Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Carmen & Lola

by A.R. Solar

The multi-nominated, double Goya-Prize-winning feature debut from Arantxa Echevarria caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard of it and, if I expected anything, it was that it’d be a casual, modern romp-com told from an LGBTQ angle. It is, I’m happy to say, much much more than that.

Carmen is a vivacious almost-18-year-old who is, as her father has arranged, about to be engaged to a boy her age. Like her, he is part of the Romani culture in a poor section near Madrid. (In Carmen & Lola, the Romani call themselves “gypsies.”) Lola is an introspective almost-17-year-old trying to explore her lesbianism via cybercafe computer in a neighboring Romani area. The two meet by chance at Lola’s family’s vegetable stand in the bustling outdoor market. Though their encounter is brief, Echevarria conveys (in an extreme close-up) a tender, tiny, skin-to-skin touch that neither woman will soon forget.

It’s in those convincing, gentle, loving moments between the two girls that you first experience the deep insights of the director and the thrilling talents of Pilar Sanchez Diaz, the cinematographer here. 

In scenes where the men of Carmen’s family and those of her soon-to-be betrothed meet to formalize the engagement, what’s on display is tradition, yes, but also an entrenched, unapologetic patriarchy. When Carmen herself finally enters the room in her future-bride regalia and is “given” to her boyfriend’s father, any moderately enlightened viewer will feel queasy. As the relationship between Lola and Carmen develops ever so gradually, the patriarchal lash isn’t as subtle.

Two days after experiencing the film, I’m still haunted by a scene where Lola’s mother confronts her. Her mom – a previously balanced, if stern, figure – gasps, wails, and pleads with her in a harrowing conveyance of sheer internal terror. And that’s before the father, prone to disturbing violent threats, is brought into the hysteria.

By this point, we have seen the craft of Echevarria’s hand – effective whether the touch is delicate or ferocious. Sanchez Diaz’s camera, as it ought to, enhances the director’s voice through deeply felt angles on the characters and settings.

This is a Spain not often depicted on film. The Romani neighborhoods are crowded with people and even more packed with emotions. Perhaps the filmmakers’ greatest triumph is bringing to the screen such a real rendering of a culture that – at least as written in this movie – doesn’t balk at showing the rawest of emotions, whether it be joy, through Flamenco dance at a party, or pain, through the fear of being excommunicated from the culture itself, by the fathers and sons of the patriarchy.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★

Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

The Jumble in the Jungle

by A.R. Solar

Wow. The latest feature from Spike Lee sees him lackadaisically dumping a bunch of ideas into an overlong-feeling two and a half hours. Not all of the ideas are bad. Some, in fact, are quite good.

Where to start, on what ultimately feels like a cheesy, ersatz tour-de-force… Four American vets return to Vietnam to recover the body of their fallen buddy, while also looking to unearth a treasure that they left behind. Those are the main plots, but there are at least three rather hefty subplots. The estranged son. The estranged lover and the secret daughter. The PTSD ghosts, and so on. It would have taken a great feat of editing to make it all cohesive, and Lee seems uninterested in even trying.

The veteran writer/director is interested in doing homage, on top of everything else. There’s archival war footage thrown in. Excerpts from speeches by Malcolm X and MLK. The tone veers from somber to mildly comedic to violent and back again, without a hint of a caring hand, seemingly random. What’s the trendy term, “a hot mess”?

But there’s one thing in particular that Lee accomplishes here. Through the character Paul (a challenging role that Delroy Lindo mostly manifests with aplomb), the auteur gives rare insight into the mind of a Trump supporter. Paul’s dialogue and soliloquies reveal a person driven, even driven mad, in a quest to be redeemed. At the outset, he tells his buddies (who balk at his MAGA hat) that he’s “done” with serving others and thinking about others’ needs and wants. “Now,” he says, “I’m voting for me!” He’s in his sixties, and he’s lost many battles—too many, in his opinion. It’s time for him to get his.

