Movies

Viggo Mortensen on ‘Green Book,’ personal growth, and racism in America

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Photo Credit: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

Actor Viggo Mortensen said he’s grown a lot since filming  Green Book and hitting the road for the movie’s promo tour.

“If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have learned many things, and I’m grateful for that,” the acclaimed Captain Fantastic, A History of Violence, and Lord of the Rings actor told 48 Hills at SFFilm’s “A Tribute to Viggo Mortensen,” on November 20. “I had lots of good conversations with [director] Peter Farrelly and [actor] Mahershala Ali, especially. We spent so much time together, before, during, and after. Even on the promo tour, we’ve had some really good conversations.”

One such learning moment took place after a “Green Book” panel discussion in Hollywood, just two weeks prior, when Mortensen got schooled for using the n-word to describe the difference between Jim Crow-era 1962, when the film is set, and contemporary, more progressive times. 

“For instance, no one says n–ger anymore,” he had remarked in front of a packed room of filmgoers and press, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He would issue a public apology through THR the following day, after appalled tweets from attendees appeared on Twitter, and vowed to “not utter it again.”

Recognizing one’s own racial biases is a major theme of the poignant film, in which Mortensen plays Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, a New York City bouncer, hired to chauffeur and shield Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned Black pianist, from racists while out on a concert tour across the Deep South. The movie, which is based on a true story, takes its title from the “Yellow Pages”-like “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a mid-20th-century travel guide, written by Victor Hugo Green, that steered African Americans toward welcoming motels, restaurants, and retail stores in the still-segregated South.

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

Mortensen’s character, the real-life Tony Vallelonga, hails from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, where people of color are also not welcome. In one scene, Tony throws two of his glasses away after witnessing two African-American repairmen drinking from them in his kitchen. In other scenes, he tolerates and uses racial slurs, and, for much of the film, he promotes racial stereotypes. Vallelonga is so different than Mortensen that the actor worried whether he could do justice to the part after first being approached by Peter Farrelly.

“He’s an Italian-American and I’m Scandinavian and look it, sound like it, and move that way,” Mortensen said. “Also, I’m not going to ever be that guy, but I would have to be able to take on his attitude and get as close to how he looks at things because I want to understand the character so you can. I don’t want to judge him any more than I want you to judge him. I don’t want to do a caricature or make fun of him.”

Viggo Mortensen donned a mask at the November 20 SFFILM tribute to his career. Photo by Pamela Gentile

So he considered it for almost 24 hours, and upon rereading the “multi-layered,” “thought-provoking,” and “funny” script a couple more times, he felt that it was just too good a story to pass up. He would take the gamble and trust the director. It only helped that he had Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, the film’s co-writer and co-producer, on hand to work with him on his portrayal.

Mortensen, who’s already won multiple film festival awards and is expected to garner an Oscar nomination for this performance, said he has taken something even more valuable away from this experience. As Tony Vallelonga was forced to examine his own prejudices in the two months he spent with Dr. Don Shirley driving across the Jim Crow South, Mortensen had to take a cold, hard look at his own ignorance during the making of the film and after.

“The experience of telling that story like this at that time and trying to take on the attitude that Tony Vallelonga has at the start, I learned that there are just certain things you have to be more sensitive about than you realized,” he said. “You can only cure ignorance through experience. And I continue to learn, not just doing the movie or researching it, even talking about it because people throw you sometimes with the things they ask you or situations you’re in. You think that people you’re speaking to know exactly what you mean, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it forces you to be clearer for yourself as well as for them.”

Green Book is now playing in area theaters. Click here for theaters and showtimes

Short film ‘n95’ documents toxic air disaster in SF

from Jason Joseffer's short film 'n95'

It looks like a zombie movie, except it was real life for millions in the Bay Area and California in general. As our hearts went out to the residents of the areas obliterated by this past month’s fires, San Franciscans donned protective n95 masks (if they could find any) against the stubborn, toxic cloud of smoke the fires generated for days, hunkered indoors when possible, and tried to live through a disaster that the city was completely unprepared for and that is fueling an uprising against PG&E

While the Democratic Socialists and the Coalition on Homelessness were on the streets,  handing out more masks that the city government, talented local cinematographer Jason Joseffer was documenting the phantasmagoric scene, wandering through the city capturing the apocalyptic feeling. The result is n95, a short documentary Joseffer published to YouTube a few days ago.

