The Last Movie Star, written and directed by Adam Rifkin

Review written by Mike Fishman

I saw this film at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and happy to see it is getting some well-deserved attention. The latest film written and directed by Adam Rifkin and starring Burt Reynolds as Vic Edwards, an octogenarian actor who travels to the International Nashville Film Festival to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. The problem is, this is the (fictional) International Nashville Film Festival, not the much-admired and very real Nashville Film Festival and Edwards finds himself facing a mixed crowd of about 40 people (to their credit enthusiastic fans) in the backroom of a bar with a projector and a make-shift film screen. Some expected clichés are in evidence: the rundown motel room the festival booked for him; a drunken Edwards lashing out at at the festival staff; the protagonist in need of saving doing some saving himself; even a reconciliation with an old lover who has Alzheimer’s but who peers out clear-eyed from her cloudy mind at the right moments. But the quality of acting and the level of commitment from Burt Reynolds and co-star Ariel Winter as Lil, his reluctant, nose-ring wearing caretaker/chauffeur for the duration of the festival, bring to their roles make most scenes utterly believable and the film as a whole ultimately moving.

Rifkin (whose previous work ranges from the comedy Detroit Rock City to the gritty Night at the Golden Eagle) wrote the screenplay specifically for Reynolds. And one can see why the actor, reportedly looking for one last great role, would be game for boring deeply into the semi-autobiographical storyline. The film embraces the aging process with Reynolds, 81 years old himself, staring directly into the camera, and then humorously yet pointedly engaging his younger self in conversation in scenes from his actual films Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, generally to warn him about the quick passage of time. It makes for a fascinating unveiling of a fictional life reflected by the actor’s real life. Shot differently, the film could have been a mockumentary.

Along the way we are treated to snapshots of Reynolds in his prime: spraying a can of whipped cream down Johnny Carson’s pants; conducting interviews in his trademark winking, self-deprecating style; and even his infamous nude pose for Cosmopolitan magazine, which the director interestingly utilizes onscreen while Lil soaks in a huge bathtub. Happily, the film goes nowhere near a romantic entanglement between the two, saving the real relationship complexities for a reunion with Claudia, his first of five wives (!), played by Kathleen Nolan. Vic and Lil “rescue” his now wheel-chair bound ex-lover from her nursing home, hurriedly wheeling her out to freedom with the staff nearly chasing after them. They take her to the picturesque spot where Vic had proposed to her decades and a lifetime ago. If this particular sequence sounds predictable, it is to a degree, but Reynolds’ palpable regret and Nolan’s unadorned responses make for a truly poignant and affecting scene. That such a powerful moment can occur within such a familiar framework is part of the magic of movies and the film gains impressive momentum and succeeds beyond expectation at ruefully portraying a man nearing the end of his road, lamenting the passage of time.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Seventh Seal, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

It is a rare pleasure to see The Seventh Seal on the big screen with an audience, as I was fortunate enough to do last weekend at New York City’s Film Forum. Playing as part of their Ingmar Bergman Centennial Celebration, The Seventh Seal (1958) stands apart from Bergman’s other films, not for its themes of the search for meaning in our lives and the existence of God and an afterlife, which permeate much of his oeuvre, but for its Middle Ages medieval setting. Taking place when the plague was spreading in Europe, the film follows Antonius Block (the formidable Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (the irrepressible Gunnar Björnstrand) as they make their way across a bleak Swedish landscape to Block’s home, having returned from fighting in the Crusades for six years. The world-weary knight is confronted by Death, famously personified by actor Bengt Ekerot in black robes and wielding a grim sense of humor along with his scythe. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, knowing the Grim Reaper’s pride will not allow him to resist. The stakes? Block’s soul until he (inevitably) loses, in exchange for enough time to do one last meaningful act and to be reunited with his long-suffering wife, living alone in their abandoned castle, tending to a fire with what can only be described as little enthusiasm for her existence.

Along the way, Block and Jöns encounter a young woman accused of being a witch burned at the stake, plague sufferers, self-flagellating religious fanatics, and the theologian who first convinced Block to go off and fight in the Crusades. Most crucially they meet a small group of traveling actors: Jof, the juggler who has mystical visions, his wife Mia, played tenderly with occasional bursts of boldness by Bibi Andersson, their infant child Mikael, and Jonas, the puffed-up leader of the amateur troupe. This chance meeting allows Block to perform the one last meaningful act he longs for when he diverts Death’s attention away from Mia, Jof and their child long enough for them to escape his grasp, at least for the time being. For those unfamiliar with Bergman’s comedies, the director’s playful humor most evident in scenes featuring Jonas should be a welcome surprise, as the traveling player hams it up on stage and flirts with the local blacksmith’s saucy wife. One remarkable scene finds Jonas hiding in a tree after getting caught by the blacksmith; hearing the sound of a saw, Jonas looks down to see Death sawing away at the tree trunk. Jonas tries to bluff his way out as Death admonishes his deceptive ways, then pleads for mercy asking for special dispensation as an actor (typical Bergmanesque humor), all the while Death working away at the tree, amused with Jonas’s cunning efforts.

