Review: ‘Saint Laurent’ is stylish and enthralling

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I gave 3 ½ stars to the better of the two Yves Saint Laurent biopics, Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent.”

One shot in the Yves Saint Laurent biopic “Saint Laurent” captures its title character more than any other. It is the late 1960s, and the famed designer stands alone in his store on a busy Paris street. He is imprisoned by his creative successes, as well as his personal failures. Both become even stronger throughout the film.

The image captures the fragility of an emotionally damaged individual whose revolutionary work changed women’s fashion forever. It is stylish and captivating, like the film itself.

Controversial director Bertrand Bonello’s film is unquestionably compelling, but also flawed. It is long – two and a half hours – rather humorless and centered on a main character who is not particularly likable, but certainly a zeitgeist-altering genius.

In a sign of just how vast a shadow he still casts, “Saint Laurent” is his second biopic in the last two years. The first, titled “Yves Saint Laurent,” is streaming on Netflix, and watching the two makes for a fascinating comparison.

“Yves Saint Laurent” earned the support of the late designer’s partner, Pierre Bergé, and utilized some of his actual designs. It is also thoroughly rote and crushingly dull, the type of “A to B to C” biopic that is sure to please the sycophants.

Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” on the other hand, is the looser, unauthorized version that seems to truly capture who Saint Laurent was, and why we still care. It is the epitome of the warts-and-all biography, devoting much of its running time to the title character’s hedonistic, sex-and-drugs-fueled artistic peak.

It’s no wonder Bergé found the 2014 effort more to his liking, though in both versions, Bergé is the central figure in his life and career. (He is played in “Saint Laurent” by Jérémie Renier.)

“Saint Laurent” stars Gaspard Ulliel, who is perhaps best known stateside as the star of “Hannibal Rising.” His performance here is astounding. He disappears into the role and captures the designer’s charisma and intelligence.

Bonello is boldly uninterested in telling Saint Laurent’s story in chronological order. Therefore, as the film begins he already is a fashion world star.

It’s a domain of unhinged creativity, model-packed parties and elaborate decadence, and Bonello stages it all as an explosion of color, sound and sex. It also is an insular existence – Saint Laurent’s mother gently chastises him for not knowing how to change a lightbulb – and Bonello smartly captures this feel via a split-screen montage with models sporting Saint Laurent’s designs on one side, and archival footage of the increasingly combustible outside world (Vietnam, 1968 Paris, etc.) on the other.

Despite the clever directing of Bonello and the stunning work of Ulliel and Renier, things start to become a bit tiresome as we approach the two-hour mark, and the designer is at his lowest mental point.

However, Bonello then makes a wonderfully creative, unexpected move: He drops the aged, near-death Saint Laurent, now played by the actor Helmut Berger, into the story.

From this moment on, even as the designer mounts a successful comeback show, we continually cut to a man who seems drained of the verve of his prior decades. He putters around his decadent home, feeding the latest incarnation of his beloved dog, looking at magazines, and waiting for … something.

It’s a sad ending for a genius, one who finished life as nothing more than an eccentric figurehead. It’s also brilliant, and makes for the film’s most absorbing stretch.

“Saint Laurent” is one of the more enthralling biopics about a creative mastermind in years. At its best moments, it is a downright addictive experience, fitting for the story of a man whose most well-known fragrance was called “Opium.”

What the film has in abundance is imagination. And despite its somber portrayal of Yves Saint Laurent’s personal complexities, I think the man himself would have found the dreamlike imagery on screen to be utterly intoxicating.

Recommended new books on filmmaking: My latest Film Stage feature

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My latest Film Stage books piece features some new (and newish) reading options looking at Mad Max: Fury Road, Robert Altman, Grand Budapest Hotel, and more.

