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Any film fan going into this documentary on the work of the famed director Stanley Kubrick might assume that the title stands for the master himself, but they would be wrong, for “Filmworker” concerns Kubrick’s long-time shadow, factotum, and jack-of-all-trades Leon Vitali, an English actor who gave up his own career to serve all things Stanley for over 30 years—and continues to do so.

Vitali was an ambitious young film and television actor who became enamored of Kubrick after seeing “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), proclaiming: “I want to work with that man.” Then, in 1975, he landed the crucial role of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s epic “Barry Lyndon,” based on the epic 19th C. novel by William Thackeray. Thrilled to get the part but even more fascinated by observing Kubrick’s work on that fraught production, Vitali then eschewed acting to pal around with and assist the director on other projects, starting with “The Shining” (1980), where he, among other things, became a kind of babysitter for the film’s child actor, Danny Lloyd.

Vitali’s commitment to Kubrick, and his general usefulness to the man, waylaid his career as a performer for a behind-the-scenes function—rarely precisely defined—but incorporating myriad roles as casting director, line reader, acting coach, general “assistant,” as well as stints as dogs body and go-fer. Whatever Kubrick needed, Leon was there to provide it. Working on “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), one commentator said that “every day was full of a lot of difficult jobs,” and Vitali sought ways to do them. The film’s lead, Matthew Modine, says in “Filmworker” he thought Vitali “was a slave to Kubrick” by making himself so useful.

To tell this one-off story, director Tony Zierra uses myriad interviews with miscellaneous production people, actors, and aides who worked with Kubrick, as well as sit-downs with two of the leads in his pictures, Ryan O’Neal (“Barry Lyndon”) and Modine. Still, the film finally depends on querying Vitali himself, looking like an aging hippy (gaunt, with head band and stippled chin) and making his quizzical case for his importance on the Kubrick sets. The commitment of Vitali to his muse is complicated, a mix, it appears, of both simpering dependence and overarching magnanimity.

Kubrick himself (who died in 1999) was always reluctant to do interviews, and there are none with him in the film; he appears in stills and in brief on-set sequences. Fans of the director’s oeuvre will get their kicks seeing some of the backstories of his elaborate productions from 1975 on, but the film is hardly a clip fest. However, one intriguing clip for Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), has Vitali returning to acting, though masked. He appears as “Red Cloak” in a decadent party scene at the end of this strange film.

Vitali also performed another important role in assisting Kubrick: helping to store and archive all of Kubrick’s film prints and memorabilia. It is a role he continues to this day, seeing himself as a standard bearer for the man’s legacy, as he works as a consultant for the Kubrick estate on definitive versions of the Great Man’s works.

(The film is unrated and runs 94 mins.)

(June 2018)

Photo Credit: Leon Vitali (far left) appears on the set of "The Shining" with director Stanley Kubrick (center) in "Filmworker."
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

On Chesil Beach

Few contemporary British writers are as lauded as Ian McEwan, author of more than a dozen accomplished novels in the last 25 years. He has won a string of major prizes and has had several of his novels converted to the screen, including “The Comfort of Strangers” and “Atonement,” among others. One of his more distinctive works, “On Chesil Beach,” a novella from 2007, has now become a feature film.

The film’s location is a real—and most picturesque—piece of coastal landscape situated at the very tip of Dorset in southern England. The word “chesil” comes from an old English expression meaning “gravel,” or “stony,” the latter the principal feature of the extensive beach itself. That stony appellation could just as well describe the rocky marriage we witness in “On Chesil Beach.”

The time period—1962--is carefully chosen to straddle the end of the post-war recovery (and a more correct, reserved British milieu) and presage the coming of the “”Swinging Britain” of new music, new fashions, and a kind of youth quake. Two newlyweds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, personify this interim period, the first representing a proper, respectable life, and the second depicting a more boisterous, searching one.

