There's been a lot of weird shit happening too, lately. The incidents in Ottawa and yesterday in New York, and ISIS, in general. I mean, I get both sides on that but, we're damned if we do nothing and we're damned if we do something, but that's par for the course in the Middle East. And then in the film world, we had some tragic losses. I was closely following the sad saga of Misty Upham's tragic passing. She was one of the best actresses around. If you looked at a normal picture of her, and then saw her work in "Frozen River", you wouldn't think it was the same person, one of the overlooked great performances of our time, one of many she's gave us. I'll be following closely the details of the investigation into her death. Elizabeth Pena's passing was also a shocking and sudden blow as well. She was 55, but I swore I thought she was at least ten years younger still. Jan Hooks as well, she never got the credit she deserved, rough time in Hollywood.
Well, that was an overall depressing way to open this blog, but that's what's going. Oh, don't forget to follow me both on Twitter and on the blog's FB page, where I've started posting clips and explanations of each day's "RANDOM OBSCURE REFERENCE" on our Twitter, in case some of them are a little too obscure for you to catch. Hope you guys enjoy that little twitter treat. Anyway, it's time for our blog's other random-based tradition, our 'RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS"!
JOE (2014) Director: David Gordon Green
I've been hearing a lot about "Joe" in recent months, and I must admit to being somewhat intrigued and excited about it. It's the latest film by David Gordon Green, one of my favorite filmmakers when he isn't making "Your Highness" (Which I unfortunately saw) or "The Sitter" (Which, I haven't yet), and here, he's returning to his southern gothic roots with this adaptation of the Larry Brown novel. I also heard Nicholas Cage, who I often consider to be the best actor in Hollywood (An opinion I'm often derided by from people who only look at the quality of his films and don't study the nuances of his craft.) And yet, after watching the film, I noticed something wasn't grabbing me and wasn't quite right; this didn't have the same emotional pull as films like "All the Real Girls" or "Undertow". Those slice of life, moments he used to meander on, seemed more like teases of the films I usually remember thinking about when Green's at his best, and not really apart of a greater whole, and I think that's one of the problems ultimately with "Joe". Cage plays the title character Joe, and it's a good but not great performance by him, as an ex-convict who most of the town regards as being relatively good-hearted. He's a foreman for a group of workers who's job is to poison the trees on a land, so that they can die faster, and the owners can then plant new trees and roots to help them grow. Joe gets approached by a teenager, Gary (Tye Sheridan, the little kid in Jeff Nichols's "Mud", the other great southern gothic filmmaker of today.) asks for a job. He's unusually adult and impressive, and he gets hired and trusted. His looking on at his drunk old man, Wade (Gary Poulter) and protecting his Mother (Brenda Isaacs Booth, her character's never given a name) and sister Dorothy (Anna Niemtschk) from him; they currently seem to move to town to town, to condemned house to condemned house, as the father switches barely between drunken asshole and asshole trying to get drunk most of the time. The movie is paced, but it actually does move fast, but it never seems to go anywhere. Between visits to a brothel and a local craps game, Joe is injured after being attacked by a local drunk, Willie-Russel (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who shows off the scar on his face, which he insists on telling us about getting after going through a windshield at four in the morning, and that he don't give a fuck. Their isn't much else to his character, but apparently, he had a recent incident with Joe, and that made him go after him. Even the subplots involving the brothel and the other characters, seem to get dismissed quite quickly, even the temporary moving in of Connie (Adrienne Mishler), who's hiding out at Joe's place, while her abusive ex-boyfriend's back in town, doesn't ever seem to go anywhere. Things get perpetually worst and worst for Gary, and it becomes more and more inevitably that Joe will have to intervene, and be some kind of role model for Gary, or really, more like a hero or martyr for the boy. There's inner conflict in him, as he's trying desperately to get away from his inner demons, but he knows eventually, whether he gets involved or not, bad things are gonna happen, so he might as well do what's needed. When you think back, it all seems too convenient, contrived, and there's no real extra levels to any of the evil characters, in fact, they're bordering on the line between cliche and caricature, when you get right down to it. In fact, only Joe and Cage's performance really gives us anything nearing a substantial character, and even then, we realize that a decent sizeable chunk of his work, is underwritten (Which actually makes his performance better, realizing what he needs to do to get this character out of him. To paraphrase Martin Sheen, sometimes the higher a monkey climbs, the more he shows his ass. I'm through it twice now, and frankly the more it's showing it's ass, and since the bar is set so high now for Green, "Joe" gets more underwhelming as it goes on, and heads towards an inevitable violent conclusion. I'm torn on the film, but I get the sense that there's less there than there should be. Maybe that's the material's fault more than the actual filmmaking, but still, I can only judge what I got in front of me, and despite some very specific great work involved, it's got more faults that positives; I can't quite recommend "Joe".
