25 June 2017

Fast Forward Theater: Mumble Corps

This feature covers movies that we don't have the will to pull the plug on but are so dreadful, silly or boring that we grab the remote and start zipping through scenes just to get it over with:

THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER (D+) - In this horror story, three young actress tragically fall victim to an over-eager first-time director who slashes through his obvious influences as if with a dull hunting knife.

Very little makes sense here in the story of a pair of monosyllabic girls stranded at their girls school when their parents fail to show up to pick them up on the last day before break, for various cryptic reasons. Poor Kiernan Shipka (little Sally on TV's "Mad Men") plays Kat, a brooding little freak who gives the creeps to her older classmate, Rose (Lucy Boynton), a raven-haired beauty about to break some bad news to her boyfriend. The Northeastern prep school comes complete with the avuncular headmaster and a few mean old-crone teachers, all of whom are just begging to be slaughtered in some hideous fashion.

Kat's behavior is unsettling, and the movie starts with her picturing her parents in a deadly car crash, a premonition that she comes back to repeatedly as her mental state deteriorates. Meantime, a third girl, who goes by Joan (Emma Roberts), has apparently been sprung from a mental institution and hitches a ride with an unsuspecting couple who, it turns out, claim to be the parents of a girl who looks just like Rose and who -- get this -- died nine years ago!

OK. We're catching on. This isn't going to end well. It's just a matter of which of these three mopes is going to out-crazy the others. Just a few minutes in, I turned on the subtitles, because I don't speak Depressed Millennial, and I could barely make out what these poor girls were saying.

In the hands of Oz Perkins (who made this in 2015 before he made "I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House" last year), this cliche-ridden story -- complete with creaky doors in seemingly every room and swelling ominous background music -- is devoid of originality. The debts to "Twin Peaks" and the "Exorcist" are huge. (There's actually an exorcism scene toward the end.) Perkins also has a disturbing leer when he gazes through the camera. In one scene, Joan, who is crashing in a motel in a room separate from the couple she just met, for some inexplicable reason answers the door in just a towel when she knows it's the husband knocking -- and lets him in for a casual chat.

There's a reason we don't watch horror movies anymore. Once you've seen a few, you've seen them all. These films are big lately -- they are popular and cheap to make. These three young actresses have seen better scripts and done better work before; they shouldn't have to be this director's ghoulish playthings.
 

20 June 2017

New to the Queue

Bringing the heat ...

Kumail Nanjiani (HBO's "Silicon Valley") co-wrote and stars in a biographical love story, aided by director Michael Showalter ("Hello, My Name Is Doris"), "The Big Sick."

Our gal Emmanuelle Devos ("Violette," "Gilles' Wife") stars as a grieving mother hunting down justice in "Moka."

A celluloid archivist tells the story of the discovery of a trove of film cans in the Yukon, "Dawson City: Frozen in Time."

Mike White ("The Good Girl," "Chuck & Buck," HBO's "Enlightened") re-teams with Miguel Arteta for the story of a progressive woman (Salma Hayek) battling with a conservative man (John Lithgow) during a soiree, "Beatriz at Dinner."

With trepidation (will it be more like "The Virgin Suicides" or "Marie Antoinette"?) we list Sofia Coppola's Civil War costume piece "The Beguiled." 

A documentary about the din of daily life, Patrick Shen's "In Pursuit of Silence."

The swan song from the legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, with an assist from three co-directors, takes place entirely on a passenger train, "In Transit."

And a documentary about a male nurse in Iraq over five years, "Nowhere to Hide."
 

14 June 2017

Punk'd (Part 2)


AUTHOR: THE J.T. LEROY STORY (B-minus) - I can't help thinking that there is a powerhouse documentary to be made about the epic literary scam pulled off by Laura Albert, who at the turn of the millennium posed as a troubled teenage boy to burn up the best-seller lists and hoodwink a cadre of C-list celebrities. This is not it.

Jeff Feurzeig ("The Devil and Daniel Johnston," "The Real Rocky") has such an explosive story at his fingertips, but he fails to put it all together. He spends a lot of time with Albert, a chubby girl turned lean middle-aged punk, as she unfurls the story of how her creation got out of hand.

J.T. Leroy was a literary sensation, the supposed teenage son of a truck-stop prostitute, pushing all the buttons of the book world and attracting celebrities drawn to the optics of gender politics. But it was Albert doing the writing and her former sister-in-law eventually taking on the mysterious public persona of the androgynous young writer.

With most people knowing how this turns out, Feurzeig doesn't pretend to be unraveling a "Serial"-type mystery. But he engages in a few of those tropes, and this one too often drags along. Albert can be engaging, but she's a little too in love with her legacy. Publishing-world talking heads don't much insight.

