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A Final Bow
It's been nearly a year since we lost Robin Williams to a long-standing bout of depression that eventually led to his suicide. This led to an enormous outcry of grief all over the celebrity and social media world from those who had grown up on his movies, television and standup and caused many to reflect on this talent that we had perhaps taken for granted. No one can deny that his movies weren't always diamonds, but his work in them was almost always admirable and memorable. The fact that he spent the last couple of years of his life giving great performances in terrible little-seen direct to VOD films ("The Angriest Man In Brooklyn", "A Merry Friggin' Christmas"), with the occasional cameo in something truly awful ("The Big Wedding"), is a rather tragic thought. But fortunately, with Dito Montiel's newly released film Boulevard, Williams goes out strong, if not quite on top.
Williams plays Nolan, a man who's stuck in your typical indie-film marriage, i.e. loveless. He's friendly and cordial with his wife, but is clearly missing something vital. One night he's driving home and spots a group of gay hookers on the sidewalk and after nearly accidentally running one over, he befriends him and starts to confront his closeted homosexuality.
He gets advice from his friend Winston, played by Bob Odenkirk, who brings all the levity and spontaneity that you'd hope for from the guy who plays Saul Goodman in a role that could have felt a tad superfluous. He's clearly only in the movie to give Nolan a person off which to bounce his thoughts, but with an actor like Odenkirk in the role, it's hard to complain about such matters.
If you feel like you've seen this film before, you probably have. We've seen this suburbia set-up many times over the last couple of decades, so when a film goes for this, you really have to count on strong performances and interesting surprises to make it worth your while. Thanks to Williams' tender, vulnerable, aching performance, the film always stays on the side of watchable, and often fascinating. An electronic synthesizer score often tends to call too much attention to itself and distract from the fine performances by not just Williams, but also Roberto Aguire as Leo, the young man whom Nolan befriends. Fortunately though, once the film firmly establishes what it's about, such distracting little director quirks either ceased altogether, or just stopped bothering me.
Certainly for someone like me, a huge fan of his work, it's impossible to watch Williams play such a sad, morose character and not be reminded of what happened shortly after this film was finished. It's just unavoidable. But thankfully, that would just be me reading too much into the story. The man was an actor, and an excellent one at that. Remove all of the comedies from his resume, and you're still left with one of the most impressive collections of dramatic performances in recent memory. This film is no exception. Every time he smiles to avoid confronting the pain and confusion that Nolan feels so strongly, we don't question him in the slightest bit. When we see him look at Leo with his expression of sorrow and pity, it's impossible not to feel right there with him.
It may not be best film of Williams' career, and it's a real shame that he never experienced the ultra renaissance that I'm sure was on the horizon for him, but as a film for an actor of this stature to go out on, he could have done much worse than "Boulevard".
Live from New York! (2015)
40 years in 82 minutes? Hardly...
If you think there couldn't be much more to be said about Saturday Night Live after the three hour long 40th Anniversary Special that aired back in February, you're mostly right. That didn't stop cinematographer (now documentarian) Bao Nguyen from adding more to the mix with Live from New York!, his attempt to capture the social and cultural impact and influence of four decades of the 90 minute late-night broadcast.
Consisting mostly of a series of interviews with former and current cast members and a couple of the "Five Timers Club", the film breaks little new ground and covers familiar territory to anyone who's read Tom Shales's book ("Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live ") or Doug Hill's book ("Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live") or Alison Castle's recent compendium "Saturday Night Live: The Book" or seen any of the ubiquitous "SNL Decade" specials that run incessantly on VH1. There's really nothing new regarding the show's origination, its original casting, Lorne Michaels, etc. It is, however, good to hear Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman counter the usual "boys club" criticism hurled at the show from time to time and for Garret Morris to address his marginalization in the early years.