Spike Lee, in this respect, comes off as gifted, thoughtful. His Paul is the personification of desperation. He jitters, pleads, and is easily frustrated. Yes, PTSD is to blame, and we know his has gone untreated. But what makes him a bona fide Trumper is the inward intensity and outward urgency with which he works towards a singular goal: not to die a loser.

When the unseemly candidate Trump promised “so much winning,” that was a thing of real value to the Pauls of the U.S.A. That is the core Trump voter: the person who has lost so many times in their life that they themselves might identify as a loser. Trump, the false redeemer, offers redemption nonetheless. He says, in effect, “Follow me, and you won’t be a loser anymore. You’ll die a winner.” Of all the false products he’s peddled in his career, this is by far his most popular. Redemption for the American who has rarely won anything.

That is the biggest takeaway from Da 5 Bloods. The rest feels less like the films it references, like Apocalypse Now and (1979) Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and feels more like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017).

We should know by now that when Lee misses the mark he misses big. This film fails on the level of his 2013 martial arts remake Oldboy, which is merely another way of saying it’s a parade of the wildly talented filmmaker’s careless overconfidences.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: My Happy Family

A wholly engrossing feminist drama that verges on perfection.

by A.R. Solar

From the country of Georgia comes a taut modern tale that feels perfectly real. That’s thanks to the exciting talents of writer/director Nana Ekvtimishvili and her co-director Simon Gross, who somehow manage to stay out of the way of: 1. their brilliant star, 2. a dynamic ensemble cast, and 3. their simple but totally engaging story.

Fifty-two-year-old Manana—we see as we’re immediately immersed in the crowded family home—is independent minded and willing to think outside her traditional default role as an obedient daughter and wife. A subtle, symbolic microcosm of her general frustration, a slice of cake before dinner brings a scolding from her intrusive mother. The old woman won’t let a minute go by without reminding her husband, adult children, and adult grandchildren who the head of the household is. Through her, Manana’s conflict is magnified.

My Happy Family is a fine representation of filmcraft wherein the camera becomes “invisible.” That is, there is no distraction from its placement or movements, either to the cast or the audience. In that “forgetting” of the camera we have the first element of a filmic story that feels utterly natural. We are amidst this family, observing every humorous interaction, every nuance, and painstaking detail.

Of course, to achieve such convincing, involving realism, one must also have talented actors who are emotionally invested in the story. Ms. Ekvtimishvili and Mr. Gross have this in abundance. Ia Shugliashvili, as Manana, effortlessly evokes introspective melancholy, integrity, and a love for her family which requires no displays for the benefit of neighbors. Merab Ninidze, as her husband Soso, plays the character with minimalism and a brooding power (when required). The supporting actors are well on board with the directors, and we witness grand arguments and celebrations with the feeling that we are there.

One gets the impression that such a naturalistic work was achieved, ironically, through extensive preparation by the directors. Perhaps only then could they have the confidence to open their lenses wide and let the action flow in.

As we see the courageous Manana set up her very own apartment, leaving behind the guilt-trips and cultural pressures of her family, we feel we might somehow summon similar strength from within ourselves. We might live our lives truer to our authentic selves.

In Georgian with English subtitles.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Wordless Film Review: Arkansas

by Andres Solar

Film Reviews Movie Reviews News

Quick Look: What Love Looks Like

L.A.-soaked romantic comedy sees prolific director take on challenge of large ensemble cast—with a few quality laughs along the way.
by Andres Solar

The latest rom-com feature from trailblazing indie filmmaker Alex Magaña gives us more (and less) of what we’ve come to expect from the young Angelino. What Love Looks Like, available on Amazon Prime, offers a good-looking, likable ensemble cast (including the pleasant screen presence of Kate Durocher, Josh Gilmer, Margo Graff, Tay McVeigh, Calvin Peters, Tevy Poe, Connor Wilkins, and Kylee Wofford) and some big laughs in the form of clever one-liners from sometimes purposely awkward characters. Missing are the sweet, unexpected twists in the love stories like the one Magaña wrote into the third act of 29 to Life (2018).

