Movies

Rupert Everett on ‘Happy Prince,’ gay victories, and Oscar Wilde’s schlong

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde Photo by Wilhelm Moser, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Actor Rupert Everett, who’d already garnered critical notice in acclaimed art house films Another Country (1984), Dance with a Stranger (1985), and The Madness of King George (1994), became a major Hollywood player when he played Julia Roberts’ gay best friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and Madonna’s in The Next Best Thing (2000). But there was no way he could create a sustainable career out of the campy confidante role—and soon he ended up back in independent movies, on British television, and out of the limelight.

“There’s only so far you can go playing the gay best friend,” says Everett, who’s been out as gay since 1989. “Then all the straights wanted to play the gay parts and garnered every possible award for their bravery at tackling the gay psyche. But I could never get a straight part in that period, so there really wasn’t any way forward for me. Then, when even my gay best friend career seemed to falter because I couldn’t get people to come to The Next Best Thing, the whole thing looked like a bad experiment to [Hollywood].”

Tired of waiting for the next big role to come along, Everett decided to take his destiny into his own hands. He wanted to express himself in a particularly interesting way, to be an artist again, and that motivated him to create a “work of art.” So the actor wrote, cast, procured funding for, and directed The Happy Prince, which chronicles the final years of 19th-century novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde, once revered for such important works as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, but later forced to live in disgrace, poverty, and exile after being convicted of charges of sodomy and gross indecency, and imprisoned for two years.

I spoke with Everett about bringing “The Happy Prince” to fruition, why he has his longtime friend Colin Firth to thank for it, and why it’s vital for young gay people to know their history—which includes Oscar Wilde.

48 HILLS You took so much on to bring Oscar Wilde’s story to the screen. What was it about Wilde that made it worth it?

RUPERT EVERETT I had been through this whole gay life, starting with coming to London and going onto the gay scene in 1975. It had only been legal to be gay for seven years. So Oscar Wilde was a very real name to everyone, not just educated, artsy-fartsy people, because we were still walking in his footprints. The law had changed for homosexual acts in private—not public—but the police were making the most of the ambiguity of the law by raiding bars, clubs, and coffee shops, and shoving everyone into a paddywagon and taking them off for a couple hours of humiliation.

Then it was going through the AIDS crisis; show business, which was a fairly aggressively heterosexual boys club; coming to terms with my own sexuality and the challenges that ensued; and getting this extraordinary second-wind gay career from My Best Friend’s Wedding. Then, to have that career stop as suddenly as it started.

In view of all that, when I was wanting to write a story, Oscar Wilde seemed to be the obvious subject that I could put everything of myself into and tell his story. And, for me, he’s a kind of patron saint or Christ figure.

48H You call him a patron saint, but you’re unafraid to also show his depraved side in the movie.

RE Yeah, because that’s another place cinema’s gone wrong since the politically correct movement really geared up. Because, before the 1980s, you could have a hero in a film who was a human being and maybe even a bad one. But Wilde isn’t a terrible character; he’s a real human person.

And why I think he’s like Christ is because everyone got Christ wrong. The genius of Christ being godly and human—is that’s what we all have. Maybe we have genius or talent and then we have all these human qualities, which are more than just having our feet washed by a hooker. Oscar’s are vanity, snobbery, envy and greed—all the things that drive us all. But he got hoisted by it, while most of us manage to fudge our way through. I think that that’s what makes him a wonderful hero.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde Photo by Wilhelm Moser, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

48H You assembled such an amazing cast for this film. How’d you do it?

RE They all said yes and then ran in a different direction for the most part; they didn’t realize it would ever happen. Then it was about wrangling them at the last minute when the movie was happening.

By the way, people like Colin Firth, Emily Watson, and Tom Wilkinson—none of the deals would have come through without them. So at a certain point, it was awkward for them, because they realized that if they backed out, particularly Colin, the film would collapse.

Colin was amazingly supportive to me and helpful and stayed to do the film. And on his first day, when I was gushing, thanking him, he said, “Oh god, I wouldn’t have missed this trainwreck for anything.” But it didn’t end up being a trainwreck.

48H You become almost unrecognizable in the film. How did you transform into a sickly, paunchy Wilde?

RE It happened over the 10 years of trying to make the film. I just drank a lot and became so blobbish that it wasn’t really a transformation. It just happened on its own. But now that the film has happened, I see myself dry up.

I also had these things inside my teeth that push my face out and this amazing body suit made by this really famous artist, with all these different parts with different kinds of textures. I had this wonderful low-hanging ass, moobs, and a gigantic cock. I always thought Oscar was really well-hung, probably too well-hung for his own good, so I said to them I want a gigantic cock, and they made one.

48H Things have changed so much for gay people since Wilde’s time. Younger people probably can’t conceive of how how much harder it was for gay people in the Victorian era.

RE No, but they should, and I think that’s the value of this movie if it has any. What’s, for me, the main flaw of the virtual world is that it’s completely deleted any historical context to all our lives. In other words, history now is two weeks ago. This is a very dangerous situation, because if you have no context… for example, as a young gay person, you just think the whole world has endlessly been like this. Then you’re not living in the real world.

But you can get a lot of strength from knowing what we’ve come through to be where we are. The historical context is vital for us, because otherwise we start addressing the challenges that we still have from a very peculiar lens, and that lens veers toward the distorted lens of victimhood—and that’s not the right way. I think the other V is better—victory. Because we’ve come such a long way since the Wilde story, and, just in my lifetime, what’s happened is incredible. So we should be unstoppable, rather than victimized.

48H What’s coming up next for you?

