Sunday, March 29, 2015

Budapest Times: EU Film Festival

Here is a link to an article I wrote on Hungarian movies playing at the European Union Film Festival in Chicago, published in the Budapest Times.

http://budapesttimes.hu/2015/03/29/now-screening-hungary-in-america/

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Film Review: Wild Tales

"Wild Tales" **** (out of ****)

People are mad as hell and they just aren't going to take it anymore in the savage dark comedy "Wild Tales" (2015).

"Wild Tales", originally titled "Relatos Salvajes", is directed by Damian Szifron and comes from Argentina. It was the country's official selection at the 87th annual Academy Awards ceremony in the "best foreign language film" category and competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie is comprised of six short films, none of which share inter-connecting storylines or characters, but all address similar themes of violence and revenge.

If "Wild Tales" is any reflection of Argentina or the world in general it would suggest some very dark and disturbing (to some) truths. The world presented in "Wild Tales" is one filled with people who are angry and hostile. Some feel abused by a bureaucratic system, which is nothing more than a money generating scheme, and a government which is complicit with it. Others are fueled by greed, even at the expense of their family's protection, while others are willing to commit murder in the name of family honor.

Still Mr. Szifron and his film try to end on a positive note, suggesting, yes, life is miserable. Lets not pretend it isn't. Terrible and unfair things happen in this world to innocent people. If people aren't hurting you, institutions like the government, are, however, we need to learn to accept things as they are. Life is messy and we all need to learn to deal with it and not allow anger and hatred to dictate our actions. We all need to learn to take a deep breathe.

The movie also serves as a psychological experiment on the viewer. Audiences may find themselves in agreement with the acts of violent on-screen, accepting the behavior of the characters. Which may serve the point, everyone has built up rage within them. The characters on-screen may actually be behaving in ways the audience wishes they could. Did you ever get so angry at someone you wanted to scream at them or hit them? Most people would answer yes. That is what makes it gratifying for the viewer to see the characters in this movie engage in violent behavior.

Some viewers however may not find the violence in this movie disturbing and for that we must give filmmaker, Mr. Szifron, credit. Some viewers may even laugh at the destruction on-screen. Why? Mr. Szifron presents the film's graphic scenes in an almost cartoonish, caricature fashion. Events are exaggerated to the extreme. No rational person would behave this way. That may provide a small comfort for viewers and allow them to laugh. If viewers were to find the movie too grotesque any social and/or political themes the movie would want to address would go unnoticed by the public and the sheep (movie critics) who would primarily focus on the violence instead.

Watching "Wild Tales" I could not help but think of the television show "The Twilight Zone". All six stories in the film end with an ironic twist. A ha-ha punchline moment. Depending on the individual story and for that matter the punchline, it can feel unnecessary and cheapen the overall effect of the movie as we sit and wait for the resulting joke. Still the majority of the stories work. The theme is clearly stated and delivered.

The first story in this anthology is called "Pasternak". It is the story of a group of people on a plane who all share something in common from their past. Every passenger on the plane knew and wronged a musician named Pasternak from an ex-girlfriend, an old teacher, a music critic and his psychiatrist. Why has Pasternak brought these people together on a plane? The idea though is a common one. Wouldn't we all like to gather all the people who ever wronged us and tell them off?

The second story is called "Rats". It deals with a waitress at a small diner who must serve a man who caused her family financial ruin years earlier. He doesn't remember her but she remembers him. Should she seek revenge?

Another interesting story is called "Strongest". It deals with a wealthy man driving on an empty road. Eventually he finds himself driving behind a working class man, who isn't driving as fast as the privileged wealthy man would like him to. What happens is what every person who has ever been cut off on the road would love to do in retaliation to every maniac driver on the road that is incapable of following speed limits.

By themselves the stories would be somewhat interesting and hit on universal truths but collected together in one film the stories having a damning effect. It is almost unrelenting in its intensity. The movie gets a strong reaction out of the viewer.

Although 2015 is only three months old "Wild Tales" is a movie I'm sure I will remember at the end of the year. It is one of the best films this year.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Xpatloop: EU Film Festival

Here is a link to an article I wrote about two Hungarian movies playing at the European Union Film Festival in Chicago and an interview I conducted with one of the directors.

http://www.xpatloop.com/news/eu_film_festival_in_chicago_brings_europe_to_american_movie_lovers

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film Review: White God

"White God"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Budapest has gone to the dogs in Kornel Mundruczo's "White God" (Feher Isten 2014), a half-thriller, half dark (very dark) comedy with a strong social commentary.

