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Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
I went into this film expecting to like it much more than I did. Marion Cotillard is excellent, as always, but I just couldn't couldn't buy into the plot device driving the film. An employer at some type of small manufacturing firm where Cotillard works tells his employees to vote on either firing her from her job and keeping their annual bonuses, or else keeping her on and losing their bonuses. Although there are more than 16 employees shown working at the company, for some reason only 16 of her coworkers are voting on the matter. It seemed to me a bit far fetched that a management decision like that would be turned over to the workers in a divisive way likely to increase conflict within the company. Maybe they do stuff like that in Europe, I don't know. Other things felt forced and contrived to me as well, like the way she pops a Xanax every ten minutes while her husband continually nags her about it and she keeps replying "But I need it!" Or when she decides to commit suicide, then matter-of-factly changes her mind ninety seconds later, goes to the hospital to get her stomach pumped, then resumes running around town lobbying her coworkers later that same night, which drew some skeptical laughter from the audience at the screening I attended. Or when one of her coworkers, who she doesn't seem to be all that close to, decides out of the blue to leave her husband and move in with Cotillard and her family. And, as another reviewer here pointed out, the cringe-worthy "Gloria" sing-along in the car. I liked the humanistic theme, but for me the really stiff script undermined the verisimilitude of the film.
The most important documentary of the year
As I write this, a few days after the film's release, so far only three users have posted reviews about it on IMDb. Given that the film ends with the revelation that 1,200,000 people are on the US government's watchlist of people under surveillance, if you're contemplating adding a positive review, the first question that you have to ask yourself is: will this make me number 1,200,001? I've followed the media stories detailing the contents of the documents Snowden leaked, so that part of the film wasn't new to me, and in fact I felt some of Snowden's more serious disclosures were underexplored in the film, maybe because of their somewhat technical nature. If you're looking for a documentary that lays out in detail all the ins and outs of what the NSA is up to, this isn't it. The main strength of the film lies in its portrait of Snowden as a person. The filmmaker and other journalists basically meet Snowden in person for the first time with cameras running, and it's fascinating to watch them getting to know one another in such a highly charged, high stakes situation. Snowden is very articulate and precise, and obviously motivated by a very moral sense of right and wrong, in much the same way as Daniel Ellsberg. Whether or not you agree with Snowden, the film definitely undercuts criticism of him as being unpatriotic or mercenary. The documentary works well as an introduction to the Snowden story for those only casually aware of it, and also as a tense real world political thriller, sort of like Three Days Of The Condor come to life, but without the gunmen and Faye Dunaway. All in all, a very important film that everyone should see.
Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013)
great rock biopic
Man, I don't know what drugs some of these other reviewers are on. One person seems to be under the impression that the movie claims Jimi didn't play guitar before he came to England. WTF? Another person claims the film is racist because it accurately portrays white people helping Jimi move to London and start his own band. Yet another person claims Eric Clapton didn't walk off the stage when Jimi sat in with Cream because Clapton doesn't mention it when he's interviewed, but plenty of others remember it that way, and Clapton isn't going to go out of his way to bring up something that makes him look bad. Which brings us to Ms. Etchingham. You know, every time you watch a documentary about Hendrix there's an interview with a different woman whose only claim to fame in life is that she slept with Jimi, and they all seem to be self-appointed guardians of his legacy, every one of them was the real true love of his life, and none of them have a single negative word to say about him. But Hendrix was a famous womanizer—how he juggled jealous women is part of the focus of the film—and it is well known that he became angry and violent when he drank. So maybe Jimi beat her and maybe he didn't, but if he did I wouldn't really expect Ms. Etchingham to admit it, and if he didn't it doesn't really bother me that much because the episode can be viewed as a metaphor for a darker side of his personality that really did exist and wouldn't have been explored in the film without that scene.
Artistically I thought the film was a triumph and one of the best rock biopics I've seen. Andre Benjamin NAILS Jimi. He deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. He obviously spent a lot of time listening to audio of Jimi speaking because he captured the rhythm and inflections of Jimi's speech perfectly. And acting-wise Benjamin was excellent, I thought he got inside Jimi's character even more than Jamie Foxx did in Ray. As an actor he was remarkably in the moment and very subtle. And the female leads are with him all the way, especially Imogen Poots as Linda Keith, she's soooo good. The reviewer who said that the "crazy cuts and directing style" gave him a headache would undoubtedly get a cerebral hemorrhage from a Godard film, the editing was artistically innovative and miles ahead of standard Hollywood flicks like Get On Up and Ray.