Everyday scenes like the labor strike at the Marriott Palace Hotel and people writing near the cable car (before it was shut down) take on a sinister glare, now crowded with masked figures and processed with an infrared filter. Ironic touches (a shot of Muni’s “clean-air vehicle” logo and a glimpse of Walgreens’ “corner of happy and healthy” marketing campaign give the film a little touch of levity—or pathos, it depends on how frustrated you were with everything. And it was frustrating.   

I asked Joseffer to answer a few questions about n95 and his history of documenting San Francisco.  

48hills What was the inspiration for shooting the film? 

JASON JOSEFFER I grew up in San Francisco, and my only previous recollection of smoke and ash from fires was the tragic Oakland hills fire of 1991. It was a big deal and it felt like a phenomenon of the time. The past few years it feels like we have major episodes of smoke suffocating the Bay Area several times a year. It’s sad that these wildfires are becoming a norm and even something to be expected each year. I work professionally as a cinematographer and I felt compelled to throw a face mask on and capture San Francisco as the Air Quality Index hit 271. It was a spontaneous decision and the entire piece was shot over a few hours while wandering around downtown on November 16.

48H How did you choose to process the video this way (infrared), and what do you think it says about the toxic experience we went through.

JJ I had experimented with infrared cinematography while shooting a dance film a couple years back and I always wanted to explore it further. Infrared is a spectrum that the human eye can’t see, but a camera can given the right setup. I used an infrared filter in front of the digital sensor to block out visible light and allow it to see the infrared spectrum. The result is a near chromatic look with splashes of blue and orange.

The look is alien and other-worldy which is exactly how San Francisco felt as people all over the city wore respirators while venturing outside. Earlier that day, I went to a hardware store and the staff continuously announced that all N95 respirators had been sold out. Shortly after, I got a call that my upcoming shoot was cancelled due to smoke, and I was free to grab my camera and shoot downtown. Shooting in infrared was a spontaneous decision, but felt appropriate given that the city’s post-apocalyptic feel.

48H You have a very in-depth local background, what else are you working on? 

JJ I grew up in San Francisco’s Excelsior district and learned photography from my father as a child. I later had a cable-access television show which triggered an interest in filmmaking and prompted me to pursue a film degree from UC Santa Cruz. I’ve been working as a cinematographer for over a decade shooting films, documentaries and commercials.  Occasionally I direct my own projects and am in the fundraising stages of a feature-length documentary about the street corner of Geneva at Mission. The bustling street corner is rich with complexity and is a crossroad of culture and ideas.

See more of Joseffer’s work at www.jasonjoseffer.com

Rami Malek, the man who would be Queen, on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) and Gwilym Lee (Brian May) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo by Alex Bailey.

When Rami Malek was originally cast to play Freddie Mercury in Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” (opening Friday), he knew little about the lead singer beyond his music and peacockish performance style.

“I think the man, to me, is a revolutionary,” Malek told 48 Hills. “He allowed his art to speak for itself. He went out there and he [gave it his all].”

But the Emmy-winning “Mr. Robot” actor knew that approaching an accurate portrayal of the man behind the mic—for a movie that traces the British arena rock band’s upward trajectory from its formation in early ‘70s London to its unforgettable Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985—would require immense investigation.

Through Malek’s research, along with invaluable insights from on-set consultants and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, the actor uncovered that underneath all the projected self-confidence lay an insecure soul who struggled to fit in. This was something that Malek, born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents, says he could instantly relate to.

Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Ccourtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

“I could understand that story—that immigrant story of trying to solidify yourself in a country that’s foreign to you and foreign to your parents,” Malek said. “What’s more, having a dream and marshaling everything you’ve got inside of you to see it realized when the decks are stacked against you.”