Florence (Saoirse Ronan) comes from a well-off Oxford family of formal style and means. Her father Geoffrey (Samuel West) is a domineering and wealthy businessman and her mother Violet (Emily Watson) a stern taskmaster and believer in rules. Florence is prim in manner, diction, and dress and harbors a love of a most formal kind of music, the string quartet. Edward’s family is working class, with a reticent father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough)) and a vulnerable mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) who has suffered brain damage. Edward (Billy Howle) is rough around the edges, scruffy in manner and wardrobe, but bright, with a recent degree in history, and is a lover of the emerging rock-and-roll phenomenon.

Their honeymoon experience is the framing device for “On Chesil Beach.” Over the film’s arc, we see them settling into their room in a mediocre seaside hotel, plainly nervous and tentative about themselves and the night to come. They order dinner in but barely eat and are clumsy in conversation. Their move to the marriage bed is hesitant, awkward, and ends in an incident which drives Florence, disgusted, out to the beach, where Edward later finds her, troubled and chastened. The hotel and beach scenes are punctuated throughout with flashbacks to each one’s backstories, their meeting at a ban-the-bomb event, their growing infatuation, their lives within their respective families, and their personal passions and dreams. Such sequences sample both the genuine affection they have for each other and those elements that separate them.

Young Saoirse Ronan is on a role with a string of splendid performances, including this one. As the prim Florence, she exudes confidence as a musician while being poignantly squeamish about what marriage entails. It’s a tough balance to pull off, but she does. Her co-star Howle likewise balances a portrait of an eager young bloke who struggles to be a gentleman but doesn’t quite know how to pull it off. The two of them dancing on the edge of a sexual cliff is both tantalizing and heartbreaking to watch.

“On Chesil Beach” was directed by Dominic Cooke, an English stage director, who had the veteran US cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) at his side. McEwan himself was the screenwriter. They craft a handsome and touching picture, one which deftly guides a splendid cast, captures wonderfully the flavor of the period, and displays the magnificent strip of Chesil Beach itself from all angles. The filmmakers also realize the filmic equivalent of the couple’s sexual dilemma by selectively using telling close ups-–of hands and feet and limbs-- that effectively signal both the passion and the stress of their matrimonial encounter. Such parts make the whole the more affecting.

(This film is rated "R" and runs 110 minutes.)

(May 2018)

Saoirse Ronan (left) and Billy Howle in “On Chesil Beach,” a Bleeker Street Release.
Photo credit: Robert Viglasky/Bleeker Street.

The Seagull

Anton Chekov, the supreme Russian dramatist, had his first major theatrical success with “The Seagull” (1896), which set the tone of his sweet-sour pieces dissecting the souls of his contemporaries at the turn of the 19th C. His world of well off but frustrated figures, educated yet stifled, is usually set in languid, somewhat aimless, rural surroundings.

Such a setting serves for this “Seagull,” a lakeside estate of the Sorin family, where Chekov’s core ensemble is a quartet of protagonists: the vain and aging stage actress Irina (Annette Bening); her son Konstantin (Billy Howle), a moody, would-be playwright; the sweet but naive Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress; and Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a noted author and Irina’s younger lover. Also present at the farm are Irina’s sickly brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), the morose Masha (Elizabeth Moss), daughter of the estate’s manager Shamrayev (Glenn Flesher) and his wife Polina (Mare Whittingham), as well as the lovesick young schoolteacher Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), and the detached local Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney).

As is typical with many Chekov protagonists, most of them are strivers, mildly desperate to change something in their lives, but most also are thwarted creatures who cannot break out. A romantic roundelay complicates their striving, as Konstanin loves Nina, who is intrigued with Trigorin, who is linked to Irina, while the teacher desires Masha, who is smitten with Konstanin, while her mother Polina pines for the doctor, who once had a an affair with Irina! Got all that?

The action involves a failed theatrical presentation, a testy relationship between Konstanin and Irina, an attempted suicide, a tiff between Irina and Shamrayev, and a grudging marriage of convenience, among other business. The last act jumps two years ahead to sort out the relationships of these unhappy, snake-bitten characters. Things do not end happily.