As for the lack of original Hendrix songs, in the end it didn't bother me much. In a way it might have worked to the film's advantage, because it forced the director to concentrate more on creating a character study based on dialogue and narrative instead of recreating one performance clip after another, as in Get On Up. And anyhow, two-thirds of the movie takes place before Jimi put together the Experience and started writing songs. I did wonder why they didn't use "Hey Joe" since Jimi didn't write it and he was playing it onstage when Chas Chandler saw him for the first time. But overall, I loved the movie and thought it rocked hard.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
best Woody Allen film in ages
I thought this was Woody Allen's best film in years. The script was better written than I expected from him at this point, given his more recent turns toward drama, and the laughs are often derived as much from the dark humor in the characters' situations as from snappy punch lines. Kudos to Cate Blanchett who turns in a stellar performance, actors sometimes broadly interpret Woody's neurotic characters for comedic effect, more the way Woody would play the role (think Judy Davis), but Cate very effectively plays it straight and my guess is she'll be taking home the next best actress Oscar. For me the biggest surprise was Andrew Dice Clay, who gives a surprising nuanced performance as a working class guy bitter about having been screwed over by big shots, and in some ways his character morally anchors the film. Good job, Woody.
more magic from Koreeda
If, as many have pointed out, Koreeda is Ozu's cinematic heir, then I Wish is Koreeda's take on Ozu's Good Morning. Both films focus on adorable young kids and Japanese family life, and I have no qualms about saying between the two films, Koreeda easily outdoes Ozu. Not only is Koreeda's depiction of children subtler and more intuitive (no fart jokes here), but he coaxes wonderfully naturalistic performances from his child actors. Is there a director alive who does better work with kids than Koreeda? The movie really takes flight once the kids hit the road on their quest, and I loved the Ozu-ish part where they meet an elderly couple that takes in all the children for a night. Just a wonderful movie with tons of heart. Puts the human in humanistic filmmaking.
Margaret is a well written coming of age drama, but the protagonist is not a sympathetic character, which is going to alienate a lot of the audience right off the bat. The girl behind me as I left the theater didn't like it, telling her friend, "I just couldn't stand Anna Paquin's character." The screenplay is deft at shorthanding idiosyncratic, complicated personalities with naturalistic dialogue. It also helps that every role in the film, including almost every minor part, is cast with a top notch actor. But for all the big Hollywood names, my props go to J. Smith-Cameron for a theater-grade performance scaled down to fit the intimacy of a close up shot. The movie explores the milieu of affluent teenagers attending an upscale school in New York City, and one of the other reviewers here is right in saying it resembles a French film in that it takes an mature approach to depicting adolescents, showing them as smart, complicated, sexual, uncertain. Most mainstream reviewers seem puzzled as to what they should think about it. I think it's over their heads, the elliptical, dialogue heavy, character driven narrative style, as well as the lack of an easy, simple take-away moral, seems to have befuddled them. Maybe we should rope in some theater critics' opinions instead.
Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
You couldn't make a movie that looks more like my day to day life in San Francisco than this. Telling the story of two black twenty-somethings who meet and have a one night stand, they start off the morning after in Bernal Heights, walk over to Noe Valley for breakfast, hop a cab to the Marina to drop her off, then he heads back to his studio on Geary at Hyde, two blocks from where I once rented a nearly identical apartment, down to the rotating walk-in closet door that once sported a Murphy bed. The couple meet again and head to the Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission and then over to Yerba Buena Gardens to ride the merry-go-round, both a block away from where I work. Later that night they buy stuff for dinner at Rainbow Grocery then head down to the Knockout to dance while my pal DJ Paul Paul spins 45s although his oldies singles are overdubbed on the film's soundtrack with obscure but cool indie rock. But aside from the pleasure of seeing all my usual haunts captured on on film, or digital video rather, Medicine For Melancholy is a smart movie that captures not only the vibe of life in downtown San Francisco, but also the subtleties of the changing ethnic and economic demographics of the second most expensive city in the country. The guy—played by Wyatt Cenac, an occasional correspondent on John Stewart's Daily Show—has a deadpan quarrelsomeness that is occasionally hilarious, because not only is he concerned about the ongoing disenfranchisement of the black community in the city, he's also bugged about the pending disenfranchisement of himself from the girl's pants once her live-in boyfriend returns to town. Her boyfriend, by the way, is white, which Cenac's character tries to elevate to a political issue because of his looming romantic frustration, but she's not having it, which leads to one of the film's best exchanges as they argue about the role race plays in forming their sense of self-identity. Lots of clever relationship stuff, like surreptitiously scoping out each other's MySpace profiles and sharp naturalistic dialogue as they continually negotiate and renegotiate the emotional boundaries and ending point of their one day affair. And maybe the scene with the housing activists meeting was a digression, but you know what, if you live here that stuff is very important and on everybody's mind, and it fits nicely given the context of the film whether you like it or not. Highly recommended.
