Writer/director Werner Herzog has amassed an impressive body of fiction and nonfiction work stretching back to the 1960s. Just released, his 2015 Queen of the Desert will not rank among his best biographical profiles, though, as usual, he's drawn to an individual challenging conventional morés. In this case, it's Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary, late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century woman.

An accomplished writer and linguist who traveled extensively through what we'd now call the Arab world and the Middle East, Bell also showed expertise in archeology and cartography, influencing some troubled borders that still exist today. She knew T.E. Lawrence and important representatives of the British Empire to whom she was political advisor during and after WWI, including Winston Churchill. From encounters with Bedouins and Druse tribal leaders, among others, she brought unique insight and analysis.

However, Queen of the Desert fails to do her justice. Typical of films focused on women, it dwells too much on her romantic involvements rather than the complexity and significance of her intellectual and emotional achievements. Her striking photographs flash much too quickly, with time spent on spurious threats that build and dissipate. With a surprising lack of unity, Bell's point of view is abandoned in a late scene though she's anchored the film until then. More annoying, swelling music, which often hearkens back to "Lawrence of Arabia," accompanies numerous scenes. Salvaging some of its two hours and characteristic of Herzog, time lapse shots (of clouds, in particular) and footage of the Nefud Desert environment are breathtaking.  

Herzog also scores points for casting Arabs in those roles. But as much as I like Nicole Kidman, as Bell she's too delicately presented and Damian Lewis looks a bit at loose ends as love interest Charles Doughty-Wylie. James Franco as Henry Cadogan and Robert Pattinson as Colonel T.E. Lawrence are acceptable without impressing. There's a great film waiting to be made about Gertrude Bell, a unique, multitalented individual not adequately captured in Queen of the Desert. Primarily in English with some Arabic with English subtitles. Check local cinema listings.

 

 

Silent films do not receive the praise they deserve, primarily because they don't get the exposure they merit. Each year, when they do screen, they inevitably confirm that, with all our technical expertise, we've never surpassed the stunning aesthetic compositions, the superb acting, and the compelling narratives on display in the best silent films. 

Fortunately, April 14, the magnificent Wings (1927) will be shown with live musical interpretation provided by France's Prima Vista Quartet, featuring a violist, two violinists, and a cellist plus, for this special occasion, trumpet and percussion musicians. Director William Wellman drew on his own WWI French Foreign Legion aviator combat experience, including being shot down by anti-aircraft fire, to dramatize this story of two American fighter pilots, Jack Powell and David Armstrong, engaged in air battles against the Germans. Both men also compete for the love of Sylvia Lewis while Mary Preston, who becomes an Allied ambulance driver, truly loves Jack.

William Wellman, nicknamed "Wild Bill" for his wartime bravado, insisted the aerial footage be perfect, from completely realistic skirmishes to beautiful cloud formations for which he'd wait days, shooting on location in San Antonio. This perfectionism almost got Wellman fired more than once, plus 
Wings 
cost over $2 million and took seven months to shoot. It did prove immensely popular, noted especially for the concluding aerial Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Still ranked among the greatest films, it received the first Best Picture Academy Award.

Wings helped launch the career of Gary Cooper, who appears in the small role of Cadet White, and reinforced the appeal of the '20s "It Girl," Clara Bow as Mary. Charles "Buddy" Rogers stars as Jack Powell, Richard Arlen as David Armstrong, and Wellman plays a German pilot who rolls his plane. 

Wings screens with live musical accompaniment by France's Prima Vista Quartet at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium one time only, Friday, April 14, at 7:30. 

 

In Frantz, set in the German village of Quedlinburg, 1919, the local population remains devastated by WWI. Many families have lost sons, including Magda and Hans Hoffmeister who grieve for their only son Frantz, killed in France. His fiancé Anna, with no family of her own, lives with the Hoffmeisters and places flowers on Frantz's grave daily.  

Anna notices 24-year-old Frenchman Adrien also visits the cemetery regularly. Soon Adrien becomes an integral part of Anna's and the Hoffmeisters' lives. He recounts his friendship with Frantz, their visits to the Louvre, to see one Manet painting in particular, and their enjoyment of playing the violin. He begins to help restore life, though many German townspeople express overt hostility to him and all things French. 