If your idea of beach reading is Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steel, click away. (And reconsider your life choices.) However, if you plan to work on your tan while paging through weighty hardcover tomes about Robert Altman, Boyhood, and Grand Budapest Hotel, read on. We start—as one should—with George Miller’s fast-and-Furiosa masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road by Abbie Bernstein (Titan Books)

Many thoughts run through one’s head while watching Fury Road—Could George Miller’s film make the rest of this summer’s blockbusters look any weaker in the knees? Can fans stop worrying about the chronology? Why wasn’t late Howard Stern Show fan favorite Eric the Actor cast as the little person who looks through the telescope?—but the most pressing is likely, “How did they do that?!” The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road has some answers. From storyboards and sketches to insightful production photos, the book is an extravaganza of ugly-beautiful details. Some of it is haunting, including a still of a young “War Boy” in the making gazing in the distance and an extreme close-up of a disturbingly skeevy Nicholas Hoult. Some is surprising, including the concept that the “Wives’ quarters” are “filled with the world’s last remaining books.” All of it, without question, makes a rich film seem even richer. Abbie Bernstein’s book is a brisk, fascinating read, and a must-have for the Rockatansky completist.

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz (Abrams)

Matt Zoller Seitz’s dazzling, marvelously designed 2013 book The Wes Anderson Collection was one of the finest film-related texts of recent years, but had one failing: Timing meant that it could not include 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel. That problem is now solved. The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious companion, featuring more than 250 pages of interviews (with Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Yeoman, and others), essays (from the likes of David Bordwell and Ali Arikan), and photos, artwork, and much more. There are even excerpts from the works of Stefan Zweig. Above all else, there are illuminating thoughts like this one, from Zoller Seitz’s preface: “[W]ith each successive viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a funny, really not­-so-funny thing happens: We realize that all these acts of self-reinvention and self-determination will nonetheless be trampled by the greedy and powerful, then ground up in the tank treads of history.”

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt (Scribner)

Comedian-actor-Twitter superstar Patton Oswalt is a cinephile extraordinaire, and Silver Screen Fiend—subtitled Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film—is one of the finest chronicles of movie love and its life-altering impact in some time. As the memoir progresses, Oswalt’s stand-up career slowly flourishes, but it’s the film talk that makes Fiend so memorable. His Day the Clown Cried anecdote alone makes this an essential read, as done his heartbreak after seeing The Phantom Menace. Oswalt’s thoughts on a second viewing of the Star Wars prequel are wonderfully well-reasoned: “I guess I’m hoping for some sort of redemptive miracle, or that maybe I was wrong in my initial assessment. Also, there are parts of it I like. It’s sheer uncut nostalgia. … But it still sucks.”

Star Wars Epic Yarns: A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi by Jack and Holman Wang (Chronicle Books)

The Star Wars Epic Yarns trio is summarized nicely on the back of each book: “Twelve handcrafted felt scenes + twelve words = one epic microsaga!” That about sums it up. While the twelve words are a bit banal for readers over, say, 6 (“trouble,” “hurt,” “boom!”), the scenes are stunningly detailed. Yoda, in particular, is adorable, and the key moments from A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are all here. My Star Wars-obsessed 4-year-old finds the three books delightful, and so do I.

Altman by Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan (Abrams)

The career of Robert Altman demanded a colorful, photo-heavy coffee-table book like Altman. This visual biography is co-authored by the late director’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, and film critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. They have created a wildly entertaining summary of the man’s career and life, including scores of interviews (collaborators represented include Lily Tomlin, Jules Feiffer, and Julian Fellowes) and unique insight into the peaks and valleys of his life. The lows of the 1980s are especially interesting, but readers will be most moved by the photos and memories of his final days. The last photo of husband and wife, taken at home shortly before his passing in 2006, is gloriously loving. “I think it’s a very special picture,” Reed Altman writes. That’s an undeniable sentiment.

Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film by Matt Lankes (University of Texas Press)

Last year around this time, most film fans were anxiously awaiting the chance to see Richard Linklater’s Sundance smash, Boyhood. In a matter of weeks after opening, the 12-year-in-the-making backstory had become part of pop culture lore. While the film failed to pick up the Oscars many thought it should (besides Patricia Arquette’s much-deserved Best Supporting Actress statue), the passage of time has not diminished the boldness of Linklater’s approach. The gorgeous photographs by Matt Lankes in Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film make it even easier to appreciate the uniqueness of production. Here are the faces of Boyhood—all of them, from Mason and his mom and dad to the guy behind the counter at the liquor store. The behind-the-scenes pics, especially, demonstrate what an experience the film must have been to make, and remind us how thrillingly alive it felt to viewers.