Shine a Light (2008)
Over their careers Martin Scorsese and the Rolling Stones have been responsible for so many brilliant pop culture explosions that I'm happy to allow them fluffy vanity projects in their autumn years. This film has like a bazillion edits, Scorsese rarely holds one shot for more than two or three seconds, very few wide shots, lots of tight close-ups on the faces of the band, mostly close-ups of Mick, because Scorsese is trying to create a sense of kinetic energy with all the quick edits and Mick runs around the most. And of course the cinematography and lighting is top-notch, and the Stones still play okay, so that stuff is all good. My big problem with it is that as a musician I like to watch the instrumentalists play, and this film is 90% shots of Mick jumping about and singing while Charlie Watts is almost never seen. And the music sounds muddy, the guitars are way down in the mix except when there's a close up of Keith or Ronnie playing a riff, then the volume on that instrument shoots up to emphasize that shot, and suddenly the guitar sounds bright the way it should, but then drops back down in the mix three seconds later. Scorsese is shooting for personality, and watching Mick run the band and cue the musicians is fun, but I would always rather be watching Keith instead, and while my favorite moment was when Keith walked out in his black vampire coat and stood there without a guitar and sang "You Got The Silver," I was bugged at Scorsese for running over Keith doing "Connection" by inserting interview clips in the middle of the song. Buddy Guy stole the show on "Champagne and Reefer" with the coolest guitar lick of the evening. Jack White sang badly and was annoying, and I'd never seen Christina Aguilera sing live before but she kind of rocked, doing her best Tina Turner, singing loud in a deep register and keeping a growl in her voice the whole way. Watching Bill and Hillary enjoying their celebrity status by bringing scores of friends and family to shake hands with the band was ironically entertaining (especially given their recent temper tantrums during the Democratic primaries), but Scorsese enjoying his celebrity status in the bits at the beginning and end a little less so.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
great but not awesome
It seems one should state where they stand on previous Paul Thomas Anderson films, so let me preface this by saying I enjoyed "Boogie Nights," walked out of "Magnolia" after about thirty minutes, and thought "Punch Drunk Love" was stylistically his most consistent, least flawed movie. This film is very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" I like the broad liberal social criticism of Sinclair's writing and was hoping for a more faithful adaptation, but those expecting to find that political dimension in "There Will Be Blood" will be disappointed. The film strips the story down to a rather narrow character study of a greedy power-mad oil man named Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems to be channeling John Huston's performance as Noah Cross in "Chinatown." Day-Lewis is, as always, flawless and a joy to watch. The last part of the movie, with Plainview living rich, mad and alone in his mansion, invites a comparison to "Citizen Kane," but unlike Kane, Plainview is a much more static, one dimensional character who hasn't changed much over the course of the film, except to get even meaner and more misanthropic. His foil throughout the film is Eli Sunday, a young evangelist played by Paul Dano, who struck me as not having quite enough gravitas for the role, but then again the relationship between Plainview and Sunday is increasingly played for laughs as the movie draws to an end, spinning toward a final scene that ends the film on a note of farcical Grand Guignol that represents an abrupt shift of tone from the austere beginning and middle of the film and threatens to thematically undermine what has preceded it, leaving the viewer to wonder about the ultimate meaning of the film's portrayal of Plainview. The picture is beautifully shot with gorgeous cinematography, and the musical score is effective although it's mixed painfully too loud into the soundtrack. A masterfully executed film, but one that in the end simply revels in its depiction of an entertaining psychopath without taking advantage of the broader social and political context inherent in the source material of the story, which could have elevated it to the status of a more meaningful work of art.
The Good German (2006)
Much has been made about how Steven Soderbergh shot this film with old cameras and lighting equipment to achieve a modern day take on grainy high contrast black and white retro cinematography. But to expect some type of homage to old Hollywood classics like Casablanca and The Third Man and Chinatown would miss the point. The Good German rather obviously alludes to all those films, but is not interested in creating sympathetic characters or wallowing in hardboiled unrequited romance. Soderbergh is crafting an anti-classic, a film that looks and feels like those old movies but stands them on their head to mock their underlying sentimentality. In a way it sort of reminds me of a humorless cousin of Robert Altman's revisionist take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, in which Elliot Gould reinvents tough guy Philip Marlow as a sort of wisecracking goofball who gets beaten up all the time. George Clooney's performance in The Good German seems off somehow until you realize that he embodies not so much a charismatic leading man as a blustery dumbbell who's letting himself be taken for a ride despite repeated (and accurate) admonitions from everyone in the movie that he's being an idiot. If, say, Brian De Palma had made this movie the acting and plot would have been so over the top and campy that it would have been hard to miss the intentional irony (The Black Dahlia), but Soderbergh goes to such great lengths to make his film look feel and move like an older film that one is tempted to keep looking for that cornball emotional payoff at the end that just isn't going to happen.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
A film about out of touch European monarchy, although perhaps the most clueless person here is the director, Sophia Coppola. The movie looks gorgeous all the way through, and the first half hour is actually very good, promising to be a sort of impressionistic Dangerous Liaisons riff, and the biggest surprise is how effectively the soundtrack of modern underground rock contributes to the atmospherics. But once France's future queen settles into Versailles, the film goes completely off the rails. What little drama that can be found centers entirely around whether Marie will ever have kids, other than that it's interminable costume changes and masquerade balls and adoring close ups of French pastries. Coppola's celebration of-not to mention obvious identification with--the teenage princess' world of privilege and excess is a bit mind-boggling, and rather squarely lines up the film's sympathies opposite the French Revolution. Kirsten Dunst's inadequate performance brings this folly into sharp relief-while the rest of the cast manage to affect accents derived from some European nationality or another, every time Dunst opens her mouth a bland, dimwitted suburban American drawl issues forth, so distracting as to take the viewer right out of the picture. Starving, rioting Frenchmen-barely mentioned until the film's last ten minutes, although students of history will know they were lurking about outside the palace gates-eventually arrive, big meanies who ruin Marie's tea party and drag her off to prison, leaving Marie sad about having to leave her pretty little palace. The events surrounding Marie's subsequent incarceration and execution are left to the viewer's imagination, an excellent opportunity for an interesting dramatic turn lostthe movie avoids such gravity at all costs. Even if Coppola was trying to make the case for Marie being an innocent caught up in the tide of history, those endless Hallmark card shots of angelic golden locked children playing with fuzzy baby goats and yummy French soldiers who show up for no reason other than a dreamy romance novel moment never add up to anything more than royalty porn for chicks, and in the end it all manages to be embarrassingly vapid, as well as historically myopic.
