Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 24, 2019 1:47 pm 
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TOMÁS YVAN TOPOLÁNSZKY: CURTIZ (2018) SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

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A drama feature about the director Michael Curtiz, at work on his film, "Casablanca"

Curtiz is a Hungarian movie - set in Hollywood. The time is 1942 and the prolific Hungarian-born Jewish Warner Brothers contract director Michael Curtiz (né Kertész, like the great photographer) is struggling to complete his one Oscar winner. Perhaps "struggling" isn't the right word. Curtiz, as depicted by the excellent Ferenc Lengyel (who even looks like the director), is a mean, stubborn, cantankerous, utterly confident womanizer. He's only struggling because of studio issues; government observers trying to turn this into wartime American propaganda; and family issues. Curtiz's daughter Kitty (Evelin Dobos), unseen for eighteen years, has turned up to haunt him and he is burdened by his inability to save his sister in Europe from extermination by the Nazis. These issues roil about for the run time of the film.

The shooting of Casablanca - on several lots at Warner Brothers - seems suspended, which seems appropriate, since Casablanca itself is about people in limbo, waiting.

Shooting the film as shown here consists mainly of trying to think of alternate endings - what to do with the main characters, whether to include an airplane in the final scene, and so on. And the film, made without a big budget, provides some enjoyable approximations of old style Hollywood sets, one in an airline hangar, and the plane that is all façade is fun.

The movie ends when Curtiz - though the writers are the Epstein brothers (Yan and Raphael Feldman, not him) comes up with a conclusion. As a strategy, the filmmakers avoid too-obvious references to cliché moments of this very famous film, and keep us from even glimpsing what would only be disappointing approximations of Bergman and Bogart.

First-time director Tomas Yvan Topolanszky deserves a lot of credit for several things. Everything is shot in rich contrasty black and white with velvety blacks and beautiful angular lights and shadows, figures shot into the light, rimmed with brightness, beams shooting down from high above at an angle. This visual style, thanks to the set designers and the cinematographer, is glamorous and pleasing to the eye. It's not the look of the actual Casablanca , which I remember as softer and rich in pale grays, but it's probably not meant to be. What is Topolanszky trying to do? He has explained in an interview that Andrew Vajna, the Hungarian-American producer (who has a pivotal role in Hungarian movies) had called for a film about "notable Hungarian people," which for the young director narrowed down to Curtiz or photojournalist Robert Capa. Easier to shoot on a studio lot than roam battlefields, so Curiz won out.

Jack Warner (Andrew Hefler), Hal Wallis (Scott Alexander Young), a Hungarian colleague, and various underlings are brought in to give the impression that we're really at Warner Brothers. There's arguing over what to do with the German officer character, played by Konrad Veidt (Christopher Krieg). The pivotal outsider, though, is the US government propaganda advisor, Johnson, played by Irish actor Declan Hannigan. He constantly tries to manipulate the action of the movie to make it what he thinks will best fan American enthusiasm for the war. Curtiz firmly resists and rejects calls to patriotism. To Johnson's question, "Do you love your country?" He rejoins, "Which one?" Johnson also is drawn to Kitty, much to his detriment. He has one sexy and intimate scene with her at the set bar, followed later by a rough and inappropriate one in a hallway where he goes so far he is ostracized. The filmmakers seem to be saying Cosablanca is a political film that is politically neutral: it's about how uneasy and dangerous war and nationality are.

Curtiz might do best as material for a film student's paper in which she could talk about how the new film comments on the old. But that conversation seems less likely to enthuse the average viewer. I have never been a big fan of Casablanca (not that this would undermine a good film about making it). The old movie's appeal, not inconsiderable, seems not that of great cinema but of the campy cult movie, for the iconic lines and iconic stars, which there's no discounting, for sure. But it may be time to move toward more contemporary and complex commentaries on wartime limbo, like Christian Petzold's I]Transit[/I] (NYFF 2018). Curtiz has occasional charm, and its leads have some intense moments, but it doesn't provide interesting answers about its material or even pose good questions.

Curtiz, 98 mins., debuted at Montreal. It is presenting in Jewish film festivals and was screned for this review as part of the SFJFF.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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