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Creepy, Creepy, Creepy
There are horror films that make you scream, horror films that make you jump, horror films that make you laugh, horror films that make you wince and horror films that make you sick to your stomach. Then there are horror films that just creep you out. These films leave you with a feeling of uneasiness and a palpable sense of dread. They are the type of films you end up thinking about long after you've seen them and ignite those same creepy feelings all over again. "Borgman" is one such film. This Danish film by director Alex Van Warmerdam creeps you out from the beginning and doesn't let go even after the end.
The film opens with a group of town leaders gathering knives, guns, and pitch forks to go after something or someone that has obviously disturbed them greatly. Turns out it's the title-character, who along with several henchman /women, have taken to living in underground compartments. Flushed from their lairs by the inflamed citizenry, they scatter and Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) ends up knocking on the door of a somewhat affluent suburban family. He asks to take a bath. Refused entry to the home and beaten up by the owner (Jeroen Perceval) after Borgman insinuates he knows his wife (Hadewych Minis), the wife takes pity on Borgman and lets him convalesce in a guest house. Slowly, Borgman insinuates himself into her life. He cleans himself up, gets hired on as the new gardener and is soon joined by his compatriots. Together, they insinuate themselves into the lives of the husband, the children, and even their nanny.
What is Borgman's plan? How far is he willing to go to ensure its success? What happened to the old gardener? What is the strange scar that can be seen in the center of Borgman's back and in the same spot on all of his co-horts? What are they doing to the children? Why are they doing what they're doing? Why? Why? WHY?
Warmerdam, who appears in the film as one of Borgman's cronies, leaves you with no answers, just a hell of a lot of questions, compounded by some of the eeriest scenes and unnerving imagery this side of Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter". His "Borgman" is the type of film of film that leads to lengthy post-film discussions and at least one restless night of sleep.
When Intellectualism Was Entertaining
I was introduced to Gore Vidal by my tenth grade high school history teacher. Mr. D'onofrio set aside one class period for his students to watch a one-hour interview he had taped from a late night TV interview. This was 1980, long before home video recording was the norm and you could still occasionally catch an author, historian, or philosopher on late night television. Most of my fellow classmates were bored stiff, but I was fascinated by the things Mr. Vidal was saying things I hadn't heard anyone else say about the state of government and how things really worked in Washington.
I searched for material on and by Mr. Vidal, which led me to his play/film The Best Man, which took a decidedly different look at a Presidential Nominating Convention than anything Walter Cronkite ever showed us, and Myra Breckinridge, the most notorious film of its time. (I was too young to see it, and Vidal disowned it anyway.) I sought him out on TV, where had had become somewhat ubiquitous, and always found his interviews thought provoking.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a new documentary by Nicholas Wrathall, was a trip down memory lane for me. A decidedly one-sided look at Vidal's life and influence, the film via archival footage and interviews with Vidal shortly before his death in 2012 gives a pretty complete picture of who he was, what he thought, and the battles he undertook almost to his last breath. A bastion of the liberal left, Vidal never towed the party line. As harsh a critic of Kennedy as he was of Nixon, Vidal saw the election of Barack Obama as the final indication that the Republican Party would soon go the way of the Whig Party. Would he were around today to see the resurgence of the Tea Party.
Author, politician, atheist, playwright, political commentator, humanist, screenwriter, film actor all roles with which Vidal undertook with gusto, verve, and the conviction of his ideas. The strengths of those convictions led to two notable feuds that are covered substantially in this film. Authors William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer both had memorable encounters with Vidal and thankfully both are preserved on videotape. Vidal's two runs for public office, once for a New York House seat, and once for the U.S. Senate versus Jerry Brown, gives us a glimpse at a man who was willing to put his money where his mouth was, even though he spent substantially less money than Brown did in the Senate race.
The film also gives us a more substantial look at Vidal's private life, particularly in the long relationship he had with Howard Austen (a man he lived with for over 50 years with whom he claims he never had a sexual relationship) and with the friendships he had with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.