In that year, the writer-director released a whopping three feature films (Narco Valley and Slapped! The Movie were the other two). Clearly Magaña doesn’t shy away from hard work, and it shows. The other side of that coin is that he often also shoots and cuts his own movies, and that work ethic might be too much of a good thing.

As his talents continue to expand, he might do well to recruit other hands for writing and editing, especially since his strengths appear to be in cinematography and working with actors. Thinking about What Love Looks Like’s incorporating an imaginative and touching relationship between a young man and his deceased ex-girlfriend, Magaña might even consider co-writing a future screenplay, thus gaining help with the screenwriting task while still including his proclivity for imaginative characters.

What it really comes down to in this latest from his ACM production company—and the rest of his oeuvre—is the wonderful heart the filmmaker reveals to varying degrees. Along with his apparent drive to continually challenge himself and the impressive work ethic, it is that heart which will before long turn out a work that commands international accolades.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆




Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Summer Checklist

Three Dog Nights

With the dog days of summer upon us, the movie theater seems more like a smelly kennel than a traditional refuge from the scorching heat. (Hey, Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, ever heard of air conditioning? Oh, and straighten out that crooked screen while you’re at it.)

But it’s not just exhibitors who have gotten lazy. Below, we look at the recent, worst-ever works by two indie icons who have somehow grown maddeningly complacent. The third dog is a wildly overrated debut from a filmmaking duo who (mistakenly) assumed their self-important autobiographies would make for two hours of compelling cinema.

Thankfully, there was a cool breeze preceding all of this; a refreshing splash from Under the Silver Lake. It’s now available via Amazon Prime, so the a/c controls will be in your own hands.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino gave us fair warning that he was capable of dropping his dirty business on the rug. The first half of The Hateful Eight (2015) and its cleverly placed intermission promised a smart, irreverent, neo-Western classic. But, in the second half, we watched the director mindlessly chew up his own film, like Fido destroying his owner’s favorite slippers.

Like many Tarantino fans upon seeing previews of his latest, I thought “Tarantino turning his camera on Hollywood itself… Sounds good.” Wrong. It feels more like he simply wanted the easiest path to completing the “9th film from Quentin Tarantino” (Is he now more focused on quantity than quality?) I couldn’t find a single moment (in its two hours and 45 minutes) that showed any writer/director inspiration. Who would have guessed that the director of Jackie Brown (1997), Django Unchained (2012), and so many other memorable movies could squander Leonardo DiCaprio in a lead role?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing short of an embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the 60-something old dude sitting by himself, guffawing at every measly visual gag. I was embarrassed for the three stoners nervously giggling while looking at each other for approval. These are the folks who are making this Tarantino self-parody his most profitable project to date.

If you’re like them, by all means, go see it. Maybe you’ll feel that, finally, there’s a Tarantino movie that’s not challenging in the least. Finally, you might get why so many people like his movies, because now he’s done you the favor of pre-masticating everything. Here’s an art film with the art removed for mass consumption. And if you think images of Brad Pitt sniffing and tasting dog food, plopping it out of a can into his dog’s bowl, could be hilarious, you’ll have a wonderful experience. Tarantino repeats them four times.

The Film Critique rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the summer of 2019 was less of a disappointing disaster than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that’s not much of an endorsement. “What were they thinking?” seems to be this season’s motto.

One can hardly blame the Akron-born-and-raised auteur for loving the zombie genre. In its early incarnations (if you will) there’s a lot to love. The AMC television series The Walking Dead, though, beat the genre to death (ironically), and The Dead Don’t Die feels like a moderately humorous epitaph.

Even from the hand of a massive talent like Jarmusch, the filmic “love letter” comes with a substantial risk of skewed perspective in the ode. (See also this year’s Maria By Callas.) Unsurprisingly, the movie is plenty enjoyable in its dialogue, deadpan humor, and acting. The mini-ensemble of Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, along with Tom Waits, almost saves the proceedings. Ultimately, however, Jarmusch caves to the pressure of providing zombie action instead of respecting the pressure to deliver something of greater artistic merit.

