Tag Archives: 2010

Way late review: Bill Cunningham New York

Fashion and the industry that revolves around it are not my forte. Therefore it might come as a surprise that I enjoyed Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary that centers on an 80-year-old photographer who captures what people are wearing in New York City. While fashion is Bill’s obsession, the director (Richard Press) obsesses over digging a bit deeper and seeing what makes this man, far past the typical age of retirement, so aggressively pursue his trade.

Much of the doc is spent with Cunningham doing his thing. He pedals his bike around town until he finds a spot he wants to shoot. Then he takes out his trusty 35mm camera and begins to take shots of those on the street wearing things he finds interesting. The end result ends up in The New York Times. In addition to shooting on the street, Bill also attends some of the swankiest parties in town. While paparazzi would likely kill to have his access, Bill is oblivious to the celebrities. His sole focus is on what people are wearing. If it’s interesting, he shoots. If it’s not, he doesn’t bother to pretend he cares one bit. He doesn’t waste the film.

We also learn that Cunningham is a man of principle beyond the ethics of his photography. When moonlighting for Details magazine in its earliest days, Bill refused to take any money for his work. The only thing he demanded was that he get to put out the work he wanted to put out. When Details magazine was sold to the conglomerate Condé Nast, Bill refused even then to take his share in the profits. He argued that by not taking the money for this work he was truly free. No one owns him.

Watching Cunningham work with his NYT art director putting together the collage of photos on the page is entertaining. The give and take between the photographer and the art director is fun. There appears to be no particular rhyme or reason why the page is put together the way it is other than it appeals to Bill’s aesthetics – and the constraints of the printed page. Even those print constraints begin to break as the Times pushes everything online, including a reluctant Cunningham, who records five minutes of audio each week to serve as commentary on his latest published piece.

The admiration for the man and his work is made known through a who’s who line-up of famous and not so famous designers, publishers, celebrities, and the fancy dressers Bill has brought fame to through his pages. Like anyone who is so engulfed in their work, Cunningham has little time to think about the impact he’s had on the industry or those in it. He reluctantly accepts a prestigious award in Paris for his work, but even there he can’t help but take photos of those in attendance to celebrate his award.

One look at Cunningham’s small studio in Carnegie Hall where he lives, or likely just stays long enough to sleep, tells us that Cunningham is not just passionate about his work, he’s obsessive compulsive about it. Barely enough room to walk around the tiny quarters, Bill shows us rows of filing cabinets that hold archives of his work. And he’s been at this for a long time so it’s not an exaggeration to say that there is barely enough room for a tiny cot. And for a man who likes nothing other than to admire and capture what people wear, his own collection of clothing is nearly non-existent. He hangs what little clothing he owns on filing cabinets.

When those who’ve known Bill the longest are asked about his personal life no one has any clues. The man is a mystery to even them. Towards the end of the doc the director does his best to get a fuller portrait of the man he’s been capturing for his film. He asks Bill simple questions about his family, if he’s ever been in love, what role religion plays if any in his life. Bill starts to break down a bit and even cries. Not lost in the tears though, Bill sees the brighter side to life. He confesses that he wouldn’t want to be doing anything different. He contends that his fairly solitary journey through life has afforded him the opportunity to pursue his passion.

Bill Cunningham New York offers a glimpse into the world of a man who does what he does because he loves it. It’s a documentary that does it’s best to dive deeper but realizes that is likely to lead to a very different kind of story, one that misses the passion of Bill Cunningham’s life long work.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Certified Copy

I’m still processing what Certified Copy is about exactly. The film centers on a man and a woman who meet in Tuscany. From the start we’re unsure whether there is or was a romantic relationship between them or not. At times it feels as though they are antagonizing strangers. Other times they seem the closest of friends, those who know one another so well that they know what to say and do to provoke the other as well as subside any anger that was provoked.

The gentleman is James Miller (William Shimell), an author who has just published a book on the value of a copy of art versus the original. The lady is Elle (Juliette Binoche), a mother of an 11-year old son. We learn that Elle is originally from France. She speaks Italian, English, and French. James is English. We learn that he speaks French in addition to his native language. It may seem odd to note the languages spoken by the lead characters. I find it odd too. But, when the movie switches between all three languages, even as the characters are in deep discussion with one another it’s hard not to notice and not mention.

