rush of positive energy. Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, lives in New Orleans where she cares for the elderly at an assisted living facility during the day and posts her songs on YouTube at night. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, is a musician who lives in Israel and creates new compositions from musical clips he finds on YouTube. The film shows how he uses Princess Shaw’s music and the profound impact this has on her life when he releases it on the Internet. Presenting Princess Shaw is available for streaming on Amazon.

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

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Unlocking the Cage-poster2Unlocking the Cage (Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, directors)  We saw this at Film Forum last weekend. Hegedus, Pennebaker, and animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, were there for a Q&A. Wise has been working for years to get chimpanzees legally recognized as persons. Per a description at Film Forum’s website, “It’s Wise’s unorthodox position that cognitively complex animals (e.g. chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, elephants) should be granted personhood rights that would protect them from abuse.” The film is extremely dramatic. It feels like it’s happening in the moment.

Hegedus-Pennebaker-WiseThree years ago I posted a piece on my blog about Pennebaker and Bob Dylan, which you can access here.

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Weiner-poster2Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, directors)  I suspect that Anthony Weiner now regrets giving Kriegman and Steinberg as much access as he did for the making of this film. I’ve read that Weiner still hasn’t seen it, which is too bad, because he might learn something about himself. Weiner is an extraordinary film, stunning at times. The tragedy of it is that if Weiner didn’t have a weird sex addiction — albeit one that doesn’t involve actual physical contact with another person — he could have been a strong politician, an impassioned guy fighting for the right causes. Throughout we see his wife, a mainly silent Huma Abedin, who does not look amused, standing by his side. It’s hard not to think of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Seeing Weiner is like watching a trainwreck at times. He makes one bad decision after another, but just keeps plowing forward. In spite of everything, I find it hard not to like Anthony Weiner. I’m just glad I’m not him.

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Witness-posterThe Witness (James Solomon, director)  After Kitty Genovese was murdered on a New York street in her neighborhood in 1964, the story by A. M. Rosenthal that appeared in the New York Times stated that thirty-eight residents had witnessed the multiple attacks on Kitty from their apartments and did nothing, despite her screams for help. This quickly became the accepted version, written in stone. Rosenthal, interviewed in the film, sticks by the story. Kitty Genovese became the symbol of urban apathy, specifically in New York City. This extraordinary film follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill Genovese, in his efforts to learn more about who his sister was and what really happened that night, a quest that consumed him for years. What emerges is a major revision of the original story. Bill tracks down and interviews as many of the original witnesses as he can. He lost his legs in Vietnam, and if anything, this makes Bill seem that much more determined. The film plays out like a thriller of the highest order. Near the end, Bill hires a young actress to go on the street late one night where the original attack occurred and scream as Kitty did that night. This will have you clawing the armrests. The Witness is a gripping detective story. I think Bill Genovese is the true witness of the title.

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From This Day Forward (Sharon Shattuck, director)  We saw this film last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. It was subsequently shown at eight film festivals in 2015 but I couldn’t understand why it didn’t get either a theatrical or television release, because its transgender subject matter couldn’t be more topical. So I was happy to learn that From This Day Forward will open at the IFC Center in New York and elsewhere on June 24. It will then air on the PBS series POV this October 10. I included From This Day Forward on my list of favorite documentaries for 2015. You can access that post here.

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Lo and Behold-poster Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, director)  The latest film from Werner Herzog is a fascinating look at the pervasive world of the Internet, from its beginnings to what it might become. Herzog brings the same sense of inquiry and wonder to Lo and Behold that he has to his previous films, which include Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). While I love many of his narrative films, especially Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), I think overall his best work has been done in documentaries. Lo and Behold has its New York premiere at the BAM CinemaFest in Brooklyn on June 19, and opens in theaters and on demand on August 19. I plan to write more about it then.

Here is a clip of Werner Herzog and executive producer Jim McNiel interviewed by Steve Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times at the Sundance Film Festival, where Lo and Behold had its world premiere in January . Herzog, an original thinker if there ever was one, is such a kick to listen to.