The brilliant stroke from Jarmusch is the purposely stunted, self-referencing dialogue that both works as a tribute to B-movie horror and provides genuine comedic notes.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: The two most intriguing things about this film involve decisions made by people other than the filmmakers. Namely, the funding of the production and the glowing reviews. What one member of the filmmaking duo (writer/co-lead Jimmie Fails) did do in advance of those decisions really explains a lot: He made himself into an Internet star.

But let’s get one thing clear right away: Fails does have some important things to say and unusual ways of both seeing and saying them. Among them are the definition of “home,” what it means to “own” something, and the marginalization of Black history, even in liberal strongholds like California.

The problem is that The Last Black Man in San Francisco (as written by him, as directed by co-lead Joe Talbot, as acted by both of them and a mostly misguided supporting cast) is a second-year student film with a $4.1 million budget. Take away the pretty cinematography, first-rate production design, and professional editing, and what’s left is raging sophomorism. In the age of crowdfunding—through which Fails raised the first $75,000—this is something of a new normal.

It’s hard not to assign most of the blame to the movie’s U.S. distributor, the usually dependable A24, which released Under the Silver Lake (2019, see short review below), The Spectacular Now (2013), and Oscar Best-Picture winner Moonlight (2016), among other fine films. Without A24 or another large distributor, Talbot & Fails’ debut would have made its splash at Sundance—as it did, not a tremendous feat these days—and would have taken its rightful place on DVD and streaming services. The (albeit brief) theatrical run of The Last Black Man in San Francisco can’t be justified, and most critics know it.

Yet, the movie sits happily on Metacritic with an aggregate rating of 84 out of 100. This matters, because the degree to which a critic wants to like a film and feels the need to advocate for the filmmakers should not factor into their rating of the work. Off the record, reviewers and industry insiders will confirm that this is precisely what happened, 50 times over in this case.

I love young filmmakers, too. The voices of Black and LGTBTQIA writers, directors, and actors should be heard—must be heard. If their work is to be highly rated, however, they mustn’t be relieved of the responsibility of making good work.

The Film Critique rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Under the Silver Lake: Thanks to the bizarrely talented David Robert Mitchell (It Follows [2014]), my first summer in Milwaukee was not a total wash cinema-wise. The latest work by the Michigan-born writer/director features Andrew Garfield as an adrift, unambitious 30-something drawn into a crazy L.A. maze by a naked neighbor and a fleeting femme fatale.

Mitchell’s signature is atmospheric, dreamlike mystery with surprise visual and plot twists. The Los Angeles arts and party settings lend themselves well to all aspects of his storytelling, including his breezy-yet-carefully-considered camera angles and movements. From Garfield on through to the extras, on-screen talent here is a treat.

The kinetic, vividly colored neo-noir of Under the Silver Lake satisfies deeply, as you accompany Garfield’s Sam through a freakish labyrinth of serial dog murders, edible psychedelic party invitations, and a wise, homeless monarch played by The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★★☆

Film Reviews

Film Review: Non-Fiction (Doubles vies)

Livre la France!

by Andres Solar

This latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, 2016) sees him decreasing visual scope in favor of up-close characterizations. The result is unapologetically light fare in the manner of second-tier Woody Allen, including a middle-aged, neurotic, “floundering” author named Léonard who’s also fond of philandering.

Rather than thrusting a typical love triangle on viewers, Non-Fiction eases them into the corners of a love pentagon. Two smart men: the author and his longtime editor. Three smarter women: the author’s live-in girlfriend, the editor’s wife, and the editor’s lover. A good-looking bunch, they drink espressos and wine and hold forth about literature as art and commodity.

Assayas is among the most intriguing contemporary directors in the world, not so much for what he has done, but for what he hasn’t. He’s a disciplined filmmaker, almost to a fault. Aside from his clear concern with modernity, he reins in temptations to stylize, favoring formality.

