Wednesday Round-Up: It’s Wong Kar-Wednesday!

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On certain days, “Chunking Express” is my favorite movie, and Wong Kar-wai is my favorite director. So the fact that his latest film, “The Grandmaster,” is opening in Buffalo next Friday (August 30) thrills me.

It has been a long-time coming. It feels like his last release, 2008’s “Ashes of Time Redux,” was a decade ago, and his last “real” film, “My Blueberry Nights,” seems like it came out two decades ago.

“The Grandmaster” has been talked about for several years, and its production was downright epic. But now it is here, and that means we are being flooded with interviews, appreciations, reviews, and more.

One example is a very good interview he did with Slant. One question in particular jumped out to me:

Slant: I’ve seen two different cuts of the film, and there was plenty of “exclusive” footage in each. If it weren’t for that lack of patience among audiences, would you like to release a version that comprises most of the footage, one that would be as long as most Leone movies? Or are the running times dictated by other things?

“Yeah, sadly, today, the distribution of films is very competitive, so in China we can afford to release this film at two hours and 10 minutes, but we have an obligation to release this film under two hours in the United States. But I don’t just want to do a shorter version, do some trimming, take out some scenes, because I think the structure of the Chinese version is very delicate, and very precise. So instead I want to do a new version, I want to tell this story in a different way. And in fact, American cinema, besides Chinese cinema, has the longest history with kung-fu films. So I think we can focus and go directly to the story. In the Chinese version, it’s really about time. And here [in the U.S.] it’s really about character. We follow the story of Ip Man and go through this world of martial arts.”

Hmm. I hope we have a chance to see both cuts here in the States, perhaps on DVD; methinks I’ll be buying an import copy. This is tricky, though. WKW seems pretty cool about it all above, but check out this breakdown of the crucial differences between the U.S. and Hong Kong edits on Film.com.

Let’s take a look at some cool articles etc. on WKW and his films.

 

Photo from Slant article: Wong Kar Wai on the set of “The Grandmaster.” [PHOTO: THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY]

Marilyn Monroe’s Swan Song Screens at the Burchfield Penney

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Another day, another very cool screening in Buffalo.

The documentary “Love, Marilyn” — which is NOT the film screening in Buffalo, as you will see — debuted at TIFF 2012, and drew raves, which might seem surprising. How much more, after all, can be said about the late screen legend? I missed the film in Toronto, but caught it recently in HBO, and I can tell you that it certainly does cover some new ground thanks to its novel use of Marilyn’s diaries and letters.

A who’s who of acting heavyweights — Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Lili Taylor, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei, and, err, Lindsay Lohan — recite her words to the camera, and it works. Director Liz Garbus succeeds in showing us a side of Marilyn that feels true, and truly bruised.

The making of John Huston’s “The Misfits” is of course part of “Love, Marilyn”; the 1961 film about two cowboys and divorced woman in the Nevada desert is the last film Monroe and Clark Gable appeared in, and one of Montgomery Clift’s final performances, too. It’s a stunning, sad drama, and worth revisiting at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this Thursday (August 22).

My friend Ed Cardoni, the executive director of Hallwalls and one of the most insightful people I know, introduces the screening, which starts at 7:30 p.m. It ties in with the current BPAC exhibition “Marilyn: The Douglas Kirkland Photoshoot,” featuring some incredible photographs shot by the then 27-year-old photographer.

This got me thinking about a flawed but compelling book I reviewed back in October 2012 for the Buffalo News. “The Empty Glass” is a uniquely told fictional account of Marilyn’s last days, and while it is a tough read, and certainly an unsettling one, there is just enough to recommend. In fact, I think I would give it a more positive review today.

The shelf in David Lynch’s basement labeled “ABORTED FILMS” is cluttered, misshapen, and odd — as might be expected. There’s “Ronnie Rocket,” a dwarf detective tale, and “One Saliva Bubble,” a wacky comedy that was rumored to star Steve Martin and Martin Short.