UNDER THE SKIN (2014) Director: Jonathan Glazer
I almost wonder if revealing anything about "Under the Skin", is in a way, giving away too much, but then again, I can explain point-by-point everything that happens, and you would still not take away enough to fully contemplate what the film is. The story is rather irrelevant frankly. I can tell you that Scarlet Johansson, in a stunning performance, plays the lead role. (No characters in the film are ever given names) She is a stunning creature, who is apparently some kind of foreign being. Where exactly is she from? It's probably just better if you see the imagery and what happens to the men she picks up, and willingly enter this out-of-the-way building, and what exactly happens that's inside to them. Some have wondered if there's some metaphorical level to it; I don't think so; I actually think the scenes are very literal. Stylized, yes, but, the contrast is what's so important, that I'm not sure anything symbolic is essential to them. They seem and feel more prudent to exist as they are actual experiences. Why would those scenes be any less unreal, than the one terrifying scene at a beach, which involves a vicious murder, and that's the least disturbing part of that sequence. There's no explanation for her actions there, there's very little for anything else, but we get enough to understand the story of this striking alien-like creature and the experiences she has. As you can see, I've chosen the former, to give and reveal as little as humanly possible. Other critics have chosen to give or reveal much more. There's no right or wrong way to talk about the film, as long as you understand, more important is the way the film is done. It was directed Jonathan Glazer, his first feature in a decade, since "Birth", with Nicole Kidman, that I somehow missed; I did see his debut feature "Sexy Beast", which I actually hated, 'cause it didn't go anywhere, despite the heavily-praised Oscar-nominated performance by Ben Kingsley, I typically just felt that the whole film was his character being introduced in order to be killed off, and not much else. (I even predicted the how the heist worked in that film) "Under the Skin" apparently took heavy literary licenses with the original novel source material, (I would've probably guessed that had I not been informed) and the movie was actually made, almost secretly. Hidden cameras were often used to try and coax unsuspecting people in Scarlet Johansson's van, who's under what's clearly a black wig to us, but could easily be enough to hide out when people aren't suspecting that she's around. There's a couple somewhat major characters, a motorcycle rider, who knows something, he picked up a laid-out prostitute in the beginning of the film, and later, a male character trying to befriend her. Other than that, there's been comparisons to Kubrick, Lynch, Antonioni, Carruth, Roeg, Matt Zoller Seitz's review on rogerebert.com actually has about 13 directors or filmmakers mentioned in it. I could list a few other names as well, but where Glazer's may have looked for inspiration to those names, I think the directing, is all his own. The close-ups on Scarlet's face, and following shots of the motorcycle, the amazing use of sound design and visuals, the drastic contrasts between the city of Glasgow and the surrounding mountain, to the bare, almost Matrix-y world that only Scarlet and maybe the motorcycle guy know the clue for. "Under the Skin" is a hypnotic and engrossing film about how hypnotic and engrossing it is, and that's what makes it really special.
THE DOUBLE (2014) Director: Richard Ayoade
I don't do this that often, but every once in a while, I'll be inundated with multiple films at once, and I'll occasionally for whatever reason, forget a film that I had seen that week, and therefore forget to review it. I did that with Richard Ayoade's latest "The Double". I attribute this to it not being a film I wanted to properly remember, as well as the fact that I had said and discussed much of what I wanted to say on the subject of doubles and dobblegangers that week, after reviewing "Enemy". This one is based on Dosteyevsky's novella, and takes place in a future where it's relatively routine to see people committing suicide because their lives are so despondent and hopeless. It's a really dreary and dark world, and I'll give the film credit for creating this future universe that I myself had never seen, but I wouldn't really want to live here. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a very lowly, overworked and overly devoted employee of a company run by Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn). He's usually forgettable, the guard continuously doesn't recognize him, and has to convince everybody constantly that he actually works there. He's got a deep crush on his co-worker and neighbor Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) but he's unable to do anything. This is around the time, he realizes that James (Eisenberg, in a dual role) comes into the picture. He's cocky, arrogant, got swagger, and the ear of Mr. Papadopoulos, and well as his daughter Melanie (Yasmin Paige) as nearly every other girl around he wants. He promises a deal to Simon more like him, but mostly he just takes the work he does, says it was him doing it, and spirals deeper and deeper into anonymity than he already was, and further and further down this Kafkaesque hole of existence he has. Eisenberg is one of the better actors around and he's incredible here. That said, the film was more or less continuous dread. I think it was supposed to be a dark comedy, but it more or less just came off dark and nothing else. There's no joy, there's no anything in this world for Simon other than, getting shit constantly piled on him, and he's without the tools to negotiate what he wants out of it, meanwhile we see his double, be everything good and bad that he isn't, and eventually, what a surprise, he's taking over his life. I only kinda gave "Enemy" a positive review, with much of these same trepidations I have here with this film. It seems like there's only a few different ways to really deal with the concept the doubles, as some kind of allegory of taking over one's life, and that's not even done in an intriguing or fun way anymore. There's little entertainment and a lot of frustration. This is Ayoade's second feature as a director after his debut "Submarine", which also was also a film who's positive recommendations I found baffling. Looking back on my negative review of that film, also with a something incapable delusional lead character, based on a novel, and he more sprung from the Holden Caulfield type than Simon is here, and my final line of that review was, "I didn't like the kid, so I didn't like the movie." Well, I liked Simon, and so that made "The Double", more annoying the more he fails. At least with the Craig Roberts character in "Submarine" his failures seems justified like karma coming back at him. This world lacks karma, as well as anything else in the supernatural, including hope, except for of course, the dobbleganger, and apparently, only they even realize they look alike. Even with a movie nightmare, you still want to the experience to be enjoyable enough that you want to remain in the dream. I didn't want to experience this nightmare, so I'm not gonna recommend this film.