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Finally, here’s a link to an IMDB listing of the top 100 documentaries from 2000 to 2014. I didn’t see Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, or Al Maysles on this list — major omissions — but these are excellent choices for the most part. It gives you an idea of how many terrific documentaries are out there. – Ted Hicks

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The Supercharged Art of Walter Molino

Last week a friend of mine in Minneapolis, Mark Ryan, sent me a series of illustrations by Walter Molino, an Italian comics artist and illustrator. I’d never heard of this guy, but was totally blown away by his work. I’ve been able to find only the briefest biographical information about him. Walter Molino was born in 1915 and died in 1997 at age 82. He began working professionally as an illustrator and caricaturist in 1935 for a newspaper and two children’s magazines, followed by a satirical magazine and several comic strip series. In 1941 Molino became the chief cover illustrator for La Domenica del Corriere, an Italian weekly newspaper. His work for this paper supplies most of the incredible scenes in this post. One can only imagine the stories behind these images. Almost all of them depict life and death situations. They’re like freeze frames in the midst of extreme action. And they move. His style is kinetic and electric, vivid and cinematic. You can feel the energy. Many depict women and children at risk, fires, explosions, and calamitous crashes. He seems to have a thing about falling, usually from great heights. Norman Rockwell he’s not. I haven’t found any indication that Molino ever did film posters, but if not, he should have.

Walter Molino-jumping from fireWalter Molno-child fallingWalter Molino-throwing guy down stairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Molino-between speeding trainsWalter Molino-catching falling womanWalter Molino-tossing baby from fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Molino-train hits car '58Walter Molino-race car hits crowd '57

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Molino-child on front bumper

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Walter Molino-guy hit by speedboatWalter Molino-capsized lifeboat '59

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Molino-woman hanging out airplaneWalter Molino-jet hits train

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And whatever the hell this is.

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Okay, maybe he had some stuff to work out. In any event, this wasn’t his only subject matter. He occasionally took a break from mayhem and turned out works like the smoking satire below, and somewhat strangely, a portrait of JFK and Pope John XXIII from 1963 titled “The Peace Sowers.”

Walter Molino-smokingWalter Molino-Peace Sowers '63

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You can find many more examples of Molino’s amazing work online. – Ted Hicks

Walter Molino

Walter Molino

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“Tale of Tales” Pt. 2 – Supplemental Material

This may be a deeper dive than anyone who hasn’t already seen Tale of Tales will want to take, but here it is for those who do. First is more information about the work of Giambattista Basile, author of the film’s source material. Following that is a statement by the director, Matteo Garrone, concerning the film’s intentions and aspects of production. Both of these are from the press notes for Tale of Tales.

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Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile

Tale of Tales-paperback coverIn Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile, Italy possesses the oldest, richest, and most accomplished of popular fairytale books.

Basile, Count of Torrone (cir. 1570-1632) was an academic, courtier and soldier to various Italian princes, including the Doge of Venice. He drew inspiration from popular oral traditions in Crete, and especially Venice.

A seminal narrative monument, Basile’s work comprises 50 tales. The first tale acts as a framework in which a group of people tell each other 49 stories over five days. In delightful language, using a style that blends eroticism and violence, the elegant and the grotesque, codes of honour and bawdiness, the author depicts with consummate skill and extraordinary vigour an incredible gallery of moral portraits and social mores. Yet the sorcerers and ogres, kings and princesses, dragons and enchanted animals in these stories have a naturalistic appearance, and Basile moves them through an accessible world, at once rich and poverty-stricken, one that is very physical and visceral. The backdrop for the tales is the everyday life of fully-fleshed men and women, in which extraordinary elements; the magical, the monstrous or miraculous, burst in.

Whilst other works written after the Decameron were made up of stories that could be called fairytales, such as The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Tale of Tales is the first in which all the stories are fairytales. Moreover, Basile was the first writer to succeed in perfectly reproducing oral intonations. Tale of Tales inspired the Brothers Grimm two centuries later, for some of their most famous works including Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel. Through his taste for fantasy, Basile’s work, with its comic and sentimental aspects and frequent touches of horror, is several centuries ahead of authors like Hans Christian Andersen, J.R.R. Tolkien, or even the Harry Potter saga. But the Neapolitan dialect in which Basile’s tales were written explains why they remained virtually unknown to the wider world for some 200 years.

