Thursday, June 29, 2017

“The B-Side”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new documentary “The B-Side”.


Retired portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman reflects on her long career


For decades, Elsa Dorfman made a career as a photographer specializing in portraits.  Before her retirement, Dorfman was considered a pioneer because she was one of the few female professional photographers.  What further set her apart from others was the fact that she was using a relatively new camera at the time:  The Polaroid Land Camera, which was considered revolutionary at the time because it generated instant photographs without having to be processed through the traditional development process.  While the cameras were sold in the retail market and turned out to be a big hit with consumers, the company also manufactured specialty cameras as well.

One such specialty camera was a model which was capable of producing 20” x 24” photographs.  Dorfman was able to get one of these cameras despite the fact that they were in limited supply; using this for her portrait photography caused her career to take off.  Since there were few people at the time who could market portrait photographs to the general public of this size, she was considered one-of-a-kind.  As this set her apart from most other photographers, she was in high demand for her portraits -- by both the public and celebrities alike.   

Years later, Polaroid started making cameras that could produce even larger photographs; these were 80” x 40” in size and came out of an enormous printer.  These cameras were intended for use by professionals who were seeking “life-size” pictures as well as photos that could be mounted on a wall in a gallery.  Dorfman used this device to take shots of celebrities, especially her close friend, the controversial poet Allen Ginsberg.  But eventually, technological advances became such that film was no longer used in cameras and Polaroid found itself out of business.  It was not long thereafter that Dorfman decided it was time for her to retire.     


There is no doubt that “The B-Side” contains a certain sweetness to both the documentary and its subject.  However, that alone does not necessarily make a good documentary.  One of the most common problems in documentaries is what’s known as The Talking Heads Syndrome; this is where the documentary consists solely (or primarily) of interviews with people about the subject of the documentary.  In the case of “The B-Side”, it’s much worse than that – there is only one talking head, that of Dorfman herself.  The fact that this filmmaker, a veteran documentarian, fell into what would be considered “rookie mistakes” is a bit startling. 

Another problem is with the subject herself.  Unless you are a photography buff, you may not be familiar with Dorfman’s work.  What we are given to understand from this documentary is that her photographs are not remarkable so much because of her subjects themselves but more because of the technology she used, which was cutting edge at the time.  This is interesting only up to a certain point (getting former Polaroid employees to expound on the cameras themselves might have been useful to include in the documentary).  Dorfman herself admits that while she did photograph famous people (Bob Dylan and Ginsberg), she was never looking to capture the inner person, just their external shell. 

Curiously, when Dorfman shows off her photography, she often holds up the pictures in a way that completely obscures her face while she talks about the photo; it is almost as if to say, “My work is more important than I am”.  While making the subject appear humble and serve to further ingratiate her to the viewing audience, it isn’t necessarily good filmmaking; this could have been shot in a more elegant (professional) manner.  Why the director made this choice is unclear.  What is perhaps a saving grace of “The B-Side” is its length; its running time is barely over an hour. 

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, June 08, 2017

“The Hero”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “The Hero” starring Sam Elliott.


When an actor learns he is dying, will he be able to resolve family conflicts before it’s too late?


Hollywood is known to be a cruel town – and especially cruel to those unable to resist aging.  This is precisely the problem Lee (Elliott) is facing now; as a senior citizen, the roles he used to get acting in Westerns on television and in movies have dried up considerably.  But things are about to get much worse for Lee; upon meeting with his doctor, he learns some rather unfortunate news about his biopsy – at the age of 71, he’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the prognosis is none too promising.  Lee is now forced to confront his new reality and limited future. 

Lee has initial difficulty internalizing his diagnosis; this manifests itself in his inability to tell his neighbor Jeremy (Nick Offerman), his ex-wife Valarie (Katherine Ross) and their daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), from whom he has been long estranged.  One day while visiting Jeremy to purchase weed, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), another of Jeremy’s “customers”; they hit it off immediately and shortly thereafter start dating.  Insecure about why such a young woman would be interested in him, Lee attends Charlotte’s stand-up act at a comedy club; immediately feeling humiliated when she makes jokes about the hazards of dating an older man, he exits, convinced they are over.

Charlotte apologizes and tries to make amends; reunited, it is at this point that Lee finally is able to summon up the courage to reveal his diagnosis.  This being a much-needed breakthrough, Lee now decides to meet with Valarie and Lucy separately in order to break the news to them.  Although Valarie responds sympathetically, Lucy is more of a challenge; having been disappointed by her father countless times over the years, she sees this as yet another side of his absentee fatherhood.  With time running out, will Lee be forced to spend his remaining days alone or can those closest to him provide the necessary support until the end?


