26 April 2017

RIP, Jonathan Demme


Jonathan Demme, a sharp-eyed pop-culture film maven of the '80s and '90s, died today at age 73. While he'd been very much under the radar after his heyday, he continued to produce much-admired documentaries and one final strong feature in the new century.

Two things jump to mind when I think of Demme: the visual and aural joy throughout "Stop Making Sense," and the exchange between Ray Liotta and Jeff Daniels in a parking lot in Demme's breakthrough hit "Something Wild." Liotta, the menacing Ray, is hunting Charlie (Daniels), a yuppie dweeb who has taken up with the "wild" Audrey, aka Lulu (Melanie Griffith). While their dates pop in to a convenience store (where fresh-scrubbed '80s teens play Ms. Pacman), Charlie and Ray shoot the shit when Ray -- in that haunting way of Liotta's -- slips into vulgarity and inquires about Audrey's sexual prowess. It's quite the "when we wuz young" time capsule featuring the three actors):

   "C'mon Charlie, you gotta admit, she looks like she could fuck you right in half, I mean just fuck you to pieces."
   "Ray, there's no call for that kind of talk."
   "You're right. You're right. I understand." 



Demme emerged from the young directors in Roger Corman's pulp factory, most notably with "Caged Heat." Our favorites among his other feature films:

  • "Rachel Getting Married" (2008)
  • "Philadelphia" (1993)
  • And his most celebrated moment, "Silence of the Lambs" (1991)
But he might have reached higher achievements with his documentaries. (He certainly made more docs than features.)

  • "Stop Making Sense (1984)
  • "Swimming to Cambodia" with Spalding Gray (1987)
  • "The Agronomist" (2003)
  • "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains" (2007)
  • "Haiti Dreams of Democracy" (1988)
The New York Times eulogizes him this way:

Mob wives, CB radio buffs and AIDS victims; Hannibal Lecter, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Carter: Mr. Demme (pronounced DEM-ee) plucked his subjects and stories largely from the stew of contemporary American subcultures and iconography. He created a body of work — including fiction films and documentaries, dramas and comedies, original scripts, adaptations and remakes — that resists easy characterization.

Let's hope he doesn't fade into history known only for his last Hollywood effort, "Ricki and the Flash."

BONUS TRACK
Demme directed a lot of  music videos, including this one for New Order's epic "Perfect Kiss" in 1989:

  

22 April 2017

Experiments in 2017


EXPERIMENTS IN CINEMA v12.3 -- Bryan Konefsky and his film students pushed boundaries again this past week in their annual festival of experimental cinema. The focus was on Cuba, where Konefsky had visited for the first time late last year.

We caught Program 3 (of 20) curated by Magaly Espinosa Delgado, who oversaw about an hour of experimental films from Cuba. It started slow, with a scattered documentary piece apparently about the relatives and/or friends of gang members talking about a violent night at a club.


The program finished strong with short films that found the intersection between parent/child relationships and patriotism in a changing land. The first featured a nana putting a baby down for a nap, patting the child's bottom in a percussive manner while singing the Cuban national anthem. In the second, an off-camera adult addresses a toddler who is standing in a crib, giving the child orders or suggestions (it wasn't translated), eliciting the word "no" from the child over and over again. Title: "Autocratico."

Our favorite was "The 'New Man' and My Father," a six-minute film from 2015 in which Adrian Melis sits his father, a former revolutionary, in front of the camera to be grilled about recent progress in Cuba and the prospects of changes in the horizon in a post-Castro nation. The questions are detailed and pointed, a clear challenge to the old guard. Melis' father sits shirtless and never gives an answer. It is apparent that Melis has included only interstitial shots of his father, outtakes and shots of set-up or prep. The premise suggests that the fading revolutionary generation has nothing left to say or no easy answers for what lies ahead. The film itself is a precise, stinging statement about both a father and a fatherland. Fascinating.

BONUS TRACK
The final film in the third program ended with vintage '60s footage scored to Miles Davis' "Now's the Time":


 

18 April 2017

New to the Queue

Digging deep ...

A man crosses ethical boundaries when trying to help his daughter pass a college-entrance exam, in Cristian Mungiu's "Graduation."

