17 October 2016

Soundtrack of Your Life: Trippin'

An occasional feature in which we mark the songs of our relative youth as played over public muzak systems and beyond. 

Date: 17 October 2016, 7:30 to 8:15 p.m.
Place: YouTube
Song:  "Waiting"
Artist: Alice Bowman
Song: "Starry Eyes"
Artist: Cigarettes After Sex
Irony Matrix: 2.3 out of 10
Comment: Another discovery from yoga class (shout-out to Leslie V and Spotify), is Alice Bowman and her ethereal song "Waiting." I came home and plugged it into YouTube and let AutoPlay do its thing. Over subsequent days, the playlist has followed roughly the same pattern, with a variation experienced this evening. Sometimes it plays some other Boman songs, but it always segues into tunes by an El Paso, Texas, band called Cigarettes After Sex. Here's Boman, who is Swedish, with the kickoff track:

Boman's sultry sounds segue into the spooky mood pop of Cigarettes After Sex, which sounds like a cross between Mazzy Star and the chi-chi covers band Nouvelle Vague, except with dudes (so maybe add a dash of Giant Sand). Eventually, during AutoPlay, we get a perfect cover of REO Speedwagon's 1980 lighter-flicking anthem "Keep on Loving You":

A few songs later, a much more obscure cover -- "Starry Eyes" from Roky Erickson of the '60s psychedelic rascals the 13th Floor Elevators:

Usually, after YouTube stubs out Cigarettes After Sex, this aching ballad from the Heartless Bastards plays -- "Only for You":


10 October 2016


THE FITS (B+) - What is it like to be an adolescent outcast? This audacious debut feature from Anna Rose Holmer, working with an amateur cast, strikes sharply at the heart of that troubling question.

The story follows Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), a wiry, boyish 11-year-old, who works out with her older brother at a boxing gym but who is drawn to a dance troupe across the hall. Teased as a tomboy by the guys, she cautiously explores the idea of acceptance by the elegant girls across the way. She is friends with two of the nerdier ones, Beezy (Alexis Neblett) and Maia (Lauren Gibson).

Not long after Toni's arrival, though, members of the troupe, one by one, suffer from epileptic-type seizures. What is causing these fits? The water in the gym's fountains? Something else more mysterious and nefarious? Is Toni's mere presence causing them?

She certainly develops quite a complex over the coincident arrival of her and the episodes. As she loses the connection to the boys (including a more strained relationship with her brother), she plunges into the lonely divide between the two groups. Her sense of homelessness is heartbreaking.

Hightower is a revelation in the lead role, with an expressive face made for the big screen. Her devoted repetition of the dance moves she is learning feel authentic and lived-in. One scene of her studying herself in a mirror is itself a study in contemplative filmmaking.

Holmer's background in the technical tasks of movie production, including as a cinematographer, is apparent from the camerawork here. She is fond of static long shots of wide sets, with slight figures passing through the shot. She shoots on location in Cincinnati and has a keen eye for the seedy underbelly of the city, including a puny, ratty sign that announces a rundown building called Lincoln Center, certainly the destitute stepchild of the Manhattan institution.

The narrative floats along at a tidy 72 minutes, and by the end you can sense a bit of a strain on the unprofessional cast and the plot itself. So it is both welcome and unsettling when a burst of magical realism carries Toni to a heart-swelling conclusion. In the end, she manages to "fit" in by proving that she, too, is as special as the others.

AMANDA KNOX - (C+) - This curious documentary is as straightforward as its title. And it probably will grab your attention only if you didn't follow the eight-year odyssey of the young American accused of the lurid murder of a fellow exchange student in Italy.

Filmmakers Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, expanding beyond shorts for the first time, lean heavily on personalities to tell Knox's tale: Knox herself; the boyfriend she had only recently met at the time of the slaying, Raffaele Sollecito; a pulp British journalist, Nick Pisa; and the avuncular prosecutor, Giuliani Mignini, a character out of a PBS mystery series.

Knox was hit with a verdict every two years or so -- first guilty, then acquitted on appeal, then guilty again, and finally acquitted by Italy's highest court. The tabloids loved her story because she blond and American and because the group she was hanging with were apparently flaunting their sexuality.

Here, Knox sits primly for the camera, frequently in full-figure shots, thinner and slightly more haggard than the cherubic girl-next-door sexpot we see in archival footage before and immediately after the slaying of Meredith Kercher. She has a look in her eye that makes it difficult to believe that she wasn't somehow involved in the murder. (A burglar was convicted during the course of Knox's saga.)

The filmmakers, however, never gin up the proper momentum, perhaps deciding that every human was transfixed to the spectacle as it unfolded, so better to play up the personalities. But Pisa is no more than your typically slightly obnoxious tabloid reporter, and Sollecito is a bit of a cipher. Knox comes off as a somewhat creepy ice queen with PTSD. Mignini is philosophical at times, bumbling at others.

This one lacks an edge, and with its devotion to the chronological march of events, it eventually becomes a bit of a plod.

06 October 2016

New to the Queue


Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank," "Red Road") returns with an epic examination of young people who sell magazines door-to-door, "American Honey."

A documentary about the saga of the young woman wrongly jailed for murder in Italy, "Amanda Knox."

A fun romp with the Zelig of '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll, from the Beatles to the Ramones, "Danny Says."

