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A romantic triptych

Joy Womack: the White Swan, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joy Womack: The White Swan's mean mien.
Joy Womack: The White Swan's mean mien.

This week finds two new home video releases from Film Movement, and yours truly still stinging from the loss of a funny broad.

Joy Womack: the White Swan (2021)

Accepted to Russia’s esteemed Bolshoi Ballet at age 15, Joy Womack went on to become the first American to both graduate from the Bolshoi and sign a contract with what is, next to vodka, Russia’s most celebrated export. From the street, the Bolshoi Academy resembles an industrial-sized torture shack, not a world renowned Ballerina dispensary. In this case, looks are only half-deceiving; torture comes as part of the package deal. Eating disorders are an occupational hazard, as are broken bones. Without the benefit of a stand-in, Womack dances in excruciating pain, made tolerable only by the numbing prick of a doctor’s hypodermic. The dispassionate directorial duo of Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov sticks to the cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking: allow viewers the luxury of making up their own minds. Then again, how else is one to react to black-and-white file footage of so-called experts evaluating the bodies of naked children? Womack can act as maddeningly headstrong and self-centered as any a young woman her age, and when she does, the camera embraces her all the more for it. There is even a romance — in order to obtain a residency permit, she must first establish citizenship, and that involves marrying a Russian. Don’t expect much in the way of “happily ever after.” (Her choice of men leaves one asking, “What’s Russian for ‘pig’?”) When Hollywood finally options the rights to the life of the titular toe-dance, and you know they will, it’s impossible to imagine a biopic being any more intriguing than this finely designed documentary. And for once, I longed for more closeups. Blessed with a face as expressive as her feet, one laments how much of Womack’s performance is lost on audience members seated beyond the 10th row. Better to see her perform on a big screen.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

For those who missed the film when it played at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, a shimmering blu-ray pressing awaits your approval. Inspired by the work of Eric Rohmer, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s (Drive My Car) romantic triptych follows three unrelated tales of love and faithlessness. On the way home from a modeling shoot, Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) listens as her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) describes a rapturous 15-hour romance she’s recently experienced. Meiko’s gut tells her the man Tsugumi describes is the same one who, two years ago, ended a relationship on the grounds of cheating. This is followed by another romantic triangle of sorts: looking to enact revenge against the college teacher ​​Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), whom Sasaki (Kai Shouma) credits with ruining his life, he convinces his older girlfriend Nao (Mori Katsuki) to participate in a “moneytrap” — a chance to seduce the respected professor, record the romance, and sell the tape to the media. Lastly, there’s Moka (Urabe Fusako) who attends her 20-year class reunion with the explicit intention of catching up with Nana (Kawai Aoba), the woman she spots going down on the opposite escalator. The individual threads all bear similarities — dialogue scenes on various forms of transportation (limo, bus, foot) filmed in long, unbroken takes, characters on opposing sides gradually drawn together in the frame, and participants guilty of living out their own projections. If it all sounds a bit heavy, relax. The curtain rings down on a note of romantic assurance the likes of which has long been absent from American films.

Special features include an interview with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and a bonus short, Neo Sora’s The Chicken. Jiro (Junshin Soga) dreams of Siberia, but for now, he and his pregnant bride Anna (Sandra Maren Schneider) will have to make due with an overpriced flat in New York. The blood of a recently clapped bug smeared across the window pane that coincides with the arrival of vacationing friend Kei (Taiju Nakane) is a harbinger of things to come. There will be more blood. Not from our three principles, but from a chicken Jiro purchased not for the eggs, but with the intent of having it for dinner. And yet Jiro plans on teaching their child how to subsist on the vegetables of animals he farms, wanting to instill within the babe, “the value and preciousness of life from a young age.” Which came first, the chicken or the chicken dinner? When put to the test, Jiro can’t bring himself to slit the bird’s throat. Before it ends, the floor is awash with plasma, platelets, and a prelabor rupture of membranes that Kei is left to swab. Where did the blood come from? Was it leftover chicken blood on the rag, or signs of a possible miscarriage? A lot can happen in 14 minutes, so much that you may need to watch it twice.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)

At the time of its release, Joan Rivers was 77-years old and still telling c* jokes. We should all grow old this gracelessly. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg spent a year following the legendary comedienne with a video camera, though I suspect it was the funny lady who received final cut. We open in tight, compartmentalized close-ups, watching as America’s then-foremost plastic surgery addict, sans makeup and seated before a mirror, applies her face. Wait all you want for a medium shot to reveal the comedian without her shell; some things aren’t meant to be. Johnny Carson was credited with discovering Rivers, and their eventual breakup formed the basis of one of showbiz’s greatest feuds. The rift continued to haunt her, so much so that after Rivers, Carson’s is the first face to hit the screen. “You’re going to be a big star,” he assured her, back when Johnny’s approbation was money in the bank. Rivers wrote for The Tonight Show and eventually became Carson’s designated pinch hitter whenever the king of late night took a vacation. Everything was peachy until 1986, when Joan was offered a talk show on the new Fox Television Network. Carson claimed that he heard of Joan’s jump from Fox, not Rivers. In her version, Rivers called to tell him and Carson immediately slammed the phone down. The end result was still the same: Rivers was excommunicated.