 

Vacation Reads (Recent Film-centric Novels)

Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme (Overlook Press)

Self-Styled Siren blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s debut novel is an utter delight. Movie-loving lead character Ceinwen Reilly is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi now living in 1980s New York. She finds herself on a quest to track down a long-lost silent film, and I find myself hoping that Emma Stone is cast in a big-screen adaptation of Reels.

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

It is hard not to be fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years in Hollywood. In West if Sunset, the great Stewart O’Nan (Snow Angels) imagines the final years of the author’s life. The novel is wonderfully detailed and hugely moving. It’s a fine companion to Fitzgerald’s own The Love of Last Tycoon.

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo (Knopf)

Jo Nesbo is no stranger to Hollywood—see Headhunters, and, hopefully, eventual adaptations of his Harry Hole novel The Snowman and the stand-alone novel The Son. (Channing Tatum is attached to the latter.) Blood on Snow, the compulsively readable story of a crime scene “fixer,” has Leonardo DiCaprio on board as producer and possibly star. Note to Leo: Blood is bloody good. Take the lead role, please.

The Revenant by Michael Punke (Picador)

Speaking of DiCaprio, the actor’s next film is The RevenantBirdman Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s adaptation of Michael Punke‘s 2003 novel. If the recently re-released book is any indication, DiCaprio has perhaps one of his most formidable performances yet in store. This tale of a 19th century a fur trapper on a quest for revenge is a captivating read. Buy it now, and ponder what Iñárritu and his stellar cast (which also includes Tom Hardyand Domhnall Gleeson) will bring to the table.

 

My Best of 2015 … So Far

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Summer 2015 in cinema has been … dull. And mostly disappointing. Admittedly, I have not seen a few of the biggies — Jurassic World, Furious 7, Spy. But outside of the stupendous Mad Max: Fury Road, the blockbusters seem quickly forgotten. I enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron, yet it has not resonated culturally (or personally) anywhere near the first Avengers film.

However, there have been great films in 2015. Many of them were seen by me at TIFF14, others enjoyed as recently as this week. Here a list of my favorites of the year so far.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Clouds of Sils Maria
  3. Ex Machina
  4. The Duke of Burgundy
  5. What We Do In The Shadows
  6. ’71
  7. While We’re Young
  8. Eden
  9. Paddington
  10. Saint Laurent

Just outside: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, It Follows, Lost River, and When Marnie Was There.

In addition to those mentioned at top, I still need to see: Tomorrowland, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Timbuktu, White God, Love & Mercy, Testament of Youth, Woman in Gold, Far From the Madding Crowd, Faults, Cinderella, Welcome to New York, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Danny Collins, Home, and Aloha. Yep, Aloha. I’m holding out hope that I’ll turn out to surprisingly adore it … Fingers crossed.

Cultivate Cinema Circle ‘plants cinematic seeds’

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A bit more on Cultivate Cinema Circle and the screening that took place on June 4; here is my Buffalo.com “Screenings” post.

 

Even years later, the reverberations from the landmark Supreme Court case overturning California’s ban on same-sex marriage — Proposition 8 — continues to be felt. And the acclaimed 2014 documentary examining the issue, “The Case Against 8,” still packs a timely punch.

The involving film from directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White earned awards at the Sundance and SXSW festivals. Now, Buffalonians have an opportunity to catch it on the big screen, as “Case” will play the North Park Theatre at 9:30 p.m. June 4 as part of Buffalo Pride Week.

The screening is the debut presentation from a new local film series, Cultivate Cinema Circle. CCC director Jordan Smith hopes the series “plants cinematic seeds and nurtures them with community engagement and conversation that I hope will complement the wonderful programs already on offer in the city of Buffalo.”

As Smith puts it, “There is a hungry film community in Buffalo, and we hope to foster that relationship by screening films that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to be shown here.”

Case in point is “The Case Against 8,” which, despite its acclaim, never hit Buffalo. “We feel it’s perfect for our inaugural screening,” Smith said.