Running with Scissors (2006)
yes crazy people suck
I had to Google Augusten Burroughs after I got home from the film, because I had no idea who he was. Apparently he's an author who wrote a bestselling memoir about growing up with a mentally unhinged mother, on which this movie was based. I thought the film's narrative suffered from a weakness similar to that of another recent cinematic memoir, The Squid And The Whale, in that much of the film felt too personal, idiosyncratic and arbitrary, with events and details seemingly included because they happened in real life, not necessarily because they were carefully chosen, well crafted scenes representing the most skillful and creative way to communicate an artistic theme or larger idea. In fact, I'm not exactly sure what the point was, exactly, other than it sucks growing up around crazy people, but given the People magazine/Oprah level of discourse in our culture, maybe marketing yourself as a personality with a Jerry Springer-ready backstory is enough. To me, the more sophisticated artistic accomplishment would be to shape the material into a more focused, cohesive, ambitious fictional novel, or movie or whatever, plus you wouldn't have lawsuits from the real life parties. But then I haven't read his book and maybe he did fictionalize the story, but in the movie many things feel shorthanded, like the character of the father, played by Alec Baldwin, which was completely underdevelopedmaybe because pop has another whole memoir/movie in the works devoted to him? And his mother's girlfriend toward the end, what was her story, her motivation was completely obscure. Having said all that, though, I must say by the end I kind of liked the film. Thanks less to the script and more to stellar performances on the part of the cast, including Jill Clayburg and especially Annette Bening, the movie does gather some heavy dramatic momentum toward the end, and while the film may not have much more to say than it sucks growing up around crazy people, there's one scene that cuts from character to character, all simultaneously screaming in pain and frustration, that I thought said it pretty well.
49 Up (2005)
The most profound reality series ever
In 1964, English filmmakers including director Michael Apted assembled a group of fourteen British children from various economic and social backgrounds, all age 7, and made a documentary about them called 7 Up. Every seven years afterward, Apted revisited the same children and made another documentary about them, chronicling their lives at the ages of 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and now 49. The first installment that I watched, 28 Up, made me fall in love with these films. Much has been said about the series depicting the rigidity of the English class system, but as decades go by, the human element, the nature and personalities of the individuals being profiled, seems to be almost as important in affecting how their lives turned out. After seeing 28 Up and 35 Up, I remember feeling very bad for one kid who grew up coping with mental health problems and eventually wound up homeless, and thought leaving the theater that he wouldn't be alive for 42 Up. But by then he had moved to London and involved himself in local politics, a rewarding turn of events for him, and for the audience as well. The kids from the upper crust backgrounds have predictably had more affluent lives, and turned out to be the least forthcoming and most guarded on camera as adults, and less easy to warm up to. Some kids had deep seated feelings of shyness and insecurity that stayed with them as adults, and very publicly evaluating their failures and achievements every several years has been very difficult and uncomfortable for them. But even though some seem to resent the filmmakers' intrusion in their lives, they generally seem to understand the larger value of the series and twelve of the original fourteen kids continue to participate, even though they have misgivings or regrets about it. It's interesting to watch marriages and relationships suddenly begin and end, and usually people quickly remarry or find another relationship, often to someone more compatible and attractive. I identified most with the children who grew up to be teachers and academics, highly likable, intelligent people who realize that they aren't the most socially or economically successful but in many ways seem to be the most happy and fulfilled ones of the bunch. Despite their ambivalence, the participants deserve a big round of applause for letting us grow up and old along with them.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006)
"He was a counterculture revolutionary, and the government takes that kind of sh!t really seriously historically. My father was dangerous to the government. If he had said, 'Bomb the White House tomorrow,' there would have been 10,000 people who would have done it. These pacifist revolutionaries are historically killed by the government. Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests is insane, I think, or very naive."
--Sean Lennon, 1998
This documentary doesn't go into the conspiracy theories behind Lennon's murder, which center around reports that both Chapman and John Hinckley Jr. once belonged to a right-wing Christian evangelical organization that during the 1970s conducted espionage work and intelligence recruitment for the CIA. Sean doesn't make an appearance, except as a toddler in home movies. Yoko does say at one point in the film that she and John backed off from doing anti-war concerts because they felt that their lives were in danger, but the movie lays out the case for the government's paranoia about Lennon without exploring the specifics of his actual murder. Which is good, most people don't like conspiracy theories and going there would have considerably diminished the audience for the film.
Whatever the true story behind Chapman is, this is a wonderful movie which recreates an era for those too young to understand how divided the country had grown over the Vietnam war, and how influential and widespread was the reach of John Lennon's celebrity and cultural impact. He was at the time one of the most recognizably iconic faces in the world's collective consciousness, along with Nixon, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King. If he sneezed in public it was front page news, and he was the first pop star of that magnitude to decide to use his high media profile to support left wing political causes. His songs from this period strike me as the most impassioned, committed and heartfelt music he ever recorded, and the documentary makes you understand why his albums released in later years felt like a retreat into more circumspect commercialism. As the film makes clear, Lennon was forced to choose between being a musician and being an activist, and in the end he opted for music, but perhaps too late.