This version of “The Seagull” was created by two Tony Award winners, director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) and playwright Stephen Karam (“The Humans”), and they give it a respect it deserves. The script follows the play quite closely, though, for some reason, the opening splashy sequence—repeated at the end of the film—shows Irina performing at a theater in Moscow, a scene that never happened in Chekov. This is an American production, somewhat surprisingly, after all, and was shot on location at a lakeside in Monroe, NY, a town just northwest of the New York City.

“Seagull’s” cast is essentially American, with the exception of Ronan (Irish) and Howle (British), who both also appear in the newly released “On Chesil Beach” (see recent review on this site). The pair play off each other capably, with Ronan a sweet young woman who is crushed by her naiveté about life, while Howle nicely smolders as a young, surly artiste. Annette Bening carries off the role of the narcissistic Irina with ease, the kind of role she could do in her sleep, and surprisingly, Elizabeth Moss, though she is the chief sourpuss in the film, gets and delivers the best lines as, when she is asked why she always dresses in black, she retorts, “I’m in mourning for my life!”

Overall, this is a competent presentation of the play, and a good introduction to it for those who don’t know Chekov’s work.

(The film is rated "PG-13" and runs 98 mins.)

(May 2018)

Photo Credit: Saoirse Ronan (left) as Nina admires Trigorin (Carey Stoll) in "The Seagull," based on Chekov's play.
Photo courtesy of Sony Picture Classics.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG for short) has spent a rich and fruitful life in the law and in life. Yet for all of that, her contributions, however epoch-making, did not change her essentially retiring and restrained nature. She is not one to make a show, or to show up others. However eventful her life, it has always been somewhat under wraps. Only quite recently, perhaps more so after the death in 2010 of her beloved husband, the more outgoing Marty, has Ginsburg come into her own as an atypical celebrity. That celebrity may shift a bit closer to rock star after the release of “RBG.”

“RBG” is part life story, part personality profile, and part legal history of gender equality, much of which Ginsberg contributed to. That contribution is properly recognized in “RBG” with the descriptions of a landmark series of arguments she made before the Supreme Court in the 1970’s when practicing in New York City as ACLU’s general counsel. These cases for equal pay standards and female recognition in the military and the professions are not only described in the film but enhanced by hearing—from audio tapes—her own oral arguments. It was these cases that led her being named to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter in 1980, and her eventual assumption to the Supreme Court in 1993 after being nominated by Bill Clinton.

Her Supreme Court tenure, now approaching 25 years, is also given due weight in this film, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Here again, her major agreements and dissents are heard on audiotape, her deliberate and clear voice giving additional authenticity to her arguments. She is so logical, so sensible—how can anybody not agree with the woman?

Ribboned through the legal Ruth is the personal one, a short Jewish Brooklyn girl of unhurried drive and robust moral values, excelling in school at every level, with eventual college work at Cornell, Harvard, and a degree from Columbia Law School. Central to that life is her meeting the love of her life, Marty Ginsburg, as teenagers at Cornell, then following him, with two kids in tow, to study in New York. Their personalities and demeanor were apparent opposites, but their bonds were adamantine. Through file footage of the irrepressible Marty and the testimony of Ginsburg’s two children, John and Jane, we get a clear sense of a wholly anchored family.

Other elements of Ginsburg’s story are told. Her warm friendship with her utter ideological rival on the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia, is nicely sketched, highlighted by their joshing during a dual stage appearance. Her passionate love of opera is also noted, including a sprightly scene where she appears in a speaking role in “The Daughter of the Regiment” with the Washington National Opera, surely a highlight of her life. A sour episode is also pointed out: her denouncing candidate Trump during the campaign of 2016, an outburst for which she (as a sitting judge) later apologized. Her everyday life at the Watergate apartments in DC is also shown, including her steady workouts at the gym.

What is finally truly telling in “RBG” is her own recorded testimony, delivered at various points in her life and up to the present day. We hear her in court appearances, testifying at her Senate hearings, making her major court arguments, in public appearances and interviews, and, most intimately, with the filmmakers themselves who get her to reveal just a bit more of herself. This is a most winning documentary, one that befits an unassuming American icon.

(The film is rated “PG” and runs 97 minutes.)

(May 2018)

Photo Credit: Justice Ginsberg doing her workout routine in “RBG.”
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures