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Films I Neglected To Review: The Bag Is Back
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Celebration," "First Love," "National Theatre Live: Fleabag" and "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool."

n 1998, French filmmaker Olivier Meyrou was hired to film legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent as he prepared for the launch of what would prove to be his final collection before selling his brand to Gucci the next year. The film that resulted from this, "Celebration" premiered at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival and then essentially vanished from view amidst reports that Pierre Berfe, Saint Laurent's personal and professional partner and the man who commissioned it in the first place, was not particularly happy with how he was portrayed. In 2015, however, Berge asked for another viewing, gave his belated blessing for its release and now "Celebration" has finally made its theatrical debut into a market that has recently been glutted not only with documentaries about members of the fashion industry but with two full-on biopics to boot. Unlike most of the other documentaries of late, "Celebration" assumes that anyone watching it is already fully versed in the history and cultural impact of Saint Laurent and his creations and does not belabor the point by bringing in a bunch of talking heads to talk him up. In fact, one of the oddest aspects of the film (and possibly the real reason why it was withheld from release) is the way that it portrays Saint Laurent almost as an afterthought to the company that he created--while he quietly lurks around observing his army of workers doing the cutting and sewing, it is Berge who seems to be taking the spotlight for himself in a manner that is unseemly at the best of times. (In perhaps the most awkward moment, he gets into an increasingly patronizing talk with a member of the seamstress’s union that is cringe-worthy beyond belief.) At the same time, the film does offer up an intriguing glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts of what goes into creating a fashion line--from the initial designs to the cutting and sewing of fabric to putting it on the likes of Latetia Casta--that is much more interesting than the extended puffery of other recent fashion docs. Film buffs will also find it fascinating to watch and discover how many filmmakers were evidently able to get a glimpse of the film over the years and apply ideas from it to their own efforts--Bertrand Bonello's "Saint Laurent" was clearly influenced by it and it bears such similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" that it could almost play on the same bill with it. For casual observers, the film may ultimately prove to be a little too chilly and reserved for their tastes (and the oddball electronic score that sounds as if it was done for a horror movie probably won’t help) but for those with a vested interest in the subject, "Celebration" should prove to be a cause for one.

My feelings towards the insanely prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike are as uneven as his filmography. When he takes the time to focus his undeniable gifts on a project that is worthy of them, he is capable of pulling off a masterpiece like his horrific classic "Audition." When he is just trying to rush through a project as quickly as possible, on the other hand, the results more often than not turn out to be nothing more than slapdash exercises in gore and weirdness that don't even cut it as cult oddities. His latest work, "First Love," is not perfect but it is one of the most satisfying things that he has done in a while. As the film starts, Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a boxer who has all the requisite skills but lacks the competitive edge to help him go any further in the sport. After taking a fluke hit that lays him out, he goes in for a check up and learns that he has an inoperable tumor and only a short time left to live. While reeling from this, he comes across Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a drug-addicted prostitute being forced to work off a debt owed by her deadbeat dad, and rescues her from what he assumes is a crazed john. It turns out that Monica is the unwitting central piece of an elaborate plot involving corrupt cops, drug dealers and yakuza members that only works if she is dead and thus able to take the fall for a lot of people. With nothing left to lose, Leo elects to protect Monica and proceeds to do so over the course of a very long and increasingly blood-soaked night

The basic elements of "First Love" have been found in countless previous movies (though rarely presented in a manner as deliriously weird as here), of course, and it is to the credit of Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura that they realize this. Realizing that the basic plot details do not make much of a difference one way or another, they have instead elected to use them as a leaping-off point for an increasingly wild set of circumstances that spirals further out of control in increasingly audacious ways. The enormous rogues gallery of bad guys out to get Leo and Monica may blend into each other at a certain point--even those who see it multiple times may find themselves unclear as to who is against who at any given time--but once the action beats begin in earnest, you will be too knocked out by the wild and generally entertaining excesses that Miike has cooked up. Heads roll, limbs are lopped off, a toy dog is used to set of an incendiary device and the climax finds everyone still standing going after each other in the aisles of a Home Depot-like superstore with hilariously grisly results. (I eager await the deleted scene in which the morning cleanup crew arrives and discovers hundreds of bloody bodies strewn throughout the joint.) Although it is probably a little too strange to engage a mass audience, "First Love" contains enough loopily gruesome delights to thrill the cult movie crowds and remind viewers of just how good Takashi Miike can be when he puts his mind to it.