Elle invites James to go out with her. The two meet and soon find themselves driving around the Italian countryside. Much like the movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Certified Copy isn’t so much about the plot but the conversations between a man and a woman. The twist in Certified Copy is who these two people really are in relation to one another. Do they have a history? If they do, is that history generally good, bad or indifferent? Is it all one big game between the two of them?

To speculate further on the relationship status of Elle and James is to ruin much of the intrigue. The film has much to say about relationships, life and art. I’m not sure that all of it registered with me but I found the performances outstanding nonetheless. Dialogue heavy but never boring. A mysterious movie even when you think you’ve got it all figured out. I know I’m still debating the themes and twists, which makes me enjoy Certified Copy all the more.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Senna

Formula One racing is a mystery to many of us in the US. NASCAR dominates as they drive “stock” cars in an endless loop. Meanwhile Formula One races through twisting tracks in cars that seem like they’re one strong wind away from being blown off the track. After watching the 2011 documentary, Senna, I have an even greater appreciation for those who dare race Formula One.

Ayrton Senna was one of the all time great Formula One drivers. Senna’s story is not one of the poor Brazilian who overcame the rich sport of Formula One. He grew up in a wealthy family, fell in love with racing, had some early success as a youngster and then earned his way onto the Formula One circuit. His fearless driving made for many fans and enemies. As numerous people note throughout, Formula One, like any organization, has its share of politics. Senna didn’t seem to care much for the politics. He raced to win and that was that.

What makes this documentary different from most is that it is completely made up of archival footage. There are no retrospective talking heads praising a man of faith and his zeal for the race track. A cinematic soundtrack makes the true life story always engaging.

I admire director Asif Kapadia’s focus. Most of the movie is spent on or around the race track. That is clearly where the most interesting story takes place and characters reside. Whether it be the rivalry that quickly develops between team mates, Senna and, former world champ, Alain Prost, or the trouble Senna sometimes gets himself into by driving overly aggressive, that is where the heart of the story lies. Even when delving into the type of man Senna is, it stays close to the race. For example, Senna is always proud to represent Brazil. Rather than spend a lot of time delving into this topic, Kapadia stays focused and shows Senna raising the flag on the track, being greeted by mobs of people in his homeland as he arrives after winning yet another world championship. There is mention that other Brazilian athletes and celebrities will distant themselves from Brazil once they achieve fame, but not Senna. Rather than dive into that more, Kapadia maintains the narrative of Senna as one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time. Some may find this razor sharp focus results in a shallow study of Ayrton Senna. My gut tells me that we’re seeing the most interesting aspect of Senna’s life – racing. And all of it is shown with existing footage. It’s a refreshing approach. An impressive movie overall.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.


Way late review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

It’s funny how our perception of celebrities often depends on when we’re introduced to them. Michael Jackson is pop genius to some, cultural oddity to others. Elvis was either skinny rock icon or fat Vegas crooner. The same can likely be said for Joan Rivers. To me she would likely be labeled the loud mouthed red carpet queen of cosmetic surgery. Not nice. To others she was likely a controversial comedian, breaking ground for women in that world. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a documentary that sheds light on Rivers past and present that helps to both tear down and build upon our perceptions of her celebrity.

If only one thing came through in A Piece of Work it is that Joan Rivers is insecure. She is insanely insecure and it drives her to work harder than most. Insecurity also probably contributes to her image as washed up, as she makes it clear in the documentary that she’ll do just about any appearance for the right price. A bulk of the doc has Rivers fretting over people’s perceptions of her, worry of being relevant, worry about her work being well received. Most documentaries about a celebrity of Rivers’ age would try to clean up the image and build a legend but A Piece of Work doesn’t settle for that. Instead we get a more revealing look at Rivers which makes for a more compelling documentary.

A Piece of Work doesn’t shy away from the stereotypes Rivers has helped create for herself. She comes right out and celebrates her plastic surgery. She doesn’t make apologies for her blatant money grabs that have her appearing in everything from reality TV to hawking goods on the home shopping channel. She argues that it’s more than just her she has to support. She is a business unto herself, complete with a staff that depends on her for their work.