But perhaps the most fascinating of these is “Goddess,” written by Lynch and Mark Frost shortly before they began work on “Twin Peaks,” and based on the book by Anthony Summer. In his text, Summer made the accusation that Bobby Kennedy and Peter Lawford were intimately involved in the death of Marilyn Monroe, a claim which today does not sound particularly shocking, but made waves in 1985.

(I found this warning, from a Marilyn fan site: “The 1992 edition includes a photo of Marilyn’s body after autopsy. I have no idea why the author would do such a thing to Marilyn’s memory.”)

“Goddess,” of course, was never made, and likely never will be, at least by Lynch. But in some ways, J. I. Baker’s new novel “The Empty Glass” reminds me of what Lynch might have brought to the tale of the world’s most tragic cracked actress: a sense of doom, of outside forces too strong and warped to defeat, and of the grotesqueries of Hollywood.

Yet even with this Lynchian undercurrent (there is even a blurb on the dustjacket from “Wild at Heart” author Barry Gifford), “Glass” is a disappointment, a story that peters out and, sadly, adds little to the cult of Marilyn. Why? Because we’ve been down this grim road before. It no longer holds any surprise.

Even so, much to chew on here, including our protagonist. Los Angeles deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald is an intriguingly ruffled character, a man with a past that killed both his career and his marriage. He’s stuck in a shady apartment with hot plate and a cold cup of coffee. It’s no place for his young son, and he knows it.

Fitzgerald is called to duty at 5 a.m. on the morning after Monroe’s death to the star’s home, and everything is fishy — even the location: “No name on the mailbox. It was modest enough. The most famous woman in the world, with all the money that implies, but instead of a mansion in the Hills, she’d bought a one-floor hacienda in Brentwood.”

Everything is amiss, from the position of the body, which appears to have been “placed” (“People who overdose don’t drift happily away,” Fitzgerald says. “There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”)

There is also an empty water glass, which Fitzgerald — the novel is written in the first person – calls particular attention to: “Remember the glass. It becomes significant.”

Indeed, it does. Things get appropriately tangled, very quickly. We’re introduced to Annie Laurie, “second only to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons when it comes to chronicling the ins and outs and ups and downs of the rich and famous. OK, third to Hedda and Louella.” Laurie is an inspired character; rogue police bigwig Captain Hamilton, less so.

Just as villainous is, yes, Bobby Kennedy, and to say too much more than that would spoil the book’s second half. But the character we return to, of course, is Marilyn, whose voice is kept “alive” by diary entries. “I wish you all just leave me alone,” she wrote, as the end came near.

Baker is a debut novelist, and the executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler. He has created something very interesting here, I think, a work whose failures have more to do with the sheer number of tomes, films and stories about Marilyn Monroe, and their hold on our collective mind, than with the story itself. He’s a good writer, smart at creating a dark mood and an eve-of-destruction vibe. His next book will certainly be noteworthy, I think.

For the Marilyn completist, then, “The Empty Glass” is likely a must-read, but not a satisfying one. I think most fans would rather think of Monroe as the sweetly naïve starlet brought to life by Michelle Williams in “My Week With Marilyn” — tragic, yes, but above all else, radiant, and full of life. “The Empty Glass” presents Marilyn as full of death, if you will, and while that might be more accurate, it remains too unsettling.

 

Photo: Douglas Kirkland b. 1934, “Marilyn Monroe,” 1961; photograph, 40 x 60 inches; Courtesy of the artist; from burchfieldpenney.org

 

Stream It: “Antiviral” is an Icky Treat From (Brandon) Cronenberg

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Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film “Antiviral” is now streaming on Netflix, and it is a nicely icky movie that is certainly worth a look. It debuted last year at TIFF, and took the award for debut Canadian feature. I’m looking forward to watching it again, and also seeing what Brandon has in store for us next. (This was one of my “TIFF Revisited” columns for the Spree website.)

Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film, “Antiviral,” would fit nicely on the shelf next to his father David’s early efforts, and that says a lot. The young filmmaker had created an icky treat, a horror film with real ideas and bold stylization.

It’s a story of a grim future world that is even more celebrity obsessed than our own, a place where customers pay to be injected with the illnesses of their celeb faves. It’s a clever concept, this fetishization of the body to the point of voluntary infection.