The Duplass brothers are back, with Mark starring in a drama about high school sweethearts bumping into each other 20 years later for a day of reminiscing and revelation, "Blue Jay."

Ava Duvernay ("I Will Follow," "Selma") examines racism, injustice and the prison-industrial complex in "13th."

Warily we dabble in the horror genre with the debut feature out of Iran, "Under the Shadow."

03 October 2016

The Family Way

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (B) - A chubby rebellious young teen finally finds stability with an older foster couple, only to have that domestic contentment torn apart, sending him off on a whimsical adventure in the New Zealand bush.

With an almost Disney-like innocence and zeal, Taikia Waititi -- writer/director of "Flight of the Conchords" and "What We Do in the Shadows" -- crafts an endlessly charming coming-of-age tale about male bonding. He pairs Julian Dennison as young Ricky Baker with a grizzled Sam Neill as ol' Hec, who takes charge of the boy after Hec's wife suddenly leaves the picture in the first third of the film.

Ricky has a penchant for running away but not getting far. When Hec sets out after him, the old man injures his ankle, stranding them in nature for a few weeks, enough time for the missing pair to make headlines, spurred by an evil child-services bureaucrat, Paula (Rachel House), who insists that lovable Ricky is a nasty little hellion. An all-out manhunt ensues, as Hec and Ricky stay one step ahead of their pursuers and transition into folk heroes.

Waititi imbues the story with heaping helpings of whimsy while grounding it in an earnest relationship between the wisecracking kid and the curmudgeonly old man, barely avoiding the tired trope that such a pairing suggests. Dennison carries the movie effortlessly, and Neill ("Jurassic Park") deftly balances drama and humor. These solid characters are orbited by rather cartoonish supporting players -- hapless lawmen, goofy bad guys, and Paula the wicked witch, who likes to repeat the mantra "No child left behind" (unconvincingly) while zealously stalking her prey.

It's an improbably winning formula. Waititi could have lopped off a few scenes instead of dragging it out past 100 minutes. But it's fun to cheer on Ricky and Hec, and the wholesomeness of the tale is refreshing.

THE HOLLARS (B-minus) - There's a new Zach Braff in town, and he goes by the name John Krasinski, that harmlessly handsome love interest from TV's "The Office."

Krasinski serves up a familiar indie comic-drama. He stars as John Hollar, a drifting 30-something who is frittering away his artistic ambitions by working an uninspiring job in New York City until he is called back to his working-class hometown after his mother (Margo Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This reunites him with her, his father, Don (Richard Jenkins), and his brother, Ron (a manic Sharlto Copley), a pair of hapless males struggling to rise to the occasion.

Krasinski, working with a script by James C. Strouse ("Grace Is Gone"), pulls too many punches here, and he drains both the drama and the comedy of any potency. Martindale and Jenkins are great actors, but the roles feel too small for them. Copley brings an intensity to the role of a man essentially stalking his ex-wife and kids, a fervor that yields neither pathos nor sharp humor. An oddly subdued Anna Kendrick hangs around as Krasinski's pregnant girlfriend, in another underwritten part. With little to no chemistry between them, Kendrick's character comes off as just another woman secretly pining for a ring and a proposal.

While this all adds up to a generally likable movie with some sweet moments and a couple of genuine laughs, it lacks depth and urgency. This is the equivalent of the likeable sitcom star's film-school thesis. Like Braff, he'll get another shot. Will he, too, fail to forge a career on the big screen?

30 September 2016

French Road Movies

MICROBE AND GASOLINE (A-minus) - This endlessly charming French film from Michel Gondry follows a pair of middle school outcasts who build their own vehicle to escape their families and schoolmates.

This is a return to form for Gondry, who splashed with his script for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in 2004 but who has been hit-and-miss as a director, starting with "The Science of Sleep" in 2006. We skipped "Mood Indigo" in 2013, but the word was that his quirkiness was producing unfocused films. He lost control of "The We and the I" (2012), another drama about aimless youth; he did solid works with the documentaries "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (2005) and "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy" (2013). He aimed for mainstream acceptance with "Be Kind Rewind" and "The Green Hornet." Here, he back to playing small ball, which is more in his wheelhouse.

We hang out with budding artist Daniel (dubbed Microbe because of his small size) and the mechanically inclined Theo (Gasoline, for the smell he absorbs from working on engines), two kids who get picked on at school. They fall in as friends, and Theo comes up with a plan to build a car that can get them out of town for the summer. To get past the hangup of having to register such a vehicle, they fashion it to look like a house. The idea is that if they see cops coming, they could pull to the side of the road, drop a couple of side flaps and make it look like a quaint little home.

If this sounds twee beyond belief, it pretty much is. But Gondry takes this precious premise and somehow convinces you to suspend belief in key places and indulge him and his two young stars (Ange Dargent as Daniel and Theophile Baquet as Theo). As their parents back home fret (Daniel's mother is played by a wallflowerish Audrey Tatou), Daniel and Theo go in search of adventure and self-discovery. Daniel has a crush on a classmate, and her summer home is added to their route.