His camera moves thoughtfully, à la latter-day Robert Altman in their inquisitive, strolling pans and medium-angle-to-close-up transitions within a single shot. An example of this would be an angle showing a man (from waist up in semi-profile) standing at the front desk of a hotel. He puts his wallet on the counter, and then the same camera dollies in on the wallet. (No cut.) In Non-Fiction, we also see the results of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) Altman-like tendencies. He delicately pushes the camera in or dollies out to begin many sequences, which effectively guides the viewer towards (or away from) the character who is more (or less) significant or compelling at that time.

The characters here are fully formed and inspired, and the performances of the ensemble cast are the best thing about this movie. No actor in it is less than excellent. Guillaume Canet as editor Alain Danielson and Vincent Macaigne as Allen-esque author Léonard Spiegel hit all the right notes individually and all the correct, complex chords together. As Selena, wife to Alain and mother to their children, the ever-wonderful Juliette Binoche is wonderful yet again. Anyone else in that role would have diminished the film by a third. The great standout here, though, is Nora Hamzawi as Valérie. She sportingly inhabits her witty character—a sharp political operative and live-in girlfriend to Léonard—with charm, intuition, and strength.

So where does it go wrong? The screenplay includes way too many references—especially in extended segments of dialogue—to “the digital age,” the demise and/or resurgence of print publishing, e-books vs. print vs. audiobooks, and so on and so on. Valérie uses two smartphones and a tablet computer, so there are at least two scenes where she’s fumbling with cords or feels stressed out that a battery has gone dead, etc., etc. These are the low-hanging fruit Assayas would do best to avoid.

What he risks most in his last three films (including The Clouds of Sils Maria [2014] and Personal Shopper) is gaining a reputation for stories in which the conflicts reflect what some crudely call “White-people problems.” Of course, not only would he have plenty of company in that pigeonhole, but the argument would be mostly unfounded. At a deeper level, most moviegoers will find much to relate to in his oeuvre.

Returning to the picture’s concern with the silliness of the information age, it’s a well-worn topic in 2019, and presented here plainly, as purely self-evident, it fails to strike any real comedic notes. The oft-repeated attempts almost frame the characters as irrevocably petty. It feels at times that the whole movie will stall out in a whirlwind of aimless philosophizing. Fortunately, much of this is mitigated in the second act. From that point on, the comedy comes with much less effort, and the movie in general find its footing.

A nominee for best-feature gold in competition at Venice and Miami, Non-Fiction leaves you feeling you’ve enjoyed a good film, but not a great one. It’s a crisp twist on the Assayas aesthetic and an intelligent dramedy that leans towards wry humor. The writer-director’s works, Non-Fiction included, gently transport while superficially sizzling with vitality. They possess the treasured quality that Ingmar Bergman liked to call “alive.” But as to the circle that will contain the year’s best, expect this one to sit at the periphery.

The Film Critique Rating: ★★★☆☆

Film Reviews

Film Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Screen Dream

by Andres Solar

What cinephile can possibly resist a bonafide, direct-from-Cannes sensation? In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Guizhou-ren writer/director Bi Gan’s 2018 Un Certain Regard selection, no one is excepted from devastating yearning and the hopeful, haunting dreams it spurs.

Luo Hongwu is a stoic, 40ish, former casino manager returning to Kaili, China (his and Bi’s own hometown) for his father’s funeral. After 20 years grinding in the gambling world abroad, he finds himself longing for the life and people he loved in his youth. More specifically and most intensely, Luo pines for Wan Qiwen, his lost love of many summers ago.

He starts in on an ad hoc investigation to find out where Qiwen might be today, and along the way we learn that he’s a somewhat hardened person, willing even to brandish a gun as an exclamation point. So Bi balances Luo’s rough-hewn personality with the titular “journey into night” where the protagonist will face his deep desires and vast vulnerabilities.

Enter the celebrated 59-minute, multi-scene, long take—perhaps cinema’s most accurate ever visual depiction of a dream. As Bi now pumps hydrogen into the film’s mysterious wings, it becomes both a thrilling display of startling realism and a swirling montage that feels like it’s emerged from your very own REM sleep.