Syd, played by the gaunt, nicely creepy Caleb Landry-Jones (who gave a fine performance in another TIFF 2012 entry, Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium”), works at the Lucas Clinic, the site for these objections, and smuggles diseases out fit extra cash.

But after injecting himself with the much-desired virus of the gorgeous Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, star of David Cronenberg’s last two efforts), Syd begins to lose his health, and his mind.

It’s all played out in grimly thrilling fashion, and if the film feels a bit overlong, it is always fascinating and smart.

I love that Brandon Cronenberg is not afraid to make a film that calls to mind the work of his old man; a character even mentions having the “shivers” early in the film, surely a tongue-in-cheek reference to his father’s first feature.

If “Antiviral” is any indication, Brandon Cronenberg should be on the verge of a long, interesting career. Perhaps we’ll look back in thirty years and say, “‘Antiviral’ was his ‘Shivers.’”

Photo courtesy of IFC Films

The Ballad of Big Star: Squeaky Wheel Screens “Nothing Can Hurt Me”

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It has been a killer summer of Squeaky Wheel events, and here is one more: a screening of the Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night (August 20) at 712 Main.

I’m not going to lie and say I was a Big Star die-hard for years and years, or that I held a tattered copy of “#1 Record” close to my heart as the band rose to mythical prominence. I did not truly listen to them until I was in college, and by then, Alex Chilton’s power pop gods were already beloved. On some level, I think I avoided listening to Big Star for a long time, since I found the “best band you’ve never heard” talk a bit ponderous.

But once I actually did listen, I quickly fell for songs like “Thirteen” and “September Gurls,” and the band’s shoulda-been-a-contender backstory suddenly seemed endearing, even downright moving. Meeting and chatting with Buffalo Spree contributor Bruce Eaton, the author of a 33 1/3 series book on the band’s second album, “Radio City,” only furthered my appreciation. (See Bruce’s great Big Star blog for more info on the book, and his contribution to the film.)

My interest culminated in a jaunt to the Seneca Niagara Casino’s Bear’s Den Showroom on November 27, 2009, to see Chilton lead his original band, the Box Tops, for an intimate performance of old favorites like “The Letter.” It was a slightly strange, wholly unforgettable performance; I’ll never forget arriving with my father and spotting Alex at the bar, relaxing with a cigarette.

I wish I would have said hello, since a few months later, Chilton was dead. (Here is an obit written by Bruce for salon.com.)

Knowing that Chilton is gone, just like Big Star bandmates Chris Bell and Andy Hummel, coupled with the band’s story of never quite achieving success (commercially, at least), makes “Nothing Can Hurt Me” a somewhat somber experience. But it’s also a thrilling one.

Drew Denicola’s documentary is certainly not perfect — Chilton remains a typically obscure figure; I found this article on his last days a more insightful portrait — but it is probably the finest demonstration yet of what makes the band so beloved, and its legacy so undeniably important. (The article mentions the Niagara Falls show.)

In fact, the most interesting figure in the film turns out to be Chris Bell, not Alex Chilton. The sequence detailing the recording of his great song “I am the Cosmos” is a stunner, and his brother and sister have much to add about Bell’s short, difficult life.

There is also the abundance of archival footage, oodles of band photography, and interviews with some of the many characters who were part of the band’s Memphis universe. In short, it’s a very good documentary (I’d go 3 1/2 stars), one that works as both an introduction to the group as well as a nifty bit of nostalgia for those already in the know.

I love that Squeaky is bringing the film to town, and in a superb bonus, the aforementioned Bruce Eaton, whose voice can be heard and name seen in the movie, will be doing Q&A session.

I’m listening to “The Ballad of El Goodo” as I write this, and the song seems like the finest distillation of the Big Star story in the band’s catalog:

I’ve been built up and trusted

Broke down and busted

But they’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours

Just if we can

Just, ah, hold on

Hold on

Hold on

Hold on

 

Photo: Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel in “BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Review: “Lovelace” is Grim and Hard to Watch, But Often Compelling

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I reviewed the Linda Lovelace biopic cleverly titled “Lovelace” for the Buffalo News, and found it a mixed success. It is certainly not a major triumph, but if you can handle the subject matter, it’s worth watching. I gave it 2 ½ stars.

