Films I Neglected To Review: Not Starting The New Year With A Grudge

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/04/20 01:47:16

Please enjoy short reviews of "He Dreams Of Giants," "Madchen in Uniform" and "Moving Parts."

There have been any number of films over the years whose productions have self-destructed long before they ever came close to reaching theaters--sometimes falling apart even after they have begun filming--but few went down in flames as publicly as "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," the long-gestating pet project of director Terry Gilliam. Not only did his riff on the Cervantes classic collapse after less than a week of shooting thanks to a combination of illness, shaky financing, questionable planning, horrible planning and an astonishing degree of bad luck, every single stumble was captured by documentarians Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe and their resulting film, "Lost in La Mancha" (2002), would itself prove to be a critical and commercial success. While Gilliam would go on to make other films, the compulsion to make "Don Quixote" remained and about 17 years later, he finally managed to cobble together the money to make it and it once again went into production, this time with Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver replacing Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp in front of the cameras and with Fulton and Pepe once again lurking behind the scenes to capture the unfolding events. This time around, Gilliam was able to complete the film, which premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and was subsequently released last year, and his misadventures in doing so have been captured by Fulton and Pepe in their sort-of sequel "He Dreams of Giants."

Considering the fact that Gilliam's film was completed and released, it might be expected that "He Dreams of Giants" might come across as slightly anti-climactic in comparison to its predecessor. While it is true that the outrageous misfortunes that befell Gilliam the first time around are not on display here and the end result is closer to the standard-issue making-of documentary that Fulton and Pepe were hired to make in the first place, the film reveals that this production was hardly a walk in the park either. We see Gilliam trying to bring his vision to the screen while contending with a budget roughly half the size of the one he was working with the first time around, the usual array of production snafus and, most importantly, trying to shake off the dust of several years of inactivity and make a film that will live up to expectations--especially his--while proving his naysayers wrong. As a making-of film, it is perfectly fine but "He Dreams of Giants" is ultimately more valuable as a portrait of artistic obsession in practice as we watch Gilliam struggle to overcome a constant string of obstacles armed with nothing more than his merry giggle and his sheer determination to finally complete a project that has dominated (and derailed, some might argue) his life and career for nearly 30 years. Uncharacteristically for any Gilliam-related project, the film ends on a high note with the triumphant premiere at Cannes and does not hint at the subsequent legal and distribution woes that eventually led to the entire American theatrical distribution of the film (which proved to be his most inspired and satisfying work since "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") to consist of a one-night special event presentation. Who knows--maybe Fulton and Pepe decided to save that material to complete the trilogy.

Because of a time crunch, I had originally intended to watch only a few minutes of the controversial and often-suppressed 1931 German classic "Madchen in Uniform" in order to see how it looked with its new 2K restoration after having previously been exposed to it largely through beat-up and tattered prints. Not surprisingly, it looks infinitely better than it has for years-probably since its original premiere-but I soon found myself once again caught up in the story and filmmaking and wound up sticking with it to the end. Set in a repressive Prussian boarding school, the film begins as feisty and independent-minded teenager Manuela (Hertha Thiele) arrives following the recent death of her mother. From her first meeting with the school's martinet headmistress, who fully believes that discipline and denial are necessary to help build a young woman’s character, Manuela is crestfallen over her circumstances. Things begin to change when she meets Elizabeth Von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), whose great beauty and kind heart cause Manuela to instantly fall in love with her, feelings that Elizabeth clearly reciprocates. The problem is that this is not a mere crush involving a couple of schoolgirls--Elizabeth is Manuela's teacher and while they try to keep their relationship secret, word finally gets out with repercussions for all involved.

Although the film was slightly overshadowed during its original release because it came out at roughly the same time as "The Blue Angel," "Madchen in Uniform" soon became a cult favorite and a key influence on LGTBQ cinema for being one of the first films to deal sympathetically with the concept of lesbianism despite being censored or outright banned throughout the world. Intriguingly, the film still feels pretty transgressive when seen today, although the sexuality of the characters now seems tame in comparison with the notion of a romance between a teacher and her 15-year-old student. Beyond that eyebrow-raising conceit, the film is still fascinating to watch, partly because of the startlingly forthright way in which it deals with sexuality and partly because it happens to be an engrossing story that has been expertly presented by director Leontine Sagan and beautifully acted by Thiele and Wieck. I can only presume that this reissue is being undertaken in advance for an eventual blu-ray release but if you get the opportunity to see "Madchen in Uniform" on the big screen, you need to take it. Funny--the first must-see film experience of the 2020s turns out to be an offering from 1931.

On the other hand, if you are looking to kick off your moviegoing decade on an especially grim note, the human trafficking drama "Moving Parts" might prove to be just the thing. Following the death of her father, Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) takes a boat from China to a remote port in Trinidad and Tobago, where her brother, Wei (Jay Wong), resides and when he arrives to pick her up, he is informed by the menacing smuggler that Zhenzhen now owes a $10,000 "tax." Wei has secured his sister a job working in the kitchen of a restaurant owned by the mysterious Mrs. Liu (Jacqueline Chan)--no one seems quite certain if there is still a Mr. Liu in the picture--but since the two of them are working off the books for cut-rate wages, coming up with the $10,000 seems impossible without resorting to desperate measures. Wei attempts to raise the money through gambling but only succeeds in putting him further in the hole. As for Zhenzhen, Mrs Liu offers her a way to make quick money as a sex worker under her control. These decisions will prove to have harsh ramifications for both siblings as they struggle to get out from their plight.

"Moving Parts" is one of those movies that has so many things going for it in its first half that it becomes increasingly frustrating to watch it commit any number of inexplicable unforced errors in the second. On the plus side, director Emilie Upczak wisely recognizes that the material involving Zhenzhen as she becomes increasingly aware of the hidden costs to her and her brother for her desire for a better life will be more effective if stripped of any potential melodramatics and she finds just the right low-key manner for observing Zhenzhen and Wei as things go downhill for them. Unfortunately, having set things up so impressively, Upczak mucks things up by going for a far more melodramatic tone in the later scenes that transform it from a fascinating character study into just another potboiler thriller. More damaging, she spends too much time on the story of Evelyn (Kandyse McClure), a prosperous young woman who runs an art gallery, contends with her homeless brother and becomes involved with Zhenzhen's travails before making a not-so-shocking discovery involving her own sleazy father. This material has nothing to do with the central story of Zhenzhen and seems to have been included solely to bump the film up to its barely feature-length running time. It is too bad because when Upczak sticks to her central story and character, "Moving Parts" is gripping and fascinating but when it switches gears, the whole thing ends up more or less grinding to a halt.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.