For the final tribute evening of SBIFF 2022, in the Maltin Modern Master evening at the Arlington on Thursday night, the spotlight turned on a celebrity double-header from a single film, being Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos. Their strong performances earned Oscar nominations for each. However, as this twin career survey revealed, the film itself is a somewhat tame and mainstream entry on filmographies that have courageously moved into challenging projects.
Kidman appeared via video due to an injury, making her looming but disembodied presence on the big screen Wizard of Oz–like. But her demeanor was down-to-earth and thoughtful. She traced her movie life through mainstream Hollywood fare to her choices to take on more challenging roles. Like Penélope Cruz, Kidman is a beautiful woman with an adventurous spirit and the drive to push beyond standard Hollywood material.
She told moderator Leonard Maltin, “I have gone from big-budget projects to films like [Gus Van Sant’s] To Die For. I wanted to play complicated women characters in-depth, and not just be the wife or girlfriend.” That desire to stretch relates to her current role as Lucille Ball/Lucy Arnaz.
Kidman said that in films like Dogville, The Hours, and Eyes Wide Shut, she was “seeking out auteurs and philosophical material. My quest is finding truth through art. When I look back at my journey, there is a method to the madness of artists I’ve wanted to support.”
Although Thursday was Bardem’s big night at the festival, he has been an earlier presence here in various ways. He appeared on the red carpet with his wife, Penélope Cruz, and was present for her Tuesday night tribute. He also appeared in a solid comic performance in one of this year’s most crowd-pleasing films, The Good Boss.
One of Bardem’s most classic and also quirkiest roles was his mop-top, phantom-like part in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. As the actor recalled, “When I read the script, I said, ‘What the hell is this? I don’t get it.’ But I sat down with them and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t drive, I hate violence, and my English is not very good.’ And they said, ‘That’s why we want you.’”
Accepting the Modern Master Award from producer Todd Black, Bardem said “I’m very honored. I don’t want to leave this stage. Seeing these images on the big screen after two years, in a theater full of people — it’s a joy for an actor.”
Suppose the inspiring Iranian film Orca sometimes slips into the realms of sentimentality and sports film formula. In that case, one can forgive those qualities when weighed against the virtues of its heroic story and cultural insights it delivers. Director Sahar Mossayebi’s film is based on the true story of Elham Sadat Asghari, a long-distance swimmer from Iran who transcended trauma through her athletic prowess and fierce dedication. Although she has earned several world records, the stern, restrictive authorities have refused to give her an official “athletic identity” in Iran, partly because of rules regarding acceptable hijabs while swimming.
Her climactic effort in the film is a Guinness World Record–challenging swim in handcuffs. How did that go? No spoiler alerts are allowed in this space.
Director Mossayebi and actress Taraneh Alidoosti appeared in the Fiesta multiplex post-screening. Mossayebi previously made a documentary about Iranian female athletes and asserted, “It’s very important to cover such stories.” In deciding to go the feature film route versus a documentary, she also explained, “I didn’t want [the film] to be conservative or symbolic. I wanted to show it as it is.”
Interestingly, although the film shows Iranian culture in a questionable light, the filmmakers were permitted to shoot in the country. But its exhibition status in Iran is pending. Alidoosti commented that “we get permits for making movies and showing movies.” She shrugged, adding, “We’ll see.”
DOCS OF NOTE CONTINUED
The documentary Newtok is, at once, a heartwarming human interest tale and a disturbing harbinger of ecological peril. Newtok is a village in Alaska that suffers the damaging effects of climate change. Imperiled as the sea rises, the ancestral lifestyle of the indigenous Yup’ik people risks devastation. The film delivers the details of the science behind the impending crisis, primarily through legal and governmental proceedings surrounding FEMA’s relocation of a portion of Newtok residents to a new village. But the fundamental appeal of the film, directed by Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith, is its thankfully narrator-free focus on the lives and ways of Newtok’s people. It puts a human face on a vast and ominous issue.
DISTAFF ROCK RIGHTS
Of this SBIFF’s roster of music documentaries, perhaps the most “useful” is Fanny: The Right to Rock, in terms of casting deserving light on a musical subject that is criminally under-recognized.
Fanny, with Filipina-American sisters June and Jean Millington and Filipina drummer Brie Howard at the core, was America’s first great all-female rock band, with solid musicianship and chops, and a sturdy hard rock sound all their own. They were signed to Reprise Records and made five albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but the lack of radio hits to drive the machinery led to the band’s dissolution by the mid-’70s.
They have become the stuff of cult worship, and the making of a 2018 reunion album, Fanny Walks the Earth, is ostensibly the hook for director Bobbi Jo Hart’s doc. But the story continued into other poignant life corners. Hart interviewed various adoring musicians, including The Runaways, the B-52s, the Go-Gos, Bonnie Raitt, Todd Rundgren, and Earl Slick of Bowie’s band. It culls archival clips and in-studio scenes from their 60-something renaissance to paint a compelling portrait of a band which should be a household name.
The film may help the righteous cause of giving Fanny a heightened public profile and steering young and old ears to their discography. If it does, it will have echoed major fan David Bowie’s famous proclamation: “Revivify Fanny. And my work will be done.” Fanny will send some of us racing to the digital record shelves to catch up on what we missed.
Judgment Call is a courtroom drama, pure and simple. With no extra-courtroom scenes, flashbacks, or other accoutrements to get in the way, this Dutch film has a clean, bracing purity about its dramaturgy. The plot, about a woman’s accusation of sexual assault against a candidate for Prime Minister, has clear echoes of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. As Dutch screenwriter Lykele Muus explained in a post-screening Q&A (also with director Saskia Diesing), he had wanted to deal with a #MeToo-era subject. The Kavanaugh fiasco directly influenced him.
Darkness and Neil LaBute naturally go together. We’ve come to know this darkness from the Mormon-raised gadfly playwright/director’s filmography, including Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and even his remake of Wicker Man. With his latest, House of Darkness, given its world premiere before a late-night crowd at the Metro on Thursday, LaBute jumps into the realm of mock-horror film, with a feminist revenge angle attached. A womanizing everyman (Justin Long), who could have been part of the Company of Men company of sexist louts, finds himself in a gothic castle setting with beautiful sisters (including Kate Bosworth) intent on comeuppance on a mythic scale. There will be blood, and plenty of delectable theatrical cat-and-mouse, of the wicked sort LaBute has shown a certain shameless mastery. Pardon the pun, but LaBute’s delicious concoction is a dark horse in this year’s festival program.
Many festival-goers this year have noted a distinction from all previous festivals: It has gone paperless. Where are those pocket-friendly program booklets begging to be marked up and spindled over 10 days? But while we may mourn the loss of these valuable planners and souvenirs, it must also be said that the SBIFF app is better and more user-friendly than ever. Scrolling through, reading up on details, and having the personal satisfaction of creating your own “My Agenda” plan may now be the way of the present and future festival.
It also means that the incidence of audience members looking at their phones has gotten more out of hand than ever. Contrast this with the very early years of the 37-year-old festival, when Hollywood types were bringing these heretofore alien objects to our little town. Of course, the early mobile phones were more like military-grade walkie-talkies with a few minutes’ battery time. The evolution begs the question: are we the smarter for sleek and lithium-powered smartphones?
At least we are once again watching films the proper way and on the appropriate big-screen scale and plotting our festival maneuvers on the wee ones.