Otherwise, they dodge a few creepy adults, get a little revenge on older bullies, and banter and bicker. Both boys are genuinely charming. Baquet shows deft physical comedic skills, especially in a scene where Daniel's crude artwork gets a gallery opening but nobody shows up; Theo comes by and navigates the room in mime as if it's crowded with guests. Dargent bridles with an urgent yearning. Together, they are as adept as any current comedy team you can think of.

Gondry's script sparkles with insight and nuance. Theo sums up their existence to his pal with this line: "We're not exactly normal: you the hopeless romantic and me the grease monkey,” Again, this could have been cloying and self-indulgent. Instead, it's his most effective story since "Eternal Sunshine," and its his most adept work behind the camera. This was the most pleasant surprise of the summer.

LES COWBOYS (B) - A fascinating little film about obsession and prejudice, "Les Cowboys" feels like a missed opportunity.

IMDb provides a succinct plot summary:  "When his daughter goes missing from their prairie town east of France, Alain and his young son, Kid, head out to find her. The journey takes the men to some far-off and unsettling places in what begins to feel like an endless quest."

Alain (craggy Francois Damiens) is first seen at an American-style hoedown, exchanging occasional awkward glances and exchanges with his dour daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth). After the event, she runs off with her Muslim boyfriend, and Alain's obsession in tracking her down is immediate. He grabs her brother, Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), and hits the road, confronting some bad guys and descending into a vortex that will lead to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Halfway through the film, the focus abruptly shifts to Kid, who takes over the hunt. In Pakistan, Kid meets up with an unnamed rogue American fixer, played to the hilt by John C. Reilly. Kid ends up in a prison in Pakistan after confronting his sister's husband; in the cell next to him is another of the husband's wives, whose grave Kid is ordered to dig.

What follows is an improbable turn of events that assures the audience that western culture is sure to win out in the end. A final scene that briefly brings Kid and his sister face-to-face drives that home while offering one of the few genuine moments of emotion in the film.

This misfire is the directorial debut of Thomas Bidegain, known more as the screenwriter for noted director Jacques Audiard -- including "A Prophet," "Rust and Bone" and "Dheepan." But his transition to director is a stumble out of the gate. The script here suffers from a few clunks and is too often bloated and unfocused. (It feels longer than 104 minutes.) Bidegain previously could rely on someone like Audiard to take his script and hone and shape it. With "Les Cowboys," Bidegain shows himself to be a writer in search of a director.

This is an update to the classic John Ford western "The Searchers," a hole in our knowledge of film history. It will be interesting down the road to check out that source material and see whether it's the idea or the execution that is the problem.

The "Microbe and Gasoline" trailer:


26 September 2016


DON'T BLINK: ROBERT FRANK (B) - This by-the-numbers overview of the career of irascible photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank gets by on a gritty attitude and a powerful alt-classic soundtrack.

Frank, whose breakthrough book "The Americans" grabbed attention in the late 1950s with its echoes of Walker Evans' work during the Depression, is still kicking at 91 and apparently as cranky as ever. He fell in with the beat writers, becoming a close friend of Jack Kerouac, who penned the introduction to his landmark book. In the '70s he hobnobbed with the Rolling Stones.

In the 1960s, Frank turned to moving images, training his harsh eye on documentary subjects, sometimes blurring fact with fiction. His famous documentary about the Stones' tour in the "Exile on Main Street" era -- called "Cocksucker Blues" -- was effectively banned after the band sued to block its release.

This paean to an iconoclast is too often a rote, unimaginative affair. Clips fly by -- whether it's footage from his movies, snippets of past interviews with Frank, or examples of him creating his visual art -- and it can be an overwhelming visual assault at times. Director Laura Israel, in her sophomore effort, seems overeager to stuff the film with images. In doing so, she sacrifices a coherent narrative and fails to justice to any specific works of Frank's.

There are hints of a more powerful documentary here. We get understated references to the deaths of both Frank's daughter (in a plane crash) and his son (who struggled with mental health issues), and a sense of domestic satisfaction with his wife, the artist June Leaf. There is often a somber tone to the proceedings.

A jolt of pre- and post-punk aesthetic comes through with the music, including our beloved Mekons, who contribute the opening track, "Memphis, Egypt," and "Where Were You"; two from Tom Waits; early Dylan, as well as a Dylan cover by the White Stripes; Yo La Tengo; the Kills; Velvet Underground; and Charles Mingus. That soundtrack both overwhelms and rescues an otherwise workmanlike movie.

BANG GANG: A MODERN LOVE STORY (C) - This half-hearted debut feature about mopey French teens engaging in zipless sex is entirely limp and uninspiring.

Bored, under-supervised and somewhat dead inside, the high-schoolers form the Bang Gang, a group of students who respond to e-notices to attend random orgies at the home of the ringleader, whose parents have entrusted their summer home to him alone. (His mom is off in Morocco for nine months.)

That host is hunky Alex (Finnegan Oldfield). He and his carrot-top pal Niki (Fred Hotier) get bored with beating off to videos of gymnasts, and so they parlay Alex's successful seduction techniques to rope in others, including the cute blonde George and her more ordinary bestie Laetitia (Daisy Broom) -- all setting up a bizarre love quadrangle that never gets off the ground.

Then there's moody moptop Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre), who noodles with his electronica music in his bedroom while dutifully tending to his disabled dad. Gabriel is the responsible kid meant to serve as the prudent counter-balance to his shallow, frivolous classmates. His father is the hectoring conscience. It comes as no surprise that one (or both) of the girls will fall in heart-love with Gabriel despite bumping genitals with the kids in the fun group.

