Alex in Venice Review: Father Figures and Mother in Crisis

Note: I wrote this review after seeing this film at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. I assumed, at the time, that it would get a theatrical release. The release never happened, but its coming out on home video next week, so I felt it was time to post my review.

A- Contemporary drama

Written by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton

Directed by Chris Messina

The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She’s not working them to get rich; she’s an idealist fighting the corporations who place profit above planet.

But this story is not primarily about her work. It’s about her family.

When we first meet her, she has three men in her life. Her first priority, of course, is her son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner)–ten years old and having trouble making friends. Then there’s her father (Don Johnson), an aging actor sinking into senility. And finally, there’s her husband George, played by the film’s director, Chris Messina.


The story really begins when George, with much hesitance and guilt, tells Alex that he’s leaving her. He’s been effectively a househusband for years. Like Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, he needs to break free and find himself.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. A rich guy is building a spa on land currently inhabited by an endangered species, and Alex needs to devote herself to preparing a court case. Not the best time to suddenly become a single parent.

Meanwhile, her father gets what appears to be his first acting gig in years–the role of Firs in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard. But as dementia sinks in, he’s finding it harder than ever to learn his lines.

But the father does have one good idea–or at least it seemed like a good idea at the time. He invites his unemployed other daughter, Lily, to stay with them and take care of Dakota. As played by Katie Nehra (who also conceived of the story and co-wrote the script), Lily is a wild force of nature–upbeat, sexy, and bursting with energy. But she’s also irresponsible; a good person to party with but not the best babysitter.

And yet Lily plays an important part in helping Alex adjust to her new circumstances. Pregnant at 18 and married at 19, Alex never learned how to navigate the adult single scene. Lily helps her free herself–not an easy thing to do for a single parent with an extremely demanding job.

For the most part, Alex in Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

But the picture has one big flaw. Alex does something in the movie that is so stupid, so unprofessional, and so unethical, that I simply couldn’t accept it. For any lawyer, it would be, and should be, a firing offense. Luckily, this unbelievable act mars only a few scenes.

Alex in Venice was actually shot in Venice, and it captures that beach town beautifully. The story could be set anywhere (or at least in any advanced democracy), but Venice adds atmosphere and scenery to the tale.

The A+ List: Five Easy Pieces (also Cries and Whispers)

I’d like to bring your attention to two excellent dramas, both made in the early 1970s, and both about dysfunctional families. Both earn my A+ rating, which I only give to films that I’ve loved for decades and still love.

I’ve already written about Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, so I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray review.

The other film comes from a far less likely source: a major Hollywood studio.

Five Easy Pieces

Bob Dupea (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t play well with others. A blue-collar worker on an oil rig near Los Angeles (such things existed then), he’s moody and difficult. He treats Rayette, his live-in waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) horribly. He has one good friend, but he lashes out at him, as well.

As we discover reasonably early in the film, he hasn’t always been working class. He grew up in an economically well-off family of classical musicians. At some undefined point in the past, he ran off–and he’s been running ever since. News that his father has had a stroke brings him back home, where his two siblings still live. Here we discover the dynamics that made him what he is–a drifter who imagines himself to be some sort of rebel.

Today it’s hard to imagine a major Hollywood studio (Columbia in this case) financing and releasing this sort of film. And even in 1970, it was astonishing. The surprise success of Easy Rider the previous year ripped a hole in the studio system, and a generation of experimental filmmakers streamed in. No one was in a better position to take advantage of that opening than Bob Rafelson, whose company had produced Easy Rider. Rafelson produced and directed Five Easy Pieces. For more on this, see America Lost & Found: The BBS Story.

The film never asks us to like Bob, but it does make us care for him. His inability to stay in one place or relationship, his constant alienation and internal anger wins our sympathy, if not our love. He’s clever, good-looking, and magnetic, and easily gains friends and lovers (in the course of the film, he has sex with three woman–including a pre-All in the Family Sally Struthers). But when things get serious, he either becomes abusive or runs away.

Nicholson gives a brilliant performance here; probably the best of his career. He spent the 60s playing supporting roles in cheap B pictures. A scene-stealing support role in Easy Rider made him marketable. Five Easy Pieces, his first leading role, proved him to be star material.