“This collection was for long the best and richest found in a nation. The author had a special talent for collecting them, and what’s more, an intimate knowledge of the dialect. The stories are told almost without a break, and the tone, at least in the Neapolitan tales, is captured to perfection. We can, then, regard this collection of 50 tales as the basis for many others.” -Wilhelm Grimm (1837)

“The Tale of Tales is the dream of a Neapolitan Shakespeare, obsessed with all that is gruesome, with an insatiable appetite for sorcerers and ogres, fascinated by convoluted and grotesque images, in which crudeness merges with the sublime.” -Italo Calvino

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DIRECTOR’S NOTES by Matteo Garrone

The Choice of Basile –

 I chose to tackle the universe of Basile because in his tales, I found that they blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavors.

The stories recounted in The Tale of Tales cover all of life’s opposites: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the magical and the everyday, the regal and the obscene, the straightforward and the artificial, the sublime and the filthy, the terrible and the tender, scraps of mythology and torrents of popular wisdom. The tales recount human feelings pushed to the extreme.

The approach to the tales: the real and the fantastical –

From the first reading of the 50 tales which make up the book, me and my fellow screenwriters faced numerous choices in choosing the stories that we liked most and then making them credible, concrete, as if we were seeing them take place before our eyes. Our approach was to search for something powerful, physical, shared and authentic, even in the stories in which the imagination was the most fired-up. In Basile’s work, there’s a great pleasure in the narrative, and that should also be a prerogative of cinema.

My previous films have been based on true stories, which I transformed to the limits of an almost fantasy dimension. Here, we did the journey in the opposite direction. We were inspired by fabulous situations that were brought on to a realistic basis through a process of subtraction, so the spectator can at each moment feel involved in the story, and become immersed in the adventures of our characters.

Modernity of the tales –

This process of subtraction had no effect whatsoever on the themes and the fundamental sentiments in the book, which still show all their surprising modernity. We were the first to be amazed by this. The horror, for example, is all there in Basile’s work; we really didn’t add anything. At the end of a long selection process, once we had chosen and created the connections between the tales, we realized to our great surprise that we had followed an invisible but very strong thread that linked them. Actually, it involved three stories about women, each at a different age in life. But what struck us even more was the capacity of these tales to capture some contemporary obsessions: the powerful desire for youth and beauty (which Basile even describes in a hyper-realistic manner, offering a satire on today’s cosmetic surgery, four centuries ahead of his time), the obsession of a mother who would do anything to have a son, the conflict between the generations, and the violence that a girl must deal with to become adult.

The language of the film –

We chose English, beyond mere production reasons (given that it’s a film with an international cast), but because that language is the way to make The Tale of Tales, this book on which some of the most famous fairytales in the world are based, accessible to the widest possible audience. The imagination of these tales goes beyond any limit, and in that respect Basile is a universal author. What’s more, the use of English means you don’t immediately identify the landscapes which form the backdrop of our story, and that avoids fixing the characters in a particular dialectal tone.

Faithfulness and betrayal –

Using English was not the only “betrayal”; we took some other liberties. But the rest is in the very nature of the fairytale, which is continually translated and reinterpreted. We found so many versions of the same stories. You can never be faithful to a tale: each time you tell it to a child so they go off to sleep, something changes. What we absolutely didn’t want to betray, what we tried to keep intact, was the spirit, that evocative power of the Tales, which has fed the universal imagination through the centuries, influencing writers like Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. And the language in which we wanted to transpose it was above all the cinematographic language – a language which can have its own specific richness, like that which we find in Basile’s work. If there can be a fantastic version of Shakespeare’s Tempest rewritten in Neapolitan by Eduardo de Filippo, we thought perhaps there could be a Basile in English. And let’s not forget that anyone who reads Basile today, even in Italy, reads the dual version, with the original text opposite the translation. It would a great thing if the film made people curious and encouraged them to read the book.

The special effects –

Like all the artistic decisions, whether the cinematography sets or costumes, the special effects were designed to give the film as much verisimilitude as possible, to lend it physical and emotional credibility. In particular, the work on the special effects was characterized by a purely artisanal creative path. We physically tried to create the fantastical creatures like the dragon and the giant flea, and to keep the digital intervention solely for touch-ups. It’s a way of working that allowed the actors to perform in close contact with these fantastic creatures and to get fully inside the skin of the character during takes.

Painting and cinema –

From a visual point of view, some of the film’s major inspirations come from Los Caprichos, the series of engravings by Francisco Goya. His marvelous illustrations really capture the soul which bursts forth from Basile’s work, and the atmosphere of the film: they provide a representation of grotesque humanity, at once realistic and fantastic, spiced up with many comic and macabre elements. As far as cinema is concerned, among the key references, I’d cite Black Sunday by Mario Bava, Comencini’s Pinocchio, Fellini’s Casanova, and Brancaleone’s Army by Monicelli.