This Hungarian film, which is billed as making its U.S. premier as part of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, was a winner at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving the "Un Certain Regard" award for its filmmaker.

The movie opens with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, the brilliant Hungarian filmmaker who was part of the "Hungarian New Wave" of the late 1960s and early 70s, when Hungarian films were being released in America and met with much critical acclaim.

Like a Jancso film, "White God" uses its story as an allegory for something deeper. On its surface "White God" is the Hungarian equivalent of "Lassie Come Home" (1943), the story about a teenage girl, Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her dog, Hagen (played by two dogs; Body and Luke) with whom she is separated from and the journey the dog must go on to find the young girl. Will the two ever be reunited?

"White God" however goes on to become a story about revolt. The tagline for the movie is "the unwanted will have their day". The "unwanted" it is referring to is not dogs or animals in general. It is referring to the downtrodden; the poor and working class, the homeless. The people society prefer to ignore. Society treats them like animals. If we keep mistreating people one day they aren't going to stand for it. They will become fed up. And when that happens, they will fight back. Remember, there are more poor and working class people in the world than there are rich. Which means, when they do fight back, we will have strength in numbers.

That is what happens in "White God" only it is the dogs which revolt. We see countless humans mistreat animals from Lili's father, Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), who forcefully tells the young girl her dog is not welcome in his home, to a dog fighting promotor, who buys Hagen in the hopes of turning him into a killer.

Using animals as metaphors for humans has been done before in other stories from Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" to Orwell's "Animal Farm" and we have seen animals attack humans in films like Hitchcock's "The Bird" (1963) and to the movie which most people have compared "White God" to, Samuel Fuller's "White Dog" (1982).

One can also interpret "White God" without the subtext and take its plot at face value. It is the story of humans who mistreat animals. In which case the movie also serves as a warning, as does "The Birds", one day human mistreatment of animals will come back to hurt them. We keep training animals to be violent, to serve as protection, and one day the animals will turn on us. Then who will protect us?

Either way you chose to interpret the story the movie is richly executed by Kornel Mundruczo, a filmmaker whose previous film, "Delta" (2008) left me a bit cold though visually it was striking. Here Mundruczo's visual style is on full display and he is working with a story worthy of his detail and attention.

One sequence in particular which is worth mentioning is what appears to be a dream sequence of Lili riding a bicycle on a deserted street. She is riding her bicycle in slow motion. Soon, from behind, we see an army of dogs appear, headed in Lili's direction. Are the dogs about to attack her? Why are the street empty? Why can't she bicycle faster? Mindruczo, through his actor's performances and cinematography, is able to give the sequence an unsettling dream quality.

Despite the dedication to Jancso however, "White Dog" does not share anything in common with the visual style of the films of Miklos Jancso, who was know for extreme long shots, limited camera movement and lack of character point of view.

Critics of "White Dog" have questioned its meaning. If the dogs are to be a metaphor, what do they represent. The answer would seem to be everyone that feels marginalized by society. Some don't like that answer. It cast too wide a net for their cinematic sensibilities. However the movie should resonant with American and European audiences. In Europe we are seeing the rise of right-wing political parties such as UKIP in London and the Jobbik party in Hungary, which have been describe by varies mainstream media outlets as hostile towards minorities and in the case of UKIP have been branded anti-immigration. The same debate is going on in America concerning the border with Mexico and illegal immigration.

"White Dog" is a confidentially told story by a director with a clear vision and objective. The only wrong step may be an air of satire and dark humor at the end of the picture which becomes repetitive. Mundruczo hits his theme quickly and forcefully.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Eastern European Cinema At the 18th Annual European Union Film Festival