As much of a pleasure Sam Elliott is to watch (and hear) in “The Hero”, it is not necessarily enough to recommend seeing the movie – unless, of course you’re such a hardcore fan of Elliott that skipping one of his works would be unthinkable.  As his girlfriend, Prepon’s Charlotte seems unworthy of Lee (who apparently was no angel himself in his earlier years); after insulting him in her stand-up comedy act while he’s in the audience, she unconvincingly tries to explain her reasoning for doing so.  It seemed the perfect opportunity for Lee to invoke the maxim, “Many a truth is often said in jest”. 

Haley’s screenplay is somewhat hackneyed; we’ve pretty much seen this story before and in considerably better movies.  As a storyteller, he really doesn’t seem to be able to explain things terribly well (e.g., a big deal is made of Lee losing his cell phone and then in the very next scene, it is apparently recovered – but how and when, we have no idea).  For another thing, Haley seems to overuse shots of Lee standing on the beach staring at the ocean.  It puts in the viewer’s mind the thought that one of those “A Star Is Born” types of moments might be coming. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with both writer/director Brett Haley and Elliott.  Haley said that he came up with the idea for “The Hero” after working with Elliott on a previous project ("I'll See You in My Dreams") and they wound up shooting this movie in only 18 days.  Elliott said that one of his reasons for doing the film was because he felt that the character exemplified a problem he himself ran into as an actor:  the fact that he gets known for a certain type of role and winds up being “boxed in”.  Despite wanting to star in Westerns since childhood, after a while, he felt a desire to do something different but found it difficult to get cast in any other type. 

The Hero (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, June 01, 2017

“Churchill”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Churchill”, starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson. 


When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill grows increasingly depressed over the impending Battle of Normandy on D-Day, can his wife set him in the right frame of mind to successfully lead the country?


At the beginning of June 1944, the world was in the thick of its second war and it was just days before Operation Overlord would commence.  It was at this time that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Cox) met with the generals from The Allied Forces – Eisenhower and Montgomery (John Slattery and Julian Wadham) – to review the final version of their plan for The Battle Of Normandy.  To their surprise, Churchill informs them he thinks the plan will not work; while ambitious, it is far too risky and The Allies will incur many casualties.

In a private meeting, Ike tells Churchill that regardless of what he thinks, they are going forward with the plan – it’s just a matter of when, depending on favorable weather conditions.  Churchill warns him there was a similar plan in The Battle of Gallipoli during The Great War and it failed miserably; Ike tries to reassure him that there have been great advances in the past 30 years, but Churchill remains unconvinced.  Realizing the generals will go against his wishes, Churchill then counters by saying he will be accompanying the troops to Normandy; but after Ike has a conversation with the King of England, he tells Churchill he cannot go.

As all of this unfolds, Churchill’s drinking increases and his mental state declines.  Becoming increasingly depressed, he begins to exhibit erratic behavior and poor temperament around colleagues and his wife Clementine (Richardson).  Finally, Clementine has enough; she feels that her husband has been marginalizing her and it’s time that she leave him.  But after Churchill’s colleagues try to persuade Clementine into staying for the benefit of the country, will she be able to drag her husband out of the deep depression in which he’s mired?


It may be better left to history buffs – either those of World War II or, more specifically, experts on Churchill himself – to fact check much of what it set forth in “Churchill”.  Regardless, it must be noted that flaws in the movie are of the cringe-worthy variety – whether we’re talking about heavy-handed imagery or dialog (particularly of note is the scene where Churchill is supposedly praying, but his supplication evolves into oration to The Almighty).  There are plenty of aspects about this that challenge your disbelief, including the fact that a secretary turned Churchill around on his views and that he only voiced disagreement about the Operation Overlord plans days before their execution when in fact they had been in the works for months. 

As a historical work, “Churchill” could hardly be considered a hagiography; quite the opposite, in fact – The British Bulldog comes across not only as quite fallible but also leaves the audience wondering if he should have been fit for a straitjacket.  That becomes problematic because it results in the audience having a protagonist for whom it is difficult to root.  Add to that the fact that since this is obviously a slice of history, we all know how it turns out so there is very little left in the movie that creates any requisite suspense for viewers. 

While the film may have been something of a disappointment, what saved the evening was a post-screening question and answer session with its star, Brian Cox.  Cox said that he had to gain around 30 pounds in order to play Churchill and he is still battling to lose that weight.  He maintains that while there are many factual elements to the movie (it was written by a historian), there are elements that were manufactured – the secretary portrayed in “Churchill” is actually an amalgam of multiple Churchill secretaries.  Also, Cox noted that while his character was seen smoking many cigars, he doesn’t smoke them himself; during the shoot, they utilized what were basically electronically-operated cigars – basically, he was vaping. 

Churchill (2017) on IMDb