IT FELT LIKE LOVE (2014) Director: Eliza Hittman
Teenagers, from my experience are either having less sex than they claim, exactly as much as they claim, or more sex than they claim, and no matter how hard you try, their is absolutely no accurate system in which to tell which person is which. (I never claimed to have sex in high school, and never did, and I bet money that there's way more people who thought I had sex then there is that thought otherwise.) That said, the insinuation and allusions to sex from everyone, is everywhere, if you're looking for it. I remember once, walking through the lunchroom after kissing somebody, suddenly, I won't go into more details on that, but I watch everybody get up when the bell, I lost count, but there must have been about ten or twelve couple, making out goodbye as they head off to their next classes, and somehow I hadn't really noticed all of that before. I also had a friend who had way more sex than she claimed she had, and she had a lot. In "It Felt Like Love", Chiara (Giovanni Salimeni), and it's not that she's having a lot of sex, although she is, most of it casual although she prefers to have a boyfriend, but she's much more experienced and natural with it than her best friend Lila (Gina Piersanti), who this film is about. We don't see much of Lila's homelife, although her father (Kevin Anthony Ryan) seems believable as an out-of-the-loop single father who can see her daughter's on a downward spiral, but doesn't have too many skills or abilities to deal with her correctly or at all. (Or, he might be smart enough to know that whatever move he makes will inevitably backfire, so he's letting it play out.) Lila's not unattractive, but she's plain and hasn't fully developed yet, while Chiara is basically a teenage bikini model (and she usually is in a bikini). She hears about an older guy who works at a bowling alley, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein) who will supposedly have sex with anyone or anything, and she pursues him. One of her ways of trying to get laid along with parties and deception. She goes and starts hanging out at some basement pad where Sammy and a couple friends of his hang out, and volunteers to humiliate herself for them, sexually. Why don't get, an answer or an explanation for her behavior, other than she does it, and we don't hide from it. Hittman's most constant image is Lila's face, and she sticks with her no matter what she's doing, whether doing a dance routine to for school to letting herself get smacked with a ping pong paddle, after talking about how she's considering porn as a career option. (My best friend (NAME DELETED) always used to talk about becoming a stripper when she grew up when we were in school.) If there's something unusual about Lila it's that, the pressure is really mostly within her, not from peer's per se. Chiara gets it, and actually offers sound realistic advice at times to Lila, but she's not always interested in hearing it. Plus, it's hard to not feel out-of-the-loop when your friend asks her to check if her vagina is swollen or irritated in some way. I related a lot surprisingly to Lila, perhaps that says more about me than the film. It's not perfect, I never once bought her character as a dancer in any way, even for a routine. That said, I found myself appreciating "It Felt Like Love" the more I thought about it. It's daring, bold, and makes us look at situations we probably would rather not know happen, but shows us exactly how they could occur, and what would make people have such a decision. The title is peculiar the more I think about it too....
CITIZEN KOCH (2014) Directors: Carl Deal & Tia Lessin
Being as knowledgeable and politically aware and astute as I am, I wasn't looking forward to watching "Citizen Koch", fearing mostly me getting frustrated with facts and knowledge that frankly, I already knew too much about. And, a lot of times, I was. Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that reversed McCain-Feingold, made for an unlimited amount of money to be donated to campaigns, the formation of the racists, (That's the more accurate description of the Tea Party so that's why I call them.) and the Republican midterm elections that gerrymandered states lead by Republican governors and statehouse like Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker worked as a puppet for the Koch Brothers to eliminate collective bargaining and unions. They even show him, near the beginning point of his time in office, taking a meeting with one of his largest donors, (Not a Koch brother, but a woman) as they talk about the plans to strip the Unions of their right of collective bargaining, which he inevitably did. (In hindsight, how and why did they even get a camera there in the statehouse to record what they actually did?) Then, they showed me a guy I never heard of named Buddy Roemer. He's a former Governor and Congressman from Louisiana, and he ran for President in 2012. Why didn't I, or many others hear about him? Cause he was against PACs, SuperPACs, and Citizens United, and wasn't allowed to get into the debates, despite reaching the 2% threshold (which was originally upped from 1%) because he didn't raise enough money in 90 days. That's the core behind Citizens United, or as he puts it, "Money is a weapon, and the rich are going into battle, and they got the most weapons." Wisconsin became the top battleground for this, as annoyed citizens and congressmen signed up for a recall election, which he notably won, with only 53% of the vote. (He had won the Governship with 58% less than two years earlier.) On the phone a radio DJ pretended to be David Koch, Walker's biggest contributor, acting and sounding like he was essentially a giddy drone working