Cynthia Nixon stars in Terence Davies' biography of the poet Emily Dickinson, "A Quiet Passion."

From Bulgaria, a railroad worker turns in a bunch of money he found on the train tracks, but he soon comes to regret doing so, in the twisted farce "Glory."

Something about Anne Hathaway in the trailer is drawing us -- inexplicably and despite the presence of Jason Sudeikis -- to the horror spoof "Colossal."

A documentary about writers of obituaries, one of our favorite newspaper features, focusing mainly on the gang at the New York Times: "Obit."

A retro boxing film (and love story), from Finland, "The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki."
 

15 April 2017

Theater People: The Sequel


KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE (C) - Kate Lyn Sheil has had an interesting run in indie films during this decade, while finding regular TV work to pay her bills. We noticed her in Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Philip," "The Color Wheel" and "Queen of Earth," and in "Gabi on the Roof in July."

She has an appealing 1970s little-sister vibe, and she's a reliable supporting player. At some point, Sheil fell in with a project telling the story of Christine Chubbuck, an anchorwoman in Sarasota, Fla., who shot herself to death on live television back in 1974. This quasi documentary follows Sheil as she prepares for the part of Chubbuck in a feature film, an assignment that jangles her nerves and toys with her emotions.

Writer-director Robert Greene trod similar ground a couple of years ago in "Actress," in which he chronicled the struggles of an actress and mother trying to get back into the game at age 40. But Greene fails to find the magic a second time around.

Sheil mopes through this exercise as she researches the role, rehearses and shoots a few scenes. Some of the best parts of Greene's documentary come when he follows Sheil around to her interviews with Chubbock's family and former colleagues, 40 years after the tragedy. She's a decent reporter in that sense.

Where this all breaks down is in the attempt to ratchet up the intrigue as Sheil builds up her nerve to put on the brunette wig, sit as an anchor desk and put a pistol to her head. (She actually goes shopping for the same model of handgun that Chubbuck had used.) We are supposed to feel a building sense of dread as Sheil teeters on the brink of losing herself in the identity of the troubled anchorwoman.

But something is off. The angst just doesn't feel genuine. I don't doubt that it was a difficult role for Sheil to take on; it's just that too often her heightened anxiety and fear comes off as theatrical posturing. Oh, woe is the actress who dares tiptoe to the brink of horrors of human existence! (See Heath Ledger Syndrome.)

Part of that comes from the cheapness of the feature-film production itself. The snippets we see suggest that it was on a par with a TV weepy-of-the-week. The dialogue is pitiful. (There is no evidence that whatever they were working on will see the light of day. They were beaten to the punch by Rebecca Hall and the biopic "Christine," which last year earned a respectable 72 Metacritic score.)

Sheil throws a few fits on the set like a C-list diva in an E! reality show. By the end, you want to take her aside and tell her, "C'mon, Kate. Your devotion to the craft is admirable, and you are a very good actress. But just say the lines and get over yourself."

09 April 2017

Fast Forward Theater: "The Love Witch"

A new feature about 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 LOVE WITCH (D) - What were thinking? What were they going for? What made me watch it?

This faithful homage to trashy '60s and '70s Technicolor horror movies scores points for its attention to detail. But writer-director (and designer) Anna Biller, who trod the retro sexploitation territory nearly a decade ago with a movie called "Viva," makes a vital mistake. She forgets how bad those movies that she's replicating were.

But this is more of an art installation than a film, so maybe I'm not qualified to criticize it. The color red pops all over the screen, as do the usual-suspect primary colors in supporting roles. But "The Love Witch" conjures up a bizarre alternative universe where Jean-Luc Godard directed episodes of "Love, American Style" with his muse, Connie Stevens.

When I was pretty little, one of the first horror movies I recalled seeing on TV was "Two on a Guillotine," which starred the perpetually lip-glossed Miss Stevens along with miscast Disney refugee Dean Jones and Cesar Romero (scary to a child even without his Joker makeup) in an embarrassing haunted-house romp. I was too young to know enough to roll my eyes, and I was wide-eyed and willing to play along with the genre. (Unlike my sister, whose nerves couldn't even handle "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein."