But his isn’t the only great performance in the film. Karen Black’s Rayette is another masterwork of acting. Depressed, insecure, and–let’s be honest–not very smart, she clings to Bob with a desperation that’s heart-breaking. She takes his insults and verbal abuse, and desperately tries to bring the spark back into the relationship. She clearly lacks the confidence to dump him and find someone better.

Bob, on the other hand, clearly feels ashamed that he’s with such a trashy woman. And yet, in the one scene where he acts somewhat decently, he defends Rayette against the patronizing attacks of a pseudo-intellectual.

Other standouts in a uniformly excellent cast are Lois Smith as Bob’s loving but insecure sister, and Helena Kallianiotes as a constantly-complaining hitchhiker. Her character, who is only in the film for maybe 15 minutes, provides an unusual form of comedy relief.

Five Easy Pieces does something rare in American film. It gives us an unlikable leading man, and makes us care about him–even when it makes us care far more for the people he hurts.

What’s Screening: June 5 – 11

Ain’t we lucky? We’ve got four film festivals running this week in the Bay Area:

Hatari!, Castro, Thursday, 7:00

Archival dye-transfer Technicolor print!
This wild-animals-in-Africa adventure is the only Howard Hawks movie I saw when it was new (I was pretty new myself in 1962), and I loved it. I saw it again maybe 12 to 15 years ago, and wasn’t as impressed. (And no, I don’t remember it well enough to give it a grade.) But whether or not the movie is any good, it’s a dye-transfer Technicolor print, and that makes it tempting in itself. On a double bill with Roar, which I’ve never seen, but was apparently a disaster in every way possible.

Memento, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Only this exceptional thriller by Christopher Nolan. And how many tell the story backwards, putting you into the mind of someone who can’t remember what just happened? Okay, but how many give that man a mental disability that guarantees failure and makes him dangerous to himself and others? Too many to name. How many thrillers center on a hero bent on identifying, and then killing, the man who murdered his wife? (If you didn’t understand the sentences above, see Memento, and then figure out how to read it)

B+ The Stranger, Rafael, Sunday

Probably Orson Welles’ most conventional movie, this 1946 noir stars Edward G. Robinson has a war crimes investigator looking for an important Nazi now living peacefully in an American small town. Welles himself plays the villain (no spoilers in this) who will do anything to protect himself and resurrect his beloved Reich. With Loretta Young as the beautiful ingénue who doesn’t suspect that she’s engaged to a monster. Part of the series Welles 100 Part One: 1941-1948.

Femme fatale noir double bill: Double Indemnity & Body Heat, Castro, Wednesday

A rich housewife will do anything to be an even richer widow, so she seduces a chump–one who thinks with his libido–into doing her dirty work. That tried and true plot works well for both of these movies. The A goes to Double Indemnity. Made by Billy Wilder in the days of heavy censorship, it has to manage seduction without really saying that anyone is having sex. But it has Barbara Stanwyck as the wicked wife, Fred MacMurray as the chump, and Edward G. Robinson as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. Body Heat, made in a very different and freer era,
has William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and a lot of hard R sex. On its own, I’d give it I’d give it an A-.

A- Modern Times, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

A mostly silent picture made years after everyone else had started talking (seven years earlier, it would have been called a “part talkie”), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times laughs at assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression, with Chaplin’s tramp moving from job to job and jail to jail. With Paulette Goddard, the best leading lady of his career. Part of Charlie Chaplin Days.

B- Goldfinger, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00

I’ve been a James Bond fan, on and off, for much of my life. But I never understood the appeal of the series’ third outing–and the one that really popularized Bond in the United States. True, Sean Connery was wonderful in the role he created. But Gert Frobe’s title character is a dull and unappealing villain. Even worse, Bond spends way too much of the story as a prisoner, and does very little to help save the day.

Henri Langlois Centennial Tribute: Opening Program, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

As the co-founder of La Cinémathèque française, Henri Langlois helped start the tradition of taking cinema seriously as an art, and doing what he could to find, preserve, and make available classic films. To open this series, Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute, the PFA will screen La Tosca, a one-reel short from 1918 discovered by Langlois, and three documentaries about the man.