Superman Returns (2006)
Instead of rethinking the franchise, director Bryan Singer tries to closely replicate the vibe of the previous Superman movies with more expensive special effects and less charismatic actors. Brandon Routh channels Christopher Reeve's gosh golly gee whiz routine almost exactly, minus most of the wit and charmtoss Dean Cain into the mix, and lately Superman has gotten so wussed out that it really makes you start to miss George Reeves' barrel chested 1950s machismo. Routh does sport the best Superman outfit of them all, though. Kate Bosworth is way too young to be playing Lois Lane and acts, as the reviewer from the Chronicle put it, as if the whole world were trying to pick her up in a bar and she's not having it. Kevin Spacey is always good at chewing the scenery, but alas has little scenery to chew. The plotsome nonsense about growing continents from crystals swiped from the Fortress of Solitudeis retarded. Superman picks up an entire land mass synthesized from kryptonite and drags it into outer spacehello, it's kryptonite, he's not supposed to be able to get anywhere near the stuff. And when's the last time you read a comic book where the superhero goes to the hospitalyes, comatose from manhandling all that kryptonite, instead of being propped up outside in a lawn chair so the sunlight can recharge his superpowers, our hero gets admitted to a dark hospital room so Lois can have a tearful Hollywood moment with him, and the best part is when paramedics put an oxygen mask over the face of a guy from another planet who can fly around in outer space. Speaking of which, when Superman first returns to Earth, why does he crash unconscious in Ma Kent's cornfield like some flaming meteoric fireball? Did the scriptwriters ever read a Superman comic? If Superman can race the Flash to the end of the Milky Way and back without wiping out like a Grand Prix racecar, surely he could just land on his feet in the yard, walk in the front door and say, Hi mom, I'm home! And Lois' kid, who seems to be on Ritalin the entire film, for some reason has these health problems that don't make any sense at all given, well, you know, nudge nudge wink wink. Plus there's some weird Messianic stuff going on with Superman in this movie that I don't even want to waste any time trying to figure out. Makes you appreciate how awesome Batman Begins was.
Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (2004)
A very worthwhile documentary about musician Gram Parsons of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Originally filmed for British and German television, the movie is a very detailed portrait of Parsons' life, albeit at arm's lengththere would appear to be very little footage of Gram available, most of it performance clips, many of amateurish home movie quality. I don't recall even one shot of Gram on screen talking, although his voice is heard in a few sound snippets from an audio interview of indeterminate origin. The movie instead relies on extensive usage of still photographs and, most impressively, interviews with just about anyone still alive who was involved in Parson's life, including bandmates Chris Hillman and Emmylou Harris, Keith Richards, the surviving members of Gram's family, blustery former road manager Phil Kaufman who stole Gram's body at LAX and drunkenly drove it out to the desert and burned it, and even the girlfriend who checked into room number 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn with Parsons and watched him die of an overdose. The dynamics of Parsons' dysfunctional family and the impact it had on him are well documented, perhaps maybe a little too well documented, but the recollections of the musicians who played with him provide the most illuminating commentary on the allure and difficulties of Parsons' self-destructive talent. Overall, I had two main criticisms. One, the filmmakers' melodramatic animation of cartoon flames that rise from the bottom of the screen as Kaufman describes striking a match and throwing it into Parsons' gasoline soaked coffinnot to mention the aerial shot of a bonfire burning in the desert, obviously supposed to emblematic of Gram's burning corpseis especially cheesy, and really tacky. But my larger complaint is that despite the effluent praise of Parsons' talent, the film never establishes a broader historical context for his musical accomplishments that would allow the casual viewer to understand why he was so important, which was that he almost single-handedly invented the genre of country-rock. Pamela Des Barres alludes to it somewhat when she describes Gram playing records by Lefty Frizzell and Willie and Waylon for her, turning her on to a rich, vibrant side of country music that most rock music fans were unaware of at the time. But with the Byrd's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and his injection of flashy Nudie suit glam rock star attitude into his fairly traditional but definitely non-Nashville brand of country songwriting, he broke through to the rock crowd with an updated take on country music that paved the way for the Eagles and every country-rock outfit that followed. You maybe wouldn't quite understand how revolutionary that was from this filmsome obscure family friends could've been replaced by a perceptive rock critic or twobut all in all it's a really good documentary.