Did Walter Cronkite say a word that — as “Seinfeld” fans recall — is a female body part that rhymes with a woman’s name on the nightly news? After all, a clip in the film “Lovelace” shows us that Cronkite did indeed report on “Deep Throat,” the infamous 1972 pornographic film smash that became a punch line for Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, and provided a suitable pseudonym for a certain Watergate whistleblower.

My question goes unanswered in “Lovelace,” the story of used, abused “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace, and, quite frankly, I’m glad it does. Hearing “the most trusted man in America” make even a passing reference to “Deep Throat” is unnerving yet intriguing, like hearing Queen Elizabeth read aloud from the “Kama Sutra.” (Make that just unnerving.)

Unnerving yet intriguing — that is also an apt description for “Lovelace,” a grim, compelling film directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.

It never approaches the heights of the directors’ documentary work (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” “The Celluloid Closet”), and it never surprises the viewer with shocking insight. But as a set-the-record-straight chronicle of how the “poster girl for the sexual revolution” was taken advantage of and almost destroyed, the film succeeds.

Amanda Seyfried portrays the starlet with the proper mix of kindness, vulnerability and despair. (Interestingly, Lindsay Lohan was slated to star in a competing biopic, one that, like so many Lohan projects, and the actress herself, crashed and burned.)

Linda Lovelace (she died in 2002) became internationally recognized for her role in the film. For much of it, she is an intentionally blank slate, a wide-eyed Florida girl under the thumb of a domineering mother (a frumpy, barely recognizable Sharon Stone).

Typically, she soon meets a moustached, muscle-shirt-clad scary monster, Chuck Traynor. He’s played by super-creep Peter Sarsgaard, an actor who is frightening playing good guys; playing a jerk, he’s downright disturbing. “What are you so uptight about?” is his perennially clueless question.

Traynor soon brings Linda into a world of sloppy, homemade porn and greasy-haired sleaze-mongers, resulting in the higher-scale production of “Deep Throat.” Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale play the film’s driving forces as relatively good-natured horndogs; “Dat’s art, baby!” shouts Azaria’s director, Gerard Damiano.

In fact, the whole making-of comes with nary a protest, and is shot with the “wink-wink” haze that, sadly, usually accompanies stories of “Deep Throat,” that oh-so-wacky porno that even grandma could chuckle over.

This sense of naughty fun turns out to be a nice bit of posturing from Epstein and Friedman. Following the film’s production and its success (James Franco plays Hugh Hefner, by way of James Franco), we jump ahead six years.

Now, Linda is taking a polygraph test at the behest of her book publisher. She is telling all about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of Traynor, who forcibly pushed her into the film, and even pimped her out. It is no wonder Lovelace’s memoir was titled “Ordeal.”

We head back in time once more to Linda’s pre-“Deep Throat” days, and see, from her point of view, how nightmarish her life was, and how much worse it turned after the film became a $600 million-grossing (!) cross-cultural smash. (She was paid just $1,250 for the role.)

For all that “Lovelace” does right, it never quite breaks a feeling of déjà vu, thanks to similarly themed sideburn-fuzzy looks at ’70s porn culture like “Boogie Nights,” the dreary “Wonderland,” the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat,” and even Bob Fosse’s “Star 80.”

That aesthetic exhaustion, coupled with the utter bleakness of Lovelace’s abuse, makes the film hard to watch, and tough to recommend. But if it takes away some of the phony humor that is usually associated with “Deep Throat,” and instead forever makes Linda Lovelace’s ordeal an essential part of the story, then it has accomplished something undeniably important.

Photo from Buffalo News review

Weekend Preview: Woody Allen’s Great “Blue Jasmine” Leads an Odd Crop of New Releases

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Woody Allen, Steve Jobs, and Ronald Reagan all converge at the box office this weekend, and I can imagine they’d have one helluva conversation.