Writer/director Eva Husson seems to be treading well-worn coming-of-age territory in trying to chronicle the disaffected acting-out of millennials. She awkwardly wedges in her metaphors -- a B-plot about a summer spate of trainwrecks is particularly unsubtle. (A bunch of trainwrecks -- get it?) All of the members of the Bang Gang are attractive and in good shape, so the audience won't be disturbed by any ordinary faces or lumpy bodies. The movie suffers in comparison to other French art-house youth sex romps, such as "The Dreamers," "Blue Is the Warmest Color," or even the more recent "Breathe."

Where does this all lead? Well, with all the cell-phone cameras constantly documenting the randy proceedings, it is inevitable that something will leak online beyond the gang's secure settings, putting a reputation on the line. Then what? Well, not much. Summer will end. The kids will go back to school, having learned a valuable lesson. Surprisingly little attention is paid to the emotional or psychological toll that such an experiment would have on a bunch of naive teenagers. No damage is done that a pill can't clear up.

These kids are detached and aimless. So, too, is Husson's first attempt at storytelling on the big stage.

Highlights from the Frank doc include this rare track from Bob Dylan, "You've Been Hiding Too Long":

The Kills, "What New York Used To Be":

Tom Waits, the grinding "Sixteen Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six." ("I'm gonna whittle you into kindling!"):


22 September 2016

New to the Queue

Darker quicker ...

A drama about a privileged millennial with a taste for cocaine and casual sex, starring Morgan Saylor (the daughter on Showtime's "Homeland"), "White Girl."

A cinematographer explores her own body of work in "Cameraperson."

Employing the technique of verbatim transcription and setting dialogue to music, a feature about the 2006 killings in a little English town, "London Road."

A documentary about children in Paraguay who make musical instruments from items found in a garbage dump, "Landfill Harmonic."

We're hoping that Ron Howard hasn't Boomered the band into oblivion, but we'll sample the love letter to the Fab Four, "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week -- The Touring Years."

We still think about the high-school romp "The Dirties," and Matt Johnson and Josh Boles are back with a farce about moon-landing conspiracies, "Operation Avalanche."

A debut feature about an English teacher who chaperones her high school students on an acting competition in California, "Miss Stevens."

20 September 2016

Yes, But ...

DON'T THINK TWICE (B+) - It's been a four-year wait since Mike Birbiglia's wonderful autobiographical debut feature, "Sleepwalk With Me," so maybe the expectations were too high for this rather tender paean to the world of improvisational comedy.
Whereas "Sleepwalk" (our No. 7 film of 2012) felt raw and real and freewheeling, "Don't Think Twice" feels a little too smooth and fine-tuned. It is smart, funny, insightful and sweet; but you get the sense that there's a punch or two that has been pulled or a few scenes that got polished too fussily. You wish it were just a bit more ragtag, like Del Close would have wanted.

The story follows three guys and three gals who have cohered into a comedy machine, selling out their small performance space and nurturing each other as longtime friends. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), who are a couple, are the standouts. Miles (Birbiglia) is in his mid-30s and has missed his moment, contenting himself with sleeping with his young improv students. Allison (Kate Micucci) is the pixiesh cartoonist with confidence issues. Lindsay (Tammy Saghar) is a pot-smoking trustafarian who seemingly lacks ambition. Bespectacled Bill (Chris Gethard) is a classic neurotic type who wants desperately to please his hard-bitten father. The group members needle each other lovingly, unafraid of hitting an occasional nerve or crossing the line of good taste.

One night, producers from the SNL-like "Weekend Live" show up in the audience scouting talent, and Sam and Jack get the call to audition. Sam is apprehensive, but Jack leaps at the opportunity -- and gets hired. The rest of the film whirls around in the tepid vortex of jealousy, back-stabbing and recriminations, as the group forges ahead while Jack starts to make his mark with a few of his stock characters. The others maneuver to get writing samples in his hand and he tries hard to keep his relationship from tipping over.

One of the best qualities here is the cast. Besides Jacobs' Sam, no one is outrageously funny but rather more workmanlike -- and thus believable as struggling comics. Jacobs is brilliant as a physical comedian and mimic. Birbiglia gets writing credit, but I can't help thinking that Jacobs brought some great ideas to the set. Her imitation of Gena Rowlands from "Woman Under the Influence" as a baseball umpire is beyond inspired and is easily the funniest moment of the movie. The others, even Key, really can't keep up with Jacobs (whom I know only from her turn as the insufferable Mimi-Rose on HBO's "Girls," having missed the NBC sitcom "Community").

Birbiglia has a knack for storytelling, and he crafts the narrative carefully. The result is both loose but mannered. But his big idea here isn't particularly fresh. He borrows more than a few things from the standup movie "Punchline," including the central theme:  a group of comedians competing for a shot at the big time, harboring quiet venom for the cocky front-runner among them. What felt fresh and edgy a generation ago now feels safe and assured.