The World's Fastest Indian (2005)
If you go to a lot of movies, often you'll see the same preview over and over, and sometimes get so tired of it that you avoid the actual film when it's released because you're sick to death of the trailer. But one preview that made me happy every time I saw it was the U.S. trailer for The World's Fastest Indian, which starts off with the adrenaline pumping power chords of the Cult playing "Wolf Child" over a succession of quick cut racing imagesa customized 1920s Indian motorcycle shooting across the desert, down a two lane highway with a squad car chasing it, outrunning a biker gang at the beach, Anthony Hopkins skidding at high speed across the ground after wiping out and screaming defiantly the whole timethen switches to the revved up police siren guitar wail of the Clash doing "Police On My Back," and you think, man, this is going to be a cool flick about a hell bent for leather old dude giving the young hot shots what for. But when you see the film, there's no Cult or Clash on the soundtrack, and Anthony Hopkins' character, Burt Munroa real life New Zealand racing legendturns out not to be some fired up old geezer, but rather a polite, mild mannered old guy with health problems due to angina who likes to tinker with his motorcycle and is determined to get to America to participate in the Bonneville time trials before he gets too old and infirm to make the trip. Most of the suspense of the movie comes not from whether he'll set the land speed record, but from whether he'll run out of money or keel over dead from a heart attack before he even gets there. The movie is mostly about how Munro makes it from New Zealand to America on nothing but a few bucks and a gentle, sweet disposition that charms everyone he encounters along the way, including a horny widowed Dianne Ladd in a lovely cameo. Truly a great feel good movie that's never saccharine or phony. The filmmaker previously directed a documentary about Burt Munro, and his love for the story shows in every frame.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Having worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for many years, I wasn't unfamiliar with a lot of the material in this film, including the anecdote about the report EPA once sent to the Bush administration's Chief of Staff for Environmental Affairs, a former oil industry lobbyist who took it upon himself to edit out the Agency's conclusions about global warming as speculative theory before he released the report. Relatively minor quibbles about scientific methodology aside, that remains the main conservative objection to the overwhelming majority of the scientific community's concerns about global warmingsince it can't be proved definitively that human activity is the cause of what might just a natural historical cycle of environmental climate change, nothing need be done. Which is sort of like saying, there's no actual videotape of anyone hacking a voting machine during a presidential election so it shouldn't be investigated, despite the fact that there is a lot of empirical data circumstantially pointing in that direction that can't be rationally explained away by simply refusing to examine it. And that is not an analogy I make lightly, because that issue haunts this documentary. During the beginning of the film I thought, oh no, too much irrelevant stuff about Al Gore's personal life and political career, this is going to be self-serving infotainment, but following the montage of media clips from the 2000 election, Gore's narration grows more involving as he describes the position in which he found himself, certainly not your Average Joe, but still a private citizen disenfranchised by insider political corruption, wondering how he can make a differencehey, join the club, Al. But instead of yachting around with corrupt ex-presidents, he gets Brownie points for dusting off his PowerPoint presentation, loading it onto his Apple PowerBook and trudging around the world, trying to create an informed sense of community about important issues among the people that he meets, which in the end is all that any of us can do.
Art School Confidential (2006)
wickedly funny but one-dimensional satire
Boy, was this a dark little comedy. Director Terry Zwigoff directed one previous filmGhost Worldwith a screenplay adapted by Daniel Clowes from one of his own graphic novels, but Art School Confidential isn't nearly as successful. Ghost World's underground/alternageek street cred was bolstered by attention to character development that added a layer of dramatic resonance to the quirky plot line, but although Art School Confidential appears to start off as a semi-earnest coming of age story about a naive suburban kid named Jerome who goes away to a run-down art school in NYC, it soon becomes obvious that the film is only really interested in grinding its satirical axe against academia and the art world, and none of the characters are going to be spared its scorn. On that level, the movie is very funnyanyone who has ever taken a liberal arts workshop will recognize the hilariously passive aggressive faculty members and affected pretensions of the students. But while the viewer is initially inclined to identify with Jerome and his plight, as he becomes a less sympathetic characterespecially after he unwittingly burns down an apartment building and kills everyone insideyour reliance on the perceptiveness of his critical assessment of the work of the other students begins to shift, subtly reinforcing the movie's underlying premise, which is that art criticism and commercial success all amount to collective personal projection and a subjective dependence on context. Or maybe I'm reading more into the movie than the filmmakers intended, but I saw that as a nice meta-side effect of the ridiculously over the top punchline ending. John Malkovich's performance is easily the best thing about the movie, Jim Broadbent is good too, but Angelica Huston is totally wasted in a tiny part with nothing to do.
fascinating but too uncritical
Kurt Cobain once called Daniel Johnston the greatest songwriter on earth, but forgive me if I don't take Kurt's word for it. A lot of people interested in promoting Daniel Johnston's career (music writers, other bands, MTV) have spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince music fans that he's not an outsider artista naive folk artist who is also pretty much insanebut that's exactly the case. His music is not good in the conventional sense of informed, controlled, intentional and masterful. It is involving because Daniel Johnston is out of his mind and extremely idiosyncratic, but frankly, compared to an authentically talented songwriter like, say, Townes Van Zandt (to use the example of another unhinged singer/songwriter from Texas who was recently the subject of a documentary), Johnston is just an impressively motivated whack job with a small cult of dedicated fans and PR folks. And perhaps the most revealing aspect of this documentary is how so many people, back in the up for grabs era of the burgeoning underground/independent music scene in Austin, were cluelessly searching without a map for the next big thing and latched onto Johnston's delusional self-grandiosity, buying into it at face value. Musical pretensions aside, this film is actually an absorbing portrait of Johnston and his family and the tribulations they have endured going through life taking care of him. At one point his father was piloting himself and Daniel home in a private passenger plane when his son pulled the keys out of the ignition and threw them out the window and the plane plunged to the ground and crashed, and they both actually survived. Those types of incidentslike the time Daniel broke into an elderly woman's apartment and frightened her so badly that she jumped out a window to escape and broke both her legscertainly makes for an arresting documentary, just don't feel obliged to buy into the film's endlessly laudatory view of Johnston's musical acumen.