More autobiography than biography, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is 90 minutes of pure, unabashed Vidal, interspersed with some of his most caustic comments, ie "Our form of democracy is bribery, on the highest scale." or "Envy is the central fact of American life." The film happily reminds us of a time when intellectuals could be entertaining and thought provoking, and unhappily of what passes for intellectual debate today.
The One I Love (2014)
Don't read this or any other review!
Well, OK. Read this one.
I just caught this film at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival. It was a last minute addition to the Festival program, and it was probably the best film I saw there (though my attendance this year was, admittedly, limited.) After an evening of seeing two mediocre films, I was seeking out something to end the evening on a high note. Playing at 9:15 was a film entitled "The One I Love" starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson. As there was nothing in the program about the film, I grabbed the ol' smart phone and started to do some research. The first thing I found was a plea to STOP reading about the film and JUST GO SEE IT. Needless to say, I found this very intriguing so I did just that. And I was glad that I did. I will say little about this film and what I do say may not generate any interest in the film for you, but if you like films with terrific performances and an original thought behind them, then consider checking this film out when it plays in your area.
Duplass and Moss play a married couple whose relationship has grown stale. Seeking the help of a therapist (Danson, whose on-screen time is probably less than five minutes), they agree to go on a retreat and try to rediscover and reignite the feelings they once had for each other.
And that's where I have to stop.
Screenwriter Justin Lader was in attendance and had a great Q&A session with SFFS Programmer Rod Armstrong and the audience but I can't even discuss THAT as it too would spoil your complete enjoyment of this film. Hell, I went looking for a trailer to post for the film before I realized that there isn't one because well, you know what trailers usually do.
So take a chance. Resist the urge to figure out what I'm NOT trying to say. "The One I Love" is the kind of movie that can generate hours of post-film discussion, particularly with your significant other. If you love movies, then you should respect that.
La partida (2013)
The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name... In Spanish
It seems like every other day or so there are news reports of the latest state to honor marriage equality, either through the legislative process or through a court rejection of discrimination. The tide has turned quickly in this country on the issue of gay civil rights, and it's obvious to all but the most closed of minds that's in no longer a question of "if" but "how soon" before the gay community is seen as just another fully acknowledged component of our magnificent multicultural society.
In other countries - not so much. Putin's anti-gay crusade in Russia and his counterpart in Uganda demonstrate that simply being gay is still a dangerous proposition in many parts of our world. This global struggle, reduced to the microcosm of two young men in Cuba, is at the heart of "The Last Match" (La Partida), director Antonio Hens' latest examination of the lives of gay youth.
Reinier (Reinier Diaz) and Yosvani (Milton Garcia) are two young men surviving in the barrios of Havana. Reinier, who is married and has a child, supports his family (with the explicit approval of his mother-in-law) by prostituting himself to wealthy male tourists. Yosvani, engaged to the daughter of a black marketer, is living off the largesse of his soon-to-be father-in-law (Luis Alberto Garcia). The two come together on the local soccer field and become fast friends. After a night of partying at a local disco, they find themselves sharing a quick kiss. This initial physical interaction leads into a physical relationship that quickly grows into a deep, emotional bond.
But life in Cuba is not easy, and being gay in Cuba isn't going to make it any easier. Reinier is more grounded in reality, as harsh as that reality may be. One escape for him may be to go back to Europe with a wealthy tourist (His mother-in-law's preferred action. She wants him to go back to Spain and marry the guy because it's legal there - then send for her and his family.) Another escape may be via joining a national soccer team.
Yosvani wants nothing more than to be with Reinier. He sees money as the solution to their problem. With enough money, they can just leave and go anywhere they want and be together. Rainier's simple, pitiful response "Where?"
"Where?" indeed. Both young men act on their desire to escape, culminating in a quietly devastating conclusion that is sure to annoy some. Director Hens may be accused of adding another entry to the long line of "gay lovers are doomed" canon, but an honest examination of the story and the circumstances portrayed should lead one to see that it really couldn't end any other way.