For more information on the screening and on Cultivate Cinema Circle, visit cultivatecinemacircle.com.

Don’t miss ‘The Case Against 8′ at the North Park

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I covered it for Buffalo.com (it will run next week), but I wanted to post an advance reminder that the new Cultivate Cinema Circle film series presents its debut screening at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the North Park. The documentary “The Case Against 8″ kicks things off, and this exploration of the landmark Proposition 8 ruling is a fine choice.

Screening number two is also scheduled: Aleksei German’s acclaimed “Hard to be a God.” This free screening will be held on at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 25, at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at Buffalo Central Library.

For more info on Cultivate Cinema Circle, visit cultivatecinemacircle.com.

Feature: Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival celebrates 30 years

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For the second straight year, I wrote a feature on the Buffalo International Jewish Film festival for the Buffalo News.

In film festival terms, 30 years is not just impressive – it’s downright legendary. After all, festivals come and go with regularity. The Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival, on the other hand, is not going anywhere. As the 30th edition of the annual collection of film screenings proves, the BIJFF is just getting started.

As with previous editions, this year’s festival is a two-pronged affair. The first half of the festival kicks off on Friday and runs each night through May 21 in the Amherst Dipson Theater (3500 Main St.). Then, after a brief break, the festival restarts at the JCC Benderson Family Building Seller Theatre (2640 North Forest Road, Getzville) from May 31 through June 7.

JCC of Greater Buffalo Cultural Arts Director Jordana Halpern said breaking up the festival makes it easier for audiences to catch everything on their “must” list: “We know it’s difficult to see them all in a solid two week period, so we show each film twice – once at each location.”

It’s a smart move, since each year features such a diverse, ambitious collection of offerings.

“Our chair, Mike Silverman, and our committee members are passionate about only offering the best films on the market,” Halpern said. “If we can’t afford a film, we wait a year and try again as prices drop after it is first released.”

“The Return,” which screens May 19 and 31, could be this year’s most interesting selection. The drama focuses on four young Jewish women in present-day Poland who are struggling to determine their cultural identities in a nation with a buried past.

“Above and Beyond,” a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg, sister of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, tells the remarkable story of the foreign airmen in the ’48 War. These American pilots met and trained in secret and, ironically, flew versions of the very Nazi planes they had tried to shoot down in World War II. The film screens May 20 and June 7.

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” is a documentary about the inimitable “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” This film highlighting Tucker’s rags-to-riches story screens May 19 and June 1.

Buffalo native Liz Swados is featured in the documentary “Sosua: Make a Better World,” the story of Jewish and Dominican teenagers who helped stage a musical about the Dominican rescue of 800 Jews from Hitler’s Germany. It screens May 17 and June 4; the May 17 screening will be followed by a Q and A with co-director Renee Silverman.

The festival also features animated films, romantic dramas and two special events.

The BIJFF anniversary gala runs from 6 to 9:30 p.m. May 21 in the MusicalFare Cabaret (4380 Main St., Amherst). The gala features open bar and hors d’oeuvres, entertainment, and a screening of the acclaimed 2004 thriller “Walk on Water.”

Meanwhile, the Closing Festival Dinner will be held from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. June 7 in the JCC Benderson Family Building in Getzville. The kosher buffet dinner will include a screening of “Above and Beyond.”

For gala and closing dinner tickets, the complete festival schedule, and more information, visit bijff.com.

Book Review: Ed Burns tells his story in ‘Independent Ed’

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I was never a fan of director-actor Ed Burns (and that’s putting it mildly), but I quite enjoyed his first book, “Independent Ed.” I reviewed it for the Buffalo News.

In the independent film boom of 1995, Edward Burns seemed, to my 15-year-old eyes, the luckiest medium talent to wander the streets of the Sundance Film Festival. Consider that 1995 was the year of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Wong Kar-Wai’s “Fallen Angels.”

With a gross of more than $10 million, Burns’ debut film, “The Brothers McMullen,” was more financially successful than every one of these modern classics. It also elevated the admittedly charming Burns to the forefront of indie cinema.