If you enjoy knocking B-list celebrities down a notch, there might be some thrills in watching the likes of Winona Ryder and Tom Waits fawn over "J.T." as the second coming of William Burroughs.

This wasn't the most shocking of scams of the last generation, and in Feurzeig's hands, it has lost a bit of its pop.

GIMME DANGER (B-minus) - Speaking of pop, our Jim Jarmusch trilogy ends with this fond, occasionally engaging documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Nixon-era bad boys who are credited with inventing the '70s punk rock movement.

Jarmusch is too much of a fan-boy to really dig deep into the crevices of the band's legacy, and his visual style is surprisingly corny.  This is a lot more fond than it is engaging.

Depending on your tolerance for Iggy Pop (ne James Osterberg), your mileage here will vary. My biggest revelation halfway through this film: Iggy is really only moderately talented -- as a singer, songwriter, performer. And his bandmates were not particularly interesting.

The Stooges pretty much stole their shtick from fellow Michiganders the MC5. Iggy's lyrics, as Jarmusch notes, were embarrassingly rudimentary. Ron Asheton imagined a few killer hooks and riffs, most notably the legendary power chords that drive "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

These slacker dudes from Ann Arbor were discovered by Danny Fields, the subject of the recent "Danny Says," and signed to Elektra Records, which released their little-noticed self-titled debut in 1969 and their even more shunned (but enduring) followup, "Fun House," the next year.

Iggy, a former drummer with the garage band the Iguanas, developed that spastic shirtless stage presence that must have seemed stale by 1972. By then, he and most of his bandmates were hooked on heroin and had lost that record deal. David Bowie rescued Iggy around that time, and they gathered the old band for one last gasp, "Raw Power," with such scorchers as "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" and "Search and Destroy."

Iggy would go on to redeem himself later in the decade with alt-classics like "The Passenger" (famously covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees) and "Lust for Life" (forever stamped on the culture by "Trainspotting" in 1996 and later dropped through the lookingglass in a cruise-ship commercial).

In the end, here, the band members just don't have a compelling story to tell. They may have had a profound impact on a teenage Jarmusch back in the day, but his adoration can't justify a 108-minute slog through the faded past.

BONUS TRACKS
Alejandro Escovedo and Peter Buck cover "I Wanna Be Your Dog" in Athens, Ga., a few years ago:



James Osterberg drumming with the Iguanas in 1965:


 

11 June 2017

Punk'd (Part 1)


GET ME ROGER STONE (B-minus) - Too long by a good 20 minutes, this by-the-numbers study of the guttersnipe political strategist who connived to stick us with Richard Nixon and Donald Trump revels in the man's obnoxious rubber-neck value.

A year ago, this would have been more amusing; now, it's a little frightening and depressing. Only a sadist would enjoy being reminded that we, as a nation, have come full circle since the Nixon law-and-order era of racial dog whistles.

It takes three guys to write and direct this fawning documentary about Roger Stone, the amoral prick who came of age in the era of dirty tricks. He was there for the Southern Strategy of the '60s, the rise of Reagan and the Christian coalition in the '70s, Willie Horton in the '80s, his own raunchy Clintonian scandal in the '90s, and of course, with his former partner Paul Manafort, the nightmare that was the election of Trump. As one talking head notes, after Stone's entrenchment among the Republican elite, "Washington's been worse off for it ever since."

Stone welcomes the hatred of his detractors; he has no principles; and he shows a deviant need to win at all costs, without a thought given to the well-being of Republic. We get it -- politics ain't beanbag. But this provocateur oozes oil like my '74 Chevy Nova used to.

It would be one thing if the filmmakers didn't have a crush on their subject. Sure, they let talking heads criticize him, but Stone always gets the last word. (He also wears the wildest outfits. Whether clad in a cream-colored suit or dark pinstripes with a violet fedora, Stone plays quite the dandy.) And the filmmakers can't help but mention the tabloid headlines that outed him and his wife as swingers; but they soft-pedal it, leaving any questions about his disinformation and his deflections, or his sexuality, on the cutting room floor. Never addressed, either, is the way his hairline quickly recedes in the early footage but is miraculously restored in middle age.

At times this can be quite entertaining, but then Stone can be too -- when he's not leering at the camera or shown in clips cavorting with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. And the chronology seems out of balance. The film zips through the '60s, '70s and '80s and glosses past the outcast days of the '90s, before the film is barely half over. The rest of the film is devoted to the Trump phenomenon, from Stone's early grooming of the barbaric mogul to his and Manafort's deft exploitation of the disconnect between voters and the two major parties.