I rarely can tolerate horror films and their tired tropes. I was of an impressionable age for the original "Halloween" (and for Jamie Curtis), and as an adult I was completely jangled by the original "Blair Witch Project," even though I knew it was a fake-out and was watching it at home on VHS. But in general, those chiller-theater features don't work on me. So, for all I know, "The Love Witch" -- about a sexy brunette who concocts potions and casts spells with unfailingly fatal results -- has subverted the genre brilliantly. Maybe this is a deep feminist statement.

But .... there's homage and there's inspiration, and then there is tedious note-for-note copy-catting. Biller fusses over inch of every frame (albeit with low-rent production values), which perhaps explains why she makes one of these only every decade or so. But paying homage to "Dark Shadows" by way of the TV version of "Batman" plus a dash of "Dragnet" -- complete with corny dialogue and wooden characters -- is just plain flat and goofy.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, whose name makes her sound more like a neighbor on "Bewitched" than a femme fatale. Robinson is conventionally pretty -- an alluring mix of Diana Rigg and Alison Brie. But she certainly can't act. It's as if she is parodying Megan's clunky acting in a soap opera on TV's "Mad Men." She has a friend with a British accent (for some reason), eventually seducing the friend's husband and driving him to suicide. Quelle fun!

Rolling my eyes frequently, I chose not to shut it off, because I was curious about how it would play out. But I'm sure I missed nothing crucial by fast-forward through healthy chunks of the movie. Robinson is lovely to look at. (The no-frontal-nudity clause in her contract is obvious by the way her long hair always strategically drapes over her breasts.)  By the time Elaine and a square-jawed police detective wed amid prancing renaissance-faire extras, "The Love Witch" has gone completely off the rails. Biller just has no ear for camp.

My curiosity satisfied, I got through this two-hour feature in a little over an hour. In retrospect, 3x speed might have been better.

BONUS TRACK
Don't be fooled by the trailer:


  

07 April 2017

Poetry Spam, No. 2


Prosecute these substances
that inch shafts. 

Started opening volume in, say,
Gershwin, duke of specialties.
Hero, popular overnight with Brisbane.

Networks, Amazons
marketplace
Chesapeake Bay
-- none,
but pauses when perform on troop. 

Governmental, pay handsomely
on protons, neutrons.
Stairmaster and Portland cement,
vulcanized rubber.

Dams that rocks have the dose to …
to listen
to select source code.

Looked over reconstruction and australs.

Alexander has evaporated into small fragments.
Sidekick
fetal brain
to further at elements, and shaping the bundy.

Specific gravity
in tear
the proceeds
was minimized. 

Told that deviation of York
and astigmatism
may skydivers
at villa.

03 April 2017

Jagged Edge

Two of our favorite actors get bogged down in a couple of muddled anti-mystery plots:

ELLE (B+) - I could watch Isabelle Huppert watch paint dry. And she certainly carries Paul Verhoeven's new thriller about as far as it deserves to go.

Yes, that Paul Verhoeven, the provocateur behind such '90s cultural touchstones as "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls." Verhoeven has matured, apparently, and here he strives for some Hitchcock cred, but he falls short, landing in Brian De Palma territory.

Huppert plays Michele, a video-game entrepreneur who, at the beginning of the film, gets raped by a masked intruder in her home. Michele, however, shrugs off the attack and doesn't want to bother involving the police. With that Huppert mask of hers, she stoically soldiers on. She casually drops news of the attack at a dinner out with her ex and her business partner, Anna (Anne Consigney from TV's "The Returned"), as if she were just ordering the next appetizer.

But Michele starts sizing up potential suspects, including a couple of young employees, particularly one who likes to tweak the prototype for the latest violent video game with images of Michele's face, for in-house amusement. Thus begins a slow burn of a whodunit, layered with levels of paranoia and misdirection.

Michele flirts with her married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). At a dinner party she hosts, she sits next to Patrick and lets her foot wander to his crotch under the table. The look she gives him, with left-eyebrow cocked in mock innocence, is classic Huppert. Meantime, Michele steadfastly tries to put the attack behind her, while seeming to channel her energies in the detective work.