A fantasy book with some incursions into horror –

I would define The Tale of Tales as a fantasy book with some touches of horror. In an indirect yet palpable way, these two genres – fantasy and horror – come through and can already be felt in my previous work: in The Embalmer and in First Love, the horror notes can already be clearly heard; in Reality, the fairytale mood inspires the stories as much as the style; and even in Gomorrah, beyond the realism of the situations, the tone of some episodes is that of a genuine dark fable. When you think about it, The Embalmer – which also has some grotesque and poignant aspects – actually resemble one of Basile’s tales: “Once upon a time there was a dwarf who stuffed big animals and who fell in love with a beautiful young man.”

The filming locations –

Our aim was to seek out real places that could nonetheless look like they were recreated in the studio. As such, we discovered some genuine natural locations that turned out to be perfectly adapted to the multiple reconstructions presented in the film. These are buildings and panoramas which appear to be the fruit of the most fervent imagination, but which really exist, and bear within them the signs of the period and the weirdness of those who designed them, or else the unpredictable work of nature with its materials, rocks, water, and plants. Besides some wonderful chateaus, I’m thinking of the Alcantara gorge, the Vie Cave, and the Bosco del Sasseto, which looks like a pre Raphaelite set.

The costumes –

 Regarding the costumes, the film is inspired by the first Baroque period, when Basile wrote the book, but since this is not a film of historical reconstruction. We felt free to reinvent a fantasy world, while at the same time being careful not to appear “extravagant”. If we allowed ourselves some license, it’s because the Baroque is a varied and sumptuous style, which allows a lot of liberties and in itself sums up the previous periods, including the Gothic, the style with which the fairytale genre has always been associated.

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Here are three variant posters that present the film in different ways.

Tale of Tales-poster2Tale of Tales-posterTale of Tales-Italian poster___________________________________________________

Finally, here is a press conference for Tale of Tales when it was shown at last year’s  Cannes Film Festival. It’s conducted mostly in French, with English translation in voice-over. The film received a divided response from critics there. This is understandable; it’s not for everyone. As instructor Richard Brown told a film class I was in years ago, sometimes you get on the ride and sometimes you don’t. If you’re willing to let Tale of Tales take you where it will, it can be quite a trip, believe me. – Ted Hicks

 

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“Tale of Tales” – Once Upon a Time…

Tale of Tales-woodsTale of Tales presents three dark and bloody fairy tales — truly fantastic and quite wonderful flights of the imagination — yet it feels very real. Directed by Matteo Garrone, this is a lucid dream of a movie, an elaborately detailed period piece rendered in very physical and realistic terms.

The three episodes are taken from Pentamerone (aka The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), a collection of fifty stories written by Giambattista Basile (1570-1632), which was posthumously published in two volumes in 1634 and 1636 (available from Amazon in a fine edition published by Penguin Classics). The collection contains the earliest known versions of fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, predating the Brothers Grimm by 200 years. This was news to me.

The following two trailers give a sense of the film in different ways, and I think it’s worth including both of them here.

In the press notes for the film, Matteo Garrone says “I chose to tackle the universe of Basile because in his tales, I found that they blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavors. The stories covered in The Tale of Tales cover all of life’s opposites: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the magical and the everyday, the regal and the obscene, the straightforward and the artificial, the sublime and the filthy, the terrible and the tender, scraps of mythology and torrents of popular wisdom. The tales recount human feelings pushed to the extreme. From the first reading of the 50 tales which make up the book, me and my fellow screenwriters faced numerous choices in choosing the stories that we liked most and then making them credible, concrete, as if we were seeing them for the first time.”

In the first tale, the King and Queen of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek) are childless. The Queen is distraught and deeply depressed. They are told by an ominous visitor in the middle of the night that if the Queen eats the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin, she will become instantly pregnant, but that a sacrifice will be involved. The King, who only wants to please his wife, dons a diving suit and descends to the bottom of a nearby lake, where he encounters and slays a sleeping sea monster. Remember, all of this looks very real. So what if the suit has no visible means of supplying him with oxygen. It doesn’t tale of tales elias jonah.jpgmatter. After consuming the sea monster’s heart in a highly visceral scene, the Queen becomes pregnant overnight and gives birth to a son the next day. The virgin who cooked the heart also gives birth. The two boys, Elias and Jonah (played by identical twins Christian and Jonah Lees), one rich and one poor, become close companions, though the Queen forbids it. Complications ensue.