Town Bloody Hall (1979)
damn bloody entertaining
Town Bloody Hall documents a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer, acting as moderator, and four feminist writers, including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. The standing room audience of literati attending the event, Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan among them, joined in the fracas toward the end. The starting point of the discussion was The Prisoner Of Sex, Mailer's recently published rejoinder to Greer's The Female Eunuch and other writings of the emerging women's liberation movement. Mailer tries to make the case, rather vainly (in both senses of the word), for some consideration of the man's position in feminist rhetoric, and tries to draw the connection between biological function and social/psychological destiny, an old trick used by everyone from Freud to Ayn Rand. At one point, discussing how the disparity in physical strength between men and women causes them to respond differently to conflict, Mailer posits that when a man and a woman argue, sooner or later the man's temper is going to lead to a decision about whether or not to hit her. And if he does, says Mailer, he has immediately lost the argument. But if he doesn't hit her, and the woman keeps endlessly attacking him, taking advantage of his restraint and using it against him, then she is just as surely going to kill him by degrees.
Germaine Greer's comments focused mostly on how societally dictated attitudes toward women and the traditional roles assigned to them serve to repress women and keep them from achieving their full potential, especially artistically, as the male artistic ego and consumerism hold them back. The most reasoned rhetoric of the evening comes from critic Diana Trilling who, while lauding the goals and intent of the women's movement, reserves the right to ignore any dogma imposed upon her, sexually or otherwise, by any movement, feminist or chauvinist, that doesn't coincide with her beliefs and needs as an individual. Speaking about the political baggage being assigned to female orgasm at the time, Trilling says, dryly, "I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexities, we happen to be capable of." Her remarks foreshadow the corrective reaction of many feminists in subsequent years to the absolutism of much 70s era women's lib rhetoric, typified by the opposition of pro-porn activists like Annie Sprinkle to anti-porn crusaders like Andrea Dworkin.
Mailer starts off the evening as a gracious enough host, but as his masculinity increasingly comes under fire throughout the evening, especially from Greer, the whole enterprise rapidly devolves into barbed rejoinders and verbal one-upsmanship, all of it generally good natured and hilariously funnyMailer at one point gets up and courteously pours glasses of water for the women on the panel. Watching the whole thing over thirty years later, I was struck not only by the datedness of much of the argument, but also by how lively and intellectually informed and spirited our cultural debate used to be, compared to the current lack of literary and liberal vibrancy in our corporate controlled public discourse. All of us, women and men, are subject to consumer driven sexual objectification these daysgotta look good in your Calvin Klein underwearand any sense that times are changing for the better and that we can somehow affect those changes through lively public discourse has totally gone out the window.
Perhaps the wisest take on the issues of the evening was by a writer who wasn't there, Joyce Carol Oates, who in a 1971 essay on The Prisoner Of Sex wrote, "But after all this, after all these considerations, we are still left with the rage of Women's Liberation. How to explain this anger? And we understand slowly that what is being liberated is really hatred. Hatred of men. Women have always been forbidden hatred. Certainly they have been forbidden the articulation of all base, aggressive desires, in a way that men have not. Aggression has been glorified in men, abhorred in women. Now, the hatred is emerging. And such hatred! Such crude, vicious jokes at the expense of men! Most women, reading the accusations of certain feminists, will be as shocked and demoralized as Norman Mailer himself. Somehow, in spite of all the exploitation, the oppression, somehow . . . there are things about the private lives of men and women that should not be uttered, or at least we think they should not be uttered, they are so awful. Women have been the subjects of crude jokes for centuries, the objects of healthy male scorn, and now, as the revolution is upon us, men will become the objects of this scorn, this exaggerated disgust and comic sadism. Nothing will stop the hatred, not the passage of legislation, not the friendliest of men eager to come out in support of Women's Liberation. It has just begun. It is going to get worse. And yet, it will probably be short-lived. Hatred goes nowhere, has no goal, no energy. It has a certain use, but it has no beauty. There will be a place in our society for Mailer's heroic mysticism, at the point in history at which women can afford the same mysticism."
Black Moon (1934)
good 30s horror flick
The Castro recently ran a series of movies made by Columbia Pictures before the Hays Production Code went into effect in the 1930s. Compared to the Paramount pre-Codes the Balboa Theater was screening around the same time, the Columbia films were pretty much B-movie fare, but one film in particular stood out. Black Moon (1934), a moody suspense thriller with horror movie overtones, stars Dorothy Burgess as a New York socialite haunted by her childhood memories of growing up on a Haiti-like isle in the Caribbean. Taking her young daughter with her, she returns to visit her unclethe only remaining white inhabitant of the islandand confront her past. As it turns out, the black natives who took care of her as a child would secretly carry her into the jungle every night to participate in ceremonial voodoo sacrifices, and upon her return as an adult she assumes the role of white voodoo priestess and begins to lead the rituals. Her businessman husband Jack Holt, with secretary Fay Wray in tow, follows her to the island and while attempting to rescue his wife and daughter is besieged by the native voodoo worshippers. The remarkable thing about the movie is its slow oppressive mood, played entirely as a serious drama with little trace of dated campiness. The atmosphere of impending dread and shadowy black and white cinematography reminded me of the original Cat People, filmed eight years later. The black islanders are solemn and menacing without being racial stereotypes, and the voodoo drums beating throughout the movie add to the ominous creepiness. Sort of has the air of an early zombie movie, but without any zombies. Definitely catch it if you get a chance.