"Don't Think Twice" has plenty of memorable moments and a generous helping of one-liners and callbacks. I should "Yes and ..." Birbiglia here and high-five his high-wire act. Yet, I can't help but nitpick it; blame that on heightened expectations. The little things add up. Bill's lines too often express Big Themes and don't advance his character adequately. The narrative arc is a little too neat. A cameo by Ben Stiller falls shockingly flat. The relationship among the characters can be a tad saccharine, even when they are supposed to be at each others' throats.

This had all the ingredients to be an instant favorite. You walk out smiling but wishing that this troupe had really nailed it.

In the trailer, you get a snippet of Jacobs as umpire Rowlands, but it doesn't do it justice:

And the title track. Roger Neill performs an elegant piano version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Here's Dylan's original of his epic kiss-off song:

17 September 2016

Sitting Bull

NEON BULL (C+) - Rarely have I struggled to connect with a lovely little film than with this quiet story of a Brazilian vaquero with a bull-wrangling rodeo show who dreams of being a costume designer.

I think I got that sentence correct. We follow Iremar (Juliano Cazarre) and a crew who support the competitions in which men on horseback chase bulls around the ring, with the object being to grab the animal by the tail and flip it on its back. Behind the scenes he banters with pals, including the exotic dancer Galega (Maeve Jinkings) and her precocious daughter, Caca (Alyne Santana), who is casually treated like an adult much of the time.

The movie barely hangs together as a string of vignettes, with Iremar indulging his compulsion to create outfits, including one worn at the beginning and end of the film by Galega that includes a bull's head. Many of the scenes -- shot in a mix of documentary style and lush set pieces -- explore sensuousness and sexuality, whether involves the bulls or the people. Caca plays in a trough of feed like it's a sandbox; Galega sits in the driver's seat of her pickup truck, legs on the dash as if she's at the Ob/Gyn so can groom her pubic hair; the gorgeous white bulls bump and jostle among each other in the bed of a truck driven by Galega.

The proceedings crescendo with a magnificent love scene between Iremar and a pregnant woman in a vast costume-manufacturing warehouse, shot in lusty shadows by writer-director Gabriel Mascaro and cinematographer Diego Garcia ("Cemetery of Splendor"). The two men have created a luscious palette of sights, sounds and touch. But it's difficult to find a way into the story. If you didn't read the plot synopsis ahead of time, it will take you a while to figure out what this is about. Even with a cheat sheet, this one can be enigmatic.

But others loved this film, including:

  • New York Times: "Neon Bull is a profound reflection on the intersection of the human and bestial."
  • Village Voice: "No matter how rigorously worked out each shot and its action might be, Neon Bull always honors the chaotic looseness of everyday living — the way that, unlike in the movies, few of the moments we inhabit seem to be about just one thing."
  • Slant Magazine: "Everything in the film is understood to be a subsumed sex act, with actual sex serving as a contextualizing catharsis."
  • A.V. Club: "Writer-director Gabriel Mascaro doesn’t really have a story to tell about these folks, but he does have a wealth of almost documentary-style detail to share, plus style to burn, and that’s nearly enough."
  • Hollywood Reporter: "Instead of a straightforward narrative arc for the small cast of characters, the film -- gorgeously shot and framed ... -- combines a documentary-like look at their everyday lives with a fascinating if not entirely clear-cut exploration of body and gender issues." 
It's hard to tell whether this whole experiment -- which also involves a scene of a horse being masturbated to harvest its sperm -- isn't just one big wank.

14 September 2016

Doc Watch: No Myth

HEAVEN ADORES YOU (C+) - This is a way too inside-baseball biography of a way too depressing alt-music enigma -- the late sensitive singer-songwriter Elliott Smith -- who never comes to life over the course of a sludgy, uninspiring 105 minutes.

The first third of the film explores Smith's roots in the Portland, Ore., indie scene, when his music tended toward hard-edged grunge. But the collection of talking heads assembled here is incredibly bland, offering monotonous recollections of the '90s heyday. Either they are pulling their punches, or it just wasn't that riveting of a scene. It's harsh to say, but the people in Smith's life are not compelling storytellers. You apparently had to be there.

There are very few actual interviews of Smith used -- either because they don't exist or because the footage wasn't available. Most of the clips we get of Smith are audio recordings from an extended session on KCRW in Santa Monica (cue cliched shot of radio soundboard). For visual flair, the filmmakers linger on countless images from current-day Portland, and later in the film New York, where Smith fled around the time he hit it big with "Miss Misery," the celebrated song from his soundtrack contributions to Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting." The parade of establishing shots or still lifes created by the camera -- often repeated -- come off as faux-artistic filler by -- no surprise -- a cinematographer making his directorial debut, Nickolas Dylan Rossi.

Smith's songs are mishandled -- they are treated more as background music, and they tend to bleed together as mopey drones, barely distinguishable from Nick Drake nuggets. Face it, the guy was a drag, and so is this movie. There is no dramatic insight into the heart or psyche of a tortured artist -- no sweeping revelations like the Kurt Cobain documentary "Montage of Heck."

In the end, Smith was a scruffy, depressed guy who plunged into the abyss of substance abuse. It's not until the final 20 minutes that the story turns ominous, leading up to his horrible (apparent) suicide in 2003 from a knife plunged into his heart. He was 34. A late clip of a haggard Smith shows him in a studio the piano canting over and over, "Everything means nothing to me," channeling John Lennon at his most fragile. It's a special moment in a film starved of illumination.