Either there's nothing particular amusing or intriguing about those recent events, or it's just ... too soon.

07 June 2017

It Girl


We've been meaning to return to the British comedy "The IT Crowd," but we're hopelessly adrift in the era of Peak TV.  We stumbled across this clip, which makes reference to our beloved guy band Guided by Voices.  The usual response to the name of that band is, "Never heard of them."  Here, the case is made that a vibrant young woman shouldn't be expected to know who GBV is -- unless she is being drawn against her will into the valley of the nerds.


 

04 June 2017

Obit noir


OBIT (A-minus) - This surprisingly tender, smartly crafted documentary goes behind the scenes of the obituary desk and the team of writers at the New York Times, with entertaining results.

Native New Yorker Vanessa Gould, in her first full-length film as director, shows a deft touch with the topics of death, journalism, the creative process and the arc of history. She is blessed with a few irresistible characters who carry the film. And she shows an appreciation for the inner workings of a newsroom and its various traditions, from coffee addictions to gallows humor.

And the morgue. That's the cavernous room full of file cabinets bursting with yellowing paper clippings and fading photos. It is manned by Jeff Roth (above), who provides broad comic relief as the eccentric keeper of the brittle files. With severely rolled-up sleeves and a self-deprecating demeanor, he takes the camera on a manic, dizzying tour of the archives, conveying the joys and frustrations of inheriting an impossibly complicated, archaic organizing system. Roth snaps off one-liners as relief from the mostly sober self-analysis of the obit writers themselves. In a word, he's a hoot.

The other star of the film is Bruce Weber, an introspective veteran pushing 60, who allows the cameras intimate access to his reporting and writing process as he spends a day on deadline reporting the death of John F. Kennedy's pioneering television adviser who famously orchestrated the pivotal Kennedy-Nixon debate late in the 1960 campaign. We see Weber meticulously interview the widow, nailing down the nuts and bolts as well as digging deeper into conversation for the details that will make the obituary come alive. For the camera, Weber spins a few entertaining journalism stories as well as waxing philosophical about confronting death daily for a living. We observe his hunt-and-peck typing style as he agonizes over the lede (opening paragraph(s) of the story) while his editor pitches the story for some front-page play. Weber embodies the heart and soul of a career reporter and writer. (He called it a career at the Times in 2016.)

And then there's Margalit Fox, certainly a talented journalist and vivid interview subject. Fox has an unflagging devotion to the English language and the written word, for better and for worse. She deserves some credit for enlivening a long-moribund genre, but she doesn't know her limits, and neither do her editors. We first flagged Fox in 2011 when we were regularly contributing to the internet bulletin board Testy Copy Editors (now on Facebook). We coined the phrase "obit noir" to describe her flowery writing and penchant for ending her pieces with a flourish, resorting to film-noir scene setting and purple prose (she has "the best words," like lachrymose) to convey what often seemed to be apocryphal anecdotes as punchlines. (The posts are collected on this thread between 2011 and 2013. Exhibit A is her obit of Lawrence Eagleburger.) On camera, Fox alternates between frothy exaggerations and tedious statements of the obvious. (It takes her numerous sentences to explain the simple concept that an inordinate number of obituary subjects are white males merely because they made their reputations decades ago when white males dominated politics, industry and entertainment. Noted.) Her theatrics and thesaurus-rex verbosity will either evoke admiration or annoyance.

Gould, however, juggles these and other personalities well.  The filmmaker certainly did her homework; she pays attention to detail, getting much of the small stuff right. She has a nose for pithy coffee-mug slogans and bulletin board clippings (usually of the gallows variety) endemic in the workplace. She studies the pitfalls of fact-gathering and fact-checking. She explains how a lede works and the tradition of writing obituaries in advance to have a bunch in the can ready to go in case a famous celeb or politician dies. She has one of the writers conduct a dramatic reading from a ridiculously cheesy obit from the 1930s to show how the form has morphed from cringe-inducing over-the-top euphemisms about subjects passing into the next realm to be greeted by angels on high, to the matter-of-fact style of the present day (and the ban on unnecessary alternatives to the word "died").

She notes the famous yarn about the death of Farrah Fawcett, who normally would have gotten pretty good play in the next day's paper had she not been overwhelmed within hours by bombshell reports of the afternoon death of Michael Jackson, which set off a deadline frenzy. She brings in music writer Jon Pareles to talk about the appreciation he whipped up in a few hours.