Current cast members address the recent controversy over the show's "lack of diversity" but, again, if you've read Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone or any number of blogs you pretty much know what's going on there. There's also an over-reliance on current cast members for interviews and commentary that gives this film sort of a 'promotional' feel to it and less of a sense that it's a documentary.
You've heard or read about most of the other subjects covered cast changes, firings, the post 9/11 show, presidential debates, etc. What we haven't seen or heard before is much about the crew and technical artists who've worked behind the scenes, some since the first broadcast. Nguyen gives them their due and they deliver with some insight and humor on the backstage goings-on of a live production. He also shows the late Don Pardo the respect a broadcasting legend deserves.
Running a fast 82 minutes (wouldn't you think the story of a program that's run 40 years might take a bit longer?) , Live from New York! seems more like a DVD extra than a stand-alone documentary.
Praia do Futuro (2014)
A Visually Stunning Snapshot of the Voyage that is Life
As beautiful a cinematic essay on the subject of fear as I've seen in a while, Karim Aïnouz's "Futuro Beach" manages to cover a plethora of fears common to the human condition - fear of solitude, fear of commitment, fear of rejection, fear of change, fear of death (hell, even fear of water is covered) and the remarkable human ability to overcome them.
Donato (Wagner Moura) is a lifeguard at a Brazilian Beach who is only able to save one of two German tourists from drowning. Having never had to face death before, he reaches out to the surviving tourist Konrad (Clemens Schick) and soon finds himself in a complex relationship that leads him to question who he is and what he wants from life. Faced with making difficult choices, including the decision to abandon his younger brother and mother and relocate to Germany to join Konrad, Donato finds that his fears have followed him. Eventually isolating himself from Konrad and still unable to deal, he finds himself living a solitary life until he comes face-to-face with his past. Only then can he finally begin the journey of self-acceptance necessary to move beyond the fears that have held him back from experiencing a full life.
Cinematographer Ali Olay Gözkaya's stunning photography captures the natural beauty of the Brazilian and European locations and enhances the story's mood and tone. Performances are strong from the two principals and the two actors playing the younger brother Ayrton, ages 10 and 18 (Sávio Ygor Ramos and Jesuíta Barbosa,) also acquit themselves nicely. The scenes with the two brothers ably capture the special bond often shared between male siblings.
Often jumping from moments of quiet and solitude to scenes with pulsating sounds and action, "Futuro Beach" grabs you from its opening shots of motorcyclists dwarfed by the turbines of a wind farm to its concluding POV imagery of another motorcycle trek down an endless road at dusk. It excels at cinematically and dramatically capturing a snapshot of the often emotionally treacherous voyage that is life.
Point and Shoot (2014)
Narcissus' Pool is Now a Digital Camera
"Point and shoot" can describe what you do with a camera in order to capture life. "Point and shoot" can also describe what you do with a weapon in order to take a life. These two concepts collide in filmmaker Marshall Curry's latest documentary, which just happens to be entitled "Point and Shoot".
Curry's film consists mostly of footage shot by its subject, one Matt Van Dyke. Mr. Van Dyke is an excellent representative of the current generation and its incessant need to digitally record each and everything about their lives and then foist it upon the public to provide validation for their existence. Van Dyke, a sheltered (some would say spoiled) individual with mental health issues (he admits to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but this film leaves you with the feeling there may be a whole lot more at play) decides that he wants to undertake a "crash course in manhood" through North Africa via a motorcycle and, of course, a video camera or two.
What might have been a semi-interesting documentary about world travel and the search for meaning in life soon takes a dark turn as Van Dyke ends up fighting on the side of the rebels during the Libyan revolution. Admittedly, there is value in the footage Van Dyke provides that gives us a rare look at a revolution from the inside, but the price we have to pay for that glimpse is more footage of Van Dyke posing and preening for the camera. This culminates in a stomach-churning scene where Van Dyke is pressed to kill a Libyan soldier, which at first he seems reluctant to do, but ultimately accepts only after making sure his camera is recording it.