Just before having her recent triumphant night at the Emmy Awards, Phoebe Waller-Bridge took to the stage at London’s Wyndham’s theatre for one final run of performances of "Fleabag," the one-woman show that began as a work staged for the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, went on to a long stage run and eventually served as the basis for a highly regard 2016 limited series and this year's even-more celebrated follow-up. One of those final performances was filmed for satellite broadcast by National Theatre live and is beginning to turn up in theaters around the country to give both fans of the series and newcomers attracted by the hype a chance to see where it all came from. Regardless of which group you fall into, it is impossible to deny that it is a brilliant and bracingly funny piece and that Waller-Bridge is one of the smartest and most incisive comedic voices working at this moment. For 65 minutes, she sits alone on stage and discusses, in disarmingly frank and cheerfully vulgar detail, her fraught relationships with her father and sister, the recent losses of her mother to cancer and her best friend/work partner, Boo, to suicide, her perilous work situation (the guinea pig-themed cafe she opened with Boo is about to go under) and her voluminous sexual history ranging from her repeated breakups with on/off boyfriend Harry to her extensive consumption of online pornography. While newcomers will likely be blown away by the scathing wit and Waller-Bridge's beautifully modulated performance--a fresh and focused turn that betrays no sense that she has grown bored with the material that she has been living with and performing for several years now--fans who have not yet seen the stage version will be impressed with how deftly it made the transition from a one-woman show to a fully fleshed-out television series without losing any of the spirit that made it work in the first place. (The biggest difference is a bit towards the end regarding the fate of Boo’s beloved pet guinea pig that does not appear in the television show--a canny decision as it is the one portion of the stage performance that is showy in a way that doesn’t entirely ring true.) "Fleabag" is not exactly revolutionary cinema by any means--it is, after all, just a visual record of a stage show consisting of one person on stage for a little over an hour. However, the material is so good and enduring—even those familiar with the series will find themselves laughing as if they were hearing it all for the first time--that if this presentation comes to your neck of the woods, it is pretty much a must-see, if only to prove Todd Phillips wrong by demonstrating that brave comedy can still thrive today, provided that it is actually funny, of course.

Produced as part of PBS's long-running "American Masters" series and being given a theatrical run before hitting the airwaves, Stanley Nelson's "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" takes a look at the life and work of the ground-breaking jazz musician and cultural icon through a tapestry of archival footage and interviews with friends and colleagues, all of which have been tied together with Davis's own words, taken from his book "Miles: The Autobiography" and read, with a decent-enough approximation of his legendary rasp, by actor Carl Lumbly. The end result is a perfectly polished work that will serve as a solid introductory primer for those unfamiliar with his history while offering up enough juicy bits of performance footage (including clips of him performing with Prince at Paisley Park) to satisfy fans. In other words, it is pretty much a standard-issue documentary in the established "American Masters" mode and while there is nothing about it that can be easily faulted (other than the fact that his story could have easily inspired a film twice as long as this one), it is precisely that approach that proves to be its biggest flaw. Considering the fact that Davis was such an innovator who expanded on what could be said and done with the jazz form in areas ranging from smoky clubs to massive rock concerts and also dabbled in any number of other forms of artistic expression, including acting, painting and writing, it just seems as if a documentary chronicling such a career should be equally bold, daring and innovative. On the bright side, it is well done, contains plenty of tasty performance footage that will leave you wanting more and, perhaps most importantly, it is nowhere near as silly and condescending as that weird sort-of biopic that came out a couple of years ago with Don Cheadle playing Davis, a work so misbegotten that I cannot be bothered to look up what it was called. When all is said and done, "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" may not be the definitive cinematic work on Davis but until that film comes along, I suppose that it will do.

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originally posted: 10/04/19 11:25:56
last updated: 10/05/19 05:12:56
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