NUTS! (C) - This is a deeply disappointing miscue. Despite the rich material -- a between-the-wars-era eccentric who implanted goat testicles in impotent men and also ran the most powerful radio station ever, just south of the Texas border -- this profile instead flails around with crude animations and bizarre re-creations from a long-gone era.

Filmmaker Penny Lane (apparently her real name) debuted in 2013 with "Our Nixon," a curation of home footage of our disgraced president. Here, she is over-indulged as she tells the fascinating story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a shady character and snake-oil salesman (he earned his MD from a diploma mill) who hatched more schemes than Ralph Kramden could even dream of. Based in the sleepy town of Milford, Kansas, Brinkley convinced men from all over that his technique of implanting sheep testicles into their nutsacks would cure them of a variety of ills. He later ran for governor, and he was a popular radio figure, rambling on at a local Kansas station for hours and hawking his goods.

But Brinkley's most pioneering move may have been creating XER-AM, a million-watt mega-blaster across the bridge from Del Rio, Texas. It was his way of evading the FCC, which had hounded him off the air. The station -- with a signal that covered two-thirds of the continental U.S. and bled into Canada -- is legendary in the annals of country music. It nurtured the careers of the Carter Family (see the fine doc "The Winding Stream"), as well as Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry and Red Foley.

All of that is fascinating, but Lane's film is a mess. The animations are clever but ultimately hokey and distracting. Voice actors re-create scenes and conversations cribbed from author Clement Wood's hagiography from 1934, "The Life of a Man." When we do hear old clips from Brinkley's old radio show, we have to wonder -- are those authentic recordings or re-dos? It takes the viewer out of the story.

The film itself comes off as a bit of a scam. What's real and what is not? Is Lane doing that intentionally? Whether it is or not, it's certainly disconcerting and often annoying. Sarah Polley legitimized that art form -- blurring fact with fiction -- in "Stories We Tell" in 2013. We didn't care for the technique then, and we're still annoyed by it. Nuts to that.

"Nuts!" could have used this on the soundtrack -- the Blasters with "Border Radio":

Elliott Smith, with his masterpiece:

The haunting "Waltz No. 1":

The band Earlimart (kindred spirits) with the title track:


12 September 2016

On to Toronto, 2016

As close to a fall preview as we get. Sources include the Onion AV Club and the L.A. Times.


Our most anticipated film is the latest from Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank," "Red Road"), the story of young folks who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door, starring Sasha Lane (above), Shia LaBeouf and Elvis' granddaughter Riley Keough (from TV's version of "The Girlfriend Experience"): "American Honey."


We're wary of biopics, but director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Mud") and stars Joel Edgerton ("The Gift") and Ruth Negga are drawing us to the law-school legend about the couple who convinced the Supreme Court to strike down laws against interracial marriage: "Loving."

Iranian master Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation," "The Past") is back with another end-of-the-year must-see, about the strained relationship of a couple performing in a stage version of "Death of a Salesman" while settling into a new apartment that used to be occupied by a prostitute: "Salesman."

Our guy Jim Jarmusch snags It Guy Adam Driver for a week in the life of a bus driver and poet: "Paterson."  Jarmusch also puts his documentary hat on to splash the story of the original punks, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, "Gimme Danger."

Andre Techine ("Changing Times") teams up with writer Celine Sciamma ("Girlhood") for a coming-of-age film, this time with boys: "Being 17."

American master Kelly Reichardt ("Old Joy," "Meek's Cutoff") is back, re-connecting with Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy") (above) for a series of vignettes about three women in Montana: "Certain Women."

Two from Romania: Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Beyond the Hills") continues to examine his society after the fall of the Iron Curtain with "Graduation." And Cristi Puiu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") dramatizes a family gathering after the patriarch's death in "Sieranevada." 

Can Pedro Almodovar pull of a comeback? He offers up a tale of a middle-aged woman refusing to move away, in case her estranged daughter returns: "Julieta."


Paul Verhoeven ("Showgirls") and Isabelle Huppert collaborating on a story about a woman shrugging off her own sexual assualt? We're drawn to "Elle."

Huppert also joins up with Mia Hansen-Love ("Goodbye First Love," "Eden") for a drama about a jilted philosophy professor, "Things to Come."

Can Billy Bob Thornton rekindle the brilliant awfulness of the original holiday downer about Father Christmas? We'll find out with "Bad Santa 2."

Some pretty funny people -- Kate McKinnon ("SNL"), Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T.J. Miller (HBO's "Silicon Valley"), Olivia Munn and Matt Walsh (HBO's "Veep") -- could make a formulaic holiday comedy worth watching: "Office Party."

More funny folks -- this time Zack Galafianakis, Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson (plus the poular McKinnon) -- are assembled by Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite," ages ago) for some slapstick involving a bank heist: "Masterminds." The mere sight of the movie still makes me want to see it:

Greg Mottola ("The Daytrippers") rounds up more of our favorites -- Galifianakis, Jon Hamm and Isla Fisher -- for a spy-vs.-spy romp about neighborly rivalry: "Keeping Up With the Joneses."


The filmmaking collective behind "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "James White" produces a debut feature, a thriller about "a young farm girl whose psychological development gets rudely interrupted": "The Eyes of My Mother."

In another intense family drama from Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me," "Margaret"), Casey Affleck stars as a handyman sorting through the affairs of his dead brother, "Manchester By the Sea."