RE Nothing at the moment. Something will. What I really want for my life now is to keep engaged in the business. I would love to direct another film, and I’ve written one. But more than that, I’d just like to keep doing things and try to do good [projects] that are interesting and inspiring.

THE HAPPY PRINCE
Opens on Oct. 12 in San Francisco
More info here.

Ficks’ Picks at TIFF: Midnight movie madness

'Halloween'

Our critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks caught this year’s Toronto International Film festival. Read more of his coverage here

TIFF The most difficult ticket to get at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was a toss up between Clarie Denis’ English speaking debut High Life, a supposed astro-erotic sci-fi feature starring Robert Pattinson, and David Gordon Green’s reboot to John Carpenter’s defining 1978 stalker film Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis reprises her role as Laurie Strode, now 40 years older and looking just stunning as ever. While I won’t give away a single moment from this highly anticipated “sequel,” I can say that the film takes way too long to explore uncharted territory. It’s as if it was too shy to stray from the original formula, for fear of fans’ disapproval. It’s not a failure; I was excited by the emphasis on this era’s female fury, and really impressed with the final 15 minutes, as well as the re-working of the original soundtrack (by the Master of Horror himself!) It’s just not the revisionist return that it had the potential to be.  

‘Assassination Nation’
What I did lose my mind over was Sam Levinson’s prophetically high-strung, exploitation essay Assassination Nation. Symbolically set in Salem, Massachusetts, the movie follows a group of high school girls banding together as their town is attacked: A data hack is exposing every person’s internet history. Assuredly self-aware and purposefully provocative (complete with a massive trigger warning preceding the film), this hyperkinetic social satire has the most eye-popping and overwhelming opening sequence in many a moon. The film violently and sexually questions the misogynistic world its characters are trapped in.

And similar to such transgressive films as Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away (1974) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) audiences will need to question their own feelings towards experiencing such salacious satire. In my opinion, what makes Levinson’s genre exploration most unique is how it never wavers from the perspective of its four female leads and never expects any nudity from the actresses. Controversial and triggering, there is no other film I can recommend higher from this year’s Midnite Madness series. NOTE: Another Trigger Warning—Some viewers (aggressively) disagree.

‘Climax’

Speaking of triggering, Gaspar Noe delivered Climax, his new Horror-Musical-Melodrama. Entrapping a gaggle of sexually liberated French folk at an all nite rave delivered something downright remarkably enjoyable. Part of Noe’s skill is making you feel as if you are part of his film, and this 96-minute drug trip takes you through each and every stage. Sit back, relax and let him do whatever he wants to you. In fact, pay close attention to the stacks of VHS tapes in the beginning of the film. I have a feeling Noe is taking us through a greatest hits of his favorite scenes from his favorite exploitation flicks. Or not, and just get up and leave at any point during the film, muttering loudly about something or other, as dozens of critics did in its premiere.  

‘In Fabric’

Peter Strickland, auteur of a recent niche genre that sets out to recreate the look, sounds and feel of 1970s Giallo and Hammer Horror films—see Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014). His latest In Fabric is an anthology of two installments, with the first being one of the most enjoyable experiences at this year’s TiFF! (It was coined “The Killer Dress” movie by a young Canadian audience member I met.) Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies) gives a remarkable performance as she uncovers the horrific life of single-parent dating, motherhood, and loneliness. The second chapter of the film doesn’t even feel like Strickland directed it, but like many of the best, mixed-bag horror anthologies (Cat’s Eye, Nightmares, Tales From the Darkside, Creepshow 2), all it takes is one of them to be great and it’s worth all the pennies.

‘Diamantino’

Perhaps belonging in the Wavelengths experimental program, avant-garde artists Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt scored heavily in my book with Diamantino, a curious little gem, gorgeously filmed in a grainy super 16mm format. With the look of a neon-induced, blitzed-out drug trip, the feel of a low budget 1970s underground film, and the plot of a Depression-era Frank Capra film, audiences need to make sure to go way out of their way to experience this (soon to be cult) classic at a late-nite screening. Soccer fans especially will get a kick out of the loveable lunkhead played perfectly by Carloto Cotta (parodying a combination of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.) With a wonderful queer coyness that only adds to the film’s uniqueness, I find myself fondly returning to many of the movie’s moments, now days after its premiere.   

‘The Sisters Brother’

Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers is another film that has sat quite well with me. Audiard, whose last film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015 for Dheepan, a Tamil tale of Sri Lankan immigrants in France, gives the same amount of love and respect to his characters in this revisionist Western. Working from Patrick deWitt’s award-winning novel, John C. Reilly and Riz Ahmed shine with a remarkable amount of male vulnerability very rarely captured within this genre’s limits. This often haphazard, subtly violent and purposefully oft-kilter journey culminates with a truly transcendental conclusion that might not only make you question your very own direction in life, it may make you want to watch the film all over again, perhaps to uncover Audiard’s humble methods of what it is he’s actually doing. Memorable performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, Rebecca Root and Carol Kane round out this dream cast of malcontents and help make this a truly uncommon American Western. 

‘Monsters and Men’ lays out why they kneel

Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in 'Monsters and Men.' Photo courtesy of NEON.

It’s not exactly a secret that US conservative leaders and media have sought means of re-directing attention away from a White House that seems to log an entire Presidency’s worth of scandal every week. One of the most successful tactics has been re-branding athletes’ protest-kneeling during the pre-game national anthem as an “assault on patriotism.” That not only provides a source of distracting popular outrage, but also conveniently buries the unpleasant issue of racially-targeted excessive police force that they’re protesting. 