The key opening of the week is Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a film I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago. I am a Woody-ite, without question, one of those folks who believes he has never directed a truly bad film. (Note that I said “directed”; even I can’t defend some of the films he merely starred in, like “Scenes From a Mall” and “Picking Up the Pieces.”)

Every Woody film — even those I do not love, such as “September,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” and “Scoop” — has its moments, and every one is watchable. But every so often, Allen hits an artistic home run, a movie that even the haters must acknowledge. “Midnight in Paris” was one of those, but with “Blue Jasmine,” he has directed a film that I believe is as strong as any drama he ever made.

Cate Blanchett is a sure-fire nominee, and possible winner, as Jasmine, an unhinged woman who has lost everything. Sally Hawkins is fine as her sister, Alec Baldwin utterly believable as Jasmine’s Madoff-esque husband, and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay is wonderfully effective as her former brother-in-law. He has a scene near the film’s end that is among “Jasmine”‘s best.

There are moments of humor, but “Blue Jasmine” is straight-up drama, an affecting, incisive portrait that should rank among 2013’s finest films. It has received rapturous reviews and very strong early box office; I do not expect it to make as much dough as “Paris,” but it should have no trouble finding an adult audience. It is now playing at Dipson’s Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters.

To tie in with the film’s release, I’m hoping to finally put together my ranking of Woody’s oeuvre from top to bottom. He has, um, a lot of movies, so it will take some time, but I am ON THIS.

After “Jasmine,” things get a little weird. And what every one of the other films opening this weekend has in common is that they do not interest me in the least.

The last month has been crazy for the makers of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” with a title controversy that garnered a great deal of press. I have not been impressed with the trailers for this one, mainly due to the casting — Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan? Liev Schreiber as LBJ?! Robin Williams as Ike??! JOHN CUSACK AS NIXON??!! But I think this will find a sizable audience, and there have been some extraordinary reviews so. Well, better reviews than Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” at least.

As much as I hated to say it at the time, “Kick-Ass” did nothing for me. I found the jokes and story stale, and not particularly clever, although Chloe Grace Moretz was a revelation. She is the only reason I might stumble into “Kick-Ass 2,” a sequel to a film that most certainly was not a hit.

Ashton Kutcher plays Steve Jobs in “Jobs.” Enough said.

“Paranoia” rounds out the majors, and I’m stunned that a film with this oh-so-general title and plot was able to cast Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford. ($$!) This looks only slightly more interesting than “Firewall.”

Note that two popular Bollywood entries are opening: “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara” and “Chennai Express.”

Tonight and on Thursday (August 22), The Screening Room offers “A Night at the Grindhouse” with the wonderfully titled “The Horror of Party Beach” and “The Beast Must Die,” while “Murder on the Orient Express” is back for one more screening at 7:30 on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Bacchus goes big with “The Avengers” on Wednesday (August 21); the UB North Campus has two of summer 2013’s biggest hits, “Fast & Furious 6” and “The Great Gatsby,” at 8:45 tonight and Tuesday (August 20), respectively; and UB South Campus features “Gatsby” at 8:45 on Wednesday (August 21).

Photo: Left to right: Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight and Cate Blanchett as Jasmine; photo by Merrick Morton  © 2013 Gravier Productions, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Missing in Action at TIFF 2013 (So Far)

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The Toronto International Film Festival has jusssst about finished announcing its 2013 crop, and there are some killer selections. Some are playing other festivals first (including Alfonso Cuaron’s long-awaited “Gravity”), some already did (“The Past,” “Blue is the Warmest Colour”), but a number of the selections are making their international debut, including Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”

Still, each year there are movies that were rumored to play TIFF, and never do. Here are a few that I’m still hoping make the cut.

“The Immigrant”: James Gray’s film stars Marion Cottilard, the actress I consider to be my favorite, as well as Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. I was a huge fan of Gray’s last film, the Phoenix-starring “Two Lovers,” and while “The Immigrant” drew a mixed response from Cannes, its story of new arrivals to America in the 1920s could not intrigue me more.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”: This is a biggie. The Coen Bros.’ folk-music odyssey also played Cannes, where it earned typically ecstatic reviews. It does not open until December, and that seems a ludicrously time to wait for the film, which stars Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

“All is Lost”: I just watched Robert Redford’s last film, “The Company You Keep,” and while it was a pretty standard affair, the TIFF 2012 entry was a reminder of how strong an actor he can be. This mostly dialogue-free tale of one man caught in a storm at sea looks mesmerizing. It is J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to his very strong debut, “Margin Call.”