In the second tale, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) becomes obsessed with a flea that grows to the size of a large hog. He keeps it hidden in his chambers, feeding it chunks of meat. His only daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) has grown tired of her cloistered life with her father in their remotely located castle, and wants to leave. She begs her father to find her a handsome prince to marry, though she probably doesn’t anticipate an ogre (the real deal — nothing like Shrek), who drags her to a cave strewn with bones, or being temporarily rescued by a family of jugglers and tightrope walkers. There’s a kind of happy resolution, but Disney this is not.

The following clip shows how Violet ends up with the ogre. The King’s pet flea has died. He has it skinned and the hide hung in the great hall. He then announces a competition: anyone who correctly guesses the origin of the hide will win his daughter’s hand in marriage. He doesn’t want his daughter to leave, and assumes no one will get the right answer. Cue the ogre (Guillaume Delaunay).

In the third tale, the lecherous King of Stronghold (Vincent Cassel) hears a woman’sTale of Tales-Vincent Cassel2 ethereal singing in the distance and is determined to learn her identity and seduce her, imagining that she is as beautiful as her voice. He doesn’t know she is one of two elderly sisters, Imma (Shirley Henderson) and the singer Dora (Hayley Carmichael). Thanks to a witch’s spell, Dora finds herself transformed into a beautiful young woman (played by Stacy Martin). The King decides to marry her. After the wedding, Imma appears and refuses to leave, demanding to know the secret of Dora’s youthful appearance. This does not end well.

Tale of Tales-Vincent Cassel3Matteo Garrone2In his first English language film, Italian director Matteo Garrone has succeeded admirably. I’ve seen two of his previous films, Gomorrah (2008), a fact-based gangster story, and Reality (2012), in which a Naples fishmonger becomes obsessed with appearing on Grand Fratello, an Italian reality television show based on Big Brother. Both are excellent. An important aspect of Tale of Tales is that it’s all done very seriously; there’s nothing tongue in cheek about it. Given the material, this could have been ridiculous if not handled right. But it was, and it works. It’s all in the telling.

Matteo Garrone (foreground) shooting "Reality"

Matteo Garrone (foreground) shooting “Reality”

The look of Tale of Tales is particularly rich and deeply textured, with a color palette suggestive of classical paintings. Peter Suschitzky was the cinematographer. His work includes Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (director: Irvin Kirshner, 1980), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (director: Jim Sharman, 1975), Mars Attacks! (director: Tim Burton, 1996), 11 films directed by David Cronenberg, and films directed by John Boorman and Ken Russell. The excellently scored music was composed by Alexandre Desplat, whose previous work includes his Oscar-winning score for The Grand Budapest Hotel (director: Wes Anderson, 2014) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (director: David Fincher, 2008).

Here is a sampler of Desplat’s music for Tale of Tales.

Tale of Tales was shown at numerous international film festivals last year and is currently in limited theatrical release in the U.S. It is also available on demand from DIRECTV. — Ted Hicks

Tale of Tales-poster3

 

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“Anomalisa” – Behind the Scenes

Anomalisa was included in my Best Feature Films of 2015 last month, but I’d originally intended to devote a separate blog post to the film. In preparation for that piece — which I didn’t write — I accumulated a variety of material that I think might be interesting to anyone who has either seen Anomalisa, or intends to. Below is the opening paragraph of what was to have been the longer piece.

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Anomalisa-posterEarlier this month (December 2015), we attended a screening of Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated feature written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed with Duke Johnson. Like previous films written by Kaufman – Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation(2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) — Anomalisa reflects an extremely original sensibility, a way of seeing the world that seems to drift up from the unconscious — childlike, weirdly magical, and oddly disturbing. Recent films using stop-motion include Aardman Animations’ Chicken Run (2000) and the great Wallace and Gromit series (1990-2005), The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009), and Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009). These films and others like them depict cartoon characters in cartoon worlds. Anomalisa is something else entirely. This is the first stop-motion film I can think of that concerns ostensibly real people set in the real world. The effect is somewhat dislocating.