Never mind that the anthem performance has been, and remains, prime time for many spectators to grab a beer or visit the john. In this revised interpretation, the intersection between sports and Old Glory is suddenly a sacred one, and players are no longer airing a legitimate gripe but simply “disrespecting the flag.”

Monsters and Men is basically a 95-minute response to the question “Why do athletes kneel?”—something that could use addressing, since the surrounding debate has been so effectively shifted from police to patriotism. This very good first feature by writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, opens at area theaters on Friday. (The Roxie already recently played the documentary Crime + Punishment, which addresses the related issue of whether many police departments have monthly “activity quotas” that drive targeting of mostly young minority persons for petty or non-existent offenses.) 

A quiet meditation compared to the more combustive expressions of such recent films as BlackKlansman or Blindspotting, this nuanced drama offers three perspectives—from a policeman, a witness, and a neighborhood youth—on a fictive fatal shooting. That kneeling doesn’t happen (or even get discussed) until the final image suggests how dedicatedly Monsters elucidates the complicated issues behind a controversy that’s been greatly simplified for popular judgment. 

We first meet John David Washington’s Dennis as he’s driving to that definition of audio bliss, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” But the good vibes jerk to a halt when he’s stopped by a white cop, for no reason, and with no consequence. Dennis chooses not to let the officer know that he, too, is with NYPD. Later, when his white female partner on the job (Cara Buono) says she’s never been thus pulled over in her life, he notes it’s happened to him six times in the last half-year alone—a discrepancy people of color are all too well aware of. 

But Dennis principally occupies the film’s midsection. Our protagonist at first is Manny (Anthony Ramos from the Broadway musical Hamilton), a young Latino husband and father who’s not averse to miscellaneous minor street hustles, but is basically seeking the straight and narrow. 

In fact, he’s just landed an entry-level corporate job when he witnesses neighborhood character Darius Larson (Samel Edwards) getting fatally shot by a police during a needlessly escalated altercation—“Big D” was doing nothing more criminal than selling cigarettes outside a Bed-Stuy corner store when six cops descended upon him. What’s more, Manny filmed the whole scene with his phone, a fact which does not escape the officers’ notice. Within hours, police have begun a campaign of intimidation to urge Manny’s silence and protect their own—even though the cop who shot Big D was a known hothead. 

Also feeling pressure to stay mum is Dennis. He’s no fan of the officer in question, yet feels he can’t jeopardize his career and his own family’s stability by telling an outside investigator what he knows. Nevertheless, this latest instance of an injustice against the community he’s from haunts him. 

Still in that community, albeit with a “ticket out,” is high schooler Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), so talented a baseball player that he’s already being scouted by the majors. Where Manny and Dennis have wives (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones and Nicole Beharie, respectively) urging them not to “get involved” for the sake of their families’ stability, “Z” has a father (Rob Morgan) who urges he protect that very bright future. But activist classmate Zoe (Chante Adams from “Roxanne Roxanne”) also attracts his respect, and the escalating public firestorm of Big D’s death stirs his conscience. 

Though their stations and circumstances are in many ways very different, the protagonist trio here share common ground beyond the geographic kind. We see all three grimace through “routine” police stops when they’re simply walking home or driving to work, an experience they’re resentfully used to but which would seem outrageous to many Americans. 

Green’s gracefully assured script and direction don’t formally separate the three segments, nor are they differentiated in tonal or stylistic terms. Indeed the approach remains thoughtfully low-key throughout, the better to concentrate on characters’ internal struggles with pervasive external social realities. (We never do see that videotape of the shooting, although we see all the principal characters watching it.) 

Its somewhat hyperbolic title aside, Monsters and Men doesn’t demonize (or sanctify) anyone, keeping “bad cops,” gangs, career criminals and such on the margins to focus on how unacknowledged profiling policies hobble—and sometimes endanger—the lives of non-offending ordinary citizens. 

Monsters and Men opens Fri/28 at the Alamo Drafthouse and Embarcadero Cinemas in SF, as well as other Bay Area theaters. 

Ficks Pick at TIFF: Experimental cinema is where it’s at!

'What You Gonna Do When the World's On Fire?'

Our critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks caught this year’s Toronto International Film festival. Read more of his coverage here

TIFF It was no small feat to watch 37 of the 43 experimental films in the Wavelengths program (curated and overseen by Andréa Picard) at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Added to that, there were a handful of other movies at TiFF that easily belonged in this boundary-breaking category. This was the 18th edition of the Wavelengths program, appropriately named for Michael Snow’s mind-melting 1967 structuralist film of a 45-minute slow-zoom, filmed over the period of a week. Below is a list of the experimental films that affected me most.

‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?’

One of my favorite films of TiFF, beyond of the Wavelengths program itself, was Texas-based documentarian Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? This jaw-dropping account of four everyday Black Americans fighting for justice and survival in New Orleans and Jackson County, Mississippi, is an even more urgent and mesmerizing experience than the director’s 2015 masterwork The Other Side. The graceful and gorgeous B&W cinematography feels almost surreal at times as it captures such immediate hour-to-hour conflicts ranging from a young local bar owner attempting to keep her life afloat (financially, as well as emotionally) to a group of New Black Panthers, who take to the streets and door-to-door, investigating an absolutely ghastly killing connected to a local sect of the Ku Klux Klan. And while the film could have gone on another hour or two to help flesh out some of the other individual’s stories, this is cinema verité at its finest and is absolute critical viewing for any audience. 

‘Touch Me Not’

Perhaps the most controversial film of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival was Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not: It won top prize (The Golden Bear Award), beating out films like Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. This debut documentary-feature hybrid distinctively captures the physical body of four non-traditionally built people and strikingly uncovers their extremely raw, emotional, and sexual feelings. Pintilie’s crisp and minimalist cinematography brought George Lucas’ THX-1138 (1971) to mind, while her purposefully uncomfortable intimate situations may border on exploitation for some audiences. This uniquely body-positive 125 minute experiment is definitely one of the most provocative films of 2018!