“Nebraska”: I love the state of Nebraska, especially the Cornhuskers, and I’ve liked just about every Alexander Payne picture, but I haven’t been too charged up for this one yet. Still, it’s Alexander Payne, it stars the great Bruce Dern, and the black-and-white looks lovely.

“The Zero Theorem”: Christoph Waltz stars in the return of Terry Gilliam, another future-set bit of Gilliam-ana (I’m coining that). “Zero” is already booked for the Veince Film Festival.

“Oldboy”: Spike Lee’s remake recently shifted release dates from October to November, and while that is often a signal of bad things to come, it may prove wise, since October is a busy month for an action-y film. Anyone interested in cinema is dying to see this Josh Brolin-starrer. I wonder if he eats squid.

“Palo Alto”: There are a number of reasons to be intrigued by this adaptation of James Franco’s story collection. But tops, for me, is its director: Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola. She is the daughter of Coppola’s late son Gian-Carlo, and if her aunt Sofia has proven anything, its that the female Coppola’s are a force to be reckoned with.

There are others that perhaps were not ready, and instead are playing later fests — Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” — or perhaps skipping the festival circuit entirely. I would not rule out some biggies like Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” or George Clooney’s “Monuments Men”

And note that TIFF still has its “Masters” program to unveil. Last year at this time, I was hugely disappointed that Haneke’s “Amour” was not playing the festival … and then there it was, on the “Masters” list. The full schedule arrives on Tuesday (August 20), so I would expect it then.

All of the films mentioned above would have made nice TIFF selections; I’m especially surprised not to see “The Immigrant,” “Llewyn Davis,” and “Nebraska” on the list. But with so many great films over the festival’s 11 days, who can be disappointed?

Robert Redford stars in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost”; photo credit: Daniel Daz

Wednesday Round-Up: The Werner Herzog-Approved “Act of Killing” Screens in Rochester

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Sometimes I forget just how close to Buffalo Rochester’s George Eastman House is, and that’s a major oversight. Many, many films that never make it to Buffalo screen at Eastman’s Dryden Theatre, including August’s “Reality” and “Post Tenebras Lux.”

But the real score is “The Act of Killing.” It is no exaggeration to say that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is the most acclaimed film of 2013, and that makes its two Rochester screenings — 8 p.m. on August 16 and 2 p.m. on August 18 — important WNY cultural events.

The controversial film about 1960s Indonesian death squad members who murdered thousands of dissenters actually features the subjects themselves reenacting the killings. You can see how that would be controversial, right?

Two greats, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, are executive producers, and both had insightful remarks on “Act of Killing.”

Herzog:

“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade … unprecedented in the history of cinema.”

Morris:

“Like all great documentaries, ‘The Act of Killing’ demands another way of looking at reality. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film.”

It is, then, a film about history, but also about cinema itself. I can’t wait to see it.

Now, on to the rest of this week’s round-up:

A scene from the documentary “The Act of Killing”; courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Watch It: Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” is a Haunting, Emotional, and Breathtaking Experience

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Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” left me staggered. I finally finished watching it on Netflix, and as the end credits rolled, I sat, quiet and still.

The series has the scope, breadth, and detail of a great novel, and it demonstrated to me — with clarity — how much stronger and more vital it is than something like, say. “Gone Girl,” the Gillian Flynn novel I just finished. “Gone Girl” is deliriously fun and twisty, but it’s all posturing. “Top of the Lake” feels emotionally vivid, truly haunting, and, more than anything else, alive with emotion.

Jane Campion has never made a dull film, although for me, they have varied in quality (loved “The Piano,” didn’t love “Portrait of a Lady” or the admittedly fascinating “In the Cut”). Her most recent effort, “Bright Star,” was wildly underrated, and except for producing the oddity that was “Sleeping Beauty,” she fell off my radar during the past few years.

