Rifkin's Festival: Homunculus makes good! Wallace Shawn (L) with Gina Gershon and Louis Garell.
Wallace Shawn’s first Woody Allen film was also his first screen appearance. His cameo in Manhattan amounted to little more than a brilliant punchline. One doesn’t easily associate the terms “oversexed” and “brilliant kind of animal” with the outwardly demure actor cast to play Diane Keaton’s ex-husband. When she and new romantic interest Allen bump into Shawn while shopping, the latter is shocked to see a Casanova in “homunculus” clothing. Rifkin’s Festival is Shawn’s sixth collaboration with Allen and, after My Dinner With Andre, the closest he’s come to carrying a film.
Allen learned early on to hire the best cinematographers in the business to help plaster the cracks of his visual limitations. Joining the exalted likes of Gordon Willis, Carlos Di Palma, Vilmos Zsigmond, Sven Nykvist, etc. is Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, Reds), arguably the greatest working DP. He joined team Woody in 2016 with Café Society, making this their fourth golden-hued collaboration.
We open on a bookending device: a psychiatrist’s office where Rifkin (Shawn) does what so many of Allen’s creations are wont to do: deliver exposition. He’s accompanying his wife Sue (Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastian Film Festival, where she’s to represent her client, this year’s Best Director-winner — and potential cuckolder — Philippe (Louis Garrel). Rifkin attends not so much for the art, but to see if his suspicions about his “fraying marriage” are true. Storaro tells all by miraculously composing a dinner conversation between the three as if Rifkin wasn’t at the table.
The first obvious point of reference would be Stardust Memories, the career-derailing capper to a financially successful run that saw such hits as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and Annie Hall. Set in large part at a Felliniesque film festival, it was the first time Allen argued against autobiography, claiming the director in the film — an arrogant auteur who placed his audience beneath contempt — was based on schtick and in no way a reflection of his true feelings. Rifkin recognizes that film festivals are no longer what they once were. Leggy bimbos are plucked by producers to play Hannah Arendt in the latest Eichmann biopic, and that evening’s main event is a long lost director’s cut of a Three Stooges two-reeler. As if such a thing existed. Had Allen done his homework, he’d have realized there are no outtakes on Stooges shorts. Every scrap of film, no matter how amateurishly inserted, made its way into the finished product, even if it meant borrowing footage from another picture.
Former film professor Rifkin does his best work on his back sound asleep, dreaming in black-and-white and in the context of the European Masters (and Claude Lelouch), about whom he has based his class. Both director and cinematographer feast on affectionate recreations of the genius of Godard, Buñuel, Renoir, Truffaut (and Claude Lelouch). When it comes to Bergman, I’m not sure whether Woody is spoofing Persona or his own Interiors. Rifkin’s Festival marks the first time in a Woody Allen film that a character actually looks forward to visiting a doctor, in this case, Dr. Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya). His concerns over losing his wife result in chest pains, and he’s instantly smitten by the comely cardiologist with an equally troubled marriage — so much so that he passes up a chance to see Godard pick up a lifetime achievement award, just to be in Dr. Jo’s company. It’s been a lot of movies ago since Allen’s level of wit has connected to produce this many laughs. (When choosing between testaments, he argues, “In the New Testament, at least the Messiah shows up.”) Rifkin’s numerous runs for the doctor’s office and the zipless romance that follows help to make this Allen’s finest and funniest since Midnight in Paris. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Malni — Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore — After ten short documentaries predicated on indigenous languages and Native American heritage, Portland-based filmmaker Sky Hopinka’s feature debut left me flummoxed. It’s hard to recall the last time a film made such a disconnect. Hopinka’s camera follows friends Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier as they rove through the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest and each other’s lives. The filmmaker’s clash between intent and execution does not work in our favor. Two minutes spent shooting out the back window of a moving car or staring into a firepit for so long you’d swear you were watching a Christmas Yule Log video contribute to an overall sense of florid self-indulgence. When asked why he wears his hair long, Jordan goes full talking head, linking his locks to his heritage (though never saying why) and referencing the feelings of Samson-like strength it provides. Dick Clark gleaned more from grilling teenagers on Bandstand. When Sweetwater speaks English, Chinuk Wawa subtitles flash across the bottom of the screen. Asking audiences to ponder which is her native tongue might not have come across so gimmicky had every English-speaking participant in the film been closed-captioned. And while I’m all for experimental filmmaking, there are long passages contained herein that feel like home movies. Watching this made me feel like a character in a Bunuel film. Rather than being unable to leave the party, I stood on the porch, watching through the living room window, never once gaining entry. 2020 — S.M. ★
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection — On a map, the mountainous South African enclave is designated Nasaretha, but 80-year-old Mantoa (Mary Twala) and the other villagers coolly call it The Plains of Weeping. During the black plague, travelers from distant shores would pass through Nasaretha while transporting their sick to healing centers. Those who didn’t outlive the journey were buried in the valley, leaving their survivors ample space in which to settle. In a more metropolitan part of town, our narrator (Jerry Mofokeng) sits waxing philosophical while accompanying himself on a lesiba — a wind instrument with strings attached that, when blown into, reproduces a tone just slightly less unnerving than the tip of a shovel being dragged across concrete. Alone, having buried all of her loved ones, Mantoa longs for the release death will bring. Before going to bed, she summons the Grim Reaper, only to awaken each morning. Day after day, she sits glued to her transistor radio, listening as the necrology is read, half hoping to hear her name listed among the dead. (She paid $2000 to have a grave dug.) As the title indicates, God has other plans for our feisty lead. It is with a stone face and strong heart that she leads a rebellion that pits townsfolk against a government-planned flooding of the village and nearby cemetery that houses the remains of Mantoa’s family as well as the plot with her name on it. Other directors would take a dozen cuts to achieve what Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese does with one slight turn of the focal ring. Every color of the rainbow is called into service, infusing the boundless depth and rounded corners of the 4x3 image with a ViewMaster vividness. For a film whose rallying cry is “Nothing will endure!” one exits overburdened with feelings of hope. 2021 — S.M. ★★★★
Thunder Force — When it comes to establishing a basic comic book universe, writer-director Ben Falcone can’t even manage to get the small details right, things like establishing an unfeigned menace from the get-go. With all the talk of legions of “Miscreants” overtaking Chicago, we never see more than three or four super-villains populating the midnight sky. Hell, this thing is so ineptly put together, we miss out on bits of essential information like what exactly caused the two childhood friends Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) to fall out of contact in the first place. Flash-forward to find forklift driver Lydia paying a visit to scientist Emily’s office. “Don’t touch anything,” Emily insists before leaving Lydia alone just long enough for her to accidentally touch the wrong thingamajig, which results in both women being transformed into costumed superheroes. What sets Lydia apart from the rest of the comic creations in McCarthy’s bag of tricks? Having Ms. Spencer to play off of, for one, followed by a better hairstylist. She’s also the first superhero powered in part by the Old Style brewery. Credit the PG-leaning PG-13 rating to the bright relationship between Emily and her teenage daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby). McCarthy’s incessant talking approach to comedy seeks its own level; Spencer knows precisely when to shut up, making her McCarthy’s strongest comedy partner to date (and there have been many). Considering it’s both a comic book movie and Melissa McCarthy comedy, my expectations were surpassed. 2021. — S.M. ★