Freddie Mercury grew up Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi parents on Zanzibar, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of East Africa as well as in India before relocating to Middlesex, England, in his late teens. Although he wasn’t Anglo, conventionally attractive, or heterosexual at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized, he would use his otherness to his advantage.

His massive overbite reportedly gave him his four-octave vocal range and that, along with his immense flamboyance onstage with Queen, earned him legions of fans. His sophisticated songwriting won the band numerous hits, including “Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “We Are the Champions,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

To match Mercury’s struts, punches, and microphone swings in Queen’s most iconic shows, from their first televised staging of “Killer Queen” on BBC’s “Top of the Pops” to their indelible Live Aid performance watched by 1.7 billion people worldwide, Malek met and studied with a movement coach. He also had to work to build the stamina that it would take to recreate the band’s 20-minute Live Aid set.

Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Seeing what went into these highly theatrical performances only increased Malek’s respect for the singer, in addition to discovering all that he had to overcome—hiding his homosexuality and later his HIV status at a time when AIDS was a death sentence—in order to fulfill his dreams.

“This is what I really admire about him,” Malek said. “He was a very, very conflicted human being searching for identity—and not only his personal identity and sexual identity, every aspect of it. In doing so, and despite having a massive overbite, being an immigrant with a name that many people couldn’t pronounce, and being bullied as a kid, he found a way to harness all of those things and still have this confidence and power that just exploded out on stage.“

After Mercury succumbed to the plague, six years after the events in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” film, it was important to his surviving Queen band members that his untimely death at the age of 45 not be in vain. So, along with their manager Jim Beach, they founded The Mercury Phoenix Trust to raise money for AIDS research and charities.

Today, Malek, inspired by Mercury’s struggle, is picking up the mantle for the cause and supporting both The Mercury Phoenix Trust and Bono’s (RED) organization.

“It really moved me gravely to a point where I got involved because I think that the younger generation doesn’t quite understand what a death sentence AIDS used to be, and everyone needs to be educated about it,” Malek said. “Obviously the AIDS pandemic still exists today, and we all need to marshal everything forward to make sure that we can eradicate it.”

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
Opens on Nov. 2 in San Francisco
More info here.

Reconstituting Orson Welles, in ‘Wind’ and in ‘Love’

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovitch on the set of 'The Other Side of the Wind'

When Orson Welles died in 1985 at age 70—hardly “prematurely,” since given his prodigious appetites (esp. culinary) it was already a miracle he’d survived that long—he’d long been the model of the brilliant artiste abused, misunderstood, and abandoned by the crass commercial film industry. It was an image he’d done nothing to discourage, even if it was only partly true. Certainly he was ahead of his time artistically, had trouble staying within budgetary limits, and seldom stirred much excitement at the box-office. 

But he had also lacked the discipline to exploit and flourish within the studio system, as many equally idiosyncratic personalities managed. Some of his most famously “butchered” features (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil) wound up that way in large part because he couldn’t be bothered to stick around and fight for his vision during the editorial process. Later, as the Flying Dutchman of enfant terribles, he started without finishing numerous directorial projects that weren’t “thwarted” by outside meanies so much as marooned by his own indifference to the realities of financing and contracts—leaving whatever footage he completed mired in Byzantine legal tangles, some still-unresolved. 

Orson Welles was a genius, but also his own worst enemy. Compare the 11 features he formally completed over the course of a half-century with the 40-plus titles (not even counting stage work) Rainer Werner Fassbinder—another “impossible” personality, reckless hedonist, and non-commercial auteur—churned out in less than 15 years. The latter was driven by work. Welles enjoyed leisure (usually on other people’s tab) a little too much.

The result is that in the more than three decades since his demise, we’ve had several “new” Welles films—the fragments of abandoned projects painstakingly pieced together by old friends and latter-day admirers, filled out by narration or other added materials. This week is unusual in that it brings not just the Holy Grail of such films, but also a much-praised, splendid documentary about its tortured road to the public eye at last. 

Simultaneous with its Netflix launch on Friday, the Roxie is hosting a short run of The Other Side of the Wind, a movie Welles shot more of than any other uncompleted feature. And Thursday night, SFFilm’s Doc Stories kicks off its four-day program at the Castro with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a “making-of” that some have claimed is even more fascinating than Wind itself. 