Adrien and Frantz are explicitly depicted as mirror images of each other, literally in one scene and in the details of their lives. To reveal more would spoil a complex, richly layered interrogation of guilt, lies, forgiveness and love. However, significantly, within the slowly revealed, engrossing relationships are profound parallels to today's milieu. French director/screenplay writer François Ozon is quoted in press notes saying, "Caught up in the turmoil of the aftermath of World War I -- a frightening period of rising nationalism, populist and extreme right parties full of hatred and fear of 'foreigners' -- I was indirectly alluding to today. . . Without being fully aware of it, my film became political." 

Enhancing Frantz's aesthetic appeal, Ozon shot on film, not digitally, in beautiful black and white, though he segues to color in eight scenes, primarily those depicting intense emotional connections, especially with Frantz. These come to light through flashbacks interwoven throughout the film, infusing the past quite palpably into the present with allusions to painters Caspar David Friedrich and Egon Schiele and period music invoking Mahler and Debussy.

Inspired by Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 film Broken Lullaby, itself based on Maurice Rostand's play written shortly after WWI, Ozon adds a totally new last act. He's says, "I was more interested in the lie than the guilt." But above all Frantz is a film about reclaiming life. In German and French with English subtitles. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

 

Director Eddie Rosenstein's documentary Freedom to Marry chronicles the history of the same-sex marriage movement and profiles prime strategists Evan Wolfson and Mary Banauto, among other leaders. Beginning with one hundred two days before the Supreme Court arguments and counting down as that crucial day approaches, the film jumps back to 1986 to explain the changes over thirty-two years.

Though small steps forward were sometimes met with reactionary backlash, those for legalization persevered with an understanding of the ways universal values, notably love and marriage, move people to change in important ways. The personal is political and respectful dialogue triumphs. Along the way, the political decisions offer a road map of the evolution of this, and potentially many other, social issues.  

Opponents speak and argue, news clips register changes over time and from state to state, individuals express their perspectives, and the joy of the same-sex couples comes through powerfully and movingly. So do Wolfson's mother Joan and his father Jerry, as they describe Evan's commitment to fairness. The documentary doesn't break new ground for those of us who have followed events from Hawaii in 1990 to the first 2004 legal marriage to Supreme Court argument day, August 28, 2015. It does select well from the myriad of issues, including the need for legal marriages in one state to be recognized in states denying legality.    

Rosenstein moves the 86-minute film along efficiently with plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case and those opposed presenting arguments in candid as well as public arenas. Even knowing the Court's ruling, suspense builds since the principals didn't know and register their anxiety along with their determination. The decision not to use a voiceover narrator works well here since the advocates are articulate as well as passionate.  

Freedom to Marry screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Saturday, April 15 and Sunday, April 16, at 7:30 each evening.

 

 

Each Wednesday in April at 7:00 p.m. Landmark's Tivoli Theatre celebrates film noir classics. The four selections are: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and his Sunset Boulevard, and Delmar Daves' Dark Passage. These magnificent works showcase superb writing, fascinating characters and the studio system's great actors from the stars through every supporting role.

The month kicks off April 5 with The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on Dashiell Hammett's novel with a screenplay by director John Huston. The clever, wily private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) must, as he says, investigate the murder of his business partner Miles Archer. The intrigue will involve the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) and the equally treacherous Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre.) Shot by Arthur Edeson, every scene offers a master class in lighting and composition.

The second Wednesday, April 12, Double Indemnity (1944) features Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson in a delectable cat and mouse game. It boasts a brilliant screenplay by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder, based on James M. Cain's novel. When Phyllis Dietrichson casts her spell on insurance agent Walter Neff, the plot to kill her husband and take the money is questioned by a suspicious insurance claims investigator. 

The third week, April 19, celebrating its 70th anniversary, Dark Passage unites Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in an investigation into the erroneous conviction of Vincent Parry (Bogart). It weaves its way through a complicated plot of coincidences and plastic surgery, blackmail, murders, and suicide. Its initial first person point-of-view doesn't sit well but it settles in to an interesting innocent/convicted man scenario.

The last Wednesday in April, the 26th, 1950s Sunset Boulevard unleashes Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim in an iconic drama about motion pictures and the demise of Hollywood. Narrated from the first shot by a dead Joe Gilles (Holden), it leads with grim humor. As silent film star Norma Desmond observes, "I AM big. It's the 'pictures' that got small." And these film noir classics offer solid proof of that.

To see these gorgeous films on the big screen is a rare treat. Each show is Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

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