There’s more than European cinema than French and Italian!
This month marks the beginning of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center which began its run March 6th and runs through April 2nd.
The festival gives movie lovers the opportunity to experience international films from countries they normally wouldn’t look to, namely cinema from Eastern Europe.
Though Mexican cinema and filmmakers have recently caught the eye of American moviegoers thanks to the work of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who won an Academy Award for best director at this year’s award ceremony for his film “Birdman” (2014) and Alfonso Cuaron, who won the best director Academy Award at last year’s show for his film “Gravity” (2013), Eastern European cinema has largely been ignored.
This is unfortunate and wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s Eastern European films were making headlines in America. Moviegoers were being treated to films from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany thanks to various “new wave” movements which saw the emergence of filmmakers such as Milos FormanRainer Werner FassbinderWerner Herzog,Miklos Jansco and Andrzej Wajda at a time when these countries were under the censorship of communist regimes. Their movies were sharp social criticisms of the political powers which ruled their countries.
In more recent times Eastern European cinema has still managed to experiment with the conventions of cinema. In the Czech Republic there is the work of Jan Svankmajer, a surrealist animator, in Hungary there was filmmaker Bela Tarr, who experimented with linear storytelling and in Romania a string of socially and politically charged dramas such as the 2007 Palme d’Or Cannes Film Festival winner, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” and the black comedy “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2007).
One of the obstacles Eastern European cinema faces though is it must overcome the world-wide perception it has obtained through the years as being depressing, cynical and sarcastic. These perceived negative traits often keep moviegoers away. Two movies of note at this year’s festival are the Slovak movie “The Candidate”, a political comedy, and the Hungarian movie “For Some Inexplicable Reason”, a look into the lives of the disenfranchised 30-something youths in Budapest. Both of these movies will try to change the world’s perception of their country and its movies.
Jonas Karasek, the first-time director of “The Candidate”, tried to differentiate his movie from other Slovak movies. “Our typical film”, the director said “is usually a depressive insight into the life of an individual on the edge of society. We tried to be more funny, although in the background we show the sad reality of how sick our world is.”
The “we” Karasek was referring to included his friend and the screenwriter of “The Candidate” Maros Hecko, who felt “our film might be something different. Slovak films have for years been producing mainly films that are in the genre of social drama. We are an exemption. We created a multi-genre film. A thriller mixed with elements of comedy and detective story.”
The movie, which follows a factious presidential’s candidate, with links to a historical 19th century Slovak leader, and his campaign raises issues Hecko feels American audiences should be able to relate to. “I can very well imagine this story adapted for American audiences, it could even be a potentially very successful remake.”
Gabor Reisz, who is also making his feature-length directorial debut, would like audiences coming out of “For Some Inexplicable Reason” viewing Hungary as a “country full of contradictions, a very colorful place that’s a happy and depressive place at the same time.” Reisz added “I think Budapest is an exceptionally beautiful capital and it’s important to me that people abroad feel the same way about it.”
Reisz’s comedy follows a group of amateur acting friends in their 20s and 30s and one in particular who still lives at home with his parents. After being dumped by his girlfriend he finds himself on a trip to Portugal.
The director got the idea for the movie after he came to the “realization that I haven’t seen a Hungarian film since a very long time where the characters were even a little believable to be real people from Budapest.”
 And that is the great things about movies, their ability to show us other countries, other cultures. To discover people all over the world experience the same things, whether it is a corrupt political system or the personal journey we go through to discover ourselves. This is what audiences will recognize as they watch Eastern European films.
It is also worth noting the opposite effects of cinema, especially the global influence American cinema has on other cultures. When asked to name favorite filmmakers of their own, both directors named Americans. Karasek said “I am quite Hollywood oriented” listing Christopher Nolan and David Fincher as favorites whereas Reisz cited Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers as influences.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Film Review: Deja Vu

"Deja Vu"  ** (out of ****)

Locations. Certain locations hold special memories for us. You remember the restaurant you had your first date at. You remember where you were when you had your first fight as a couple. You remember where you were when you proposed.

And those memories stick with us. No matter what happens to the relationship, whether you break-up, divorce, never see the other person again, it doesn't matter. We remember the locations. They leave lasting impressions. That is partially what the Romanian movie "Deja Vu" (2013) is about.

The movie, which played as part of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, follows a married man, Mihai (played by the movie's director, Dan Chisu) who has been having an affair with Tania (Ioana Flora) for the past three years. The movie begins on the morning when Mihai will confront his wife, a television personality, Valeria (Mirela Oprisor) with whom he is currently separated from, along with Tania and officially ask for a divorce.

A majority of the movie takes place in Mihai's car as he and Tania drive to Valeria, who is staying at a lake side house her parent's own. The road to the lake house however is one Mihai and Valeria have driven on before. Mihai associates certain memories of these streets with conversations he had with Valeria. But Valeria is now longer by his side. Now he is with Tania and will have to make new memories.