for him. On the ground, the movie documents both sides of the unrest in Wisconsin, as well as the drama on and disconnect on the ground. Longtime anti-government and even many pro-union Republicans became more and more disillusioned with Republicans, in both Washington, and across the country post "Citizens United", and the outright legalized corruption it allows. Roemer after finally giving up, deep into the Presidential primaries, quietly announced that he resigned from the Party, becoming and Independent, disgusted with the ways both parties were pawns to corporate powers. "Citizen Koch", does go outside the exclusive California resort where the Koch Brothers go along with numerous high-profile Republican politicians and other businessmen, to plan out their upcoming years and what to do. The film was originally schedule to get an airing on PBS, but David Koch, had donated over $20,000,000 to PBS, apparently the one government program he approves of, and suddenly the documentary had to make it's way to theaters. It's not the inside scoop on the Koch's promised by the name, but then again, you can watch that on Rachel Maddow. Which is not something the ultra right-wing voters in Wisconsin seem interested in doing, as they seem to believe, as one guy puts it, being interview outside of a pro-Walker rally led by obscure right-wing country acts and MC'd by the guy who played Benny on "Home Improvement", proving once again why conservatism can't have a Jon Stewart equal on their side, that he won't believe the so-called "liberal media", only Fox News. It's clear that the far-right that's taken over the GOP is clearly run by the wealthy, and the special interests, are essentially their's and their's alone, but the more they can believe they're also others interests, they'll do anything to make sure the voters think it. If that means, disenfranchising the Unions, so that they can't send money to their potential candidate or to let they're voice heard in the campaigns, as well as the ability to pay employees as little as possible by getting rid of unions. Like I said, most of this, will not, or should not be new information, but "Citizen Koch", does document a quickly-forgotten time period in recent America. Walker did win recall, but he's up again for reelection again though, in a very close election coming up, and Obama and the Democrats, not only won the Presidency easily and the Senate, Obama won Wisconsin, even with one of the state's Congressmen on the GOP ticket. Occasionally, they show a sign of Ripon, Wisconsin, which reads "Birthplace of the Republican Party", and it seems like the town is now a battleground for the inevitable end of it.
BICYCLING WITH MOLIERE (2014) Director: Philippe Le Guay
I wish I had read more Moliere before going into this film; I've obviously heard of "The Misanthrope" before, and in fact, have often been described as one at times. I was gonna read over it, but couldn't find a really great copy online, so as I'm reading this, I'm watching a Youtube performance of it by-, eh, the Greenwood Community Theater a local theater in Greenwood, South Carolina, which is,- where the hell is that? It's kinda equidistant, between Greenville, Columbia and Augusta, GA. Yeah, take the 25 from between Augusta and Greenville and you'll go right past it, it looks like. (Well, I was watching that, but I skipped too far ahead, so I started watching a Carpetbagger's Theater Production, which is actually much better shot and more eloquently performed, sorry Greenwood Community Theater, but you weren't bad either, it's as much a film production on Youtube thing.) Well, it's a decent enough performance actually; probably be better in French but I'm not that picky. Anyway, "Bicycling with Moliere" isn't so much about the play, although there's clear parallels, but it's really two actors, Serge (Fabrice Luchini) an older actor's who's retired early, but is still clearly capable and exceptionally talented, too talented Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) believes to simply be retired. Gauthier works on a disheartening TV show and he wants to do something more artistic and theatrical, and tries mightily to convince Serge to do Moliere's "The Misanthrope" with him. The best parts of the movie, are the rehearsal that he eventually convinces Serge to participate in, under the condition that they both learn Alsace and Celimaine, as both really want to play Alsace, but they'll agree to switch roles weekly, if they still go through with it. They're not off book, but the way they read, argue about the interpretations, the readings, the tones, these are the reasons why I love actors. How they interpret and read roles; they're process, it's fascinating. How a constant phone ringing can annoy everything, or how the rehearsals turn into a tennis match of actor vs. actor, and then a chess match once a real estate investor Francesca (Maya Sansa) comes into the frame and they both seem to be trying to get her. There's a few other weird subplots, and the movie, overall kinda starts falling from there; I know what Director Phillippe Le Guay is doing, but I found myself disappointed at the end. It's much darker and more mature than his last film, "The Women on the 6th Floor", which was a real mindless but enjoyable fluff essentially and this one's a little better, a little more serious, and dark. Realistic possibly. It's not bad, but it kinda leaves the behind-the-scenes world and instead moves itself into more melodrama between the actors. It's tone is a bit too erratic, it feels like it wants to be a few different kinds of movies, and they're all kinda fighting each other. Still, for the positive parts of the film, "Bicycling with Moliere" is still utterly fascinating.
AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ (2014) Director: Nancy Buriski
Tanaquil "Tanny" Le Clercq was probably the biggest and most transcendent ballerina of her time, but like many dancers her time was short, unfortunately for her, it wasn't because of age or wisdom or a lack of a skill or talent or anything, even marriage to the great George Balantine, her old professor who Tanny was a muse for. She was also a muse for Jerome Robbins. the title "Afternoon of a Faun" comes from the Nijinsky ballet that Robbins and Debussy put on in New York with Tanny originated. In "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq", we get interviews, from some of those still around who remembered her brief dancing career, we even get some audio recordings of her, but most of the film is old footage, mostly black and white, of Tanaquil's work. Dance is, such a weird art form; there's a great deleted scene in "Dogma" where Salma Hayak's character talks about dance, "the way God designed dance, it's the only creative act which results in no tangible product. Unlike paintings, poems, movies or most other art forms, when the dance is over, there's nothing to show for it - nothing to save and enjoy... or sell." So this amazing footage is the real prize. Le Clercq, during a tour of Europe was suddenly struck ill with polio, and became paralyzed for the rest of her life. She'd go on to teach occasionally, but this is best as a preservation as we might be able to get of her work. Dance, more than any other art film, needs, another art film, film, to help it survive. "Afternoon of a Faun", is a tranquil and beautiful look of one of the best dancers of the last century, one who's name will now be remembered more vividly than most of the others, since we now have that documentation. She was unusually tall and long-legged for a ballerina, thin and graceful, able to do things most wouldn't at the time, us being used to the more short and stocky but flexible types likes Moira Shearer, and you can tell why we're the people in the film, and the legendary choreographers of the time remained so enthralled with her. "Afternoon of a Faun..." is a great documentation of a great dancer.
TIM'S VERMEER (2013) Director: Teller
(CONFLICT OF INTEREST WARNING: As with most films show at least partially in the Las Vegas Valley, there's a distinct chance that I may know one or two people, first-hand, second, or otherwise involved with the production.)
Being in Las Vegas, Penn & Teller are such apart of the fabric of the town, that it seems like everybody has some connection to them, and knows them intimately. I've seen Penn Jillette sporadically around town, and I even know a few people who've worked for them over the years. That said, believe it or not, I'm not surprised that they've suddenly made a foray into documentary filmmaking. Penn Jillette's been a narrator and voice artist on the side for years, and he produced the documentary, "The Aristocrats" a few years back, one of his many side projects, and actually, Teller in recent years, has become quite the theater director and playwright; even directing a very well-regarded theatrical production of "MacBeth" a few years back, one of his numerous side projects as well. (It's strange how similar and how distinctly different they are.) It's actually quite interesting just how much they actually do, separately, outside of Penn & Teller, and I bring that up, because Teller's feature directorial debut, is also about a side project. Tim Jenison, a close friend of theirs is practically a technological savant. His company, NewTek has produced some of the most important and innovative technologies over the last 30 years, including creating things like TriCaster which enhanced filmmakers abilities to use graphics, and basically reinvented the TV production studio by merging everything into one computer. He's even won two technical Emmys for his company's accomplishments, and that's only a fraction of what they do, but working in the graphic arts, he's fascinated by art himself, particular Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer by many is considered one of, if not, the greatest artist of all-time. His "Girl with a Pearl Earring" was not only an inspiration for other forms of literature, including a novel that adapted into a pretty good film, That said, his paintings along with others represented a new evolution in painting that almost looked photographic in nature, too realistic to be believed. A few hypothesized that, with the advent of fiberoptics at the time period, that Vermeer, possibly used something like a camera obscura to make his paintings. Many have hypothesized how exactly he was able to paint with light essentially in many of his photographs, and while many art experts shutter to think about such a possibility, under some determinate that lenses is somehow cheating, Tim Jenison decided to see, if he could replicate the conditions in which Vermeer painted, including a similar building, and learning how to make paint just like back in Vermeer's time period, and even replicating in it's entirely one of his paintings. Tim is not a trained painter by any means, but he's shown how using lens and optics, he's able to replicate photographs exactly, even impressing well-known established painters with the unusual technique. He learns dutch, travels to Holland, even gets a look inside Buckingham Palace at the painting he's recreating. His work's more impressive in person. Even among the time the time period, Vermeer's work is mysterious. There seems to be no outlines in his paintings the way even most optic painters painted, there's little to no background for Vermeer; it appears he had no formal training under anybody, something particularly unusual, making his work seem more amazing when you look at it. You'd think the movie would be a little more elaborate than it is, it's actually quite bare and short, barely clocking in at 79 minutes, not the sustenance of flash you'd think to expect out of Penn & Teller, but then again, they always were about, letting us look behind the curtain, and deconstructing everything from a simple magic trick, to whatever, including a Vermeer, and the actual process and work involved in creating the work, and especially the work involved in replicating it centuries later, have to not only learn old technology, but to try and re-discover new technology that perhaps Vermeer might've used. The process is always intriguing, and the results, amazing. I've always had a fascination with paintings and art; I don't know how many damn trees I've seen Bob Ross paint, but you don't really get the technical expertise involved from watching a half-hour of an expert doing it, here's not only an analysis of his art, it's an exceptional look into the technical process of how art is created, and surprisingly, it makes Vermeer's original work seem more special now that we've learned, through Tim Jenison, exactly how he might have actually been able to create the images he did. One more reminder for all of us that sometimes the smoke and mirrors are indeed the art.
