There were a few things about this movie put me on alert, but when all was said and done I definitely enjoyed myself. I just had something of a tough time getting there.
First of all, the marketing materials for the series use the following sentence
The Shooting Gallery Film Series at Loews Cineplex Entertainment is a groundbreaking opportunity for audiences nationwide to experience the world of independent film.
Sounds pretty tame, doesn’t it? Well, for me, such gratuitous use of the word "Independent" sets off a few alarms. It’s a media buzzword of the "Alternative Music" style (i.e., how can it be alternative if it sells ten million units?) and anything that gravitates that heavily towards a buzzword scares me. Couple that with the fact that the series is sponsored by such mainstream, big dollar heavyweights as Heinekin, Polo Jeans, Yahoo (who host the series’ web site), Starz, and Entertainment Weekly and I think you’ll see what I’m getting at- same shit, hipper wrapper.
Marketing angles aside, the films are really what drive a series like this and thankfully, the films themselves look to make up for any misgivings I have about the way the series is presented to consumers. All six films have been very well received critically and have played well at prestigious festivals around the globe (Seatle, Toronto, Sundance, Venice, etc.) so it looks to be, at least, an interesting look into the stuff that excites the serious film junkie. Best case scenario? Three of the films look to be possible classics: Mike Hodges‘ rock solid thriller Croupier, Shinobu Yaguchi‘s Adrenaline Drive and the documentary Southpaw.
That brings me to my second bump in the road. Of all the films in the six part series, Judy Berlin was the only one that I really had any misgivings about. Because of the way it had been received at various festivals, I thought it would be good, but I was prepared for it being "not my type of movie." By that I mean I had concerns that it would turn into a "personal" film, I.E, a typical example of American "Indy" cinematic masturbation. Why? Well, the story contains not only an aspiring actress (the titular Judy Berlin, played with zeal by Oz/The Soprano’s Edie Falco) but a failed filmmaker and when those two elements are present there are plenty of opportunities for whining about "that mean old Hollywood." I hate whining in general and whining by people who failed in the Hollywood system is more than I can stomach. It’s a gazillion dollar business, get over it. Thankfully, Judy Berlin doesn’t go down that dreaded path.
What is does instead is float through a few hours in the lives of a select group of residents of the town of Babylon. All are connected in some way to Judy, who is hours away from leaving for "The Coast," to pursue her career. Included are the grade school principal (Bob Dishy, a familiar face if you’re a Law and Order junkie), his loopy wife (played by Madeline Kahn), Judy’s mother (veteran TV actress Barbara Barrie– you’ll recognize her), and David Gold both the son of the principal and the failed filmmaker who just happens to have had a high school crush on Judy. For my taste the characters are a little overtly quirky and the interconnections are a little too neatly packaged, but all in all it’s an interesting mix. All of this merry-go-round is framed by a solar eclipse, by the way. Yes, that is a little hoaky, but the hoakiness is made up for by the fascinating visual element it provides.
It certainly gives cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf plenty to work with and he delivers, as the cinematography is actually the star of the film. From the intentionally overexposed first twenty minutes to the ghostly and beautiful eclipse scenes, the film is fascinating visually. Seckendorf is to be commended. By blasting the white in the introductory scenes, the darkness of the eclipse is highlighted and the contrasting looks also blend nicely with the tones of the respective sequences. The caucophonous, uncomfortable nature of the first half hour or so matches perfectly with the nerve-wracking patches of burnt white film and the calmer, more poetic nature of the eclipse scenes is strengthened by their beautifully photographed appearance.
The film also features a bunch of veteran professional actors practicing their craft and that’s always a good thing. The performances are theatrical, which may not be the taste of some, but the entire cast is certainly skilled. Kahn, especially, is excellent in what was her last role. This is exactly the kind of melodramatic/ comedic role she excelled at and it’s fitting that this part was her last.
This article originally appeared in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in February 2000.