Wednesday, May 29, 2019

An Appreciation: Federico Fellini

Variety Lights (1950) *** - A perfect distillation of the type of film Fellini would strive to make for the duration of his career- a wandering sense of the journey being more important that the destination.... a focus on common creative types (this time a traveling, scrappy troupe of performers).... and the ever present tug of respectability and higher class threatening to soil the salt-of-the-earth facade of his men and women. Co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, "Variety Lights" is a neat encapsulation of Fellini's unique vision.

The White Sheik (1952) *** - In one scene that takes place on a beach as runaway wife Wanda (Brunella Bova) sees her starstruck dreams towards handsome actor Nando (Alberto Sordi) fade away, the wind sounds just like it does a decade later in "81/2". And that's the most interesting thing about "The White Sheik". It is a delicate and often very funny comedy, but it's also an illuminating blueprint for so many themes and motifs that would dot the Fellini landscape for years to come. Not to mention, it introduces us to Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) who would later get her own (sorrowful) account of life in Rome.

Love In the City (1953)  **- For his part in the omnibus film about a swath of people living and loving in Italy, Fellini's portion is nowhere near the best. Anyone matched against Antonioni usually loses in that regard. In fact, after seeing it last week, I can barely remember what his was about outside of a few long tracking shots.

I Vitelloni (1953)  **** -  An episodic film about friends living on the edges of crime, poverty, adolescence and developing macho swaggering, "I Vitelloni" feels like the type of film everyone from Martin Scorsese to John Singleton has emulated decades later. Fellini makes it appear pure and effortless. It's the best of his 1950 era output.

La Strada (1954) *** - I"m not as enamored of this film as many, but it's hard to deny the great performance of Giullietta Masina portraying the downtrodden protagonist that Fellini would return to over the decades. Opposite her, Anthony Quinn as the brutish surrogate father/boss/lover is also perfect.

Il Bidone (1955) ** - Fairly one-note exploration of redemption as a trio of con men receive their comeuppance due to family ties.

Nights of Cabiria (1957) ***1/2 - Actress Masina is back for more brutality by Fellini as a woman dealing with a very harsh Rome. Her subtle reactions and facial expressions- as the neon glitz world around her pushes onto her shoulders- are small revelations in a character study that dares to examine the falsehood of the culture around the character rather than the character herself.

La Dolce Vita (1960) **** - One of the formative films of my young movie-watching life (when I was 15) in which I realized foreign films just have the pizazz and life that American films often don't deliver. The careening moods and audacious sentiments that barrel off the screen felt (and still feel) like someone striving for a complete abandonment of realism and simply exploring whatever wistful memory or thought springs before them. One of the seminal films.

8 1/2 (1963) **** - Much like "La Dolce Vita", the first time I saw "8 1/2" I recognized this as something completely "anti" of everything I'd seen up to that point. Remarkably lucid about mining the depths of sinking creativity and a visually dazzling film whose main concern is to disorient as much as enlighten, these two films deserve to be studied as masterpieces for centuries to come.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) *** - I imagine this is as close to a straight up horror film that Fellini would ever make. One can only drool over the possibilities. His first color film, Fellini held nothing back in contrasting colors and images and the final delirious parade of images (as the habitats of Giullietta Masini's head come pouring onto the screen) feature some absolutely creepy incarnations. If it feels like a feminist version of "81/2", so be it. It does lag in portions, but the overall scope and image-making are wondrous.

Spirits of the Dead (1968) ***1/2 - Fellini's portion of this compilation film (liberally borrowing from an Edgar Allan Poe short story) "Toby Dammitt" is essentially a 40 minute mental breakdown of a British actor (Terence Stamp) visiting Italy and falling into the throes of alcoholism, depression and manic paranoia. It's certainly a Fellini vision, swirling with garish colors, clownish characterizations and evil incarnate in a pale-faced nymph kicking a ball around. Describing it just doesn't do it any justice.

Satyricon (1969) ** - I think this could've only been made in 1969. Based on ancient short stories, it's really a film of Fellini gestating his urges and visual delights onto the screen in what would mark his more ribald period of heightened mood, artificiality and visualized dream-states. The story, to speak of, concerns a young man's search for his child lover through a landscape of highly designed sets with all sorts of grotesquery and embedded mythical figures. It doesn't make much sense, but I get the feeling its meant to be ingested rather than enjoyed.

The Clowns (1970) *** -  It makes sense that Fellini would begin the 70's with a rollicking (faux) documentary about the life of circus clowns, represented both in real life and obscure, unearthed silent films. Since most of his later films resemble the carefully controlled anarchy of the antics inside a circus ring applied to his beloved Italian hagiography real and imagined, it's an apt metaphor for everything that would follow in his career. It's also a diverting, charming effort that ends on gracious melancholy.

Roma (1972) **** - It's difficult to call "Roma" episodic. It's a film that doesn't follow a true narrative arch and although its mostly rudderless, it does feature two anchors that continually pop up throughout the film to provide some semblance of characterization. One of them is a young man who gets to observe the chaotic assembly of people eating dinner in the town square or the unusually deconstructive nature of how brothels in Rome work... the first for the lower class and the second for more 'monied' men. The second (sometimes) constant piece of "Roma" follows a camera crew as they film around the city, providing two of the film's most stunning technical achievements including a hectic film shoot along a rain-soaked Rome highway and the other a mystical, transfixing venture beneath the city where a construction crew accidentally discovers centuries old artwork. Of course, their presence and the exposure to air subsequently destroys the work and casts a rapt commentary on so many things at once. Everything else in the film plays as if the city itself belched up its own memories, feelings and ideas mixed with the circus-like atmosphere of a filmmaker of Fellini's attention. It's at once wondrous and frustrating and maniacal. It's also one of Fellini's best.