In fact, I’m not sure I knew about the breathtaking “Top of the Lake” until I read Amy Taubin’s passionate post-Sundance (it premiered there) piece in Film Comment.

Taubin:

“‘Twin Peaks’ crossed with ‘The Killing’ —and that isn’t the half of it: the seven-episode television series ‘Top of the Lake’ is the toughest, wildest picture Jane Campion has ever made. Campion’s previous foray into television, ‘An Angel at My Table,’ a four-part biopic about the writer Janet Frame, was focused on a single character, and though dramatically and psychologically compelling, it lacked the expressive visual style of Campion’s features. With the emotional intensity of its performances and the urgency of its drama scaled to match its vast, primal setting and six-hour length, ‘Top of the Lake’ is something else again: series television as epic poem, the Trojan Wars recast as the gender war. Three women, each on her own journey, connect and bring the patriarchy to its knees. But that’s too bald a description.”

It is a detective series, to be sure, but its themes are far beyond the typical whodunit series. For one thing, there are the performances. “Mad Men”’s Elisabeth Moss is so good, so strong, so vulnerable and tough, that I barely connected her with Peggy Olsen. It is a performance on the scale of Jodie Foster in “Silence of the Lambs,” and possibly more nuanced.

Holly Hunter is reliably offbeat, David Wenham nicely restrained, and Peter Mullan … Well, Peter Mullan is extraordinary. His Matt is equal parts Noah Cross and Charles Manson, a shaggy, hyper-sexualized outlaw as memorable as any character in the last decade.

Taubin called Mullan’s performance “malign and absurdly attractive,” and she has a point. He is disturbing, mysterious, at times semi-likable, but always mesmerizing. It is one of the finest performances in recent memory, period, and perhaps the most all-encompassing role of the actor’s career.

Taubin also points to the story’s strangeness, and part of that is New Zealand setting. From the first few moments, in which 12-year-old Tui walks into icy water, to the dusty property known as Paradise, it feels as if we are in alien territory. Moss’s Robin Griffin grew up there, but never seems quite at home, and like her, we are quasi-outsiders. The geography only adds to the mystery.

At heart, “Top of the Lake” is a detective story, and its conclusion feels appropriate. It is difficult to end such an epic story in tidy fashion, but Campion (who co-directs with Garth Davis) pulls it off. My only disappointment, in fact, is that I want to see what Robin Griffin is up to next.

The series aired on the Sundance Channel and is streaming on Netflix. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Photo from Film Comment article

Squeaky Wheel Opens “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” at Silo City

the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari

I recently told you about two great events being out on by Squeaky Wheel, Buffalo’s great media resource center: the Wheel-to-Reel Film Series (which wrapped up in July) and the annual Outdoor Animation Festival in Days Park, a free event that returns with an encore presentation at Canalside on August 21.

I missed a very cool Squeaky event last weekend – a screening of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” with live musical accompaniment, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s lovely terrace. But it is not too late to see the film in an even more unique environment.

As part of City of Night, a free art event at the Silo City grain elevators this Saturday (August 17), Squeaky will once again screen “Caligari” with a sound performance by Kevin Cain. (It was created as part of the Wheel’s annual Silent/Sound series.) From the Squeaky site:

“The selected film, chosen by the artist, is one of the most influential of German Expressionist films and is often considered one of the greatest horror movies of the silent era. The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats. To add to this strange style, the actors used an unrealistic technique that exhibited jerky and dance-like movements. Amongst a handmade, dramatic, shadow-lit set based off of the film, Kevin Cain use guitar, vibraphone, loop pedals, melodica, contact mics, and clarinet to create an atmospheric sound sculpture for Robert Wiene’s eerie German Expressionist horror masterpiece.”

Very cool. City of Night is a stunning confluence of art, history, and culture, and I love the eerie “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” being a part of it. I have not seen the film in years, but it’s an essential, truly.

Squeaky has another very cool event coming up next week, on August 20: a screening of the acclaimed documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.” I’ll be back with more on this one next week.

Visit here for more information about City of Night, including a list of artists and performances.