When he started filming Wind in 1970—an activity that continued on and off till ’76, with editing efforts stretching into the early 80s—Welles was back in Hollywood for the first time in years. This ostensible “comeback” drew on his enduring affiliations with many old colleagues (the cast includes Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Lilli Palmer, and other fabled veterans), as well as worshipful new acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich. The latter was then the industry’s hottest director (he’d just released The Last Picture Show) and a patient fan/friend/host who endured notorious moocher Welles as a houseguest for years on end.

The film would comment acidly on his own mythology by casting fellow director John Huston as boozy, cantankerous veteran auteur “Jake Hannaford,” beset by adoring acolytes (the main one played by Bogdanovich himself), but also picked apart by skeptics (Susan Strasberg plays a pushy critic) and distrusted by the money-men. 

Much of the two-hour Wind takes place at a Hollywood Hills party “celebrating” Hannaford’s new movie—but we gradually realize it’s also a forum for him to court financiers, because that project is in dire trouble. Meanwhile, we also see chunks of that film-within-the-film (also called The Other Side of the Wind), a semi-parody of “New Hollywood” and European arthouse trends that’s equal parts Zabriskie Point and Russ Meyer. 

In it, a longhaired, motorcycle-riding pretty boy (forgotten ’60s TV actor Robert Ransom) is magnetized by a mysterious beauty (stonily “exotic” Oja Kodar, Welles’ offscreen companion in later years). He pursues her to a hippie club, then has sex with her in a speeding car—two wordless scenes of gorgeous vintage psychedelia. Then they spend a great deal of time artfully nude amidst desert landscapes, Kodar bearing her bareness with all the kitsch pomposity of an Yma Sumac aria. 

Self-reflexively hip with its cineaste in-jokes, pseudo-documentary aspects, and “medium is the message” structural games (including its being shot in several different formats and aspect ratios), Wind was very much of its time. There were a lot of such movies as the ’60s turned into the ’70s: I Am Curious (Yellow), Medium Cool, David Holzman’s Diary, The Last Movie, Alex in Wonderland, Cover Me Babe, et al, to name just a few (in descending order of popularity and acclaim). 

If Welles had actually released the film when he finally stopped shooting in 1976, it would already seemed outdated—at that point nobody was making, funding, or even bothering to parody pretentious art movies in America anymore. (The Bicentennial Year’s biggest hit was Smokey and the Bandit, with the prior year belonging to Jaws and the next one to Star Wars.) Seen now, in the form that Bogdanovich and numerous collaborators have assembled from the mountain of footage and notes Welles left behind, it regains some of its intended avant-garde (as well as satirical) edge. 

20 Feet from Stardom and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead chronicles a production as messy as everything else about its mastermind’s life at that time. Kodar, Bogdanovich, and others comment on a film that, like Welles himself, was ambitious, out-of-control, and kept changing creative focus. While Kodar’s reminiscences of her late lover are fond, Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd shares some sadder insights into the floating circus Welles’ life had become, even as it settled for a long spell under the mansion roof she then shared with Peter B. It’s the doc’s final judgment that a clusterfuck of climactic indignities—from bodies as distant as the American Film Institute, the Shah of Iran, and the French legal system—delivered slow death blows to both Welles and his Wind. But at least a couple witnesses here wonder if he ever meant to finish it

Was The Other Side of the Wind worth the wait? Of course. Is it the movie Orson intended to make? Probably close enough, though we can never really know. Is it a ‘good movie’? Umm… let’s just say it’s a curio no true film fan would want to miss, and one that may only be “complete” when taken as one half of a package with the explanatory addendum They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.

Other films screening at Doc Stories include films about technology (Maxim Pozdorovkin’s bemused yet worrying The Truth About Killer Robots), fanaticism (Talal Derki’s Al-Qaeda-related Of Fathers and Sons), roller rinks (United Skates), and the persistence of modern slavery (Ghost Fleet). Features of particular local interest are General Magic (about a pioneering if ultimately failed Silicon Valley startup), Dan Krauss’ AIDS epidemic flashback 5B, and Clancy McCarty’s self-explanatory Giving Birth in America: California. There will also be shorts programs, and a Friday keynote address by Netflix VP Lisa Nishamura, who’s been the driving force between many of that platform’s well-regarded nonfiction works. 