Considering that she agreed to go into direct competition against the man who basically gave her a career, it’s not hard to understand Carson’s icy reaction to Rivers’ perceived ingratitude. But that was all decades ago, and Rivers had yet to slow down. At any age, she would still have been the hardest working woman in show business. Her idea of torture was an empty appointment book. Rivers had reinvented herself more times than Madonna, John Travolta and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined. She’d gone from standup to writing and directing (Rabbit Test); playing herself in a so-bad-it’s-good TV movie of the week (Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story); starring on Broadway as Lenny Bruce’s mother; hocking her line of jewelry on QVC; working the red carpet at awards shows, and just prior to the release of this doc, being named the 2009 Celebrity Apprentice. Wearing Trump’s crown was a monumental achievement for her, but not for reasons one might think. Rivers and Carson made a clean break. After The Late Show with Joan Rivers aired, the two never spoke. In addition, Rivers was banned from all appearances on late night NBC. Jay Leno, stalwart foot soldier in the Carson army that he was, never allowed Joan a place on his panel. Being called to appear as a regular on an NBC show was a moment Rivers devoutly cherished. One wonders how quickly she would have turned on the former president had she lived to see his inauguration.

The film pays short shrift to a few major details. If ever a documentary could have stood an extra twenty minutes tacked onto its already paltry running time, it’s this one. River’s husband Edgar Rosenberg — the producer of the Fox show who committed suicide not long after the network told Rivers to fire him — is presented as little more than a passing footnote. According to Howard Stern (a major Rivers supporter missing from these proceedings), Fox killed Edgar Rosenberg. Perhaps Rivers felt this material was sufficiently covered in the TV movie. Joan Rivers was one of the sharpest, funniest, most brilliant comic minds of our time (just ask her), who helped to pave the way for many, many comics to come. Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles are the only two contemporaries of Rivers to appear in the film. It would have been nice to hear someone other than Rivers praise Rivers, but given the way the late comedian’s monumental ego being is proudly and hilariously put on display, one can’t profess to be shocked.

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Joy Womack: The White Swan's mean mien.
Joy Womack: The White Swan's mean mien.

This week finds two new home video releases from Film Movement, and yours truly still stinging from the loss of a funny broad.

Joy Womack: the White Swan (2021)

Accepted to Russia’s esteemed Bolshoi Ballet at age 15, Joy Womack went on to become the first American to both graduate from the Bolshoi and sign a contract with what is, next to vodka, Russia’s most celebrated export. From the street, the Bolshoi Academy resembles an industrial-sized torture shack, not a world renowned Ballerina dispensary. In this case, looks are only half-deceiving; torture comes as part of the package deal. Eating disorders are an occupational hazard, as are broken bones. Without the benefit of a stand-in, Womack dances in excruciating pain, made tolerable only by the numbing prick of a doctor’s hypodermic. The dispassionate directorial duo of Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov sticks to the cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking: allow viewers the luxury of making up their own minds. Then again, how else is one to react to black-and-white file footage of so-called experts evaluating the bodies of naked children? Womack can act as maddeningly headstrong and self-centered as any a young woman her age, and when she does, the camera embraces her all the more for it. There is even a romance — in order to obtain a residency permit, she must first establish citizenship, and that involves marrying a Russian. Don’t expect much in the way of “happily ever after.” (Her choice of men leaves one asking, “What’s Russian for ‘pig’?”) When Hollywood finally options the rights to the life of the titular toe-dance, and you know they will, it’s impossible to imagine a biopic being any more intriguing than this finely designed documentary. And for once, I longed for more closeups. Blessed with a face as expressive as her feet, one laments how much of Womack’s performance is lost on audience members seated beyond the 10th row. Better to see her perform on a big screen.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

For those who missed the film when it played at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, a shimmering blu-ray pressing awaits your approval. Inspired by the work of Eric Rohmer, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s (Drive My Car) romantic triptych follows three unrelated tales of love and faithlessness. On the way home from a modeling shoot, Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) listens as her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) describes a rapturous 15-hour romance she’s recently experienced. Meiko’s gut tells her the man Tsugumi describes is the same one who, two years ago, ended a relationship on the grounds of cheating. This is followed by another romantic triangle of sorts: looking to enact revenge against the college teacher ​​Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), whom Sasaki (Kai Shouma) credits with ruining his life, he convinces his older girlfriend Nao (Mori Katsuki) to participate in a “moneytrap” — a chance to seduce the respected professor, record the romance, and sell the tape to the media. Lastly, there’s Moka (Urabe Fusako) who attends her 20-year class reunion with the explicit intention of catching up with Nana (Kawai Aoba), the woman she spots going down on the opposite escalator. The individual threads all bear similarities — dialogue scenes on various forms of transportation (limo, bus, foot) filmed in long, unbroken takes, characters on opposing sides gradually drawn together in the frame, and participants guilty of living out their own projections. If it all sounds a bit heavy, relax. The curtain rings down on a note of romantic assurance the likes of which has long been absent from American films.