As the leads, Diaz and Garcia give affecting performances. While the film has its sexually explicit moments (and there is obviously a level of commitment and comfort required to pull those scenes off) it's in the quieter moments that these young actors really impress. One gets a real sense of the longing and passion these two characters share for each other, and one's heart breaks (as Yosvani's does) as the passion gives way to practicality.
With genuine, heartfelt performances by the two leads (and good supporting work from Luis Alberto Garcia as the menacing profiteer), "The Last Match" is a well written and sensitively directed look at love from a different cultural perspective - the love that, sadly, still 'dare not speak its name' in too many languages and in too many places in this modern world.
Dumberer and Dumberer
What can be said about "Dumbbells" that hasn't already been said about "Porky's","Losin' It", "Fraternity Vacation", "The Last American Virgin", "Screwballs", "Private Resort", "Hot Dog: The Movie", etc.? Not much, actually. They're all movies aimed at a specific audience demographic (young, horny males) and are filled with the requisite T & A and low-brow humor. They aren't all terrible films, but they won't end up on any AFI "Best" list, either. They set the bar low and, more often than not, succeed at some level.
So it is with "Dumbbells", a new film directed by Christopher Livingston and seeing a limited theatrical release now as well as being available via Video-on-Demand. This low-budget, amiable piece of cinematic fluff tells the tale of one Chris Long (Brian Drolet), art major and superstar forward for the NCAA basketball powerhouse that is LA Tech. (That alone is good for a laugh ) who after wrecking his knee, finds himself working at a dead-end job in a rundown gym. Things look to be going from bad to worse when the gym is taken over by former male supermodel Jack Guy (former male supermodel Hoyt Richards) who has dreams of producing a gym-based reality TV series to be hosted by Fabio. (Yes, apparently in Hollywood people still have dreams involving Fabio...) Things go from bad to worse to worser when Jack discovers a cult he was once involved in has absconded with all his money. Ah, but he has a plan to recover his money and save the gym. And so it goes
A more interesting film might be made from the story of how star/co-screenwriter/co-producer Richards got some (fairly) well-known faces to appear in this film. Who? Well, comedians Tom Arnold and Jay Mohr (miles away from "True Lies" and "Jerry Maguire") have small roles. The aforementioned Fabio is along for the ride, Jaleel "Urkel" White plays the cult leader, and Hollywood living-legend Carl Reiner does a bit. With all due respect to Mr. Livingston, one wonders what might have been if they had been able to talk Carl Reiner into directing "Dumbbells" instead of appearing in it.
Accompanying Reiner in his bit is Nancy Olson (light years away from her Oscar-nominated role in "Sunset Boulevard") whose appearance so intrigued me I had to immediately try to figure out why. (Check the director's IMDb page for the obvious reason as to why she's in this film.) Also intriguing is the fact that apparently a bit of this film is autobiographical. Richards had his own cult experiences, and I suppose one could give him credit for taking what must have been a very difficult time for him and making light of it.
As low-budget comedies go, "Dumbbells" falls somewhere between complete disaster and rousing yuck-fest. A likable cast helps, and while you could have fun playing "spot the continuity errors", set your expectations as low as the budget and you'll find it a pleasant and surprisingly inoffensive (surprising based on the trailer...) time passer with a couple of laughs.
Liv & Ingmar (2012)
Scenes from a Marriage - Sort of...
World Cinema has seen its fair share of long-term director and actor pairings, from Kurosawa/Mifune to Fellini/Mastroianni to Scorsese/DeNiro. (Please don't put Scorsese/DiCaprio in the same list.) Rare has been the director/actress pairing, but there have been a few - Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg to go way back, or Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz to be a bit more current. Perhaps the most celebrated director/actress teaming was Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, and the new documentary "Liv & Ingmar" tells the story of this artistic and personal collaboration.
And what a story it is, as told by Ullmann herself. The film is built around an interview conducted with Ullman at the gorgeous seaside estate she shared with Bergman for five years. From their first meeting when she was 26 and he was 47, through their five year relationship (and the birth of a child) and their continuing professional collaborations, Ullmann allows us a personal glimpse into the man responsible for such classics as "The Seventh Seal" and "Cries & Whispers".