The Other Side of the Wind 
Fri/2-Sun/4, Roxie, SF.
More info here

Doc Stories 
Thurs/1-Sun/4, Castro Theatre and SFMOMA.
More info here

South Asian film fest 3rd i looks anew at a changing region

At 3rd i, Indu Krishnan's doc 'Good Guy, Bad Guy' follows life on the margins of tech-drenched Bangalore.

For the 16th year, the 3rd i’s San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond comes to San Francisco and San Jose (Thu/1-Sun/4 and November 17). Ivan Jaigirdar, co-founder of the festival with Anuj Vaidya, jokes that he might not have started it all if he knew how much work it was going to be. A filmmaker himself, Jaigirdar wanted to have a venue for South Asian films. Should he have just stuck with making his own movies? Maybe. But, he adds, now they have helped to start festivals for South Asian filmmakers in other cities, including Boston, New York and Seattle—so it was worth it. 

This year, about two-thirds of the filmmakers are women. It just sort of happened that way, Jaigirdar says. 

“A couple years ago, for the 100 anniversary of Indian cinema, we focused on women filmmakers, and this year we just had a bumper crop,” he said. “It was perfect timing given the insanity we’re living in with Kavanaugh and Trump and #metoo.”

One of the focuses this year is on healing, Jaigirdar says. Also, on dialogue. An example of that, he says, is the documentary, A Better Man, where the filmmaker got in touch with the man who abused her 20 years before and talks to him about it. After the movie, there will be a panel with participants from STAND! and from the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence.

Jaigirdar mentions a few other movies, including Sir, which premiered at Cannes and is about a maid and her employer. 

“It’s quite a nuanced film by a woman filmmaker showing the tension in a relationship between employer and employee in a very balanced manner,” Jaigirdar said. “You see context of how they live in this hierarchy, and it’s trying to take away the box of caste and see them as human.”  

Jaigirdar says he’s not usually a fan of horror movies, but he likes a film that premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Tumbbad, which he describes as “light horror.”

“It’s really light and scenic, and in the subtext there’s a critique of politics and what’s happening,” he says. 

Another film Jaigirdar feels particularly excited about is the documentary Up, Down and Sideways, which he calls totally enchanting. It’s about people in the northeast of India, near Myanmar, who sing as they’re working their land, sort of a call and response.

Another thing they try to do Jaigirdar says, is to showcase local filmmakers. Like Indu Krishnan, whose documentary, Good Guy, Bad Guy, opens the festival. The film “chronicles five years in the tumultuous life of Zakhir, a gentle soul who lives on the streets of Bangalore (India’s Silicon Valley). He survives on the margins, recycling plastic and garbage, and drinks himself to sleep at night, to escape the violence that comes with homelessness.”

Krishnan grew up in Bangalore and now splits her time between that city and San Francisco. She says the subject of her movie, Zakhir, just walked in front of her camera as she was taking a constitutional in a park there. Bangalore reminds her of San Francisco, Krishnan says. 

“They’re very similar visually—they’re both hilly with all these colleges and they’re artsy. The parks are loved and treasured,” she said. “Now there’s this high tech culture with waves of people coming in and lots of people have been pushed out and traffic and asthma have really increased. It used to be called a ‘pensioners’ paradise,’ but no more. It’s a city I’m very connected to, and I go back pretty often, but with the rapidity of the changes, whole neighborhoods are completely unrecognizable.”

Krishnan wanted to make a movie about the changes the city was going through, and she thought it would be a good idea to follow a few people who came to the park every day, and Zakhir was one of them. He picked up plastic and garbage to recycle, and Krishnan found herself noticing how much time he spent feeding the monkeys—and thinking he should be doing something else with his time. 

“Why should I presume I know what he should do?” she asked. “When we look at someone poor or disenfranchised, often we immediately assume we know what’s best for them.”