The filmmaker also is wise enough to follow up with Weber the next day to see how his story turned out and how it was played. Wouldn't you know it, he got a fact wrong. (If you pay close attention, it is foreshadowed during his phone interview with the widow.) Then again she fails to show us the lede that Paul Vitello agonized over all day while working on the obit of '60s ad man Dick Rich; here's a link to it.

Gould expertly works in clips of many of the obituary subjects. (A highlight is John Fairfax [1937-2012], who was the first person to row across an ocean.) The footage -- mostly grainy black-and-white or ambered -- brought to mind the wistful late '80s "time machine" ABC News series "Our World" with Linda Ellerbee. Late in the film Gould reels off a roll call of famous recent obit subjects -- Prince, David Bowie, Maya Angelou -- with a grace that brings to mind an award show's "In Memoriam" segment and which elicited "aahs" from various enclaves of the audience as the subjects flashed on the screen.

Maybe I was just in the mood for this one and was watching it with rose-colored glasses; I'm a former newspaperman and undying fan and admirer of obituaries. I was also watching it with one of my former Albuquerque Tribune colleagues who had just penned the obituary of one of another of our former Trib alums. And "Obit" certainly is a bittersweet affair, keenly aware that all of the Times' obit writers are middle-aged and many of their readers probably older.

As newspapers die off -- and its inveterate former staffers do as well -- it's worth documenting the golden years of an age when a news organization devoted so much time, effort, and care to thoughtfully telling the life stories of those who made an impact in our culture. And to present that process so poetically on the big screen must warm the hearts not just of cranky old journalists but of others who care about the written word.

BONUS TRACK
The trailer:


 

02 June 2017

New to the Queue

Hold on hope ...

Steve James ("Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters") profiles a small bank run by Chinese immigrants, the only bank to be prosecuted after the 2008 meltdown, "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail."

Our gal Alia Shawkat and the great Janet McTeer star as the girlfriend and mom of a young man who has committed suicide, in Amber Tamblyn's debut behind the camera, "Paint It Black."

From Argentina, a drama set in an artist's residency as intrigue of Shakespearean proportions envelops two women there, "Hermia and Helena."

If we ever find ourselves with four hours with absolutely nothing to do, we'll have this definitive Grateful Dead documentary squirreled away in the queue, "Long Strange Trip."

A profile of a teenage dissident who rallied others into the streets of Hong Kong in 2014, "Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower."

Fred Armison, as the wacky neighbor, may be enough to draw us to Zoe Lister-Jones' twee-looking directorial debut about a couple who channel their arguments into songs, "Band Aid."

BONUS TRACK
Our title track, from Guided by Voices:


 

31 May 2017

Video Rewind

We go back to 2004 for a scorching drama from Austria, and we revisit our youth with a classic teen romp.

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982) (B) - A time-capsule film if there ever was one, Cameron Crowe's screenwriting splash is now a quaint slice of life about hormonally charged teens struggling with their social skills. It still has its moments, but it feels so 35 years ago. So quaint.

The story holds up pretty well, but part of the appeal now is to see so many fresh-faced actors who would go on to various levels of acclaim over the years. It's hard to believe that Jennifer Jason Leigh wasn't very good back then. You can see why Phoebe Cates -- nothing more than a girl-next-door sex object here -- would eventually walk away from Hollywood. Otherwise, it's Spot the Future Star: John Cusack, Anthony Edwards, Taylor Negron, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stolz, good ol' Judge Reinhold.

This is still Sean Penn's movie as the fried surfer dude Spicoli who does battle with his arch-nemesis Mr. Hand (a delightful Ray Walston). Seemingly throwaway lines like "Hey, I know that dude," "That was my skull!" and "You dick!" are still embarrassingly funny.

There's something about the empty boasts of Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and his pathetic character arc that still resonate. He embodies the hopes and fears of many an early '80s adolescent boy. And the almost casual treatment of abortion -- here depicted on a level with a trip to the dentist -- is both unnerving and refreshing.

Even back in the day this was a cartoonish version of early Gen X'ers as depicted by boomers Crowe and director Amy Heckerling. It's now a fun little analog keepsake.

ANTARES (2004) (B-minus) - Opening with the scene of a car crash, this appealing nugget cleverly weaves the stories of three couples with connections to a soulless apartment complex in Vienna.

Director Goetz Spielmann takes these tales in order, affording them about 40 minutes each, occasionally looping around to previous scenes but from a new perspective, following the next tangent. Eva (Petra Morze) is a bored nurse who rekindles an affair when her lover blows into town. Her dweeby husband doesn't have a clue, and their glum teenage daughter doesn't seem to care. Eva gets to indulge her repressed desires -- blindfolds, Polaroids -- in some fairly daring sex scenes with Tomasz (Andreas Patton).

