Highlights from VFF 2018

The annual Virginia Film Festival (VFF) in Charlottesville recently celebrated its 31st year of operation on Nov.1-4 and offered attendees the opportunity to select from over 150 films, many of which arrived leaden with awards and critical acclaim from previous festivals like Cannes and Telluride. Programming content focused on specific themes and topics is also part of the VFF tradition and the 2018 event included a film series on Race in America, which included the premiere of Paul Robert’s Charlotteville about the tragic events of Aug. 11 & 12, 2017, and sidebars on Orson Welles, Virginia filmmakers, American folk culture and music and a vast array of international films.   Continue reading

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The Streetwise Anthropologist

The name Garry Winogrand might not be familiar to you but you have probably seen some of his most famous photographs over the years. There are his candid celebrity shots that include a young John F. Kennedy amid attendees at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles circa 1960 and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) as she stands over a subway grate, her skirt billowing around her. More typical are his street scenes and public places portraits such as the one of a young couple frolicking in the surf at Coney Island or the acrobat caught in mid-air above the sidewalk. All of these and many more are included in a deep dive of his four-decade archive in Sasha Waters Freyer’s engrossing documentary, Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable. Continue reading

Curse of the Doll People

The Mexican film poster for Curse of the Doll People (1961).

Some phobias, often triggered by movies, develop in childhood and stick with you for life like an overwhelming fear of circus clowns or anxiety about being alone in the dark. For me, ventriloquist dummies or anything similar to that like oversized human dolls still gives me the creeps and the horror film that best visualizes this is 1961’s Curse of the Doll People (Mexican title: Munecos Infernales, which translates roughly as “Infernal Dolls”), directed by Benito Alazraki.   Continue reading

Dietrich and von Sternberg’s Last Tango

When The Scarlet Empress (1934), Josef von Sternberg’s lavish historical epic starring Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, proved to be a critical and commercial disaster for Paramount, the director realized his days were numbered at the studio. So why not go for broke in one last picture? The result was The Devil is a Woman (1935). Continue reading

Remembering Hal Ashby

Mark Harris’s best-seller Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood pointed to 1967 as the year that the studio system crumbled and a new order emerged while Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls profiled the subsequent rise of the young turk directors in the seventies who changed cinematic conventions with their idiosyncratic films. Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich are usually singled out as the prime movers and shakers by film historians of that era while the once high profile Hal Ashby is often underrated and relegated to the sidelines. Hal, Amy Scott’s new documentary on the director, is a welcome homage that attempts to elevate and restore this influential figure to his rightful place in Hollywood history.  Continue reading

A Cowpoke and His Cow

Buster Keaton plays a hapless cowpoke who tries to save a cow named Brown Eyes from the slaughterhouse in Go West (1925).

Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary homage, The Great Buster, is scheduled to open at theaters across the country in October 2018 and perhaps it might introduce a new generation of film-goers to the silent era legend. I would certainly recommend The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The Cameraman to Keaton novices but even his less celebrated efforts are cinematic wonders brimming with visual poetry and imaginative sight gags like Go West (1925). Continue reading

Teenage Science Geeks Might Save the World

2018 is turning out to be another great year for critically acclaimed and commercially successful documentary features that might end up as Oscar nominees in that category. Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on children’s TV host Fred Rogers, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle’s disturbing odyssey of male triplets separated at birth are just a few of this year’s success stories and are still enjoying long theatrical runs in cities across the U.S. I also predict a similar enthusiastic reception for Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s Science Fair, an insider look at the annual Intel ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair), which attracts the most gifted science students from high schools around the world. Continue reading