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Here is a selection of video and print interviews, clips on the making of the film, reviews, and photographs.

Two videos about the making of Anomalisa:

A video interview with Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, and David Thewlis at the BFI London Film Festival:

A video interview with Tom Noonan at the Film Society of Lincoln Center following the screening we saw last December. Noonan has been in many films, but I remember him most vividly as the serial killer in Michael Mann’s terrific Manhunter (1986).

Click on the links to access the following:

A Film Comment interview with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

A Film Comment review of Anomalisa

A Variety review from last year’s Telluride Film Festival

A New York Times article discussing the making of Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman discusses Anomalisa in a New York Times article

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The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, currently has an exhibit called “The World of Anomalisa.” On display through March 27 are two sets used in the making of the film — a hotel room and a Cleveland city street. Per the exhibit description: “Photography took nearly two years, from May 2013 to December 2014, in a studio in Burbank, California. Much of the film takes place in a hotel room. Eight identical hotel room sets were built, so that filming of different scenes could take place simultaneously during the long production period. The Cleveland street set was used for just one scene in the film, and was on screen for about 30 seconds.”

Below are photographs I took of the sets. There’s something fascinating about things in miniature, and these are amazing.

Hotel room3Hotel room4Street scene5Street scene2______________________________________________________

Release dates for video discs and streaming have yet to be announced. Anomalisa is currently showing in theaters in limited release. — Ted Hicks

Anomalisa-Michael running in hall

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What I Watched Last Year: Best TV 2015

Mozart in the Jungle-poster2Better Call Saul-poster2 _____________________________________________________________

The following shows were new to me last year. I should note that I have somehow not yet seen Jessica Jones (Netflix) or the second season of Fargo (FX), both of which I’m sure would be on this list.

Better Call Saul (AMC)  This prequel to the hugely successful Breaking Bad (2008-2013) had an eager audience of fans primed and ready, and it certainly delivered. The first season shows us Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill on his way to becoming Saul Goodman. By the end of the last episode, Jimmy still hasn’t taken that name, but he’s getting there. A pleasure of this series is seeing more of Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, one of the strongest characters in Breaking Bad. The second season of Better Call Saul begins on February 15.

Bloodline (Netflix)  If you’ve seen this series, you know how good it is. Set in the Florida Keys, Bloodline concerns the Rayburn family and the snake pit of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy them. Flash forwards reveal a little more each time and give warnings of what’s to come. The excellent cast includes Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Chloë Sevigny, and Ben Mendelsohn. Australian actor Mendelsohn is amazing as Danny Rayburn, the black sheep of the family who periodically returns to charm and threaten and screw things up. Bloodline has been renewed for a second season.

Daredevil-posterDaredevil (Netflix) This superhero series is for people who wouldn’t normally watch anything with superheros in it. Based on a Marvel Comics character who first appeared in 1964, Daredevil is darker, grittier, and more reality-based than you might expect. The first season is a 13-episode origin story of how Matt Murdoch, a blind lawyer in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, becomes the crime-fighting Daredevil. It’s a long, bloody, bone-crunching process. Matt is far from invulnerable — not even close. Despite enhanced hearing and martial arts skills, he frequently staggers away from encounters badly beaten and in need of stitches. The cast is excellent, including Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) as Matt Murdoch/Daredevil; Rosario Dawson as a nurse who finds Matt near death in a dumpster and patches him up; Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) as the secretary in Matt’s small law office; and especially Vincent D’Onofrio, truly frightening as Wilson Fisk, the villain of the piece — it’s a powerhouse performance. The second season begins streaming on March 18.

In the following clip from the second episode, Matt fights his way down the length of a hallway in one continuous shot. The camera stays in the hallway, even though much of the action takes place off-screen in rooms to the side. It takes a long time for Matt to get to the end of the hall, because these guys won’t stay down. It’s not the usual way to shoot such a scene. The result is very tense and quite breathtaking. This was when I knew the series really had me.

Dicte-titleDicte (Netflix)  Dicte (pronounced Dee-ta) Svendson, a former crime reporter in Copenhagen, now works on a local newspaper in her home town. The series is as much about her messy personal life as it is about the criminal cases she investigates as a reporter. It’s very engaging and the cast is excellent. There have been two seasons so far, both available via Netflix. The following is an opening credits clip.