And to a teenager who thought (wrongly) that Quentin Tarantino was a genius, the modest, working-class, Irish-American family drama of “The Brothers McMullen” looked as square as Hollywood fare like “First Knight” and “Waterworld.”

Burns’ post-“McMullen” career has seen its share of ups and downs, but he has persevered, and with his first book, “Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life,” he has given us his most wholly satisfying artistic effort to date.

The book has also made me realize that I was way too hard on Burns. Comparing him to Haynes is like comparing Ron Howard to Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”). They operate on different playing fields.

As Burns explains, his playing field was self-created. While working as a production assistant on “Entertainment Tonight,” Burns saw films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Slacker,” and “El Mariachi” burst onto the scene. Their success influenced his thinking, but also showed him what was lacking in his early scripts.

“I had an epiphany,” he writes. “While I was convinced this kind of moviemaking was within my grasp, it dawned on me as I thought about my work that I was not writing the kind of scripts these guys were making. Their films were personal, inspired by their lives, and pulsing with the energy of a new generation. My scripts, on the other hand, were derivative.”

The real influence came from a filmmaker who had been cranking out a movie per year since the ’70s.

“When I thought to myself about what films I loved the most, I instantly knew the answer: Woody Allen movies. So I said to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to write whatever that genre is; whatever Woody’s genre is, that’s what I’m going to write.’ ”

Unlike Allen, however, Burns had to create his film for a meager $25,000.

Shockingly, he did it. With money from his parents and two additional partners, Burns was able to shoot “The Brothers McMullen” in 12 days. Interestingly, the finished product was rejected by a number of film festivals, until Robert Redford’s Sundance fest said yes.

The film took home the festival’s top prize, and Burns was suddenly a success. Next came “She’s the One,” with a high-caliber cast (Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz), a soundtrack of songs by Tom Petty, the film grossed almost as much as “McMullen.”

Burns never quite captured the success of those two films again, and that makes the remainder of the book a tad less interesting. It is enjoyable to hear what led to later efforts like “Purple Violets,” which became the first feature film to debut exclusively on iTunes.

But the films themselves – “Violets,” “Nice Guy Johnny,” “Newlyweds” – are minor, at best. His higher-profile work by the late 2000s was in front of the camera. Even his personal life with wife Christy Turlington drew more attention than his films.

Still, it is hard not to walk away from “Independent Ed” impressed with Burns’ smarts, his humility and his love of filmmaking. His work as a director, quite simply, is adequate at best. But the hustle and ingenuity he showed in making his cinematic dreams come true makes him an important figure in the world of ’90s film.

The book ends with a project on TNT (produced by one Steven Spielberg), and a reminder that success as a filmmaker is not necessarily about box office. “It’s about the process,” Burns writes. “Independent Ed” shows there is real truth in those words.

‘Clouds of Sils Maria': Olivier Assayas’s latest is a masterpiece

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Months after seeing it at TIFF, I was thrilled to have the chance to review “Clouds of Sils Maria” for the Buffalo News. Here is my four-star review.

The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers.

Surprised to see “Twilight” mega-star Stewart’s name in that company? Don’t be. While some scoff at her talk show appearances and vampire flicks, she has proven herself a more than capable performer in films like “Adventureland,” “The Runaways” and “Still Alice.”

But you have never seen her be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” This performance deservedly earned her a Cesar Award (the French Oscars) for Best Supporting Actress, making Stewart the first American actress to win the award.

As Valentine, the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart squares off with confidence against heavyweight co-star Binoche, whose Maria Enders is finding herself at a personal and professional crossroads.

As “Sils Maria” opens, Enders is on her way to present an award to her mentor, the author of a play (titled “Maloja Snake”) about the tragic relationships between a young upstart, Sigrid, and an older, successful businesswoman, Helena. She played Sigrid on stage and screen 20 years earlier, and the role made her a star.

Ironically, a hotshot director has asked Enders to star in a new stage version of “Maloja,” but as Helena. She is reluctant, but the death of the playwright causes her to reconsider.

To prepare, Enders, with the iPhone-and-BlackBerry-juggling Valentine in tow, decamps to the playwright’s home in Sils Maria, Switzerland. The duo begins a series of read-throughs and complex discussions about the play that seem to mirror their own relationship.