Unbeknownst to me, Rivers was a regular co-host with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. She was so successful at that gig that she got her own night show on Fox. This ruined her relationship with Carson for good. He wouldn’t speak to her again. The Fox show failed. Joan was unwilling to fire her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, as the show’s producer so Fox fired them both. Shortly after that, Rosenberg committed suicide. Rivers took an unconventional step in the long healing process by later creating a made for TV movie with her daughter Melissa based on their story of dealing with the suicide of Rosenberg. She acknowledges that many probably think this was an absurd move but proclaims she has little care about that.

The relationship between mother and daughter was not a focus but the time spent there was telling. Melissa makes comments about having to share her life with her mom and her mom’s career. The time the two of them spend on screen for the documentary feels uncomfortable. Both of them share the same spotlight, especially in this later part of Rivers’ career and Rivers is outright competitive with her daughter when it comes to stardom. She is supportive of Melissa when they both appear on Celebrity Apprentice. She shows outrage when Melissa is one of the early contestants to be “fired”, but when she later goes on to win the game there is little vitriol shown to her opponent who she previously blamed for her daughter’s early dismal from the show. Rivers ultimately got what she wanted – the spotlight and some semblance of relevancy. Neither attacks one another but Melissa says that her mom, like any comedian, must have a rather large deficiency when she needs to get on stage and make people laugh, whether with her or at her, it doesn’t matter.

To say Rivers is outspoken is an understatement. Her comedy act is vulgar even by today’s comedic standards. Her disdain for certain people is never hidden. During one comedy act she puts on at a resort in Wisconsin she makes a joke using Helen Keller as the punch line. A man in the audience tells her it’s not funny, his son is blind. Rivers goes ballistic on the guy even as he’s walking out the door. After the show, Rivers is clearly shaken up by the incident as she rattles on trying desperately to defend her joke and reaction to the backlash. Her anger is a shield for the underlying insecurity. In a subtle scene where she’s entering a building before a show, one lone fan comes to her and asks for her autograph. While she signs, the gentleman says Rivers doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. This makes Rivers glow. As she makes her way inside, she makes a sarcastic comment about how she has at least one fan who loves her. Even when praised Rivers can’t hide her self-doubt.

Whatever one thinks of Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work will likely challenge that opinion. It will also entertain. In place of talking heads endlessly praising Rivers’ persistence, drive and talent we get an often times unflattering and raw look at her life. We get to see what drives her to success and come to understand that much of that drive is also what ails her.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.


Way late review: Rabbit Hole

I hope I never have to experience what the couple of Rabbit Hole experience, the loss of a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) struggle with the death of their four year old son. The film is set about eight months after the accident that takes their son’s life. Not a happy time.

Rabbit Hole is all about watching a couple deal with the loss of their young child and the different ways they go about coping with life. It would appear that Howie is doing better than Becca. Early on we see them go to a grief support group and watch Becca explode in anger as she hears another couple tearfully express comfort in knowing their child is with God. In that scene we get a clear picture that Becca is not receptive to spiritual consoling and Howie is at a loss for what to do. He’s in a different place than Becca, trying hard to move forward while never forgetting the love for his child. Throughout the film we see this tension between Becca and Howie played out in some emotionally tense scenes. The acting is superb, which is critical when your story hinges on character development with only a loose plot to carry things forward.

When dealing with such an emotional subject it’s hard to fault any character for their behavior. Yet Rabbit Hole made it hard throughout the film to empathize with Becca. I felt as though I was supposed to empathize with the couple as a whole, but as time passed it got harder to pull for Becca. Her behavior was erratic and only seemed to get worse as time went on, which seemed to be a key driver for Howie’s poor choices in the second half of the film. By the end, I was finding it hard to like either character because both seemed to dive deeper into self absorption with little hope for redemption. And maybe that’s OK. It’s all about a couple reeling from the hole the death of their son has left in their lives. That makes for an emotionally grueling movie with excellent acting yet little to truly enjoy in the end.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.