To have a film produced based on footage you shot of yourself must be a narcissist's wet dream. Van Dyke probably sees the release of this film as validation for all the choices he made and affirmation of his "manhood". At first glance, Curry seems to have provided this validation. Look deeper and you'll see a trenchant commentary on the voyeuristic nature of society today and how the meaning of "manhood" has changed from personal growth that is reached through a series of challenges and encounters to the filming and public exhibition of said transformation for all to see.
Matt Van Dyke's camera was clearly pointed at himself. Marshall Curry figuratively takes Van Dyke's camera and turns it back on us. As much as we don't like what we see in Van Dyke, when we think about what we watch today, be it "entertainment" or otherwise, should we feel any better about ourselves?
"Point and Shoot" is as frustrating and infuriating a film as I've seen in a long time.
Last Days in Vietnam (2014)
A Terrible, Terrible Moral Dilemma
From 1971 to 1975 I lived on the island of Puerto Rico. As my father was an employee of the Federal Government, my siblings and I attended school on a military base. I went to Antilles Middle School on Fort Buchanan from third to seventh grade. I remember two things most clearly from this time. First, our classrooms were WWII era barracks and secondly, every couple of months the entire school was sent down the hill to cheer on various military leaders who were coming in by chopper. On a couple of occasions, we were told that we were cheering for Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, the former Commander of US Military Operations in Vietnam. Viet Nam was something that I was aware of as a young boy, as I was a voracious reader of newspapers (because they were in English) and magazines. The only time I heard my father, a WWII and Korean conflict veteran, mention it was in the context of him moving his family to Canada if they drafted his sons. Not that any of us were anywhere near draft age, but it gives you a sense of the feeling that the war would never end. Certain images from the front pages of newspapers of that time are burned in my memory, including the image of the rooftop helicopter evacuation of Americans from Saigon. That evacuation is the focus of "Last Days in Vietnam", a new documentary by Rory Kennedy. With archival footage, newly released recordings and interviews with pilots, evacuees, and those left behind, Kennedy tells the gripping tale of the men who did their damnedest to uphold American honor and personal responsibility. This is the story of how they dealt with the "terrible, terrible moral dilemma" (as said by one of the interviewees) of deciding who to evacuate. Devoid of most of the politics of the day, Kennedy focuses on the men who, while not specifically given the responsibility for getting as many people out as they could, took it upon themselves to rescue those who faced certain death at the hands of the approaching North Vietnamese forces. The marines on the ground, the chopper pilots in the air, and the naval commanders at sea are all given their due for the incredible work that they did in evacuating approximately 170,000+ people in an amazingly short period of time. There are no villains in this film. Ambassador Graham Martin, the person responsible for ordering an evacuation, is treated fairly, as questions are raised and answered as to why an "official" evacuation had not begun earlier, and why thousands were left behind. Heroes are plentiful, from the American pilots who flew for 24 hours straight, to the South Vietnamese pilots who did whatever it took to rescue their families and friends. Most telling as to the emotional toll this event took on those involved is the overwhelming sense of regret and sorrow you get from interviews with US Marines responsible for Embassy security, and the images they witnessed as the last chopper departed Saigon thousands of people left on the Embassy grounds that had been assured they would be rescued. The evacuation of Saigon is probably the least known component of the Vietnam War as it occurred two years after the Paris Peace Accords had been signed and the US had withdrawn all combat troops. It deserves to be better known and understood and the people involved appreciated, and this film goes a long way in recognizing the honor and bravery of those tasked with an impossible mission. It's a tribute to Kennedy's skill as a filmmaker that she manages to take a story to which we all know the end and writes a seemingly new, riveting chapter. While the Vietnam experience is often looked at as the nadir in American foreign policy and military engagement, "Last Days in Vietnam" shows us that, even at its lowest point, there were those who stood tall and went above and beyond the call of duty to uphold American honor and simple human dignity.
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.