But the attack gets replayed in her mind. And sometimes the circumstances change. In one iteration she overcomes her assailant. Is that her memory faltering? Is she imagining what might have been? Eventually, the viewer begins to question whether the attack actually occurred the way it was first depicted, and whether Michele isn't perhaps playing a more sophisticated psychological game here.

Is she dead inside? She shamelessly has an affair with Anna's husband, but dumps him early on, only to spill the beans to Anna, needlessly harming her partner. "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all," Michele rationalizes to Anna. "Believe me."

What should be a taut thriller turns into a lumbering trompe l'oeil who-cares-who-done-it, dragging beyond the two-hour mark. Verhoeven's plot twists feel like cheats, and his style is surprisingly flat. He lazily leans on several spinnings of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" as a tired soundtrack flourish.

None of the actors can really keep up with Huppert, making Michele's psychological maneuverings -- whether for grins or for self-preservation -- seem cruel and misplaced. Too much here just doesn't add up. For a better version of Huppert doing a psycho-sexual psych-out, try Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" from 2002.

PERSONAL SHOPPER (C+) - When Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart teamed up last, for "Clouds of Sils Maria," they put us to sleep. With a solid nap under our belt for a rainy-day matinee, we stayed awake for "Personal Shopper," but still left the theater in a fog.

Stewart ("Adventureland," "Certain Women") plays Maureen, a morose millennial living in Paris, serving as a personal shopper for a celebrity while mourning the loss of her twin brother, whose spirit she desperately seeks to connect with. Maureen spends time at her brother's creaky old house out in the countryside, a mansion straight out of central casting.

Maureen rarely sees her employer, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), and has plenty of time to mouse around the old house and to interact with her brother's girlfriend, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who has moved on quickly with a new boyfriend. Then Maureen starts getting text messages from an unknown number, from someone who apparently knows her comings and goings and who almost certainly is not the ghost of her brother.

The mystery here is disappointingly easy to figure out. It's as if Assayas ("Carlos," "Something in the Air") isn't even trying to create suspense. And while Stewart can be quite effective in certain roles, she is not one to enliven a movie with her natural charisma. In fact, she can be a walking Hipster Bingo card. Keep track every time she: nervously touches her face; runs her hand through her boyish haircut; texts; lights up a cigarette; converses without making eye contact; Skypes with her boyfriend; and rides her scooter through the streets of Paris (a lot).

It can make for a pretty dull 105 minutes. Assayas struggles to conjure up spirits with some bush-league Tim Burton effects. The story is just wafer thin here, bordering on laughable at times. (At one point, Maureen, frustrated by the signs she perceives are coming from the after-world, stares at a plumbing fixture that seems to have a mind of its own and says to it, "I'm gonna need more from you!") And not even the discovery of a brutal murder can raise the viewer's pulse.

The ending is heartfelt, evoking a rare flush of emotion in Maureen, gorgeously shot in Oman. But it can't make up for an hour and a half of moodiness from the Ghost and Mrs. Meh.

BONUS TRACK
The best part of "Personal Shopper" is the song over the closing credits, "Track of Time" by Anna von Hausswolff:


  

31 March 2017

New to the Queue

Darker, yet brighter ...

A pregnant woman goes on a killing spree at the behest of her unborn child in "Prevenge."

From the Czech Republic, the biopic of a troubled young woman who became a mass murderer, "I, Olga Hepnarova."

A study of the ways of the East German secret police, from a personal point of view, "Karl Marx City."

Another dark tale, a documentary about the death of a noted jazz trumpeter killed by his common law wife in the 1970s, "I Called Him Morgan."

Is a grown-up Kiernan Shipka (Sally on TV's "Mad Men") enough to draw us to a brooding horror story set at a boarding school for girls? It's "The Blackcoat's Daughter."

A self-explanatory documentary about the most unique filmmaker of his generation, "David Lynch: The Art of Life."

Based on a New Yorker magazine piece, a documentary about a mentally ill woman who eventually starved to death in an abandoned farmhouse, "God Knows Where I Am."
  

27 March 2017

Our World


I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (B+) - It's all too much. Even on the second viewing, this documentary about the works of writer James Baldwin was too overwhelming to take in.