‘L. Cohen’

Making experimental films for close to 50 years, legendary minimalist filmmaker James Benning wanted to “relieve our anxiety” before the screening of his new piece L. Cohen. The soft spoken, Neil Young-like 76-year-old gently said, “The film begins and it seems like nothing’s happening. But quite a bit is happening. And then something very extraordinary happens. And moments later, something mysterious happens. And then a bit later, something strange happens.” It won of the Grand Prize at this year’s Cinéma du Réel festival: I don’t want to spoil even a moment that this lovely 50-minute journey takes audiences on. But I can honestly state that it brought more than just my own, fragile self to tears. 

‘Fausto’

Andrea Bussmann’s hauntingly eerie debut feature Fausto left me stunned for hours after it finished. Filmed in Oaxaca on 16mm and digital, this dark and mysterious “adaptation” poetically floated forth and back between images of shape shifting, telepathy, UFOs, and of course, the devil. Desperately wanting to watch it again as soon its concentrated 70 minutes concluded, I found my toes curl with excitement as I realized that I get to wait for its next incantation.

‘Colophon’

From one of the most exciting filmmakers working in experimental cinema, Nathaniel Dorsky’s latest 16mm treasure Colophon kicked off the Wavelengths short program with one of his most breathtaking films to date. The title Colophon refers to a “brief statement containing information about the publication of a book.” This gentle extension to Dorsky’s recent seven-film Arboretum Cycle, found a beautiful balance for me by intertwining blooming natural habitats with refracting reflections of interlaced windows. The 14-minute tone poem actually took my breath away in the moments just after its concluding shot. 

‘Fallen Arches’

Simon Liu, who recently dazzled Bay Area audiences at the Crossroads Film Festival with his multiple projected High View, presented yet another powerfully personal yet vibrantly neon-lit extravaganza. Fallen Arches is just as overwhelming as any of his other work and always leaves me wanting to watch again as soon as it’s over. Note: There’s an immensely emotional bonus for many in the audience at the conclusion of this film, but I will save that for you and your own experience.  

‘Fainting Spells’

Sky Hopinka presented his most recent spellbinding work Fainting Spells. Told through recollections of Ho-Chunk traditions, this 11-minute meditation is “an imagined myth for the Xąwįska, or the Indian Pipe Plant—used by the Ho-Chunk to revive those who have fainted.” Hopinka’s use of text has been a major motif through his career (Bay Area’s ATA did a retrospective of his career earlier this year) and Fainting Spells combines that text with a surreal color-warping technique and some his most striking images to date.

‘Altiplano’

Malena Szlam’s 16-minute gem ALTIPLANO was a magnificent experience, superimposing mountains, lakes, salt flats, and deserts in a prismatic and psychedelic manner. Even though this was filmed in Chile and Northern Argentina, this follow-up to her four-minute, single-frame-captured piece Lunar Almanac (2013), reminded me of the landscapes and terrain of my home state of Utah.

‘Île d’Ouessant’

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Wavelengths shorts programs was Île d’Ouessant or “the lighthouse movie” (as a couple of people I spoke to referred to it). Completed posthumously by colleagues from the French artisanal film lab L’Abominable, David Dudouit’s deeply intimate exploration of the natural world’s phenomena used only four rolls of 16mm film, exposing it frame by frame over an extended period of time in 2010 at a sparsely populated Atlantic island. These 10 minutes brought tears to my eyes many times throughout, but the last shot, like many others in the theater, made the kind of impression that you will never forget. Dudouit’s wife was in attendance and made a few moving statements about being “present” in your time and place. It was one of the best moments of the entire festival. 

‘Monrovia’

Frederick Wiseman started making verité documentaries with Titicut Follies in 1967. He has directed 44 more films since, each tackling unique subject matter from our society and presenting it without the classic structure of “talking head” documentaries. These “fly on the wall” experiences can often run over six hours. His most recent feature, Monrovia, Indiana, runs two hours and 23 minutes, and is an unbiased, captivating look at a small Midwestern town. It lives and breathes with the individuals and their daily lives, whether discussing a park bench for the town park or experiencing uncomfortable moments in a veterinarian hospital. (Graphic footage of animals being medically treated provided some of the most memorable images of Wiseman’s career. In fact, he should make an entire feature on the subject!) As the TiFF guide notes, “In an interview last year, Wiseman resisted calling his work ‘observational’ insisting ‘that’s much too passive.’ He wants to remind viewers that every shot and edit is intentional, and he wants the audience to make their own decisions about what they’re watching.” 

‘Ray & Liz’

Celebrated British photographer Richard Billingham delivered Ray & Liz, a curiously haunting feature film debut, perhaps due to the magnificent cinematography by Daniel Landin, who shot Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Partly autobiographical and completely memorable, this subdued period-piece looks and feels like the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975) and Mike Leigh’s more caustic and coarse earlier work like Abigail’s Party (1977). Thoughtfully structured, the film shows an elderly man meditating on his often brutal interactions with his family in the past. Billingham’s emergence with such a small yet moving family portrait is even more important due to Mike Leigh’s disappointing latest film, Peterloo, which also screened at this year’s TiFF and suffered from too much historical research and not nearly enough character development. (Note: Leigh’s film ran into major sound technical difficulties at the press screening I attended forcing me to leave after only 90 minutes of its 153 minute running time which is why I am not reviewing it officially.)   