Soon, Enders learns who will star in the role she played to great acclaim two decades earlier. Enter Jo-Ann Ellis, a Lindsay Lohan-esque, recently sober drama queen played with winking relish by Chloë Grace Moretz.

She and Ellis meet, controversy about the young starlet makes international news, and Enders is forced to confront the harsh realities of life as a fading star. Throughout, she and Valentine continue to face off with increasing discomfort, and the line between script and reality blurs.

It all concludes with a series of strange, unsettling scenes against the stunning Swiss landscape. The film’s ambiguity may be problematic for some, but even viewers who expect a tidy conclusion should be swept up by the enchanting performances of Binoche and Stewart.

For Binoche, Maria Enders is an ideal role, and she brings to it the same combustible verve that made her work in such films as Krzysztof Kielowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” so memorable.

The real revelation here, however, is Stewart. Hers is the most down-to-earth character on screen, and what resonates most strongly is her simultaneous confidence and vulnerability.

The depth and subtlety of this performance matches the assured direction of Olivier Assayas. “Sils Maria” certainly cements Assayas’ status as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation.

Consider that in recent years he has successfully helmed a multicharacter family drama (“Summer Hours”), crafted a TV miniseries about terrorist Carlos the Jackal (“Carlos”), and tackled a swirling, music-laden drama about the passions and politics of French students in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “Something in the Air.”

Four films, four masterpieces. And in its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, “Clouds of Sils Maria” is the best of the lot.

At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where “Clouds” made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.”

Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. Both deserve to be remembered when Oscar talk swirls.

Harvey Weinstein and the birth of Miramax Films: From the April 2015 Buffalo Spree

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I wrote this piece on Harvey Weinstein for the April Spree, and in a wonderfully unexpected surprise, I received an email from Harvey himself, complimenting the piece. VERY unexpected.

“Our outsider status is very important to us,” Miramax Films founder and indie heavyweight Harvey Weinstein told New York Magazine in 1998, referring to himself and brother Bob. “It keeps us human, normal.”

It is fitting, then, that Miramax, the company that revolutionized and transformed independent cinema, began life not in Los Angeles or New York, but in the human, normal city that is Buffalo. How “outside” was Miramax? Its first home was a hockey arena. (The dearly departed Memorial Auditorium, to be exact.) Harvey—one of the few behind-the-scenes figures in moviedom who is on a first-name basis with the world at large—infamously attended the University at Buffalo from 1969 through 1973. Stories from the time period that followed—first came the concert promotion business called Harvey and Corky Productions (cofounded with “Corky” Burger), followed in 1979 by the birth of Miramax—have taken on mythic status. Yes, Harvey Weinstein lived and walked the streets of Buffalo during his man-who-would-be-king days.

Writes Peter Biskind in 2004’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, “Across the country in Buffalo, two frizzy-haired, unprepossessing brothers from Queens named Weinstein … were preparing to move their tiny film company, Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max, down to New York City where the action was. … In the late 1970s, Harvey Weinstein had acquired the Century Theater in downtown Buffalo, and to keep the seats warm when it was not being used for concerts, he and Bobby, as his brother was then known, began showing movies.” They were “bottom-feeders,” writes Biskind, of the soft-core flicks and concert films. In 1981, they even put together a slasher film of their own.The Burning, produced by Harvey and cowritten by Bob, was a modest success. (More on The Burning later.)

From these inauspicious beginnings came (take a deep breath) My Left Foot, Paris is Burning, Truth or Dare, The Double Life of Veronique, Delicatessen, Reservoir Dogs, The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, The Piano, The Three Colors Trilogy, The Crow, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Bullets Over Broadway, Exotica, Priest, Il Postino, Kids, Chunking Express, Dead Man, Trainspotting, Swingers, Sling Blade, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Life is Beautiful, Velvet Goldmine, Shakespeare in Love, The Lovers on the Bridge, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Amélie, In the Bedroom, Gangs of New York, Chicago, City of God, The Hours, The Station Agent, Kill Bill, The Aviator, and so many more.