Baldwin is brilliant in this meditation on race relations, but the presentation by Raoul Peck too often overwhelms Baldwin's own words with distracting and discordant images. This is a profound polemic but it can be difficult to follow at times.


This production has its roots in a project conceived by Baldwin in the 1970s -- a rumination on the lives of martyred civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. It is his 30-page pitch expanded to 90 minutes, fleshed out with video clips of Baldwin and other snippets of his writings.

During each screening, I wanted to walk out halfway through and head straight to a bookstore to stock up on Baldwin's canon. Or watch full clips of him online. Peck draws heavily from two mid- to late-'60s appearances of his in particular: one addressing scholars at Cambridge in London and the other on Dick Cavett's talk show, where Baldwin fields the host's awkward questions and even gets into a dust-up with an old-fogey philosopher. Pick up a gun and utter "Give me liberty or give me death," Baldwin observes, and you are a hero if you are a white man; if a black man were to do the same, he would be branded a criminal.

There are many moments of such insight -- as profoundly relevant now as they were then. But Peck, a talented filmmaker (mostly in TV), just crams too much into each frame. Invariably, we get narration, background music, and urgent images competing for our attention. And too often, those three pieces don't go together well. After announcing the death of Evers, the camera floats along above a swamp while a grimy version of "Baby Please Don't Go" plays. As a an extended scene from a 1931 Hollywood musical plays, we hear Baldwin's story about mistaking a woman at a local store for Joan Crawford, who certainly isn't the starlet tap-dancing her heart out on screen. While Baldwin ties together the legacies of the three civil rights leaders, Peck lingers on a photograph of Baldwin sitting with three little girls (daughters? who knows?); when a narrator intones, "Not one of these three lived to be 40," there's a disconnect -- the girls? wait, wasn't he gay? oh, the three civil-rights icons! Early in the film, as the narration announces the author's return to New York from a Paris exile, the camera ogles the brights lights and garish video screens of a present-day Times Square.

And it is all narrated by an unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson, who, apparently out of reverence, caresses each word, intoning his lines with a god-like near-whisper, sometimes seeming to run out of breath at the end of a sentence. Just another distraction.

But Peck knows when to get out of the way and let Baldwin riff. And some of the visual collages he creates can be mesmerizing. Slow-motion footage of Barack and Michelle Obama striding along their inaugural parade route in 2008 feels like heart-tugging nostalgia from a long-gone era. And the graphics throughout are elegant -- black-on-white type alternating, most appropriately, with white-on-black.

While he leans a bit too much on movie and TV images, Peck alights on some powerful scenes. Baldwin's insights into the interracial homoerotic undertones of movies like "In the Heat of the Night" or "The Defiant Ones" are eye-opening. He observes that the classic cinematic fade-out kiss has little to do with love or sex but rather speaks to reconciliation. One major theme is the media's depiction of white privilege and vanilla social mores. When he presents a clip from a Doris Day movie from 1961, a close-up of the wholesome actress's face dissolves into that of a lynched body hanging from a tree. It is startling, unsettling and loaded with meaning.

If only Peck could have taken his time to do full justice to Baldwin and the timeless sagacity that urgently deserves a modern audience. This is a film that demands to be seen, but one that challenges you to absorb it in one sitting.

BONUS TRACK
The soundtrack is solid, filled with gritty blues songs. But the closing credits finally complete the link from the past to the present, with Kendrick Lamar's "The Blacker the Berry":


 

24 March 2017

Video Rewind

We revisit some favorites from a couple of life cycles ago, one legendary (from the Coen brothers), one not so much:

IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER (2005) (A-minus) - This obscurity was one of our favorites at the 2005 Santa Fe Film Festival, a rollicking ensemble comedy about the death of the patriarch of a wildly dysfunctional Hollywood family.

Christopher Jaymes' career never took off after he wrote and directed this spirited and stinging L.A. soap opera chronicling the debauchery among a bunch of entitled and spoiled adults. He assembles a fine cast, including a few actors who did go on to some renown. Jeremy Sisto would settle into a TV career that would include "Law & Order." Judy Greer became the go-to sitcom redhead.