Ewan McGregor (also behind the camera), Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning are a strong cast for the Philip Roth classic about a man dealing with his radicalized daughter in the turbulent '60s: "American Pastoral."

The understated Mike Mills ("Thumbsucker," "Beginnings") explores female relationships in the 1970s with Annette Bening, Alia Shawkat and Elle Fanning with "20th Century Women."

A German film about "a prankster dad attempting to reconnect with his workaholic daughter" was a critics' darling at Cannes: "Toni Erdmann."

08 September 2016

One-Liners: Outlaws

HELL OR HIGH WATER (B+) - Ben Foster explodes on the screen like a rock star in this wistful western about a pair of brothers pulling off a series of reckless bank heists across Texas.

Foster is Tanner Howard, a hard-livin' rascal coming off a decade in the pen, and he serves as the point man for the plan concocted by his smarter, quieter brother, the ruggedly handsome Toby (Chris Pine, the latest Kirk in "Star Trek"). The boys have targeted one bank chain in particular, and it becomes clear as the movie unfolds why they are picking on those branches.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (an actor whose first script was last year's "Sicario," which we skipped) has penned a brooding tale, a simple story with satisfying layers that peel away gracefully. He is slick with the one-liners, although some of them sound a little too precise. When asked to describe the robbers, whether they were black or white, a bank worker snaps, "Their souls or their skin?" The best banter is between the brothers. Like this one, after Toby buys the wrong soda for Tanner at a mini-mart:

Tanner: This is Mr. Pibb. I asked for a Dr. Pepper.
Toby: So?
Tanner: Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.
Toby: (Beat) ... drink up.
Director David Mackenzie ("Starred Up," "Perfect Sense") doesn't always honor the nuance. The bad guys in this movie aren't the brothers but the banksters, the ones who steal houses from hard-working folks struggling to hold onto a job and to pay their bills. Mackenzie needlessly hammers that home with repeated flashes of billboards and road signs for debt relief and mortgage refinancing.

The strong cast also features a classic gruff Jeff Bridges as a sheriff, marble-mouthed Marcus, on the brink of retirement, bantering with his own foil, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) a deputy of mixed heritage.  Marcus spews racist insults at his partner, and he's supposed to be a lovable old coot as he does it. Despite that awkwardness, Bridges, an old pro, finds a few fresh angles in a familiar riff.  Marcus and Alberto take to the brothers' trail in a bumbling cat-and-mouse game.

Foster gradually winds his character into a knot, finally delivering an epic climax. Pine is solid but not great as the thinking member of the duo. He's almost too pretty for the part. His Toby has a wonderful scene about midway through the movie with a jaded, flirty waitress (Katy Mixon from HBO's "Eastbound and Down"), one of the many locals quietly cheering the boys on.

The heist scenes are varied and satisfying. At one point the inevitable happens -- a bunch of the bank customers are armed, and a wild shoot-out ensues, pushing the brothers to the brink of outlaw status. Mackenzie brings it home well, with a subdued coda that leaves an aftertaste. This is a solid, smart movie with pretensions of greatness; at the least, it's a standout summer release.

RIVER OF GRASS (1995) (B+) - This is a restored reissue of the debut film from Kelly Reichardt, who is known for "Old Joy," "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff."

This curiosity has a film-school shabbiness to it as it follows an unlikely pair on the lam with a gun around the area of the Florida Everglades (which gives the film its title). Cozy (Lisa Bowman) is a dissatisfied housewife who pours Coca-Cola into her toddler's baby bottle. She daydreams about being a gymnast. Her dad is a mopey detective who has misplaced his gun; it's the kind of role that would have gone to Harry Dean Stanton if Reichardt had established a reputation.

Cozy ditches the kids one day and goes to a bar, where she meets Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), a petty thief who intrigues her and becomes a vehicle for her to escape from the husband and kids. Lee Ray and his buddy, it turns out, have found the dad's gun, and he is packing it. After the alcohol good and settles in, Lee Ray and Cozy wander off, hopping a fence in order to go for a swim in a backyard pool. But the home owner comes out his door just as Lee Ray is showing Cozy how to handle the gun, and it goes off.

The two scram and hit the road. They are a minor-key Bonnie & Clyde, much too lazy and disorganized to be considered true outlaws. More like outcasts. Their adventure is rather underwhelming.

But that's Reichardt's style. In her early films she liked to pair up an odd couple and watch them interact as they meander along a minor odyssey, bringing out some truths from each other. It's not a profoundly moving film, but it gets under your skin. You watch two broken people keep each other company for a while, though they can't seem to cure each other's loneliness.

From the closing credits of "River of Grass" is this Pavement knockoff, "Evergladed" from a band called Sammy circa 1994:


04 September 2016

Doc Watch: Collectivism

HOLY HELL (B) - When has a cult not been led by a creepy sexual predator? "Holy Hell" is an insider's view of the Bhuddafield, a collection of shiny happy people who gathered in L.A. in the '80s before decamping for Austin in the '90s and descending into a psychological maelstrom that had the enigmatic Michel Rostand.