These are not all classic films, and many suffered at the hands of recut-mad “Harvey Scissorhands.” (Here’s looking at you, 54.) But they are all of great importance in the history of modern cinema, and independent cinema specifically. These culture-defining works can trace their lineage, in some ways, back to Buffalo.

This is no great revelation; tales of Harvey in the Queen City are oft told, and Weinstein mentions his Buffalo era with great fondness and startling frequency. (The first paragraph of a Harvey-authored guest column for Variety after January’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy saw the mogul remembering his love of “Tom Toles’ cartoons from the Buffalo News (I went to school in Buffalo).”)

But the long-term effects of this knowledge—that the Harvey Weinstein was here, in Buffalo—cannot be overstated. When Harvey gave a lecture at UB in September 2000 on the occasion of his receiving a SUNY Doctorate of Humane Letters, the Center for the Arts was mobbed with film-crazed students like myself. I was one of the many Media Study majors whose life was changed (or seemed to be changed at the time) by Pulp Fiction. Some had scripts in hand, and the looks on their faces when Harvey referenced the legal issues that prevented him from accepting unsolicited screenplays was priceless. Even so, for those who went on to a career in the entertainment world, the thought of Harvey stomping down Main Street was both reassuring and a tad absurd. It would be like a kid in Wheatfield hearing that Wayne Gretzky got his started playing hockey at Sabreland. (I’m dating myself with that one.)

Harvey and Bob were famously ousted by then-Miramax owners Disney in 2005. The Miramax of the present is untouched by the hands of Harvey, who instead runs the successful Weinstein Company, a studio whose recent slate included The Immigrant, Begin Again, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, and the delightful family film Paddington, among others. Harvey himself is as powerful, feared, and cunning as ever before. So it is quite interesting to return to The Burning, the Weinstein brothers’ Friday the 13th rip-off. It’s a fun, lovably gory thing, notable for featuring the pre-fame likes of Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. But what I found most intriguing was the scenery, as the film was shot in North Tonawanda and Buffalo. After thank yous to the Statler Hotel, Mickey Rats, and Dial Cleaners, the final words of the end credits (not counting the copyright info) are as follows: “FILMED IN WESTERN NEW YORK.”

I like to think that the Harvey and Bob Weinstein of 2015, while born in Queens, were formed in Western New York. And I think Harvey, the human, normal outsider who made Hollywood bow to his wishes, would agree.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

 

The power of Marilyn—and the Falls: An excerpt from Buffalo Spree’s April issue

MM_Niagara_Poster

One of the many faces on the cover of Buffalo Spree’s film issue is Marilyn Monroe, who famously starred in 1953’s Niagara. As I write in the issue (and below), it’s an odd picture, but certainly an interesting one.

“Marilyn Monroe and Niagara—a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” So screamed the poster for 1953’s Niagara, an enjoyably stodgy film that is, of course, particularly captivating to Western New Yorkers. This Technicolor thriller—dig that red satin dress!—was shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and watching it today one is touched by its aesthetic beauty, its importance in cinema history, and its sheer oddness.

This is a stodgy, rather silly little thing redeemed by Monroe’s smoldering performance. In her book The Marilyn Scandal, author Sandra Shevey refers to “the scenes with her lover (filmed in long shot) of their rendezvous in the bowels of the falls—those amazingly torrential downpourings as backdrops—are some of the most erotic scenes ever filmed. … It was in Niagara that Monroe really discovered where she was going and how to get there.”

It is downright shocking how little screentime Monroe actually has; the star of the movie is really the soon-to-be Mrs. Howard Hughes, Jean Peters. But it is Marilyn who fascinates, whether she is staring down her wet-blanket husband (Joseph Cotton) or contemplating how to cross back into the States. This era, of course, is when Niagara Falls was really Niagara Falls, “Wonder of the World.” This combination, of the Falls and Marilyn, still intrigues. Even the suite the actress stayed in, room 801 at the Crowne Plaza, draws curious visitors.

It is entirely possible that no film shot in or near Buffalo has had a greater impact. It might not be very, well, good, but there is no doubting Niagara’s significance.