Grace and Frankie (Netflix)  Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are very different women who probably wouldn’t spend time together if their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), hadn’t been law partners for 20 years. At the start of the first episode, Robert and Sol announce at a restaurant dinner that they want divorces from Grace and Frankie, and also that they’ve been lovers and plan to get married. When Sol moves out to live with Robert, Grace reluctantly moves in with Frankie at her beachfront home. In the midst of all this, the couples’ grown children struggle to deal with these changes. Sheen and Waterston don’t seem entirely credible as a gay couple, though I suspect their many years in other roles — especially Waterston as Jack McCoy on Law & Order — got in my way; this is quite a departure for them. Fonda and Tomlin are great together. Their interplay is very funny and often quite touching. The second season begins streaming on May 6.

Here’s a trailer, followed by the opening title sequence, which is quite good.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)  John Oliver was a writer and performer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart before taking over his own weekly 30-minute show. The first ten minutes or so are used to recap events of the previous week in satiric fashion. The show really stands out in the final 20 minutes, which are usually devoted to taking a single topic and really working it. These topics have included fantasy sports, televangelists, and sex education. Oliver has a strong voice. He’s very funny, but he’s not really joking. The new season of Last Week Tonight begins on February 14 at 11:00pm (EST).

Here’s a segment about pennies and how they cost more than they’re worth to make.

Man in the High Castle-poster2The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime)  Based on the 1962 novel by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, this series posits an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. Germany controls the eastern half of the United States, which is called the National Socialist States of America, while Japan has the Japanese Pacific States, west of a neutral zone known as the Rocky Mountain States. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, but The Man in the High Castle has an abundance of provocative ideas. The series is set in a recognizable 1962, except that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole and swastikas are on display in Times Square. It gets a lot of mileage out of merging the mundane with the horrifying. The production and cast are top notch. Rufus Sewell is excellent as an American-born Nazi officer in New York, trying to locate films being transported by resistance members that show a different history — one in which the Allies won the war. What the hell is this? A parallel universe? Don’t expect any real answers in this first season. The final scene of the last episode is a real WTF moment. As a fan of Fringe and The Twilight Zone, I definitely want to see where it goes from here.

Mr. Robot (USA)  The title got my attention right away. Set in a version of present-day New York City, the series’ protagonist is Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a depressed cybersecuirty engineer with a social-anxiety disorder who’s also an expert hacker. Christian Slater co-stars as possibly the titular Mr. Robot. He attempts to recruit Elliot into a secret organization dedicated to bringing about financial collapse by erasing all debt globally. Something like that. Mr. Robot is a very stylish house of mirrors. It’s a fairly linear narrative, but twists and whiplash turns keep us off balance and make us question what’s real and what is not. Rami Malek is an intense presence, with burning, bugged out eyes. We’d previously seen him in the eight season of 24 (Fox) and The Pacific (HBO), both in 2010. He makes an impression. Mr. Robot reminds me of William Gibson’s novels, science fiction in the everyday. A second season begins this June or July.

Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime)  I signed up for Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series (along with The Man in the High Castle and Transparent). It’s been a good investment. The jungle of the title is New York City and the world of a symphony orchestra. Lola Kirke plays Hailey Rutledge, an aspiring oboist. Gael Garcia Bernal is Rodrigo De Souza, a hot young conductor hired to replace Malcolm McDowell’s Thomas Pembridge as conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Hailey and Rodrigo have to navigate their way through politics, in-fighting, manipulation, and bloated egos. Mozart in the Jungle is fascinating, comic, with great music. There have been two seasons so far, both of which can be streamed on Netflix.

Nightly Show-Larry w_titleThe Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central)  In January of last year, The Nightly Show moved into the time slot previously held by Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. This might seem like a hard act to follow, but in the intervening year, The Nightly Show has created a strong identity. Like John Oliver, Larry Wilmore came over from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he was known as the “Senior Black Correspondent.” Wilmore is carries on Stewart’s point of view, with a focus on racial issues in particular. Contributors on the show who have emerged as personalities in their own right include Mike Yard, Grace Parra, Robin Thede, Holly Walker, Rory Albanese, and Ricky Valez. Like John Oliver’s show, this is serious underneath the funny. The Nightly Show airs Monday through Thursday at 11:30pm (EST).

Here is a recent segment in which frequent guest Neil deGrasse Tyson schools a rapper who believes the earth is flat.