‘Bel Canto’ director on the unity of different voices

Julianne Moore and Maria Mercedes Coroy in 'Bel Canto'

In Bel Canto, Ann Patchett’s acclaimed 2001 book—and now a movie by Paul Weitz (About a Boy, Grandma, American Pie), currently in theaters— people from all over the world, speaking different languages, share a house together. Weitz loved filming that. 

“I think the movie is a direct response and a retaliation to people who think those from different cultures are inherently ‘the other,’” he said. “I don’t believe that. I think it’s a crock of shit.”

The plot concerns a Japanese businessman (played by Ken Watanabe) who agrees to go to an unnamed country in South America to celebrate his birthday at the home of the vice-president. There’s hope he will build a factory there—which he has no intention of doing. He accepted because they have offered to get his favorite opera singer, Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore, with Renée Fleming providing her soprano), to perform a private concert.

Armed rebels arrive mid-aria intending to hold the president hostage, but he has skipped out of the event at the last minute to watch his telenovela. The rebels take the people at the party hostage, demanding the release of political prisoners, resulting in a violent stand-off that lasts months. 

Weitz said his friend Anthony Weintraub sent him the book and an adaptation that Weintraub had been working on years ago. Weitz had just done a comedy, and was up for something different. And he liked that making Bel Canto felt a little scary. 

“It was directly about extremely important things, like death and romantic love and music and art and what sort of perspective mortality puts on those things,” he said. “I understood in some ways the lushness and surrealism of the book would be hard to put across in the plot of movie, and I was a little concerned about making a movie of a book that’s a lot of people’s favorite book.”

Weitz decided to do it. He worked on the script for a few years while making other movies and executive producing Mozart in the Jungle. Then he sent the script to Julianne Moore, who agreed to do it.

‘Bel Canto’ director Paul Weitz

“She’s so smart, and she’s so formidable that I knew she would be an ally in terms of the filmmaking process,” he said. “One of the most interesting things was having Maria Mercedes Coroy, who’s done only one other movie, in scenes with Julianne Moore who has done so many.”

Weitz says he likes opera—how it’s not sheepish about taking on hugely important topics and what the singers can do with their voices—but he knows he’s by no means an expert, so he was happy to have Fleming involved and to draw on her experience. He’d heard Patchett was thinking of her when she wrote the character, and Weitz listened to her voice when he was writing.

Bel Canto has a couple of dramatic love affairs, and the story also includes people forming attachments to one another in spite of their difference in culture and language. Weitz feels that’s particularly evident in one part. 

“There’s a scene in the movie that’s from book where there’s a candlelit supper that everyone sits down to,” he says. “There’s still tension between the hostages and captors, but they all recognize each other as human, and that scene encapsulates that.”

Bel Canto is playing at the 4 Star Theatre. More info here

Ficks’ Picks at TIFF: The grand masters return

'Shoplifters'

48 Hills critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Toronto International Film Festival. Read more of his on-the-ground reviews and impressions here

TIFF Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, continued the master filmmaker’s subtle exploration of class differences within contemporary Japanese families. Consistently celebrated as one of the greatest working directors over the past two decades, Shoplifters is the perfect place to start. Hirokazu is an absolute magician when working with children (beginning in 2004 with Nobody Knows) and Shoplifters was just as, if not even more affecting and memorable for me. Don’t be scared of critics mentioning its sentimental and heart-wrenching elements; the conclusion here (as in many Yasujiro Ozu films) has the power to literally take your breath away. 

‘The Image Book’

87-year-old l’enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard was rightfully awarded the first ever Special Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his latest feature The Image Book. This hypnotic collage film essay truly “reframes” a stunning amount film history (including many of his own works) within a surprisingly amount of enthusiastically glitched up and ganked-out film techniques that range from his ADD video sequences in Passion (1982) to his color “in-corrected” clips in Goodbye to Language (2014). This 90-minute examination of the modern Arab World truly felt like the most important film of the festival. My notebook was filled with more pages of notes and references than anything else at TiFF. Now trying to decipher what it all means is my next task at hand. 

‘3 Faces’

Jafar Panahi’s latest 3 Faces is the fourth feature he has made while under a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government. While I don’t seem to understand how Panahi continues to smuggles these remarkable “non-movies” out of Iran (nor can I explain sitting across from what looked like the director himself in an Indian restaurant during the festival!), this is definitely one of his most powerful and even most hilarious films to date. The celebrated actress Behnaz Jafari plays herself who, after seeing a video of young girl begging for help to leave her conservative family in northwestern Iran, takes a powerful journey with her director friend Jafar Panahi. Like many of the best neo-realist Iranian films by Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this shows you a wonderfully textured landscape of quirky characters and cultural traditions while powerfully confronting the seemingly minor yet profound immediate conflict. I can’t wait to watch this film for a third time! 

‘Non-Fiction’

Olivier Assayas’ latest Non-Fiction piles a handful of middle-aged writers into their respective offices and bedrooms as they pontificate about how people don’t read books or articles in paper format anymore, and meditate on the age of digital communication has destroyed what mattered most in the world. Juliette Binoche plays a successful actor attempting to adapt to the modern era while at same time find love and loss in all the wrong and right places. While this may sound excruciating at first, this whimsical farce comes together by its conclusion, reminiscent of late-1980s Woody Allen films sprinkled with dashes of Assayas’ own 1996 film Irma Vep.