DIANA (2013) Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
It's hard for people who are growing up now to fully understand how a certain generation, that I am apart of, feel about Princess Diana. (Naomi Watts) It's hard to explain now, but- this is a horrible comparison, but we treated her like Paris Hilton, but not, like for a few years but forever, and not because she was ever doing anything over-the-top or ridiculous or crazy or flashing or having a sex tape or anything really stupid, we kinda just grew up with her. She was living the fantasy, nineteen or so, years old, marrying the future kind of England, it was a literal fantasy come-true and we were simply, obsessed with her, She was young, spunky, but class, grace, elegance. I am, basically the last generation of my generation who remember distinctly where they were when she passed, and it was an event. I remember it very well in fact, we have gotten home from McDonald's my Aunt Patty was freaking out about the accident, and Dodi Fiad (Cas Avner) we heard had been killed, along with the driver, and I think there was a passenger who survived the crash, I'm not sure, and the paparazzi were chasing her down through the tunnel, and the news was breaking from there, and it wasn't clear how injured she was. It was a few hours later, and I was in my grandmother's room, who was at work I believe, 'cause my ancient TV kept burning itself out, so I was in her room, and turned on, this old little black and white television, that had good picture, but needed ten minutes of snow before it could actually come up with a visual image, and I didn't see the report, I heard it; it was still snow, when they cut into "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper", and said she had passed, and I went out and informed everybody else when that happened, and they then switched channels and we were in a state of mourning for, like a week. So, when the subject is Diana, we're bringing into the movie a lot more than most. I thought I had a relatively good base knowledge about her, but I must admit that I had really kinda forgotten about the Hasnat Khan affair she had, late in life. It was sorta pushed aside at the end, and the pictures with Fiad had come out, and there were all these rumors about her being pregnant, and here, we get a small glimpse of the person Diana, who we all kinda knew, but through this lens of the paparazzi."Diana" is by no means a perfect movie, The film was directed by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, he's most famous for the film "Downfall" about Adolf Hitler's last days in the bunker. The real issue he's keeps coming to, and the reason why Diana isn't a great subject for film in general, is that is that it really does come down to, the bombardment of the media upon her life, and that's really the main consistent thing throughout, and no matter how you try, once you get into that web, as Hasnat kept finding out, you couldn't get out. We see her, surprising brash and able to use and manipulate the press in certain ways, but it's basically the same argument and story over and over again. It's an interesting little slice of insight in Diana, like the notorious photos on the boat with Fiad that were quite scandalous, they insinuate here that she planned those photos as a jealousy ploy, that's something surprisingly childlike about her that's interesting (Speaking of children, William and Harry were mysteriously absent from the film), but I'm still kinda giving the movie a pass, partially because of how ingrained the mythology of Princess Di has become in my life, but also because, I'm not sure how much better they could've done this film. Stephen Frears did "The Queen" about the events behind the scenes after the crash, but really getting inside Diana, and the private lives, especially this post-divorce period, the single girl intrigue with her, that's fascinating. Plus, Naomi Watts was actually very good in the film, there's enough here to recommend.
A TOUCH OF SIN (2013) Director: Zhangke Jia
This is the first film I've seen from the controversial Chinese director Jia Zhangke, and I already know I'm gonna need a second look at it before I'm through. Catching people offguard by getting the film approved by the Chinese board for theatrical release in the country, barely, "A Touch of Sin", won the Screenplay Award at Cannes, and it requires quite an patient and observant eye, and probably more knowledge of the intricacies of Chinese geography and culture than I have, to fully contemplate it. The film is based on four distinct true stories that occurred in China recently, each involving sudden explosions of violence, each about the disenfranchisement of the Chinese worker, and each taking place in a different distinct part of China, andalthough there is a degree of interconnection between the stories, it's probably best to think of them as separate so that they're easier to follow. (This isn't a "Pulp Fiction"-type film that gives us a new heading to obviously informs us of a change in the story, we often have to figure it out for ourselves.) The first tale is in Northern China where a respected worker Dahai (Wu Jiang) is frustrated with the owners and village chief of the town, 'cause of they're corruption and deals, and the way they've slowly started gaining material wealth, and turning their backs on their workers after promises of raises and deals. One of them, arrives in his own private plane to an audience of the workers and even a drum band. Dahai tries to get to Beijing to file a complaint, something that used to simply be a letter, that suddenly he wasn't able to send, and nobody, including his co-workers and family seem willing to be as outraged as he is. The second story takes place in a growing southwestern town where Zhou San (Baoqiang Wang) arrives on his motorcycle. He's already killed people that we know of, and he's home with his family, none of whom are particularly happy to see him, and his menacing presence puts a shadow over everything as seemingly no one's sure exactly what he will do next, all this, while the shadow of one of the largest hydroelectric project is starting to undertake the town and change not socio-cultural and environmental ecosystems of the area. Bored with the celebrations of New Years and the fights at the gambling halls, he wishes to leave again and travel to Burma of all places, where there's more Frontier-like adventure and violence around. While the reasoning beyond his voyage is unusual, it's not uncommon for Chinese workers to often travel great distances, to find suitable work. If anybody's seen the documentary "Last Train Home", you'll know about the constant travel that entails, and there's lots of talk about where everyone's from as they all seem to travel farther and farther away from home for work, literally and metaphorically. They also briefly focus on a train accident that killed dozens that was covered up by the Chinese government after the tracks and scheduling failed. The Third story involves Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao) a drifter who gets a job working as a receptionist at a massage parlor, until a customer starts insisting she be bought by him; she seems to somehow be protected with the image of snakes like Eve. (There's animalistic references throughout the film) The next, involves Xiao Hui (Lanshon Luo) who's a disenfranchised factory worker quits his job shortly after injuring himself, and finds himself working as a waiter in an upscale brothel that seems run more like a Vegas hotel, complete with suits, detailed instruction and even a floorshow with the girls coming out in unison in costumer, and then to another job, that gets and gets more and more disenfranchised from job-to-job, at one, he says the best workers can win trips to the main offices in Taiwan, where the foreman is from. The film is about the current situations in China, the way the Communist ideals are now in direct conflict with the continued influence of the west capitalist culture, and the personal effects it's having on the people. These are stories about people losing their identity and then resorting and falling into acts of violence as the only means of self-expression, and angry outbursts. I've seen it twice now, and the more I watch it, the greater it effects me, and the more I learn about the current state of China, in practice and mind. It shows a country in flux, trying to contemplate finding places for the old with the new, and focuses on those few people who can't seem to be able to navigate this new modern China. "A Touch of Sin" is incredibly insightful, and at times unnerving. It's a challenge to get through, but the more you dive into and digest it, the better it gets. It might take multiple viewings, even for the most astute viewer but it's worth it. It's a little too much mosaic than it probably should be, and at times, certain stories work better than others, at driving their point home, but there's so much he's saying here, with every scene and shot, that's it's easy to understand why some ideas get convoluted or lost in translation, even in the translation for one Chinese language to another, and how feelings and emotions, seem more and more counter to the ever-busting world of modern consumerism.