Sometimes it is not a pretty picture, and credit should go to Ullmann for giving us a "warts and all" look at their relationship. Granted, it is a one-sided presentation (Bergman died in 2007) which uses Ullmann's autobiography as its main source, but one can't help but feel Ullmann is being honest, particularly when one looks at Bergman's work. The film is even broken down into "Bergman-esque" chapters, with intertitles such as "Love", "Loneliness", "Rage", and "Pain" to highlight the subject matter.
"Cold", "aloof", and "cruel" are terms often used when discussing the work of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his male characters. His female characters were far more open and emotionally expressive, especially with their sexuality. One leaves this film feeling that a great deal of Bergman's work was autobiographical. The film is populated with clips from their films, and one gets the sense that Ullmann was often playing Ullman, while actors like Max Von Sydow took the "Bergman" role.
But there was real love in this partnership as well. Evidence of Bergman's humanity and affection come from the reading of several pieces of personal correspondence that Ullmann shared with writer/director Dheeraj Akolkar which are effectively narrated, as well as excerpts from Bergman's autobiography. Most telling is Bergman's comment to Ullmann that he considers her "his Stradivarius" - the beautiful, perfect instrument through which he communicates and makes beautiful music.
But make no mistake about it, this is Ullmann's tale to tell. It is a tale told well.
Let the Fire Burn (2013)
A Forgotten Disaster Worth Remembering
Growing up on the East Coast near Philadelphia, I became used to the local news reports of the latest problems with a group call MOVE a "back to nature", almost survivalist group. What I knew about them came from those local newscasts, which were usually about a police confrontation of one sort or another. What also stood out about them to me was that all the members had the last name of "Africa", and that they occupied a townhouse smack dab in the middle of a blue collar, working class neighborhood. When one thought of communes at the time, one thought of encampments out in a remote forest. Well this commune shared walls with working class homes and families, and their rejection of technology led to no electricity, boarded up windows, and mounds of trash on the sidewalks. I left the area in 1982 and headed for California.
Imagine my surprise three years later to turn on CNN and find them covering the mass destruction of an entire city block in Philadelphia, and that MOVE was at the center of the inferno. After a failed attempt at eviction and after shots had been fired, the decision was made to drop an incendiary device on the roof of the house to destroy a fortified bunker. Things quickly got out hand. The result eleven people dead, including five children, and 60 other homes burned to the ground. How did this happen? Filmmaker Jason Osder's "Let the Fire Burn" uses archival news footage, depositions and the filmed record of an investigative commission to retell the story of the MOVE clash. Big news at the time, but mostly forgotten today (overshadowed, no doubt by the Waco/Branch Davidian siege) Osder recaptures the feel and mood of the time and allows the protagonists to speak for themselves. His film is not a polemic on government abuse or the evils of racism (the mayor of Philadelphia at the time and the majority of the citizens affected were African-American). "Let the Fire Burn" is simply the filmed record of an event, masterfully edited in a way that, while knowing full well what the outcome is going to be, keeps you engrossed from start to painful finish.
At a time when civility seems to be rapidly diminishing in what passes for political discourse these days, it is good to be reminded of what the real result of extreme action, of any kind or on any side, can be. Just ask the residents of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.
When Comedy Went to School (2013)
Take My Movie - Please!
If you recognize the title of this review as a slight modification of the classic Henny Youngman one-liner, then you are sure to enjoy "When Comedy Went to School", a new documentary that examines the roots of American stand-up comedy and the role of one geographic area in particular.
The geographic area I refer to is the Catskill Mountains, located in upstate New York. Developed as a summer getaway from the crowds and humidity of the New York Metro area, resorts sprung up to cater to these usually urban, usually Jewish vacationers. The Catskills by day provided ample opportunities for swimming, fishing, hiking, sporting and the like. But it was at night that the resorts really came to life, via massive quantities of food in the dining halls and the live entertainment provided as part of the dining experience. The easiest entertainment to provide was, luckily for us, comedy.