‘Our Time’

Carlos Reygadas’ fifth feature Our Time takes the concept of autobiographical to new levels by casting the director himself and his real wife in this hauntingly overwhelming look at a troubled marriage and their attempts to “open up” the relationship. With a more similar minimalist style to Battle in Heaven (2007) than his bafflingly beautiful recent work Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Reygadas doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable moments; he lingers. Clocking in close to three hours long (173 minutes) there are more than a few Federico Fellini-esque “self indulgent” moments. But the stunning conclusion, upon even the briefest reflection, shows that Reygadas knows exactly why, where, and what his film was headed towards. And for many, myself included, this is what the cinema is made for.   

‘Roma’

One of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity), has made his absolute masterpiece. Roma not only won the Golden Lion in Venice, it was awarded the second runner-up People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Cuarón, who was also the cinematographer and co-editor on the film, shot the movie on 65mm and in black and white, presents this semi-autobiographical story that follows a live-in maid as she cares for an upper-class family in Mexico City’s Roma district. Cuarón’s perfectly paced tracking shots softly float through the driveways and living rooms and hospital corridors, never losing focus on its main character’s perspective.

Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo the maid, delivers one of the best performances of 2018: She is now the cinematic face, voice, and soul to a community who have sacrificed often more than their own lives to not only keep houses in order, but to raise multiple generations of children. Financed and distributed by Netflix, it is of the utmost importance for audiences to go out of their way to watch this in a movie theater. The temptation to watch it on your laptop will be extremely strong. But like Orson Welles’ final (and finally) completed feature film The Other Side of the Wind—another Netflix score—this movie needs to be as big and all-encompassing as possible.

Ficks’ Picks at TIFF: Indian Cinema in full effect

'The Man Who Feels No Pain'

Critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Toronto International Film Festival. Read his first report here.   

TIFF Working as an activist filmmaker for more than 50 years, Anand Patwardhan delivered one of the most vital and immediate films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Reason which runs 4 hours and 20 minutes, is divided into eight chapters and stays focused on issues of India’s caste system, and rationalists who question a “blind-faith” mentality.

‘Reason’

Patwardhan combines a minimal yet poignant amount of narration with a remarkable amount of history towards these uncomfortable issues. And for those willing to endure the extremely disturbing footage, this downright masterpiece culminates with some of the most stunning protest footage against social injustices that I have experienced in all of cinema. 

‘Hotel Mumbai’

Hotel Mumbai, the feature film debut by Australian director Anthony Maras, tackles the difficult task of reenacting the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. With similarities to Kathryn Bigelow’s extremely underrated Detroit, this relentlessly violent script of being introduced to innocent characters and watching them die slow and painful deaths is clearly not for everyone. But like Ram Gopal Varma’s low-budget yet surprisingly effective film on the same event The Attacks of 26/11, Maras’ film rides that fine line of heart-wrenching exploitation and deeper concerns. Wonderful performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, and Anupam Kher; I can at least confirm that you will leave the theater happy to be alive.

‘The Wedding Guest’

Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest, which also stars Dev Patel, could be one of the year’s sleeper achievements. This low-key, revisionist neo-noir, truly captures the underbelly of multiple cities across India and gives both newcomer Radhika Apte and Dev Patel haunting characters that stuck with me hours after leaving the theater. Simillar to Winterbottom’s 2011 gem Trishna, this quiet little ditty is one to keep in your back pocket.

‘Husband Material’

I’m happy to announce to Bollywood fans everywhere that Anurag Kashyap has delivered yet again, this time taking the classic Romantic Comedy genre to new heights with Husband Material. Showcasing devastating performances by Vicky Kaushal, Taapsee Pannu, and a truly humble turn by Abhishek Bachchan, what makes this such a rewarding experience is how director Kashyap lingers on his emotional moments. His understanding of each character never throws any of their flawed intentions under a bus. The musical numbers are also filled with some unusual new songs and is mirrored with “a couple” of hypnotic back-up dancers that you may find yourself pondering about days after the screening.   

‘The Man Who Feels No Pain’

The surprise underdog winner of this year’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice award went to Vasan Bala’s low-budget treasure The Man Who Feels No Pain. This heartfelt genre flick is thankfully much less campy than expected and truly shines as a personal allegory of growing up in the 1980s and ’90s. Chockfull of references to VHS-inspired cinema including Game of Death, Gymkata, Big Trouble in Little China, Bloodsport, Face-Off, and Rocky, Bala’s work offers a vision of the future of action cinema. As does the lead actor Abhimanyu Dassani (son of Bollywood star Bhagyashree), actress Radhika Madan, and Gulshan Devaiah who gives such a stunning duel role performance, I didn’t even realize it until my second (yes second) viewing. 

Ficks’ Picks at TIFF: Gorgeous Chinese films + early Oscar buzz

'Ash is Purest White'

Our critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Toronto International Film Festival. Read more of his coverage here

TIFF This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (which just wrapped up this weekend) boasted 300+ features and shorts with a top few that are sure to rake in a ton of this year’s Oscar nominations, ranging from Damien Chazelle’s First Man starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born starring Lady Gaga to the festival’s “People’s Choice Award”: Peter Farrelly’s surprise dramatic turn Green Book starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Even Claire Denis had her first English language outing High Life, a supposed astro-erotic, sci-fi feature starring Robert Pattinson. Knowing that these will all be hitting movie theaters shortly this fall, however, I made my way through 35 features and 35 shorts in 11 days. The following is PART ONE for a spoiler-free short list of my favorite films, to keep handy in the coming months.   