Next up in Sonja (Susanne Wuest), a pixie-like checkout girl with debilitating jealousy issues over her Yugoslavian boyfriend Marco (Dennis Cubic), who pastes up billboards by day and realizes Sonja's fear by night -- using the excuse of walking the dog to pop in for trysts with a neighbor woman while her adolescent son busies himself elsewhere in the apartment. Sonja fakes a pregnancy out of desperation, with near-tragic results.

Finally, that other woman, Nicole (Martina Zinner), is connected with an asshole real-estate agent, Alex (Andreas Kiendl), a jerk with no redeeming qualities. For viewers seeking out sympathetic characters, look elsewhere. No one comes off well at all, and the exercise here seems to involve stewing in drab misery. Yet there's something alluring and nagging about the lurid look-in on the love lives of three unhappy women and their inconsiderate, indifferent and abusive men.
 

26 May 2017

A Colossal Mess


COLOSSAL (D+) - I can't imagine that this thing even looked good on paper, let alone during production. It's a muddle, and not even an inspired one.

For the first half hour there is some promise here as a meta-commentary about relationships, addictions, and alien invasions. Anne Hathaway is charming as Gloria, a bumbling alcoholic, kicked out of her New York apartment by a fed-up boyfriend and landing back in her family's empty home back in the town she grew up in. Jason Sudeikis is fairly engaging as Oscar, a childhood friend who hasn't seen Gloria since she went off to the big city to be an "internet journalist."

Oscar looks out for her, gives her a job at his bar, buys her a futon and a TV, and seems to care about her well-being. But he enables her alcoholism with after-closing drinking sessions with her and two buddies, dimwitted hunk Joel (Austin Stowell), whom Gloria is attracted to when she's had a few, and cranky old Garth (a misused, maudlin Tim Blake Nelson).

Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo started out with a fun idea (which led to a misleadingly entertaining trailer): a Godzilla-like monster is attacking Seoul, South Korea, and it appears to be controlled somehow by Gloria, mimicking her movements from the other side of the world. It turns out that Gloria can, at a specific time and place, trigger an appearance by the monster and either wreak havoc or spare lives.

There is some fun to be had for about 40 minutes, and you settle in with Gloria and Oscar. But then Vigalondo runs off the rails with his narrative, flying off into a ditch. The relationship between Gloria and Oscar -- friends only (though jealousy is a key plot point) -- turns dark and cartoonish. Neither fans nor detractors of graphic novels will buy into the goofy explanation of the origin of Gloria's secret powers.

This fails as both spoof and straight storytelling. The facile characterizations undermine the narrative at every turn. Gloria is that cute, Hollywood kind of blackout drunk. She's always repeating stories to Oscar, not realizing that she had already told him these things the night before during a binge. It's played not as a disturbing trait but as an adorable little wink between them. Gloria also manages to have perfect, full-bodied hair, with a shampoo-commercial sheen and perfect bangs, even when waking up in the middle of the day face-down in her own drool. "Days of Wine and Roses" this is not.

But then, this isn't supposed to be such a dour drama, obviously. Except that Vigalondo wants us to buy into the pathos and some sort of deeper message. He wants to have it both ways -- wacky and soul-searching -- and he fails to achieve either one. You think of others who might have pulled this off -- Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," for example -- and you realize that this isn't even a spectacular failure.

BONUS TRACK
The film opens with a lovely version "Shake Sugaree" (later reworked by the Grateful Dead), by Elizabeth Cotten, with Brenda Evans on vocals:


 

23 May 2017

Now & Then (Part 2): A Final Journey

For our occasional series, we previously reviewed the latest from indie legend Jim Jarmusch, "Paterson."  Today, we go back in time and revisit his early masterpiece "Dead Man." (Previous Now & Then entries are here and here and here and here.)

DEAD MAN (1995) (A) - There was a time when Johnny Depp could be a revelation. And when he signed on to give Jim Jarmusch mainstream credibility, the result was a win-win.

With his fifth major film, Jarmusch begins to put it all together, hitting his stride, while solidifying the new-age mysticism that will find him wandering off the beaten path in nearly every other film he'll make going forward. He even expands his comfort zone to tell a period piece from the Old West, set in the late 19th century.

Depp plays William Blake (like the poet), a nebbish who travels from Cleveland to the town of Machine, Ariz., to assume an accountant's job that he has been promised in that god-forsake town. The train ride takes up an extended opening scene, in which a panoply of oddball characters come and go, one of whom (a coal-faced Crispin Glover) warns him about the perils of the new gig, just before a bunch of lugs start shooting from the train windows out at buffalo.