Special features include an interview with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and a bonus short, Neo Sora’s The Chicken. Jiro (Junshin Soga) dreams of Siberia, but for now, he and his pregnant bride Anna (Sandra Maren Schneider) will have to make due with an overpriced flat in New York. The blood of a recently clapped bug smeared across the window pane that coincides with the arrival of vacationing friend Kei (Taiju Nakane) is a harbinger of things to come. There will be more blood. Not from our three principles, but from a chicken Jiro purchased not for the eggs, but with the intent of having it for dinner. And yet Jiro plans on teaching their child how to subsist on the vegetables of animals he farms, wanting to instill within the babe, “the value and preciousness of life from a young age.” Which came first, the chicken or the chicken dinner? When put to the test, Jiro can’t bring himself to slit the bird’s throat. Before it ends, the floor is awash with plasma, platelets, and a prelabor rupture of membranes that Kei is left to swab. Where did the blood come from? Was it leftover chicken blood on the rag, or signs of a possible miscarriage? A lot can happen in 14 minutes, so much that you may need to watch it twice.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)

At the time of its release, Joan Rivers was 77-years old and still telling c* jokes. We should all grow old this gracelessly. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg spent a year following the legendary comedienne with a video camera, though I suspect it was the funny lady who received final cut. We open in tight, compartmentalized close-ups, watching as America’s then-foremost plastic surgery addict, sans makeup and seated before a mirror, applies her face. Wait all you want for a medium shot to reveal the comedian without her shell; some things aren’t meant to be. Johnny Carson was credited with discovering Rivers, and their eventual breakup formed the basis of one of showbiz’s greatest feuds. The rift continued to haunt her, so much so that after Rivers, Carson’s is the first face to hit the screen. “You’re going to be a big star,” he assured her, back when Johnny’s approbation was money in the bank. Rivers wrote for The Tonight Show and eventually became Carson’s designated pinch hitter whenever the king of late night took a vacation. Everything was peachy until 1986, when Joan was offered a talk show on the new Fox Television Network. Carson claimed that he heard of Joan’s jump from Fox, not Rivers. In her version, Rivers called to tell him and Carson immediately slammed the phone down. The end result was still the same: Rivers was excommunicated.

Considering that she agreed to go into direct competition against the man who basically gave her a career, it’s not hard to understand Carson’s icy reaction to Rivers’ perceived ingratitude. But that was all decades ago, and Rivers had yet to slow down. At any age, she would still have been the hardest working woman in show business. Her idea of torture was an empty appointment book. Rivers had reinvented herself more times than Madonna, John Travolta and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined. She’d gone from standup to writing and directing (Rabbit Test); playing herself in a so-bad-it’s-good TV movie of the week (Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story); starring on Broadway as Lenny Bruce’s mother; hocking her line of jewelry on QVC; working the red carpet at awards shows, and just prior to the release of this doc, being named the 2009 Celebrity Apprentice. Wearing Trump’s crown was a monumental achievement for her, but not for reasons one might think. Rivers and Carson made a clean break. After The Late Show with Joan Rivers aired, the two never spoke. In addition, Rivers was banned from all appearances on late night NBC. Jay Leno, stalwart foot soldier in the Carson army that he was, never allowed Joan a place on his panel. Being called to appear as a regular on an NBC show was a moment Rivers devoutly cherished. One wonders how quickly she would have turned on the former president had she lived to see his inauguration.

The film pays short shrift to a few major details. If ever a documentary could have stood an extra twenty minutes tacked onto its already paltry running time, it’s this one. River’s husband Edgar Rosenberg — the producer of the Fox show who committed suicide not long after the network told Rivers to fire him — is presented as little more than a passing footnote. According to Howard Stern (a major Rivers supporter missing from these proceedings), Fox killed Edgar Rosenberg. Perhaps Rivers felt this material was sufficiently covered in the TV movie. Joan Rivers was one of the sharpest, funniest, most brilliant comic minds of our time (just ask her), who helped to pave the way for many, many comics to come. Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles are the only two contemporaries of Rivers to appear in the film. It would have been nice to hear someone other than Rivers praise Rivers, but given the way the late comedian’s monumental ego being is proudly and hilariously put on display, one can’t profess to be shocked.

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