Walk the Line (2005)
I didn't for one minute buy Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. I didn't buy the guy who played Elvis, or the guy who played Jerry Lee Lewis, and as good as she was, I didn't buy Reese Witherspoon as June Carter either. I did buy the woman who played Mother Maybelle, she seemed authentically downhome, as did Robert Patrick as Johnny's dad, but the rest of the TV movie-ish cast seemed too young, too pretty, too uncountrified, andWitherspoon exceptedtoo thespianically challenged. That being said, I still enjoyed the movie, the camera work and retro set design looked good and the direction was understated and the whole thing actually came alive for one moment during the Folsom Prison concert scene. But the last part of the film focuses too myopically on his drug problems back then, and whatever the essence of Johnny Cashness iswhich despite the black clothes includes a knowing nod and a wink and infectious Southern high spiritedness that are fairly absent in Phoenix's somber, morose, inward performanceit's buried by the film's single-minded interest in Johnny's dysfunctional courtship of June. Which is portrayed interestingly enough, but the impact that Cash's stubborn class-conscious country songs had on popular music during the 60s gets sidelined along the way, assumed rather than shown, and the film nearly loses track of what made him a great artist.
King Kong (2005)
Maybe one of those times when the studio should have taken the film from the director and edited it down to size. Way too much exposition in the beginning. Too much development of minor characters who get squashed in the jungle early on. Repetitive allusions to Conrad's Heart Of Darkness that don't quite fit or go anywhere. Too much time spent on extraneous bug attacks and people running ridiculously between the legs of dinosaurs stampeding Pamplona style. Robert Armstrong's derring-do in the original film version has been rewritten as smarminess for Jack Black, who fits the bill but doesn't have enough manic intensity to pull off the Orson Welles thing he's going for. And taking a cue from Mighty Joe Young, this Kong is much more user-friendly than the perpetually ticked off 1933 model. Director Peter Jackson's post-Koko take on the interspecies communication savvy of the gorilla creates a marvelously textured, funny, thoughtful modern update of the beast. Naomi Watts emotes tolerably well toward a blue screen, but really, after being in Kong's fist the entire time he's kicking dinosaur assunlike Fay Wray, who spectated from a logshe would've had such a case of whiplash she wouldn't have been able to move her neck for a year.
I first saw the original King Kong when I was ten years old, in a dark run-down movie theater in Jackson, Tennessee. Since then I've often seen parts of it on television, but last night I watched the entire film for the second time from the balcony of the Castro Theater, and although the stop-action animation is decades old, the sight of Kong rampaging across the big screen is still mightily impressive. The film is so light on its feetthe cornball jokes still work, and they reach the island in the first twenty minutes of the movie and then almost as soon as they return to New York Kong is loose again. Watching it as a prepubescent kid, I was oblivious to one of the film's biggest charmsFay Wray. Several months ago, when the Castro screened a festival of Columbia pre-Code films, I watched every one that starred her. I have a huge crush on Fay Wray. What gams! What a mug! What a dame! She was stunning, and given a decent role was also a good actress. I'd rather get my paws on her than Naomi Watts any day.
All about Albert
So I'm a big Albert Brooks fan, and every one of his previous feature films--Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost In America, Defending Your Life, Mother, and The Muse--made me laugh hard. Brooks has always been sort of a comedian's comedian, one of the first meta-comics, doing inspired bits that stood the old school conventions of comedy performers on their head in order to goof on them, which paved the way for people like Andy Kaufman, who took the idea even further. He's also big on self-deprecation, at which he is much better and more self-aware than Woody Allen, who secretly seems to harbor a smug superiority complex that gets worse with age. Albert, however, grows increasingly hard on himself as time goes by, which brings us to Looking For Comedy in The Muslim World. With a title like that, a lot of people are probably expecting a wry little observational film about the humor to be found in the East/West culture clash. Wrong. What this film is about is--Albert Brooks! And you can view the Muslim/Hindu thing as simply a big metaphor for a world that just doesn't get Albert Brooks or his humor. Albert gets asked by the State Department to go to India to find out what makes Muslims laugh. Wait, Albert says, isn't India mostly Hindu? And the State Department guy says, You find out what makes the Hindus laugh and we'll consider this a success. So Albert goes to New Dehli and does his stand up act for a few hundred locals and no one laughs. Okay, Albert asks the audience during the failing performance, how many of you speak English? And everyone in the audience raises their hand. There is a case to be made that if you aren't familiar with Albert Brooks or the method to his madness, then you aren't going to get this film, just like all those mystified Muslims. But you know what, that's kind of the point of the movie.