Upon arrival, Blake enters a dystopian factory setting and is promptly informed by the owner, Mr. Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in one of his final roles), that the position has already been filled, and he is asked to leave at the point of a gun. Blake then meets up with an ex-hooker, shacks up with her and, in self-defense, shoots her intruding lover (Gabriel Byrne), who happens to be Dickinson's son. Blake -- himself wounded near the heart -- flees on a stolen horse, a wanted man.

Thus begins his journey through some version of purgatory or the after-life. Weakened by his wound, he meets up with Nobody (Canadian character actor Gary Farmer), a wise but practical native American who nurses and guides the man named after the great poet, and helps him elude a three-man posse of lowlifes that Dickinson has sicced on Blake's trail. Nobody likes to rail against the "stupid" white men who are wreaking havoc over the sacred lands in their raw allegiance to capital and industry. Jarmusch here deftly avoids cliches with this mystical native. He doesn't have super powers or God-like insight, but he does know how to outfox the three headhunters, which includes a psychopathic cannibal (Lance Henrikson, "Alien") and a chatty sidekick (Michael Wincott, "Alien: Resurrection"). Another trio, living in the woods, includes Iggy Pop (in a dress) and a young Billy Bob Thornton (whose name is misspelled in the opening credits) workshopping an early version of Karl Childers from "Sling Blade." You can sense an influence in these wacky troikas (and going back to early Jarmusch (e.g., "Down by Law")) on both Quentin Tarentino and the Coen brothers.

Shooting in his familiar black-and-white, Jarmusch pays deep homage to America's frontier past while serving up this fable with a wry contemporary sensibility and a dry sense of humor. He is in command of his material, sure-handed behind the camera, and riffing as if he could no wrong. Like his lead character, the writer-director seems to be embarking on a vision quest and prying at the mystery of life and death. A haunting, eviscerating electric-guitar soundtrack by Neil Young ratchets up the tension at every critical turn.

Depp may strike some as too thoroughly modern to blend in with this cast of misfits, but, nestled chronologically between the camp of "Ed Wood" and the gravitas of "Donnie Brasco," brings soul to his character as well as a touch of child-like wonderment. Other cameos include Alfred Molina as a trading-post proprietor and John Hurt (more "Alien") as an irascible office manager.

Jarmusch, 11 years after his breakthrough "Stranger Than Paradise," is at his peak over these two hours, and after it made its mark, "Dead Man" stood as a landmark in independent Second Wave cinema. (Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum considered this "acid western" the best film for the 1990s.) And, like good poetry, it has withstood the test of time.

BONUS TRACKS
Let's take a crack at listing, in order, our favorite Jarmusch films. Some we haven't seen in a long time, so we might revisit this exercise down the road:

  • Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
  • Dead Man (1995)
  • Down by Law (1986)
  • Broken Flowers (2005)
  • The Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
  • Mystery Train (1989)
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) 
  • Night on Earth (1991)
  • The Limits of Control (2009)
  • Paterson (2016)
  • Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
  • Permanent Vacation (student film, 1980)
Not seen: His two documentaries, "Year of the Horse" (1997) and "Gimme Danger" (2016) (review coming soon).

And here's the theme song from Neil Young:


   

16 May 2017

Now & Then -- Dream Lovers: A Straight Story:

For our occasional series, here is the latest from indie legend Jim Jarmusch.  In the coming days, we will go back in time and revisit his early masterpiece "Dead Man." (Previous Now & Then entries are here and here and here and here.)

PATERSON (B) - In which Jim Jarmusch tells a sweet little story, as if the modern indie master had been bought off by Disney and has hypnotized his entire cast to tell the humble tale of an ordinary bus driver who fancies himself a poet.

Jarmusch, the godfather of American second-wave filmmaking dating back to the early '80s, is now, an elder. His last film, "The Only Lovers Left Alive," was a classic quirky Jarmusch ensemble piece, and somewhat of a return to form after a decade wallowing in a bit of a funk (with the likes of 2009's "The Limits of Control"). Here, the clouds part further, and the filmmaker is downright happy-go-lucky as he follows an everyman named Paterson (an understated Adam Driver) who drives a bus in, coincidentally, Paterson, N.J., observes the world at arm's-length, and returns to his simple, charmed life every evening with his adorable wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

The pace and tone are inoffensive, almost dreamlike (I wondered at the end whether it wasn't "all just a dream") -- I couldn't tell you after watching it why it's rated R (a quick glimpse of rear nudity, one or two bad words, and one potentially violent scene, it turns out). I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been rated G, like David Lynch's "The Straight Story," a good point of comparison. Lynch had an elderly man riding a lawnmower across country; here, young Paterson drives mostly in a circuit, seeing the same faces and places every day, eavesdropping on the most ordinary of conversations. The oaths are mild here: characters are called a dumbbell or a numb-skull.