RIO BRAVO (1959) Director: Howard Hawks
Purportedly, conceived as a rebuttal to Fred Zinneman's "High Noon", Howard Hawks's "Rio Bravo", is noted for setting an archetype that's been repeated or alluded to from directors as wide-ranging from Martin Scorsese to John Carpenter to Quentin Tarantino. Even Howard Hawks himself, made a remake of this film, seven years later with "El Dorado". The story is pretty basic, but allows itself to be told calmly, but briskly. The first four minutes, famous doesn't include a single word of dialogue as a drunkard, named Dude (Dean Martin) walks into a bar, and helps arrest a brother, Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) of a famous outlaw. The outlaw Nathan Burdette (Claude Akins) is determined to bust his brother out of prison, and the Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) has the help of the drunkard, Dude, a Sheriff Deputy named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) an aggressive old man, who walks with a limp, and a new-in-town young gunfighter named Colorado (Ricky Nelson), who he borrows from another old gun-toting hand, Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond). A local performer, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). She's around for some cute scenes involving both comedy and romance; it wouldn't be a Howard Hawks films without a little bit of screwball in there. This is the man who famously said, "When all else fails, make a drama." (He did that with his earlier collaboration with John Wayne, "Red River".) Basically, the job is to protect the prison and keep out Wheeler and his gang. most of the time, they're working on tying to outsmart them and guard the prison while they try to rally together the best that they can to prepare for an inevitable battle. Sometimes they break for a song. I mean, you do have a Rock'n'roll Hall of Famer and one of the best crooners of all-time there, you might as well use them. I've probably giving this film a slightly lower ranking than most for their initial viewings, and that's not fair from me, but I've always had a somewhat of a Hawks critic over the years despite my great admiration for his best films like "Only Angels Have Wings", "The Big Sleep", Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", or "His Girl Friday," the latter of which I've posted a Canon of Film entry on in the past. It's not so much plot or story he's after (Hell, half the time, there's barely any of either in his films) but the constant pursuit of something interesting on the screen, whether that's an argument, a gunfight, an explosion of dynamite, a musical number, or a comic misunderstanding involving lingerie. "Rio Bravo" has a little bit of all that, and yet, it's core chess match between the ragtag, put-together lawmen having to outsmart and outgun the group of outlaws, is continuously entertaining throughout. I don't know if I rank "Rio Bravo" as high as some, but it's easy to see why it's become so influential over the years.