A+ The General, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. The theater mentions nothing about musical accompaniment, so I’m guessing they will screen the Blu-ray with one of the three scores on the disc; probably the excellent one by Carl Davis.

A+ Taxi Driver, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

When I think of the 1970s as a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that De Niro’s character hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t understand intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. Read my Blu-ray review.

Dr. Strangelove, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight)

General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (three of them played by Peter Sellers) are almost as competent as the Three Stooges. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. I wrote about more about this film in 2013.

B+ Ghostbusters, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

Comedy rarely gets this scary or this visually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon or evening.

A- Iris, New Parkway, opens Friday

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review.

A- Ex Machina, Balboa, opens Friday

This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing test to determine if a “female” robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein, and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

The Castro June Calendar

I just saw the Castro‘s June calendar. I don’t have much time, as I’m about to head off to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, but here are a few highlights:

June 10:
Double Indemnity  and Body Heat. The classic noir story of an evil housewife who wants to be a rich widow, told very well, twice–one adhering to the production code, the other with a lot of sex and nudity.

June 11:
Hatari is the only Howard Hawks movie I saw in first run. I didn’t know it was made by Howard Hawks at the time. If fact, I was so young that I didn’t recognize John Wayne. I liked it back then. I saw it on cable some years back, and didn’t care for it so much.

June 17:
North by Northwest and Family Plot. What do they have in common? They’re the only two Alfred Hitchcock films written by Ernest Lehman. He also wrote The Sound of Music, so there are three Lehman movies at the Castro next month.

The last part of the month is dominated by the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival.

Okay, I’m off for a serious silent film immersion. Expect a lot of reports over the next few days.

Silent or Green: More on upcoming festivals

A few notes about the two festivals opening next Thursday:

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Pianist, entertainer, film preservationist, and Mel Novikoff Award recipient Serge Bromberg (how many people have that resume) wins this year’s  Francisco Silent Film Festival Award. The Festival will present him with the award on Saturday, May 30, at the screening of Visages d’enfants, a French classic that Bromberg recently restored. Oddly, Bromberg won’t be tickling the keys for that screening.

Bromberg and his company, Lobster Films, have brought many important and obscure films back to life. They’ve restored the hand-painted version of A Trip to the Moon, made Chaplin’s Mutual shorts look new again, and brought us a longer, alternate cut of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (which I have not yet seen).

Bromberg will be around for the entire festival. He’ll host this year’s Amazing Tales from the Archives, accompany the collection of Charley Bowers shorts, and will join Kevin Brownlow for an on-stage discussion before Ben Hur.

A couple of other silent tidbits:

The Blanche Sweet vehicle, The Deadlier Sex, will be preceded with a Fleischer cartoon, Koko’s Queen.

Matti Bye, who with his ensemble will accompany Flesh and the Devil and Norrtullsligan at the festival, recently won a Swedish award for his score for a new film, Faro. Also nominated was his score for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which is currently playing in local theaters (I haven’t seen it yet). 

Green Film Festival

I managed to preview another film screening at this year’s festival:

A- Landfill Harmonic

Thousands of families live in Cateura, Paraguay, even though it’s not really a town; it’s a garbage dump. And out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert (although they usually play classical), performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. I wish it had gone deeper into how the instruments were made, and the likelihood that music will lift these kids out of poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives.

Landfill Harmonic screens Wednesday, June 3, 6:00, at the Roxie. The movie will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers (but not, apparently, with a concert).

There is one other film in the festival that I’ve seen. You’ve probably seen it to: WALL-E. It screens at 1:00 on May 30 at the Roxie–so you’ll have to choose between Pixar at Serge Bromberg.

I’m picking Bromberg.

SFIFF Friday: Great trains, bad entertainment

I caught two films at the Kabuki Friday. Here’s what I saw:

D+ Entertainment
Being weird isn’t always enough. A deeply depressed, horrifically inept stand-up comic (Gregg Turkington) travels through small towns in the desert, flopping over and over again. Between lousy material, a complete lack of taste, horrific delivery, and utter contempt for his audience, he’s painful to watch. When he isn’t performing, ihe’s depressed and unable to connect with anyone. There are a couple of good scenes and no real story. For the most part, it’s just extremely unpleasant with nothing to say.

