Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chicago FilmFest Mini Reviews: "Silver Cliff", "Larger Than Life", and an Audience Fave!

What Love May Bring

I was really into it, having fun and feeling like this was where I belonged. Two screenings back-to-back, with ten minutes in between to take a bathroom break and dash across to the opposite end of the multiplex, was the highlight of this past Saturday.

Before I review "Silver Cliff" (a Brazilian drama) and "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" (A Documentary from the US), I must mention one of the Best of the Fest winners (I'm very excited)....

Chosen as one of the two Audience Favorites was Claude Lelouch's epic poem to the cinema titled "What Love May Bring" (photo above, and reviewed here last week)I was excited to know that, out of the 150-plus films screened at the Festival,  and of the four that I was able to get to, I was right there among an appreciative crowd that was as moved and delighted as I was.

That night, the Event Schedule showed that the film was sold out. After making an inquiry, we were told that a few tickets might be available after all.  Timing and personal preference, and a little bit of scrambling, made it possible to be a part of what would turn out to be one of the essential events of the entire two weeks.

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The dashing producer (Rodrigo Teixeira) of the Brazilian film "Silver Cliff" introduced the festival screening, and explained that the movie is based on the lyrics of an old classic pop song called "Eye to Eye", which is played at the end of the film. The song is about getting through heartbreak and renewing your life after love goes away (sort of the same sentiment as "I Will Survive", in dreamy Portuguese.) 

The movie is an almost plotless tone poem about the sudden and unexplained disintegration of a marriage.  After having sex with his wife one morning, Violeta's distracted husband goes on a business trip. From the road, he sends her a voice message saying he doesn't love her any more, and is leaving her and their teenage son.  Devastated, she tries to go after him, and winds up wandering the streets of Rio de Janeiro that night, where she meets a little girl and her handsome young father.  After spending time together, they part company at daybreak, and their fates are left to our imagination, as the song suggests there is hope.

The film at first drew me in with its strong visuals, its attention to textures and creative use of framing of the characters, keeping backgrounds out of focus to suggest the alienation and entrapment of its characters in a mundane existence.  Alessandra Negrini, as Violeta, must carry the film in closeup, with her outpouring of confusion and emotion without the benefit of dialogue or much of anything to to.

What began as an intriguing visualization of the grief and confusion of life's tragic turning points eventually becomes tedious. The viewer feels stranded, watching protracted tracking shots of Violeta wandering and weeping.  One is left to notice meaningless details, like the sloppy paint job in the cheap hotel where she checks in that night, or the virtuoso camerawork in the bar sequence where Violeta dances alone to "Maniac."  The virtuosity for its own sake frustrates the viewer from learning anything more about Violeta, what might have happened, or what she will do next.

"Silver Cliff" is a nicely-produced, nice looking film, that nevertheless exemplifies the common independent-filmmaker impulse to create something out of a vague yearning, a wish to visualize an emotional state, but finally having little of lasting value to say.

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"Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" is an explosively entertaining, fast-moving film about one of the treasures of the American stage.  Contemporary viewers may not know or remember Carol Channing, and may find her irrelevant.  This film sets out to disprove that idea!

Best known for her classic Broadway roles in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Hello Dolly", Channing had a life filled with hard work, inspiration, and a generous view of the world.

The film is an expert compilation of current interviews with Channing, who serves as the film's "narrator"; on-screen commentaries from superstars like Betty Garrett, Lily Tomlin, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Mackie, Chita Rivera, Jerry Herman, JoAnne Worley (Channing's "Dolly" stand-in, who never got a chance to take the stage), Barbara Walters and many others; vintage photographs from Channing's childhood and early career, as well as old clips from TV interviews, variety programs and talk shows, commercials, and her Oscar-nominated turn in "Thoroughly Modern Millie". 

Woven into this gorgeous movie tapestry are clips from a current show that has Channing, at age 90, rehearsing with many of the guys from the chorus of her "Hello Dolly" revivals.  Most poignant is the revelation of her eventual marriage to the boy she grew up with, and loved for over 70 years, through the hardships of her own oppressive marriage, the challenges and heartbreaks of the road, and the excitement of her singular show-biz life.

The crowd where I screened this movie loved the surprising and hilarious anecdotes about her first movie kiss (with Clint Eastwood!), her thoughts on the movie version of "Hello Dolly" with Barbra Streisand, and many, many others.  I was moved by stories of Channing's compassion, her concern for a fellow cast member with AIDS, and her deep understanding of the pain of racism through her associations with Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong.  It is even thought that Channing herself had a black ancestor.

This is a terrific film for show-business buffs, Broadway followers, and cultural nostalgists.  Director Dori Beirnstein (who appeared after the screening in Chicago) has done an astounding job of assembling an unbelievable amount of material into a frothy, energetic and informative movie.  Channing was a great subject, too, and from all appearances one of the nicest celebrities imaginable, very cooperative and a good sport. 

It is sometimes hard to evaluate a film about a charismatic subject and separate the subject from the quality of the filmmaking.  Here, it is a perfect marriage.  "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" held me spellbound, smiling throughout, and choking back tears frequently. I must study this film for the skill of it's editing, too.  I loved the sequence in which Channing explained how "Before The Parade passes By" was written for "Hello Dolly", and what the song means. Crosscutting between four different interviews in rapid succession, Beirnstien tells a great story with comical subtle differences between the recollections of her subjects.

Channing represents to me a generation that we will soon lose forever, people like Mark's mother and my parents, and that except for the love and skill of great filmmakers, or the devoted preservation of lore by their loving families, their stories may disappear with them.  I recommend this film very highly indeed.

See it for no other reason than that people like Carol Channing, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Herman, Gower and Marge Champion, and others like them, will be remembered. 

And by their example, to remain encouraged to keep trying while there is still a chance....The words to this song have never been more inspiring....

Before the parade passes by
I've gotta go and taste Saturday's high life
Before the parade passes by
I've gotta get some life back into my life
I'm ready to move out in front
I've had enough of just passing by life
With the rest of them
With the best of them
I can hold my head up high
For I've got a goal again
I've got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by

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