The scene is absurd and wryly funny and yet resolves with a moment of true profundity: the tree cracks and breaks, hurling Jonas to the forest floor, leaving a clean tree stump; after a moment, a squirrel hops onto the stump and scurries around, then runs off. The indifference of nature to man and a reminder that we share this planet with creatures who exist on a very different level of consciousness. And who is to say which is more noble? The civilized man, who would burn women as witches, or the more elemental animal? One might even say the animal’s actions show more integrity, foraging for food, than the greedy Jonas who tried to con Death into sparing his frivolous existence.

And what about those whose existence is perhaps not as frivolous, yet empty in its own way? Bergman notes the suffering seeking men are prone to when Mia muses to Block, “I often wonder why we torment ourselves as soon as we have the chance.” Their conversation, during one of the film’s iconic scenes, takes place as they sit in a clearing in the countryside, Block sipping fresh milk from a bowl he holds in both hands, carefully cupping it, almost as if it were a religious rite. “I shall remember this moment,“ he says, referring at once to the milk, the innocent Mia next him offering him wild strawberries (the title of another classic Bergman film starring Andersson), her toddler son playing on the grass. Block knows this may well be his last moment of peace, one final respite from his journey to death, drawing ever closer. As is often the case with Bergman, the tone of the scene skates the line between touching and sentimental and is remarkably devoid of irony. There is the beginning of the road and the end of the road. The potential of a child as pure as wild strawberries and fresh milk, and the journey’s end, the snuffing out of life’s candle, a passing into…what? A Heaven or a Hell? Any kind of afterlife? Or is it just nothingness, as the young woman tied to the stake, flames growing around her, seems to confirm by the confused, lost look in her eyes?

And yet later, in one of the film’s final scenes, as Death enters the castle to call on Block and his entourage, a mute girl Jöns saved from death suddenly sees a tunnel filled with light opening on the stone wall; she slowly, blissfully, smiles. Is she glimpsing the afterlife? Are we to trust her vision? Earlier in the film, Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus walking in a field and we, the audience, see it as well. Is Bergman, by letting the audience share the visions (along with the image of Death, visible only to Block and Jof) suggesting that there is a God but that He can only be seen by a blessed few and for the rest of us, the vast majority of us, we must rely on blind faith? For Bergman, the son of a strict Lutheran minster but agnostic from a young age, the question is one of silence. Why does God remain silent? The title of the film itself refers to a great silence: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (Revelation 8:1). That silence has been interpreted in many ways, but whatever the interpretation, it suggests an image of man under God, waiting for something momentous to happen. A moment of judgment? For some of us, such words are relied upon and deeply invested in, while for others, they are merely words written by men for other men. What’s remarkable about The Seventh Seal, aside from its startling imagery, is the very direct way in which it addresses such questions.

Written by Mike Fishman.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

“PERFECT,” directed by Eddie Alcazar with music from Flying Lotus presented by Steven Soderbergh.

PERFECT
SYNOPSIS: A boy in a cold and stark modern house, in a vaguely science fictional world, is seduced by advertisements of perfection to install implantable characteristics directly into his body. The implants heal his dark, twisted visions, but come with a corporeal cost. He persists on applying them, hoping to reach perfection, but ultimately he discovers that purity of mind is not exactly as he’s imagined.

Producers: Eddie Alcazar, Javier Lovato | Executive Producer: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Garrett Wareing, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto with Maurice Compte and Abbie Cornish. Sci-Fi Thriller/Feature Film.

Director Eddie Alcazar was the winner of an art scholarship to AAU and named one of the 25 up and coming faces in Hollywood by Filmmaker Mag. He directed TAPIA for HBO, and FUCKKKYOUUU a Sundance selected short scored by Flying Lotus. His latest project is the feature PERFECT exec produced by Steven Soderbergh through Alcazar’s company Brainfeeder Films.

PRESS ARTICLES:
SXSW – https://schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/FS10383
Dread Central – https://www.dreadcentral.com/news/267329/exclusive-poster-premiere-challenges-concept-perfect/
Brainfeeder Films – http://variety.com/2016/film/festivals/toronto-flying-lotus-eddie-alcazar-team-for-brainfeeder-films-1201855405/

Posted in Filmmaker Profiles

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