I didn’t stay for the Q&A.

Just in case you’re feeling masochistic, Entertainment will screen again tonight (Saturday) at 9:45, and Monday at 9:30. Both screenings are at the Kabuki. 

A- The Iron Ministry
Life on a Chinese railroad. This narration-free documentary catches life on a long train trip in China. (From where to where? It doesn’t say.) People find comfort in close quarters. They tell funny stories. They drink and flirt. They buy food from a cart. And they talk about religion, ethnicity, and politics. The staff serve dinner in the dining car, object to being filmed, sweep the floor, and in one case agree to talk to the filmmaker (American J.P. Sniadecki). A handful of shots go on too long, but altogether it’s an amazing slice of life in a foreign country, set on one of the most social–and cinematic–forms of transpartition. 

After the film, Sniadecki stepped up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • This was the sixth film he made in China, a country he fell in love with from books when growing up. “My parents were kind of hippies. I skipped school a lot but I road a lot of trains.”
  • On the idea for this film: “I didn’t choose it. It kind of chose me. I was filming my life and I started to film on the trains. I was hanging out with a friend and she said I should make a film of this. Most of the trains were ones that i had to take anyway.”
  • “When you see the movie, a world opens up. When I see it, I see three years of my life cut down to 83 minutes.”

The Iron Ministry screens again today (Saturday) at the Pacific Film Archive, and May 4, 4:00 at the Kabuki.

Revisiting The Flame and the Arrow

Burt Lancaster, at his most acrobatic, takes on an Errol Flynn role and pulls it off with panache in The Flame and the Arrow, a Robin Hood-like story set in medieval Italy. Like all the best swashbucklers, it’s witty, exciting, beautiful to look at, only slightly suspenseful, totally ridiculous, and a whole lot of fun.

I’m a sucker for swashbucklers, even though I understand why they get so little respect. Unlike other period action genres, such as westerns and samurai films, swashbucklers never grew up. No one ever made a sword and tights movie with the complexity of Red River or Seven Samurai. But the genre’s fun comes from its light touch, the simplicity of obvious good and evil, fights that look more like dance than violence, and witty repartee. In some of the best swashbucklers, not a single good guy dies.

Lancaster became a star, and a top producer, in film noir–a genre about as far from swashbucklers as you can get. Yet his good looks, 500-watt smile, and pre-acting career as an acrobat made him a natural for buckling his swash. Outside of the work of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, few movies show off their star’s athleticism like The Flame and the Arrow. Lancaster climbs poles, jumps down from a tree with a graceful backflip, swings down a drapery, climbs a rope without using his feet, and does every trick of the parallel bar.

And it’s not only Lancaster. Nick Cravat was Lancaster’s acrobatic partner in their youth, and became the star’s personal trainer. Here he plays the sidekick, and the two of them do great physical feats together. In one extended sequence, they find one amazing thing to do after another with a very long pole. One holds it while the other climbs, they walk on it like a tightrope, trip bad guys, and knock out some palace guards.

Cravat wasn’t really an actor, which is probably why his character is mute. But in this over-the-top tale, he’s an enjoyable presence even when both feet are on the ground. His upbeat personality, over-the-top facial expressions, and contempt fo authority gives the impression of a bearded, dark-haired Harpo Marx.

The story borrows a number of tropes from my all-time favorite swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Waldo Salt’s screenplay always finds a variation. For instance, in both movies, the hero escapes an execution by hanging. But the escapes are as different as they can be.

Considering the fact that the film’s star was also the executive producer, it’s astonishing how much of the film’s strength comes from supporting characters. A scene between a minstrel and a tanner about civilization and working with your feet is just charming. But then Norman Lloyd, as the minstrel, steals every scene he’s in

Salt also provided something very surprising for a swashbuckler–a somewhat likeable character who could end up being one of the good guys, or one of the bad ones. By the standards of this type of movie, that’s almost deep.

I saw The Flame and Arrow only once theatrically…probably around 1980. When my son was growing up, I bought him the VHS cassette, and he watched it over and over again. It’s currently streaming in HD on Turner Archive Instant. I don’t know how long it will be there.


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