Talking to Zakhir, Krishnan found his ideas fascinating. He wanted to make his own movie, she found out. She came back to San Francisco to get a camera, and when she went back to Bangalore, he had disappeared. She started looking for him. 

“That was sort of the metaphor for the movie,” she said. “The search for guys like him and for Bangalore. It used to be the garden city of India, and look at it now—it’s such a mess because of globalization and other forces that push and pull on it.”

The film feels a little dangerous, Krishnan says, in that she’s confronting people in a way with their part in how things have changed. 

“The city is completely unaffordable to folks who just a couple years ago had decent lives and homes and kids going to school,” she said. “And this young man is so obtuse in a way about the fragility of someone like him. It’s about masculinity in a way, and what does a guy do who doesn’t have any power in a patriarchy?”

3RD I’S SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL SOUTH ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL
November 1-4, San Francisco, November 17, Palo Alto
Tickets and more info here

Can you ever forgive Richard E. Grant?

Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and Richard E. Grant as "Jack Hock" in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Richard E. Grant told 48 Hills he faced a major obstacle when it came time to portray Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me, the cinematic adaptation of infamous author Lee Israel’s 2008 true crime memoir. The Hudson Hawk, Spice World, and Gosford Park actor couldn’t find much info about the best-selling-celebrity-biographer-turned-forger’s friend and accomplice to inform his performance.

There were no photographs of the real-life anti-hero who died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 47. The majority of his friends had long ago succumbed to the plague themselves, and most of what was out there—the image of the past-his-prime gay dandy with a cigarette holder in one hand and a drink in the other, who regularly trolled Manhattan bars for tricks—was in late author Lee Israel’s 144-page “obviously selfish, curmudgeonly exposé of herself,” according to Grant. But authenticity was still paramount to the actor, so he kept digging and analyzing until he reached a characterization that he considered to be the real Jack Hock.

“You feel a responsibility to the fact that you’re playing a real person, so you have to try to be authentic to what facts there are,” says Grant. “He’s not above cadging a drink off of her, staying in her apartment, and forging letters for her, so he’s a grifter, somebody who’s lived on the streets by his wits. But as soon as he gets any money, he says, ‘Let’s go to this cocktail bar or cabaret. Let’s spend the money and go to eat.’ He’s someone who lives in the moment, for the moment. That is very attractive, and for an actor to play that, it’s a gift.”

I spoke with Grant, who is allergic to alcohol, about playing the often-intoxicated Jack Hock, what he really thought of costars Melissa McCarthy and Mx Justin Vivian Bond, and why he insisted on showing his bum in the film.

Richard E. Grant as “Jack Hock” and Melissa McCarthy as “Lee Israel” in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

48 HILLS You’re allergic to alcohol, yet you play a heavy drinker in this movie. How do you approach playing drunk?

RICHARD E. GRANT This is true. I found out when I was 17 years old. I think that more than anything, my observation of people when they’re drunk is that they concentrate very fiercely on trying not to appear drunk. So I’ve just got to get through that door, so everything else goes out of focus to get into their focus. In doing that, you appropriate what I think it feels like to be drunk.

48H Does being the only sober person in the room ever get annoying?

REG I have often been accused socially or challenged that I am drunk, because if you’re with people, sort of by osmosis, you get it. Where I do get out of the room is when someone is telling me the same story for the third time… You feel the testosterone violence level increasing in the room, and you think, “I’m just gonna Cinderella out of here.” So I’ve learned to do that, and holding a glass of ginger ale is a great getup because people assume that you’re on whatever.

48H I read that you and Melissa McCarthy got along so well during filming that director Marielle Heller worried that you wouldn’t be able to successfully play frenemies in the film.

REG She feels completely nonjudgmental. What you see is what you get. She’s a very emotionally present person. It’s not fake or calculated and there’s no subterfuge about anything. And if she’s upset about something, you feel like you want to make it better for her. There aren’t many people you can say that about. She’s a powerful movie star who carries her authority very lightly. She just seems like a completely normal person.