Ultimately, even though there do exist probably a dozen other movies (not a whole lot in the panoply of cinema) that deal with dreams on a more emotional or impressionistic plane, this sequence is satisfying and richly rewarding. Bi seems to invite you to the fun with a title card that asks you to “join the protagonist” in putting on 3D glasses at the same time Luo does, in a scene where he goes to a movie. Though a technical marvel of virtuosic cinematography and lithe, adroit directing, it always feels—more than anything else—like a genuine product of Bi’s imagination and vision for the story.

Among cineastes and academics, much will be said about Bi Gan’s long take for a long time to come, and rightly so. Which is why I’m okay with saying little more about Long Day’s Journey Into Night than It is a masterful achievement by miraculous talents. And the whole trip is an awfully good time.

4 of 5 stars

Film Reviews

Film Review: Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)

Steal A Way Home

by Andres Solar

It’s natural to hear of a Cannes Palme d’Or winner and to think, “Okay, what makes this film so special?” Shoplifters, the 2018 big prize recipient, written and directed by Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu (Like Father, Like Son [2013]), is a three-strand braid of excellence. The first consists of the director’s strength of sensitivity, with which he crafts moments of exquisite human tenderness. The second strand is the filmmaker’s finely crafted, wholly real-feeling family, richly detailed in their functioning and dysfunctioning, in and out of their overcrowded abode. The third is the writer’s compelling story of this financially poor, cobbled together family that refuses to give up on life and love.

The plot centers more or less on Osamu and Nobuyo, a married couple living in a rented space in Tokyo. The husband Osamu tries to maintain a job, but is injured. He’s an expert shoplifter and general thief, anyway, and that’s his true chosen profession. Nobuyo works at a laundry service and also does her share of pilfering. They share their home with four others of varying ages and sundry talents in cons, dayjobs, and scams. Kore-eda seems to have written into the film the ways in which the characters bring money to the household for one primary purpose: to show how little it all matters in the bigger picture.

In fact, as the tale unfolds, we see clearly what else each family member brings into the household and to each other. One of the director’s finest feats here is presenting a picture of poverty that’s not always ugly and not always pretty. It’s complex, and Kore-eda manages the intricacies perfectly.

Inspired photocompositions in collaboration with cinematographer Hosono Haruomi include several instances of people talking to each other through thick panes of glass. As in The Third Murder (2018), the filmmakers make beautiful use of angles where you see both the back of a character’s head and their face (reflected in the glass) in the same shot. The technique differs from similar angles using actual mirrors, in both the transparency of the glass (which can vary depending on the desired effect) and in the related interaction with another person who’s physically on the other side. In scenes here, where a sex worker talks with a client in this manner, the stilted nature of the relationship is enhanced by the pink glass partition.

The dozen-or-so moments of thrilling cinematography are distributed evenly throughout, but there’s a heck of a story to be told, and Shoplifters is no mere photographic display. What it is is a profoundly felt tale of wide-ranging, ever-changing family dynamics. Every note struck by every actor rings spontaneous and true. Moments of happiness, heartbreak, and humor weave in and out with consummate naturalness. In this sense, Shoplifters stands as a work of realism both quintessential and unusual. Maybe even in a league with Bicycle Thieves (1948)?

It is true that a motivated person will find a family of one kind or another, and that’s at the core of Kore-eda’s story. As much as homo sapiens has brought an ignoble reputation upon itself, its perdurable—even pitiful—sociability remains endearing. Even redeeming.

5 of 5 stars

Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Maria By Callas

The Diva Callous

by Andres Solar

French professional photographer Tom Volf, in his documentary debut, falls for the temptation of “letting the subject tell the story” (hence the title of the film). The task is easier to imagine than it is to accomplish, and by his unwavering devotion to the subject’s perspective, he loses everyone else’s. We are left with a sort of myopia that, contrary to the director’s intention, puts the object of his obvious affection in a harsh, incessant light.

For one, Maria by Callas betrays the soprano’s intermittent loathing of her career as an opera singer. Asked in an early interview about her motivation, she immediately goes to “destiny,” adding that she “would have gladly given it up at any time.” She confesses that she knew little else but singing from the age of 13 to 40. So, for the first two acts, we see Callas, not as an artist visited by muses, but as a singing laborer who was put to work by “destiny”—a euphemism for her mother.