Penny Dreadful (Showtime)  I began recording this series when it debuted in 2014, but only watched the first episode. I intended to continue watching, but was distracted by this and that. The season ended and I still wasn’t watching, but I didn’t delete it from our DVR queue. A week before the second season began last May, I finally burned through all ten episodes. Penny Dreadful is a deadly serious monster mashup set in Victorian England, created and written by John Logan. Characters include Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, Dr. Van Helsing, and assorted vampires and witches. Josh Hartnett plays an American cowboy named Ethan Chandler, who turns out to be a werewolf. His real name is Ethan Lawrence Talbot, which, for horror movie fans, references Lon Chaney, Jr’s Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, whose daughter Mina was married to Jonathan Harker before she was turned into a vampire. Having these characters from horror films and films interacting in the same narrative is great fun for fans of this kind of material. Penny Dreadful is both goofy and clever, and dripping with atmosphere. It’s presented with a completely straight face and it works. The third season begins on May 1.

River (Netflix)  I wasn’t sure about this one at first. A cop who sees, hears, and converses with dead people? Really? We’ve seen this before. But the series is more than that and gets deeper as it goes along. It didn’t take long to hook me in. River is a six-part series created and written by Abi Morgan. Stellan Skarsgård stars as DI John River, with Nicola Walker (Last Tango in Halifax and MI-5) as his recently murdered partner, DS Jackie Stevenson. Adeel Akhtar is River’s new partner, DS Ira King. The performances throughout are uniformly excellent. River makes it his mission to understand and solve Jackie’s murder, which includes frequent conversations with her. Needless to say, it’s not an easy journey.

Show Me a Hero (HBO)  Based on a 1999 non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin, this  miniseries was written by David Simon and William F. Zorzi and directed by Paul Haggis. In my opinion, Simon’s HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) is, , one of the greatest sustained narrative works ever put on television — or anywhere else, for that matter. (Breaking Bad is a close second). I’m interested in anything Simon does and he does not disappoint. Show Me a Hero deals with the resistance of a mostly white middle-class neighborhood to a federally-mandated, desegregated public housing development to be built in Yonkers, New York. Oscar Isaac plays Nick Wasicsko, the newly-elected mayor of Yonkers who finds himself in over his head when he tries to comply with the court order. There are no clear heroes or villains. Catherine Keener is especially good as a woman strongly opposed to the housing plan who slowly comes to a new understanding. Show Me a Hero takes its title from a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

Transparent (Amazon Prime)  In this great series, set in Los Angeles, Mort Pfefferman (great last name) announces to his family that he identifies as a woman and will henceforth be known as Maura. How his wife and grown children — and Maura herself — deal with this change forms the comedy and drama of this timely show. Jeffrey Tambor, fully embracing the role of Maura is terrific. After some resistance, I’ve come to really like his wife, Shelly (Judith Light), and his youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Guest actors have included Cherry Jones, Anjelica Huston, and Bradley Whitford. Transparent is funny, sad, human, and quite lovely. Both seasons are available for streaming.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)  This unhinged comedy was co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Fey previously created and starred in 30 Rock (2006-2013), with Carlock as show runner. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a similar tone and anarchic spirit. Ellie Kemper (The Office) plays 29-year-old Kimmy as she navigates life in New York City after being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana. Kimmy and three other women were kept in an underground bunker for 15 years by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men). It gets a lot crazier than that. Kimmy is positive and upbeat beyond all reason as she tries to deal with her new world. A new season will be available for streaming on April 15.

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The following titles are carry-overs from last year.

The Affair (Showtime)

The Americans (FX)

Downton Abbey (PBS)

The Fall (Netflix) & Grantchester (PBS)  See my previous post on these two.

The Good Wife (CBS)

Justified (FX)

Last Tango in Halifax (Netflix)

Mad Men (AMC)

Manhattan (WGN)

Masters of Sex (Showtime)

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

Ray Donovan (Showtime)

Silicon Valley (HBO)

The Simpsons (Fox)

Veep (HBO)

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Finally, here are some shows derived from comic books and a horror novel about vampires. They probably don’t have the substance of the titles listed above, but I find them very entertaining, which is no small thing.

Agent Carter (ABC)

The Flash (CW)

Marvel’s Agents of Shield (ABC)

The Strain (FX)

Supergirl (CBS)

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Too many shows, not enough time. Thank God for DVR. — Ted Hicks

Jackass watching Ted TV2

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