‘Shadow’

Chinese cinema was vibrant at this year’s TiFF, beginning with 5th generation masters Chen Kai-ge (Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) delivering their most recent big budget martial arts extravaganzas. Chen’s Legend of the Demon Cat: Director’s Cut cost $200 million dollars for sets alone and took five years to create. Oddly enough its VFX often looked like an X-Files episode; some would find that disagreeable, but I found it aesthetically pleasing. Zhang’s Shadow, a $40 million opus, sported unbelievably gorgeous monochromatic battle scenes, emphasizing slow motion umbrellas in heavy rain, and seems to have reclaimed the magic that he has achieved within his previous wu-xia films of Hero & House of Flying Daggers.

Neither film stirred me much on an emotional level and both were easily upstaged on the festival’s opening day by Ash is Purest Whitea gangster masterpiece by sixth-generation filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke. It’s structured similarly to his 2015 film Mountains May Depart, with muse Zhao Tao returning as the face and voice of an overlooked population of struggling petty thieves. Jia is not necessarily paving new ground here, but it’s extremely important to not take for granted his deeply affecting stories. Very few filmmakers stay true to their morals for the entire length of their career.

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’

Is anyone ready for a seventh generation of filmmakers in Chinese cinema? Gan Bi might be the next wave’s hero, delivering his audacious second feature Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the follow-up to his debut film Kaili Blues (2015). One of the most memorable films of the entire festival, this 140-minute trek showcases the legendary Chinese actor Sylvia Chang, while it crackles with Gan’s visual style, that many noted has influences ranging from Andrei Tarkovsky and Wong Kar-wai to David Lynch. This neo-noir, which includes an epic one-hour, one-take sequence completely in 3D, has even more in common with Harvard’s recent Sensory Ethnography program, in which audiences are immersed within an experimental environment for an extended period of time. Like Chen and Zhang’s films, it lacks an emotional connection, but is an absolute must-see on the big screen, Gan Bi is a voice to keep your ears and eyes glued to. 

‘Dead Souls’

Perhaps this is what makes Wang Bing’s latest long-form documentary Dead Souls so incredibly moving, with its immense empathy towards making a space for people’s personal experiences. Intimately interviewing dozens of now elderly victims of the work camps of the Cultural Revolution, Wang often follows up on the interviewees and their information years later, taking you to a devastating funeral or one of the eerie unmarked grave sites that a subject so specifically remembered. This extremely meditative experience is definitely an endurance test: Dead Souls has three parts and runs eight hours and 15 minutes. But like Mrs. Chang (2017) which follows the final days of an elderly woman’s life, surrounded by her family and ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) that documents dozens of murderers locked up in a madhouse, these raw and memorable personal stories help balance out much of mainstream cinema’s mistakes.  

Loving Gilda Radner, as a comedy genius and friend

Gilda Radner, from 'Love, Gilda'—opening September 21. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures

“Saturday Night Live” alumnus Laraine Newman says late comedian and former SNL costar Gilda Radner is alive in the work of newer generations of female comedians, even 30 years after her passing.   

“I think the movie Bridesmaids was a real watershed moment,” says Newman. “Of course, it was written by two women, but they really captured the masculine aspect of the POV of women in comedy. We just have that dimension. Of course, none of that could have happened without Gilda. Gilda talked about the scatological things, which was never the domain of women. Women could never admit how funny farts are, and Gilda and I were two of the five women in the world to think they’re funny. But she’d really deal with it, and I don’t think before her people really did.”

Newman was one of several comedians including Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and Cecily Strong to take part in Love, Gilda, documentary filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito’s paean to Gilda Radner. The film, opening Sep. 21, tells Radner’s story—her rise from The Second City comedian to original SNL cast member where she popularized such unforgettable characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and Baba Wawa to her marriage to late actor Gene Wilder and battle with bulimia and ovarian cancer—through her personal journals, recorded interviews, and home movies.

I spoke with Newman about taking part in the project, her friendship with the late comedian, and the pain of never getting to say goodbye.

48 HILLS How did you first get involved in the project?

LARAINE NEWMAN I’d gotten thousands and thousands of requests over the years to talk about “Saturday Night Live” in every conceivable aspect. I’m just tired of doing it, so I’m very circumspect about the ones that I take part in. I kind of avoided it till [the film’s executive producer] Alan Zweibel, an original writer on “Saturday Night Live,” said I should do it. I was happy to talk about Gilda, but I have so many friends that have died, and I didn’t want to talk about my dead friends anymore. But when Alan sprinkled some fairy dust on it, I changed my mind.

48H Going back, what was your first impression of Gilda Radner?

LN That she was funny, sweet, kind, and a little bit maternal. She always was with me. It might have been because of my age difference with everybody else. I don’t know if she assumed that role with any of her other friends. She probably did. But I know that she knew I didn’t know anybody in New York, so she introduced me to a lot of people, which was very nice of her.

48H What was she like to work with?

LN Unless she was doing a character, there was very little difference between her persona as herself and who she really was, which was another thing I really loved about her. She was very candid and very real and naturally funny.

48H One of the saddest parts of the movie was the discussion of her eating disorder. How much did you know?

LN We didn’t know she went to the hospital for treatment. But she told people about the bulimia. She made a joke that she barfed in every toilet at NBC or something like that.

Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Laraine Newman on the set of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ 1978

48H What was your reaction?

LN I could never understand why she thought her weight was an issue, because ever since I knew her, in 1975, I never perceived her as being heavy, so it was all in her head. But who could ever say that to a person?

I think the bulimia was an aspect of her finding a wish. She had the dream, all these opportunities coming to her. But then it’s, “Which one do I do? Which is the best one? I can’t make a mistake. This might not last.” All these things I think come to you and frighten you, and then there are all these people who want something from you all the time. And Gilda was a nice person who had trouble setting boundaries, so it was just the draining aspect of trying to accommodate, but not disappear in the process. But she was able to have control over her weight despite the fact that it was in the most unhealthy way imaginable.