So yes, I just worshipped her and we had just a brilliant time. I know actors always say, “We were a big happy family.” With the dysfunctional family that I come from, I don’t know what that is. But these 28 days we had on this movie last winter in New York were absolutely wonderful, and we were bereft when we all had to say goodbye.

48H It was such a treat to see Mx Justin Vivian Bond performing in the film in a memorable cabaret scene. Because Justin has such a history and following in San Francisco from when Justin lived and performed here, I have to ask you your impression of Justin.

REG Oh, it was instant top-to-bottom loved each other, and that was the first day of the shoot. We did that scene in the afternoon at that bar where Justin was singing Goodnight, Ladies. Then I went to see Justin do cabaret at Joe’s Pub at The Public and have such a phenomenal rapport with the audience, and I absolutely loved it.

48H This film is already getting a lot of positive feedback. Was there a film of yours that was underrated by audiences that you believe deserves a second look?

REG I wrote and directed a film, Wah-Wah, about my very dysfunctional childhood in Swaziland in Southeast Africa where I grew up, dealing with my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s adultery, and it was marketed very properly in Australia and Canada. But it was released in America on Mother’s Day in 2006 as a lighthearted Mother’s Day-friendly comedy. And the first scene is a 10-year-old boy played by Nicholas Hoult playing me waking up and witnessing inadvertently his mother fucking his father’s best friend on the front seat.

People took their mothers on Mother’s Day to see this in Milwaukee or wherever, but that’s not what was written on the tin. That was very disappointing because it took five years to get the thing from script to screen. But I’ve lived to tell the tale and had a great cast. And these things have ongoing lives on cable, so…

Melissa McCarthy as “Lee Israel” and Richard E. Grant as “Jack Hock” in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

48H I first became aware of you, back in the early 1990s, after you appeared in an episode of the British comedy “Absolutely Fabulous.” How did you end up working with that amazing cast?

REG I knew Jennifer [Saunders] because I’d done an improvised film for the BBC with her husband Ade Edmondson and Gary Oldman, and our children went to the same school, so I used to see them almost every day at the school gate. I was doing a play at the time, and she said, “Would you come and be in a dream sequence?” I knew Helena Bonham Carter as well and Joanna Lumley I’d met, so it was like going on holiday to a sort of comedy bootcamp for the day.

No one’s ever asked me about this, but we had a very, very good time, and that’s what I remember about it. But it was done in half a day and I still get residual checks, like 52 cents from Abu Dhabi or wherever that episode’s been shown. So I know if I’m getting that, then Jennifer and Joanna are getting just a shedload of money from wherever.

48H Are there any actors you haven’t worked with that you’d like to work with on a future project?

REG The first movie that I saw that was set in San Francisco was What’s Up, Doc? when I was 15, and I was so smitten with Barbra Streisand. I’ve now met her four times. Melissa has had to listen to this endlessly, because she did a duet with her on an album, but I’d love to work with her or be directed by her because I think she’s a phenomenal talent. So please tell Babs.

48H What’s your craziest fan experience?

REG Oh, I had somebody who stalked me from Chicago and told me in letters if I didn’t see her, that she’d commit suicide. Then she turned up outside my daughter’s school when she was seven years old as I was walking my daughter home. This was the first time I’d ever seen her because she’d only written before. Then she came up and did that thing in Play Misty for Me and said, “Hi, I’m da da da da,” and she believed that my daughter wasn’t my daughter. Then you realize that she had serious mental health problems. So that was the most peculiar thing I’ve had to deal with.

48H Getting back to Can You Ever Forgive Me, is there anything from the film that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to get off your chest?

REG My nudity. I had to sign a contract, because it was a point where I had to get out of bed after supposedly spending the night with Christian Navarro, so the costume designer gave me these boxer shorts. I said, “You know, I’ve never slept with anybody and kept boxer shorts on. I know I’m older, and if you just shoot my left cheek in the dark…” Then they got lawyers and agents and had to draft some nudity clause that I was not going to sue them. I said, “Listen, I’m the one who came forward with this, but it just seems unrealistic that if you’ve slept with somebody and you get out of bed to go and feed the cat that you’re fully clothed.”

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Opens on Oct. 26 in San Francisco
More info here.

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.)