The death of vaudeville and the crackdown on burlesque led to a plethora of entertainers eager to perform for a large audience. The Catskill resorts provided a stage for veteran performers to ply their trade for an appreciative audience and for newcomers to build the foundation of a successful career. In a world where comedy is performed in chain-clubs, college auditoriums, coffee shops and on cable television, it's easy to forget that not too long ago there weren't many places for a comedian to be "bad" and learn his craft. The Catskill resorts were, in essence, this country's mid-century comedy school.
And what a school it was, with such "students" as Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl et al. They all spent time on a Catskill resort stage. Comedian Robert Klein introduces great archival photographs and film footage that take us back to a time and place that really no longer exists. Interviews with the aforementioned students (and others) provide us with an inside look at how the Catskills came to be the place to go for comedy, and how the Catskills came to not be the place to go for comedy. (Three simple reasons television, the sixties, and Woodstock )
Clocking in at a quick 76 minutes, "When Comedy Went to School" is a quick refresher course on the fundamentals of American comedy and an examination of the prevalence of Judaism as the starting point for the majority of comedians of this era. It's a rare course in which I would have gladly spent more time.
Dark Comedy Doesn't Get Much Darker Than This
Last year's "Kill List" was one of the creepiest, most disturbing films I had seen in a long time. It's a film that stayed with me long after the screening, and one I encouraged friends and associates to check out. Some still haven't forgiven me.
Imagine the combination of dread/anticipation I felt about the chance to see director Ben Wheatley's latest slice of darkness entitled "Sightseers". Described by some as a "dark comedy", I would say that the only thing possibly darker than Wheatley's sense of humor would be the center of a black hole.
"Sightseers" tells the story of a frumpy British couple off on 'holiday' (as they say,) the problems that come up on such trips, and the unique way they choose to solve them. Saying any more would give too much away. Suffice it to say, may you NEVER come across a couple like this on your vacation.
Is it funny? Yes, it is. But you may hate yourself for laughing. Is it violent? For sure. Exceptionally. But in the context of the story, it has to be. Is it disturbing? Oh, yes it is, but once again Wheatley has made a film that once you've started it, you'll find it difficult to turn away. And, like "Kill List", the ending packs a wallop from which it may take you a while to recover.
Films like "Sightseers" are tough to categorize, and even tougher to recommend. This is not the feel-good hit of the summer. It is a look into the blackest parts of human nature, and how that blackness is often camouflaged by the banality of everyday existence. I wouldn't call Wheatley's films "entertaining", but damned if they don't get an emotional response out of me. So seek it out but you have been warned.
Before Midnight (2013)
Two Hours of Talk, Talk, Talk... and Absolutely Enthralling...
The 56th San Francisco International came to a close at the magnificent Castro Theatre with a showing of Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight", the third in Linklater's series of "Before " films. Preceded by "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset", the film continues the story of Jesse and Celine, now a middle-aged, two child couple on vacation in Greece. Things are not quite right between the two, and there is much to be said between them. So they talk. For two hours. And it is absolutely enthralling.
I have to admit that I haven't seen the first two films. I was aware of them, but they just never jumped out at me as something I had to see. I admire Linklater's work ( I thought last year's "Bernie" was one of the best films of the year) but just never had a reason to put seeing those films above others I had more interest in. I attended the screening mainly because it was the closing night film, but had concerns that not having seen the previous two would put me at a disadvantage in appreciating his latest. Festival friend (and "Before " series lover) Stacy McCarthy assured me the film stands on its own.
She was right. Nothing much goes on in this film but conversations between people, but these conversations are fascinating and have a sense of reality about them often missing from films of this nature. Credit for that obviously goes to director Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who collaborated on the script. It doesn't hurt that the film was shot in Greece, but the picturesque beauty of that country comes second to the riveting portrayal of a couple at the stage of life where the often painful questioning of a couple's future begins.
Two hours with these characters flew by, and as the credits rolled my first thoughts were about how much I really liked the film, and how I need to think more "out of the box" when it comes to selecting films to view. I'm guilty of often limiting my scope, and I'm thankful that Film Festivals force me to widen my film horizons.