48H Did you maintain a friendship with her after SNL?

LN Not as much, no. Our lives went our separate ways. But she’d do little things for me. She knew I loved sushi, and once during my birthday, after not talking for years, someone was walking up my driveway with some delivery sushi, and it was from her.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

48H Did you see her again?

LN We did get together. It was funny. I was at the Pierre Hotel and the staff thought it would be amusing to put us in rooms next door to one another, so if we went out into the hall, it would be “Hey, wait, what?” So we ended up hanging out. I told her why I was there, and she said, “Yeah, I’m here for some tests, trying to get pregnant, and I can’t get pregnant. We don’t know what’s going on.” So now, of course, I realize that that’s probably when she realized she was ill.

48H How did you handle learning about her illness?

LN You know, I always think that no matter how grave the situation, my friend will be the one to beat the odds. I never, for one minute, imagined that she would not prevail. So when she did pass away, I was very shocked, and, of course, grieving, too.

I had a houseguest at the time and Gilda had called twice to say goodbye, and I missed both calls. One was on my answering machine and once she spoke to my friend. That will always kill me.

48H What do you want the world to know about her that they don’t already?

LN That she was just a really good friend, loyal, kind, and generous. The quality of her friendship was fantastic. [Cries] That’s it. I got nothing. [Laughs]

LOVE GILDA
Opens on Sep. 21 in San Francisco
More info here.

A peek at pre-Internet SF

ARTS FORECAST In start-up clogged SF, nostalgia for a time before the Internet was capitalized has certainly been growing. On September 13, a new film called Stand Up, Stand Out, that documents the lively Valencia Rose performance and comedy scene of the ’80s gets a screening. In February, a show of nightlife photography from 1986-1994 opens at the GLBT History Museum (I’m curating it). 

And, if the crowdfunding goddesses (that’s you) see fit, we’ll soon see SF89: San Francisco Before the Internet up on a silver screen. Director Peter Paul Jacques is revisiting the heady days when you used to have to rely on the listings in the Bay Guardian to find a show (and Roommate Referral in the Haight or Rentech in the Castro to find a housemate) by interviewing nightlife, arts, and wild personalities from the time and showing some great archival footage.

SF89’s pitch reads: “Like many before them, 1980s youth arrived in San Francisco seeking good times and an unconventional life. Thirty years later, this ‘last analog generation’ fondly recalls their young lives in the city before the tech boom and grapples with change, both personal and societal.” I spoke with Jacques about how it’s all coming together. 

48 HILLS What specifically inspired you to make the film? 

PETER PAUL JACQUES Back in late 2012, I was at a show at Oakland’s Uptown with a few people who had also been sort of San Francisco groovy kids in the 80s and 90s. We were sitting in the balcony talking and sipping drinks when the subject of an old haunt came up: the Casa Loma at Fillmore and Fell. It was a sort of clubhouse for the 20-somethings of the neighborhood. Wild and crazy and very mixed- gay and straight, bikers, drag queens, and college students.

Everyone’s eyes lit up and we kind of went into a reverie talking about that place and time. I had experienced this before talking about those days and said “Someone should make a documentary about that!” I immediately texted my friend Jenny and asked her if she wanted to help make a film. As time went on and the project started taking shape, going from the Casa Loma to the Lower Haight to just SF at that time in our experiences. Particularly nightlife and creative pursuits we engaged in. Slowly, I began to realize that this little world we were a part of was never really talked about; that I was onto something out of the ordinary and maybe there would be an audience for it.

48H What are a couple of the most striking, sublime, or just plain crazy differences between that time and now in SF? (Besides the Internet, of course!)

PPJ For one it was rougher, dirtier, and you lived in the remains of history; the bars you went to, the places you lived and worked were literally from another time with just several coats of paint. We sought that out. We didn’t want to live in box-like condos. Many of us left our hometowns to get away with that ugly, modern, tacky shit, sliding glass doors and wall-to-wall carpeting. We wanted tattered, velvet drapes and creaky stairs and we sure got it. Rents were cheap but yeah, the places were rundown. We decorated them though! I still remember going to Manhattan for the first time and seeing the tiny, dark apartments people lived in. I was used to these huge open, airy flats! I still prefer a rundown house with some character to a sterile box. But look at all these condos now. They all look the same.

The people seemed different then- they were San Franciscans! They had opinions on things and did things differently—nobody went to a chain store if they could help it. They hated McDonalds and Denny’s. They supported the opera and the symphony and went to warehouse parties and protested in the streets at the drop of a hat! It was amazing. We, who came to SF then wanted to be here—to BE San Franciscans. Now people come and bring all their suburban tastes and demand their comfort. San Francisco has to accommodate THEM. It’s all about convenience: Starbucks, the Metreon, San Francisco Center—all built for suburban visitors. The joke is that now the city is terribly inconvenient; the traffic, the parking, the long lines of people waiting for everything. It’s ridiculous.

I miss finding out about weird parties via creative flyers.

48H I love that you’re interviewing so many artists and nightlife denizens—what are some of the things they’ve said that have really stood out to you? 

Mostly that they didn’t come to SF to “make it” or get rich. That would’ve been laughable. They came with the joy of being part of something weird and arty. They all say that they felt embraced by the city and told they could do anything they wanted. Make art and show it! Play 30’s jazz on the street corner! Write a play and perform it! Fund it with a lemonade stand or sell counterfeit fast passes or grilled cheese sandwiches at the bar for a dollar. Wear a wig and roller skate to work every day- whatever. It was all so DIY. The idea was to live your art if that makes sense. 

You can find out more about SF89 here and its crowdfunding effort here.