This is suppose to signify the movie's title, "Deja Vu". Yes, it all seems familiar. Everything looks the same, just as we remembered it but something is different, the person we shared the experience with.

The director, Chisu, has decided to film the entire movie from Mihai's point of view, which means we never see the character's face, only moments of his hands or legs. We see this day through his eyes. Often, when this technique is used its purpose is to help us identify with the character. To put the audience in the character's shoes. To help visually re-enforce the concept the audience is taking on this journey with the lead character. The question is however, was this choice necessary? Could Chisu have told this story without this cinematic gimmick and still have hit on the themes and emotion he hoped for? Personally, I believe he could and the POV becomes distracting. It doesn't add anything to the story.

As a result of this device, nearly the entire movie rest on the shoulder's of Ioana Flora, who is on-screen almost for the entire length of the picture. She is a decent actress and pleasant to look at. Sadly the movie doesn't demand too much from her. As an actress she isn't required to express too much of an emotional range. Not enough is revealed about who she is and what she is doing in a relationship with an older married man.

The other problem with the movie is we don't quite understand Mihai either. Is this drive making him fall in love with his wife again as he recalls their conversations? Maybe. But the movie doesn't have a romantic or nostalgic element to it. Despite putting the viewer in Mihai's shoes he doesn't become relatable or a sympathetic figure. If anything, Tania does because we have seen her on-screen more. By looking at her face the audience can tell what she is thinking. Because we never see Mihai we can't tell what he is thinking. Many times our words don't match our emotions. So, hearing him speak isn't enough in trying to understand what his thoughts are.

And that is the great downfall of an otherwise interesting concept. Everything in "Deja Vu" feels one dimensional. It feels like a one note movie. The characters are not relatable. The movie needed some more human emotion. An element of nostalgia. A better musical score. And to completely skip the POV gimmick.

I have seen one other movie by Chisu, "Chasing Rainbows" (2012), his previous movie which has also shown at the European Union Film Festival. I didn't enjoy that one either because of the characters.

If you want to see a better Romanian movie dealing with a married man cheating on his wife and the implications his decision will have on his life see the magnificent "Tuesday, After Christmas" (Marti dupa craciun, 2010). There is a movie which is able to get tension out of its situation and deal with the characters in a more human and realistic manner.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Film Review: The Rain People

"The Rain People"  *** (out of ****)

The American movies of the late 1960s and 70s often focused on "lost souls", characters trying to escape the world around them and "find" themselves. The most emblematic movie of this genre was "Easy Rider" (1969), though the Academy Award winner "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) had elements of it as well. As did "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and "The Graduate" (1967).

These movies reflect the growing sentiment among the youth of the 60s of "feeling lost". There was great unrest in the world at this time; The Vietnam War, the May 1968 uprising in France, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" (1969) follows in this tradition. The movie focuses on a young, white suburbanite female, Natalie (Shirley Knight). She is married to Vinny (Robert Modica). One morning she wakes up before him, gets dressed, writes him a note, visits her parents and decides to leave her husband. She hits the road in her station wagon.

Why does she do it? Where is she going? She does it because she has realized her life is planned out. She is married, lives a comfortable life, discovers she is pregnant, will spend the next few years raising the child (one assumes) and then what? It all seems so sudden. Isn't there more to life? As for where is she going, well, that's the point of the movie. She doesn't know. That is what makes the movie speak to the times and the generation that watched it upon its first release. She is "lost", just like the youth at the time. She is headed on the road with no destination.

Along the way Natalie meets a hitchhiker, Jimmy (James Caan) a college football player nicknamed "killer". The school, for reasons unknown to Jimmy and Natalie (at first), has kicked Jimmy out and has given him $1,000. Jimmy is going to visit his ex-girlfriend because her father once offered him a job. Now that he is out of school, Jimmy would like to take him up on his offer.

Natalie, who perhaps was feeling lonely agrees to pick him up and take him to his destination. Although the movie suggest she finds the young man attractive. Is Natalie after a few thrills? Was that her problem? She wanted to experience the "free love" movement? Maybe. The movie doesn't do much to suggest otherwise.

And so "The Rain People" becomes the story of two "lost souls". Two people traveling in a car with no place to go. We slowly learn about Jimmy and his football glory. We slowly learn why the school has kicked him out. We learn why his girlfriend broke up with him.