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) Director: Mark Robson
Yeah, some 5 STARS ratings need explanation, and some speak for themselves. I recognize what "Valley of the Dolls" is, and just how ridiculous it was, the failed attempt to adapt the Jacqueline Susann exploitative tell-all into a film, but I thoroughly had fun and enjoyed the absolute ridiculousness of it. Actually, I found some of it quite sincere and believable. I actually thought Patty Duke's performance was pretty good, even though this film notoriously poisoned her as a box office and film talent. (There's a misconception that she doesn't act much anymore, but actually, she's worked pretty regularly since, mostly in television). Yeah, it's a bit "All About Eve", in the "Showgirls" vein, predictable, crass and classless at times, and clearly, Mark Robson, who was a relatively talented director, with two Oscar nominations for "Peyton Place" and "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness", but he wasn't really a good director of actors, and you can see how he overlooked certain things, like, believable reactions to the dolls, which for those who don't know, are what the film calls prescription pills that the three leads inevitably start taking, and the despair and tragedy that befalls them when they take them. Or that it might not have been a good idea to have Patty Duke perform a number with that ridiculous necklace on. The movie warns us about how similarities to actual people is coincidental, right at the beginning, (Meaning of course, they're clearly based on the lives of real people in Hollywood) Anne Welles (Barbara Perkins) takes a snowbound train from New England to New York, where she gets a job for a theater publicist. Her first job is to get Helen Lawson (Susan Heyward, who was famously originally cast by Judy Garland, who left production after the role was too similar) to sign papers. The famous Broadway star, doesn't sign them, and then fires Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) who's performing the lights out on her number in the show, which Lawson gets cut. Neely quits and goes with her publicist Mel (Martin Milner) as they start her own show, which leads her to Hollywood. Jennifer North (Tate, in what's probably unfortunately her most well-known role) is a buxom beauty who's not the talent that Nelly is, but is able to get parts because of her look, which she keeps in perfect shape at the behest of her mother. When her husband, lounge singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti) gets ill, she takes up doing art films in France, which are, as Nelly refers to them, nudies. Anne, gets discovered and inadvertently becomes a fresh faced girl for a popular brand new perfume in a series of commercials. Lee Grant shows up, sporadically for a word or two, not much else. I think why "Valley of the Dolls" works so well as camp is that, there actually is a heartbreaking real life tale in the middle of it somewhere, and as it struggles to work on that level, is falters everywhere else, as they tried to get more conceptual instead of seeking out what it would actually be like to be addicted to pills, or be swallowed up by Hollywood. It feels simultaneously like an older picture, with musical numbers and sets, montages, and yet, it tries to break taboos of the time, and probably unwisely, the film was set in modern time, as oppose to the novel being set in the '40s-'50s. I'm sure you've all heard the Pauline Kael quote, a million times before, but if there ever really was great trash, this almost assuredly has to be it. They're still parodying the film, Theater-a-Go-Go had a hit off-broadway show, on two coasts, just doing the film straight up, but with exemplified campiness. Famously Russ Meyer did "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" just a few years later, which I had seen previously actually, and after seeing the original, while "Beyond..." is a good movie, I almost wonder why they bothered; it pretty much is it's own self-parody. I will say this, I actually think the acting overall is pretty good, and that directing and screenplay, and probably source material is where the film mainly failed, much moreso than the performances themselves. Whatever the reason, however, the movie remains compulsively watchable, at it's best and at it's worst.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) Director: Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
"The Most Dangerous Game" was the popular 63 minute quickie feature that Ernest B. Schoedsack co-directed, before with Joel McCrea and Fay Wray, before they teamed up for "King Kong" a year later. Schoedsack doesn't get a lot of credit as an innovative director because he work in this B-movie type of monster films and stuff like that, but they Schoedsack & Cooper were actually documentarians and traveled to some of the most exotic locals, often being the first to shoot films there, and they to that perspective to places like a jungle for "King Kong", or here, the characters, are shipwrecked on an obscure island. Bob (McCrea) is a big game hunter, who's ship was sank by the island's inhabitant Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Only Bob and the appropriately named Eve (Wray) made it to the island, where they inevitable have to play Count Zaroff's evil little game of hide and seek essentially, in order to get off, or become part of his collection. (This isn't the hardest clue as to what happens in the film btw) It isn't the the more complex film, but it's decent popcorn fare. The movie is rather light, and entertaining and not much more. Even the Criterion Collection booklet, was more like a pamphlet and that's being generous. It's a nice film to watch, although it's importance is more as a connective thread to other works than as a film, but for an hour, it's not bad. It would've probably been on a Saturday afternoon double-bill to send the kids to to kill time at the the time, and for that it works well enough, and that's all it really needs.
JAI VEERU: FRIENDS FOREVER (2009) Director: Puneet Sira
In my quest to swallow up whatever strands of Bollywood and other pieces of Indian cinema I seem to happen to stumble on, I got to "Jai Veeru: Friends Forever". Not released theatrically in America, the title is the name of the two main characters, Jai (Fardeen Khan) and Veeru (Kunam Khemu) who meet in the beginning. Jai is a con-man between Bangkok and India, the kind who's basic move is to turn into whatever the person wants him to be, this leads to numerous almost caricature moments with Jai trying and failing to get a pretty woman to like him, one too many really, especially in the beginning. Veeru, is an undercover cop, who Jai befriends, not knowing his true identity or motive, until it's revealed during a deal gone bad, and later, Veeru has to arrest Jai and take each other across two countries, while they renew their love-hate friendship, and while bad guys try and capture Jai for themselves before he turns them in. It's relatively harmless but predictable fun. There's a few good Bollywood numbers and songs, that feel more like music videos than anything else, but other than that, this film was fairly generic. It didn't really earn the friendship in the beginning, to justify a shock or betrayal or the long-lasting and trusting nature of the friendship. This actually feels a little too much like two different movies actually, with the glitzy hotels in the beginning and then the more "Midnight Run" action-comedy stuff in the second part. I much preferred the latter, and the movie did get more interesting when it started finding that tone, but at that it was also on plot autopilot. I don't know, if Bollywood is about the uplifting emotions after watching the film, I kinda mostly felt let down after watching "Jai Veeru...", so I'm gonna ultimately give it a negative review. There's nothing against it, but you gotta really buy into these films and have the emotional attachment you need to completely get sold on them, as they try to put a little bit of everything in these movies, and when you don't completely buy into it, it becomes a bummer.