Adam Driver (HBO's "Girls," Kylo Ren in "Star Wars") is seriously sedated here, often with a wry smile and a far-off look, with that mystical presence that commonly anchors Jarmusch's later films (such as "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," itself derivative of TV's "Kung Fu"). His poetry spills across the screen -- often in a draft form that gets edited in real time -- as Paterson intones the words. The poetry is rather ordinary. One of the best ideas here is that there is nothing mysterious or particularly literary about putting your thoughts to the page -- there's even the sly hint that the filmmaker might be suggesting that Paterson's poetry is not very good. Farahani is a fine foil, if a bit too cutesy; she brings to mind the French girlfriend of Butch in "Pulp Fiction," played by Maria de Medeiros. ("Zed's dead, baby.")

Cliches and laziness creep in here, though. The couple don't have a child, but rather they engage in baby-talk with one of those ubiquitous snuffling movie bulldogs. There's a generic complaining co-worker to greet Paterson every morning. Laura at times is a trite manic pixie dream girl, complete with folky artistic flair and mad baking skills. (Interestingly, Jarmusch plays a lot with shapes and designs -- concentric circles, stripes, a hypnotizing black-and-white harlequin guitar.) The recurring bit of Paterson having to straighten out his leaning mailbox every day -- only to have it lean back over moments later -- is straight out of a Capra film. There's a wise old bartender named Doc who plays chess against himself. There are odd references to the city of Paterson's pop culture history, as if lifted from Wikipedia. Our couple snuggles in a movie theater to -- nudge-nudge -- "The Island of Lost Souls."

There's no doubt, though, that Jarmusch is making a serious pitch here, even if he's speaking in riddles. There's something to the idea that this might have all been a dream; the movie begins and ends with Paterson waking up. He also could be in purgatory; when he wakes, he reflexively checks his watch, and while it's always a slightly different time, there's an element of "Groundhog Day" to the proceedings. Paterson and his wife are also following their dreams on separate tracks -- poet and country singer, respectively. (Others are chasing dreams, too, including a budding rap star whom Paterson encourages.)

There is an overall vibe of old-fashioned innocence mixed with hipster magical realism. Paterson and Laura are essentially sexless spouses -- what you might expect if Pee-wee Herman married Miranda July. (The cloying comic strip "Love Is ..." comes to mind.) Twins recur throughout the movie, as do waterfalls. Potential conflicts turn anti-climactic -- a bus merely breaks down rather than turning into a fireball; a gun gets pulled in a bar, but reason prevails; thugs cruising in a car seem to menace Paterson by coveting his dog, but nothing comes of the random exchange. It's a cartoon-like world.

This is a movie bathed in earnest innocence, with its heart on its sleeve. Paterson suggests that his love is so deep that, if he were ever to lose Laura, "I'd tear my heart out and never put it back." Paterson and Laura are mirrored by an ill-fated couple who keep showing up at Paterson's local pub (Laura kindly turns a blind eye to Paterson's fiction of walking the dog as an excuse to go drinking). Everett, dumped by Marie, at one point takes a stand and betrays Jarmusch's soft spot.

"Without love," he implores, "what reason is there for anything?"

Has the indie film world's bad boy gone soft?

BONUS TRACK
The soundtrack is full of wistful old country and R&B songs. This is a fine example, Willie West's "I'm Still a Man (Lord Have Mercy)":


13 May 2017

Life ls Short: Blimey!

Life Is Short is an as-needed series documenting the films we just couldn't make it through. We like to refer to these movies as "Damsels in Distress." Previous entries can be found here.

We didn't try very hard on this one. It's a musical -- of a sort -- and so the odds were not good. IMDb capsulizes the plot:

London Road documents the events of 2006, when the quiet rural town of Ipswich was shattered by the discovery of the bodies of five women. When a local resident was charged and then convicted of the murders, the community grappled with what it meant to be at the epicentre of this tragedy.

The filmmaker, Rufus Norris, worked with a script by Alecky Blythe, who compiled actual quotes from residents and reworked it into documentary-style chronicle, with many of the quotes -- including by news readers -- sung awkwardly. The first half hour was mainly townsfolk repeatedly expressing fear about going out on the streets. I don't know why so many old men feared for their lives because a maniac was killing young female prostitutes, but then I didn't stick around long enough to find out.