The problem is Natalie. We stop learning about her. Coppola, who also wrote the movie, doesn't allow Natalie to grow. We learn everything about her at the beginning of the movie. There are no new insights. No revealing moments. There is nothing there.

The only surprise is she accepts the advances of a police officer, Gordon (Robert Duvall) who takes her out for a cup of coffee after he has written her a speeding ticket.

It is difficult to make a movie and have an unlikable lead character and still have an audience interested in what happens. I didn't find Natalie to be likable. I understand the abstract concept of not knowing your place in the world. I understand not knowing what to do with your life. But, I don't like how Natalie goes about finding the answers. In fact, I don't even believe she is looking.

At least in a movie like "Easy Rider" they meet people from different walks of life. They interact. They learn from these people. By the end of the picture they have changed. They have grown. Natalie hasn't. By the end of the picture she is the same dazed and confused woman she was at the beginning of the picture.

What makes "The Rain People" interesting is it an a curiosity piece. Here we have an early Francis Ford Coppola film pre-"The Godfather" (1972). We are able to see his roots. Where he started from. What kind of stories did he want to tell. "The Rain People" feels like a personal project. And believe it or not both movies share something in common. They are about an American dream. About an ideal. Natalie may not know what she is after but she believes there is something better out there.

It is also interesting to see Duvall and Caan in early roles and we see Coppola's association goes back with them. No wonder he casted them in "The Godfather". I wish "The Rain People" would have spoken to me a bit more. I wish I could have connected with it a bit more. It is an interesting effort with a relateable idea. I just didn't warm up to the lead character. Jimmy on the other hand had my sympathy. There's a guy Coppola should have made a movie about.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Film Review: Mortdecai

"Mortdecai"  *** (out of ****)

There is a golden rule in acting when performing comedy. Never act funny. Don't let the audience know you are in on the joke. You play your role seriously, as a belivable character, just as you would any other role.

As you watch "Mortdecai" (2015), directed by David Koepp, and see Johnny Depp on-screen, you quickly begin to think to yourself "oh no! What is Johnny Depp doing?" Depp plays Charlie Mortdecai, an expert art dealer with connections to the underground world, as a complete caricature. Depp has created a funny sounding voice, walks in a funny way, has exaggerated mannerisms and wears a funny moustache.

And yet despite everything, all the warning signs of trouble on the horizon because of Depp's portayal of this character, I laughed. I couldn't help myself. I laughed at myself for laughing. "Mortdecai" is not suppose to work. But we laugh anyway. We laugh at the stupidity of the plot, Depp's character and the low brow, corny jokes.

With that in mind I would be a hypocrite if I didn't recommend it. How could I honestly tell someone not to see this movie knowing I laughed as I watch it? But, will others be as kind as I am? Probably not. Some people may genuinely think this movie is not funny and a complete waste of time. Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News gave the movie zero stars and called "Mortdecai", "a disastrously misguided career low" for Johnny Depp. There will be more people that share her sentiments than mine.

Johnny Depp is a strange character to me. I can't quite figure him out. He often seems attracted to bizarre characters. He has turned in some fine performances in Tim Burton movies, which may be where he gets his strangeness from, and has been nominated for Academy Awards for his work in Burton's "Sweeney Todd" (2007), "Finding Neverland" (2004) and in his most famous role as Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003).

I can somewhat understand why Depp would be interested in playing this character. It might have been fun for him to play. He probably saw it as a caricature and thought that would allow him a certain freedom creatively. So, he gets dressed up, has a funny voice..ect. I also felt there was a hint of William Powell from the "Thin Man" (1934) in his performance. And there is a relationship between Mortdecai and his man servant, Jock (Paul Bettany) which reminds me of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Jock is the muscle between the two and helps Mortdecai get out of every dangerous predicament Mortdecai finds himself in.

Now I should admit I never read the comic series by Kyril Bonfiglioli, yes readers, "Mortdecai" is based on pre-existing material. The stories were first published in the 1970s and were meant to be satire. Maybe this was in fact how Mortdecai was written in the book. Maybe Depp is being faithful to the source material.

The plot revolves around a once believed lost Goya painting which may have been re-discovered and may have lead to the death of an art restorer who discovered it. Now, it is up to  British Mi5 agent Martland (McGregor) to find the painting, unfortunately, it will require the help of Mortdecai. The two have known each other since college. Martland was and still is in love with Mortdecai's wife, Johanna (Paltrow) but it was Mortdecai that won Johanna's heart.