Will Allen was 22 when he joined the group and 44 when he left, and he was the resident videographer, so his archival footage is the critical fuel for this sometimes lurid documentary from CNN Films. What he captured was a virtual bacchanalia of buff youthful bodies, led by Michel, who was obsessed with body-building and plastic surgery. In most of the footage, Michel is peacocking around in a Speedo, often leering at the camera.

Allen collects a good number of original members, now estranged from the group because of various forms of psychological and sexual abuse. Michel preyed on the men -- they say they were raped, though in a statement shown before the end credits, Michel insists that all contact was consensual. Women were pressured to get abortions. Couples had their relationships sabotaged.

Rostand, a bit actor in Hollywood in the '60s and '70s (you see a flash of him in "Rosemary's Baby") and in gay porn, obviously targeted troubled young adults. Allen himself was fleeing his parents after coming out to them as gay. Other former members come off as a bit theatrical to this day, perhaps never achieving the stability that would have helped them avoid getting ensnared in this mind-control experiment.

As such, there is a surprising lack of depth to this exploration of hows and whys of a classic cult. Like the group itself, the former members suffer from a certain level of superficiality. Even though some of them break down on camera, there is still an air of denial about them, as if they are still tamping down the issues that made them so vulnerable 20 or 30 years ago. Some even acknowledge that there was a lot of positive takeaways from their communal experience -- love, support, spirituality, romping on the beach with their cares miles away.

For a man who wielded a camera for decades, Allen is a rather stilted filmmaker, making his debut here. His own personal story (his sister was a member, too) offers more distraction than insight. A more skilled documentary veteran might have plumbed deeper, tapping into something profound.

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS (B) - There's a fine line between thorough and tedious. No one knows that demarcation better than Frederick Wiseman, the legendary documentarian who built a career on fly-on-the-wall studies of various communities and phenomenons.

Here his static camera observes the people of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, perhaps the most diverse neighborhood in the country. We watch people of various faiths -- a lot of Jews and Muslims -- and ethnic backgrounds as they gather in churches, community centers, banquet halls, or the offices of their small businesses. This is a three-hour marathon, but it's peppier than the interminable "At Berkeley," his four-hour examination of the university campus on the other coast.

Wiseman threads a few narratives through this collection of vignettes. One recurring theme is the threat of a Business Improvement District (BID), which is expected to bring in chain stores like the Gap and Home Depot while squeezing out local entrepreneurs, many of them Spanish-speaking. The local city councilman Daniel Dromm is a recurring character, giving speeches and glad-handing among his constituents. A scene of his office-worker getting an earful on the phone from a resident is priceless -- we only see and hear the worker's side of the conversation, her patience strained by the constant interruptions from what must be a familiar pest on the other end of the line.

Elsewhere, Wiseman stares unblinkingly at the mundane routines of everyday life. We watch the entire process of chickens being killed, de-feathered, and otherwise prepared for sale. It is disturbingly casual. In another scene, senior citizens kibbutz at a community center, one woman in particular who complains about having no friends or relatives and being confined to a wheelchair while another woman tries in vain to have her look on the bright side. The residents seem entirely unfazed by the presence of the camera. Other fleeting images capture a tattoo parlor, a belly-dancing class, a knitting circle and a citizenship study session. Parishioners doze during a Catholic sermon. Fruit and flowers burst from sidewalk vendors' stands. A spirited lecture to south Asian taxi drivers learning such basics as north, south, east and west is worth the price of admission.

The filmmaker will certainly test your patience. Some dialogues seem to go nowhere. The BID conversations -- with community organizers urging buy-in from the local business owners -- delve into incredible detail. At one point, one spokesman drones on, unedited, and a young organizer steps in to give him the wrap-it-up signal, as if he could picture the future audience collectively squirming in its chairs. This film doesn't have the grit of the director's "Boxing Gym" (2010) or the glitz of "Crazy Horse" (2011).

Still, Wiseman shoots in vivid colors, and it is mostly a joy to be immersed in this rich melting pot. The rhythm and hum of someone else's humdrum life is oddly comforting.

02 September 2016

Landmark Milestone

Our favorite movie of all time is "The Dekalog," Krzysztof Kieslowski’s10-part series of short films -- powerful morality plays -- inspired by the Ten Commandments. The film, at long last, is getting an update via the Criterion treatment. It's also getting a limited theatrical re-release, but certainly nowhere near Albuquerque.

A brief re-examination of "The Dekalog" is provided by the Onion's AV Club, which calls it "insanely ambitious" and compares it to James Joyce's "Dubliners."

We have plans to revisit the masterpiece from the writer/director who also brought us the Three Colors trilogy ("Blue," "White," "Red") and "The Double Life of Veronique." Expect it this winter. Meantime, here is the trailer:


31 August 2016

New to the Queue

Bracing for the fall ...

An American teenager and his dad adrift in Germany, "Morris From America."

We'll lift our soft ban on WWII stories for a drama about a West German prosecutor hunting down Nazi war criminals, "The People vs. Fritz Bauer."

A first feature about the rural life of a family in Guatemala in the shadow of a volcano, "Ixcancul."

A woman trying to make a film while dealing with her ailing mother, from Italy, "Mia Madre."

It looks like a cheap "Big Chill" knockoff (subbing a marriage for death -- nice), but there's Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne and Alia Shawkat, so we're adding "The Intervention."

A mother working as a housekeeper in France while raising two teenage girls, "Fatima."