Title: LONDON ROAD
Running Time: 92 MIN
Elapsed Time at Plug Pull:  29 MIN
Portion Watched: 32%
My Age at Time of Viewing: 54 YRS, 5 MOS.
Average Male American Lifespan: 76.4 YRS.
Watched/Did Instead: Read a James Baldwin essay
Odds of Re-viewing This Title: 50-to-1.
 

11 May 2017

New to the Queue

Bringin' it all back home ...

A documentary about the '60s pop and R&B songwriter and producer ("Twist and Shout," "Hang on Sloopy") who died young, "Bang! The Bert Berns Story."

A coming-of-age story with an edge, the Russian-import story "Natasha."

A documentary about a classic behind-the-scenes couple, "Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story."

Philippe Falardeau ("Monsieur Lazhar") directs the biopic of mid-70s tomato can Chuck Wepner, who famously got pulverized by Muhammad Ali, thus inspiring "Rocky": "Chuck."

Azazel Jacobs ("Momma's Boy") maneuvers Debra Winger and Tracy Letts through the tale of a middle-aged couple who are cheating on each other but then fall for each other again, in "The Lovers."

A documentary about the smarmy grifter who represents one degree of separation between Presidents Trump and Nixon, "Get Me Roger Stone."

Our guy Alex Karpovsky stars in a buddy road movie, the debut feature "Folk Hero & Funny Guy."

Shirley Henderson is a social worker who nurtures a troubled teenager with a great singing voice in "Urban Hymn."
 

09 May 2017

Valedictory


GRADUATION (B+) - Cristian Mungiu tells uncomfortable stories that shine a light toward the dark side of human behavior. With his latest, he unfurls a slow, disturbing tale of an everyman navigating the morally ambiguous world of post-communist Romania.

Reaching back to the dull press of daily life in the abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" (2007), Mungiu presents middle-aged shlub Romeo (Adrian Titieni), who steps up to help his daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus), who is struggling to complete her week-long college-entrance exams. With Eliza reeling, physically and emotionally, from an attack, Romeo initially seeks out school administrators to accommodate his daughter, who has a cast on her sprained wrist.

Romeo is a doctor, and Eliza needs high scores on the tests in order to fulfill her father's expectations of studying medicine in the United Kingdom and escaping the . Eliza, though, seems burdened by that pressure, and she is giving serious consideration to sticking closer to home -- and closer to her biker boyfriend. The tension between father and daughter is palpable.

Dissatisfied with the response he gets at the school, Romeo, with the help of a morally dubious pal, the local chief inspector (a wonderfully droll Vlad Ivanov), climbs the ladder to find a higher-up who would be able to flag Eliza's exam, give it special attention, and goose her score, if necessary. What could go wrong?

This little scheme of Romeo's is just a symptom of how his life has gone off the rails. He has a distant relationship with his sickly wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), whose only joys in life seem to involve sleeping or smoking. Romeo has a young girlfriend on the side, Sandra (Malina Manovici), who is a teacher at Eliza's school. The adultery is so casual that it's a bit eerie.

And, actually, Mungiu (bouncing back from his gruesome last feature "Beyond the Hills") has slyly crafted an urban horror film. At every turn, some character or circumstance is giving us the creeps. The film starts with a rock crashing through the window of the home of Romeo, Magda and Eliza, who all treat it as a ho-hum start to another workday. Minor vandalism will plague them throughout the film, with no real resolution. When Eliza views a police lineup, the men are ordered to utter a vulgar line that accompanied the attack, and one of them gets way into the role and has to be restrained. Sandra's son trips the autism scale and likes to parade the grounds of his apartment complex silently in a coyote mask. Toward the end of the film, Romeo tracks a mysterious figure into a rundown residential area at night and gets turned around as if he were being chased through a cornfield by a slasher in a goalie mask.

It's that paranoia that permeates the film and drives it over the course of two gripping hours. Like much of the Romanian New Wave cinema, "Graduation" navigates an ethically complex world in which practical considerations justify low levels of graft and incompetence. Romeo exists in a sort of purgatory. How he makes his way through the moral muck can be fascinating to watch.
 

06 May 2017

Spam Poetry, No. 3


Cremation of pitka
holding on cream
an electrical erection of promoters.

Sew-along Charlotte died,
and rally can look for
Madrid supporters,
like editor.

Bob Dylan played to metaphysical witchcraft,
a Beatles good number

Search on eels, 
fish ultimately end,
section off of science educators.
Traditionality.

Wicked sword rose,
morning American people were merchandise,
ranging from ...
spiritualism for students
to choose
if they need for some excess.

Seeing what amber brought with them.
English speaking,
and screening
and spreading.

Fine this condition statement cannot prostitute for lines,
but cold, the look.