The visual style of "Mortdecai" reminds me of a Guy Ritchie movie with a cartoon comic twist. It has a lot of energy and is fast moving. I never found the movie to be boring.

Who knows why this movie was ever released? I can though understand why it was given the green light. The movie has an attractive cast; Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor and Paul Bettany and a brief role by Jeff Goldblum. Perhaps there is a devoted cult following of the Mortdecai books which eagerly awaited a movie adaptation. The director, Koepp, is not a bad director. He worked with Depp previously on "Secret Window" (2004)  and directed "Ghost Town" (2008) with Ricky Gervais. But, once the final product was shown wasn't there anyone to stop it from being released? Did the studio feel they had too much invested in this not to release it?

Still "Mortdecai" has a silliness to it which reminds me of "Austin Powers" (1997). I am not sure which time period "Mortdecai" is supposed to take place in but I have a feeling both he and Austin Powers would get along smashingly.

"Mortdecai" is not great cinematic art. But, it is a funny, lighthearted, silly (very, very silly) ride of a movie.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Reviews: Just 45 Minutes From Broadway & In the Shadow of the Stars

"Just 45 Minutes From Broadway"  ** (out of ****)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women mere players"
William Shakespeare - As You Like It

That quote by William Shakespeare from his play "As You Like It" may have inspired American indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom and his movie "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" (2012), an adaptation of his own play, of the same title.

Like most of Mr. Jaglom's movies, "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" deals with the lives of actors. In this movie's case, a theatrical family about to meet the fiance of their oldest daughter, the only one in the family that has not chosen acting as a profession.

One question to ask though is, is it true? Is all the world a stage? Can actors ever stop performing? Or do they see the world as one giant play or movie and they are acting their part? It could be the basis for an interesting, if not quirky, comedy. At least good sit-com material if all else fails. But, in the case of "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" you have the wrong script, the wrong director and the wrong cast.

That is unfortunate. Mr. Jaglom, who made his directorial debut with "A Safe Place" (1971) starring Tuesday Weld, has mainly worked outside the Hollywood system. It gives him more freedom to make the movies he wants to make. Since that time he has directed 19 feature films. His movies often feel like "family gatherings" (Mr. Jaglom is not above casting family members and friends), a bunch of friends that have gotten together to put on a big show in the barn! As with anything in life, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When a movie by Mr. Jaglom works, they are charming, breezy pieces of entertainment with a collection of eccentric characters. When they don't work, it is a tiresome, boring experience.

The reason Mr. Jaglom is the wrong director and has written the wrong script is because the movie has nothing to say about actors. The movie is little more than a cliche presenting actors as emotional train wrecks. They are free spirits. They let their emotions fly. They are in constant need of attention. And, they are always performing. Always trying to manipulate "their audience" by presenting themselves in a particular light, masking their true feelings and identity.

That may all very well be true but is any of that original? I absolutely agree people (whether they are actors or not) do try to present themselves to people in the most positive light often hiding their negative traits and only allow a select few to ever have the opportunity to truly know them. And, even then, they still may be hiding something from those people.

If the counterargument is Mr. Jaglom never intended to make an in-depth movie about the lives of actors, all he wanted to do was make an uninspired, predictable, cliche ridden, funny, lighthearted movie, I'll accept that as an answer. Now the problem is, "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" is not funny. No matter how you want to argue it, the movie doesn't work as a whole. You can slice it any way you want but you can't avoid the movie's flaws.

Jack Heller and Diane Salinger star as George and Vivien Isaacs, the heads of a dysfunctional acting family. Their youngest daughter, Pandora (Tanna Frederick) has moved back in with her parents, at the age of 30, after a romantic relationship has ended. She is now emotionally distraught. Also living in the house is Vivien's brother, Larry (David Proval) and his wife Sharon (Mary Crosby, Bing Crosby's daughter).

George and Vivien are expecting their oldest daughter, Betsy (Julie Davis) to introduce the family to her fiance, James (Judd Nelson). Betsy is the only one in the family that has not gotten biten by the acting bug. She is embarrassed of her family and tries to keep a distance from them. She says she cannot deal with their chaotic lifestyle. She needs stability, which is what attracts her to James, who works in real estate.