Amarcord (1974) ** - Attempting some of the same distillation of nostalgia and memory that glittered so vibrantly in "Roma", Fellini's follow-up "Amarcord" falls short due to its less-than-memorable set pieces and chaotic nature that feels, well chaotic and encumbered by an overall sense of trying too hard.

Casanova (1976) *1/2 - Orgiastic pageantry aside, Fellini's interpretation of the legendary Casanova is quite the bore. As the leading man, Donald Sutherland feels miscast and the film's feeble attempts to solicit any character arch are just as cartoonish as the overall tone and tempo. Points do go for the genius set design, though, in which gently ruffled tarps serve as swooning oceans and one scene involving candle-lit chandeliers being rotated and expunged.

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) *** - Hinged somewhere between his usual manic exploration of society and the acidic explosion of absurdity borrowed by current filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos, "Orchestra Rehearsel" begins as a faux documentary about a day in the life of various musicians at practice and then turns chaotic. The orchestra revolts. The conductor begins speaking German. People lash out. All in the name of magic realism/fascism, "Orchestra Rehearsal" may not completely gel as a whole, but its fascinating to see Fellini try.

City of Women (1980) ** - A bit embarrassing at times for the way it attempts to reconcile the gender divide and ends up purporting the worst cliches of both sides, "City of Women" is ambitious and self-reflexive, which gives it some chutzpah. But not much else.

And the Ship Sails On (1983) ***- Fellini characters cloistered together on a cruise ship... meaningful siphons of the country itself.... a ragged and busy aesthetic. "And the Ship Sails On" seems to inhabit the best and worst of Fellini's career.

Ginger and Fred (1986) ** - A way to look back on two of the stars Fellini spent his youthful days with (Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina), "Ginger and Fred" concerns itself with a once popular dancing duo making a comeback 40 years later on a variety TV show. Lots of backstage conversations and blustery emotions are on hand again, but this time, the film feels flat and tepid. The chemistry (or lack thereof) between the ace duo is also disconcerting.

Intervista (1987) **1/2- Partly generated to celebrate the anniversary of Cinecitta, Fellini's faux documentary glides across the back lots of the famed studio where lots of pandemonium ensues. It's a film that sounds more interesting than it really is- juggling a Japanese documentary crew's wide-eyed enthusiasm, a naive reporter experiencing all the chaos and Fellini dipping into past glories (Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg) to create a sweet but at times overbearing reverie.

The Voice of the Moon (1990) *1/2 - Not quite the magnanimous way we hoped Fellini would go out, his final film (starring Roberto Beningi as yet another male protagonist slipping through the currents of Italian memory and time) is a confused, fairly oafishness take on many of his previous (and better) films. Beholden to a variety of characters- often following them for long stretches of time with lots of talk going on- "The Voice of the Moon" staggers and replays so much of Fellini's oeuvre that it becomes a cliched mess.

Unable to view:  Boccaccio '70

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.3


The life of Buddy Bolden is the stuff of mythic folklore. Regarded as the inventor of jazz music, whose only supposed recording has been lost to the ravages of time, and confined to a Louisianan state mental hospital where he died in anonymity at the age of 54 are the facts that most published history know about him. Trying to elasticize his life and music, filmmaker Dan Pritzker's "Bolden" takes an especially fragmented approach to things. Recalling major events in the musicians life (played by Gary Carr), the film opens with Bolden hearing a Louis Armstrong event wafting through the vents of his asylum home, which cause him to frustratingly recollect the events in his life, from his childhood to the exploitative brushes with (white) New Orleans society and his depression into alcohol and drug use. Assembled with minimal care for a cohesive narrative, "Bolden" shoe-horns so much manic energy into its 90 minutes, it's one of the few times I've yearned for a more conventional biopic. There are moments of tenderness, though, such as the idea that as a young boy his malleable mind would turn the thuds and swishes of his mother's line factory into a crescendo beat or the way he coaxes a unique rhythm out of one of his band's early rehearsals. But these asides are few and far between the bursts of darkness that begin to creep into Bolden's personality or his many dalliances with women outside his marriage. It's a shame the film is far more intent on the destructive rather than the creative.

Red Joan

In Trevor Nunn's somewhat diffuse spy thriller "Red Joan", it's no surprise the venerable Judi Dench comes away mostly unscathed from the ordinary plot machinations that sinks a good portion of the rest of the film. As the aged woman arrested in the film's opening scene for treasonous acts committed 50 years earlier, her weathered face wrings out the emotions that stirs the film's flashback approach and just how it all went down. As young Joan, Sophie Cookson (aka the actress I kept mistaking for Keira Knightley) carries the brunt of the film and just how such a brilliant young mind was manipulated by a dashing communist (Tom Hughes). It's in the past where "Red Joan" often falters, turning the true story of British war time subterfuge into a series of love interests and staid conventional storytelling. This should have been the most compelling portion. Instead, the few moments of Dench reacting to the accusations of the past become standouts in a film too wrapped up to excise generic war-torn lust rather than honest regret.

At Dallas Film Now check out new reviews for other currents such as "Long Day's Journey Into Night", and Zhang Yimou's wonderful "Shadow"