From a tender young age, it was impressed upon Callas (mostly by her mother) that what she had that was special, and that she could offer the world, was her voice. In a fairy tale, that might lead to only good things. In real life, it says, “Never mind your heart. Never mind your mind. Develop your vocal cords.” This is the great tragedy hidden within this film, and it’s a part of the story that Volf seems unaware of, or perhaps prefers to ignore.

Yet, it ties into the most rewarding sequences—the ones later in the documentary and later in Callas’ career—where she exudes an internal light and a glint finally appears in her eyes. Why the change? Though Volf might not like to acknowledge it, her comfort in her own skin comes when she has broken free from singing (and become free of her close friend and sometimes lover, Aristotle Onassis).

We focus on these internal struggles, because of the choices Volf made. His obsession with the diva isn’t the main problem. It’s that, for at least the first hour, he expects—demands—that you share his fascination. This he indicates through clip after clip (vintage footage) of Callas doing nothing but exiting cars and smiling coyly at the camera. It feels like dozens of times, over and over. There can be no other message: “Isn’t she amazing!?”

If the chanteuse seems self-absorbed, part of the fault lies with the filmmaker. Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words is the full title, and Volf is unrelenting about it. The result might be different if his subject were a fantastic storyteller, but he should know that she’s not nearly that. It couldn’t be clearer that his decisions were clouded by his infatuation.

By my estimate, ten minutes of the two-hour runtime is enjoyable and/or enlightening. Callas mentions her fondness for Romantic-period composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and a vintage clip of her singing one of his arias shows her really giving herself to the music. Musically, it’s her finest moment in the film.

It happens that I am a fan of opera, and I have never been drawn to Maria Callas’ voice. This documentary did shed some light for me on why that is. As I mentioned earlier, she was thrust into a singing career while missing some of the nurturing of a healthy childhood. Besides the resulting, underlying resentment within her, she sounds overprotective of her heart.

Her voice’s center of gravity seems located above her chest, resulting in a throaty quality. Most often, her emphasis and phrasing sound like they come from her neck upward. It’s a brusque, dry tone that matches her predominant moods and personality traits as depicted here.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Maria by Callas is a documentary steeped in music. Fans of opera or instrumental classical music won’t find much to delight over. If anything the poor-quality featured recordings underscore the jarring qualities of her voice. The bulk of what Volf presents feels like (looks like, sounds like) tabloid fodder. To enjoy this movie, you have to buy into the cult of celebrity, with all the silly beefs, breakups, makeups, rumors, “styles,” “fabulous” comebacks, Kennedys, Onassises, blah, blah, blah.

Making matters worse, when the filmmaker finally gets around to music, he chooses to furnish subtitles with the footage of Callas performing leading roles. The verbiage, verging on banal as it is in most operas, adds nothing but annoying distraction. If, in regular conversation, words communicate only 10 percent of the message, how much information can they possibly provide on top of the action on stage, the sets, the singing, and the full orchestra playing? “The love lasted only one day. The love lasted only one day. Love!” Only the type of person who would whine, “I can’t understand what they’re saying” could be pleased.

Nor does Volf deal particularly well with the issue of enlarging images from original Super 8 film. I understand going for a gritty or unfinished look, but do we really need to see the word “Kodak” zip across the screen 50 times and sprocket holes all over the place? It’s not even a novel style, really.

Finally, another unintended consequence of the “in her own words” approach when the subject died in 1977: If you’re going to make a documentary, now you’ve locked yourself into archival footage only. Volf adds in a (mostly unconvincing) narrator to read from Callas’ letters, diaries, and the like. This style isn’t inherently bad. Here, though, it feels like you’re stuck in a superfan’s musty attic, and you know that he’s not letting you out until he shows you every last photograph and yellowed press clipping related to his obsession. It’s stuffy and claustrophobic. There’s concern about mold spores and air quality. Is it getting really warm in here? I’m sweating. And the nostalgia’s making my head spin.

2 of 5 stars