And so the stage is set for a clash of lifestyles as the actors vs the non-actors, or "civilians" as they are referred to in the movie, sister vs sister and actor vs actor, as George and Larry argue over acting technique.

The best performances in the movie are given by Jack Heller and David Proval, though Mr. Heller, in the beginning moments of the movie, has a tendency to give a very theatrical performance, however, that is the downfall of the entire cast. Everyone in the movie is acting as if they are on the stage. They are acting for the seats in the balconies. Nearly all the performances are loud and gregarious, except Proval, who at one point in the movie gives a speech citing he feels his acting career has not gone as he planned. He feels he has been looked overlooked by comparisons to actors such as Robert De Niro.

This speech is actually one of the best moments in the movie. The scene plays like a confession, not just of the character but Mr. Proval himself. Proval may be best known for his role in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973). He has done a lot of acting since then in both movies and television but never accomplished what De Niro, Pacino or Nicholson did. That's what makes the scene so powerful. I bet deep down Mr. Proval feels that way about his career. He must have, at one time in his life, had this internal dialogue. Why didn't he become a bigger name? For all I know, the scene was improvised. Mr. Jaglom's films sometimes have improvised moments.

Ms. Frederick, whom I am usually critical of, shows more restraint than is normal for her. In the three prior movies she has collaborated with Mr. Jaglom on, her performances have tended to fall on the more whiny side. She doesn't know how to express frustration, anger, or despair. What she does instead is say how she is feeling but doesn't act it. Or, if she does try to act it, the gestures are too exaggerated and lacks believability. To her credit, she tones it down, a bit. She is still the acting weakling in the cast but it is a small improvement.

Mr. Nelson on the other hand appears too constricted. There isn't enough for him to do. His performance lacks life. He looks detached. He isn't playing a fleshed out character but rather a plot device.

Another strange component of the movie is Mr. Jaglom's attempt to have the movie appear to be a stage play on film. We see stage curtains close at the end of an "act". In the beginning of the movie we see a stage set. End the end we see a camera crew film the actors. The movie ends on a self-referential note. Probably an attempt to suggest all of life is a stage and the blurry line actors walk between reality and fantasy. But it is poorly done and raises more questions than answers. What have we been watching? What was real and what was the act of imagination?

In the end "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" is too predictable, filled with too many cliches, poorly staged and not funny. It is a middle of the road picture. Not something a maverick independent filmmaker wants to hear.

For a better Henry Jaglom movie dealing with the trial and tribulations of an acting family watch "Last Summer in the Hamptons" (1996).

"In the Shadow of the Stars"  *** (out of ****)

Who are they? They are nothing more that stage fillers. No one knows their names. No one will remember who they are at the end of the performance. The spotlight is never on them. But in the Academy Award winning documentary "In the Shadow of the Stars" (1991) they get to tell their story.

"They" are the members of the San Francisco Opera chorus. They stand in the background. They watch the major opera soloist, as the rest of us do, and marvel at their voices and talents. But, for the chorus it doesn't end there. They want to achieve fame. They want people to know their names.

Like "45 Minutes From Broadway", "In the Shadow of the Stars" tells us about the lives of artists, but, "In the Shadow of the Stars" does more than that. It tells us about the struggles artist must endure. It tells us how the arts can be inspirational. And the sacrifices one must make in order to succeed in this business.

While most documentaries may focus on famous people, here is a documentary that tells us everyone has a story. What makes the chorus of the San Francisco Opera interesting, or anyone in their position interesting is, these people have talent. They have been acknowledge as having talent or they wouldn't be working at an opera house. They are getting paid to do what they love but only to an extent. They want more. In fact they feel they deserve more. They love opera. They love to sing. In their minds they are just as good as the stars they must remain in the shadows of. So why haven't they gotten their break?

It is an interesting question but "In the Shadow of the Stars" doesn't have the answer. What could possibly be a good answer anyway? But it is enjoyable listening to these performers offer their explanations. It is interesting to hear them speak about their love of opera. Their desire to be heard and engage in creative activities.

This documentary was directed by Allie Light and Irving Saraf, whom at the time were married. It doesn't strike me as Academy Award winning quality but you can see why it would win. It deals with artist. It is the story of the underdog. Performers waiting for the big break. Following their dream. Why wouldn't Hollywood like such a story?

This is a lighthearted and truthful look at the life of an artist. It is a valentine to every performer still waiting for their big break.