Sisto plays Jeremy, one of three brothers, along with Jaymes' Chris and Matt Keesler as Matt who come together upon the news that their grizzled dad, a randy old movie producer in the mold of Robert Evans, has finally succumbed on his death bed. (In his only acting credit on IMDb, David Austin mostly plays a corpse, except for a few snippets from a video that Dad left behind.) An impromptu wake assembles, and it turns into more of a therapy session for the dearly beloved.

It turns out that Dad's brother, the boys' Uncle Aled (Tom Carroll) years ago ran off with their mother (Dad's wife), scarring them deeply. That union created Meadow (Meadow Sisto), their step sister/cousin, who, of course, is on hand, mainly as a device to torture Pat (Pat Healy), the boys' old chum who has been dumped by Meadow. Meantime, Jeremy is lamenting the recent behavior of his wife, Monet (Monet Mazur), who is suddenly going through a lesbian phase. (Jeremy finds a new pal to drop Ecstasy with, ratcheting up the weirdness.) Then there is Chris' 17-year-old gum-snapping girlfriend Christine (Christine Lakin, convincing despite being in her mid-20s), who wants to get high, make out and be boyfriend and girlfriend. Chris, though, still has a bit of a thing for Nicole (Nicholle Tom), who is among the videographers capturing the evening for posterity. (Chris was recruited to chronicle Dad's final days, with the promise of a financial reward from the old man's will.)

You can see where Chris gets his cradle-robbing tendencies. Judy (Greer) is Dad's 20-something girlfriend, several generations removed. Judy is pretty vacant (she likes to shop), and she spends most of the evening holed up with Dad's body, emptying her soul. At least until Matt, a pretty-boy type, pops into Dad's sarcophagal boudoir. That could only lead to trouble.

Jaymes creates a whirling, improvisational romp, letting some fine actors crank the dark comedy up to 11. It is loose and rambling, and it cuts deep into the male psyche. It perfectly captures the emotional arc of a party, where good-natured fun gives way to troubling truths. Jaymes produced an indie tour-de-force, one worth digging for.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) (A-minus) - In re-watching this early Coen brothers romp, I was struck by how much this is John Goodman's movie. In perhaps his best performance, he manages to run rings around every other member of this great cast as angry Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak.

The seventh Coen brothers feature, and the follow-up to "Fargo," their breakthrough (and their last solid hit for a decade), shows them mastering the technique of magical movie-making and having a ton of fun with storytelling. Their dialogue is rip-roaring; their camerawork is whimsical; the visuals are magical.

Jeff Bridges stamped his career as The Dude, the idiot philosopher whom thugs mistake for the big fat rich man also known as Jeff Lebowski. A damaged carpet puts in motion a rollicking fable, a delightful folly, in which the Dude manages to charm the rich man's trophy wife, bed the man's daughter, and avoid spilling his drink (a white Russian).

The film has become iconic, eminently quotable. And while The Dude abides, his pal Walter takes no prisoners. Everything is payback for the ill-fated war in Southeast Asia. He puts everything and everyone in its place. Nihilists? Fuck them. Even Nazis had an ethos! And Steve Buscemi's Donny wants to weigh in with his opinion? "Shut the fuck up, Donny." The Walter-Donny dynamic reaches its peak with this exchange:

Walter: Life does not stop and start at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit.
Donny: What's wrong with Walter, Dude?
It's Walter who schemes to cheat rich Lebowski out of a million dollars. It's Walter who is inexplicably faithful to the holy day of Shabbas. ("Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...") It's Walter who upholds the integrity of the game of bowling and its scoring system. ("Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?") It's Walter who dares The Dude to prove him wrong. ("You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole.")

And Goodman nails every line, every mood, every plot maneuver. By the end of the film, it's obvious that Walter is all talk and that his incessant nonsense leads to just about every bad thing that happens in the movie. Finally, The Dude -- exasperated -- lays it out for his buddy: "Everything's a fucking travesty with you!"

And this Coen brothers romp is not just a travesty, but an epic tragedy. It's Falstafian farce. It's weird and endlessly appealing. It's silly and passionate -- about the rules of society as well as the elegance of a bowling ball barreling down a lane. (One shot purports to be shot from the finger holes of the ball as it rolls along.) Colors pop. A cowboy sidles up at the bar to dispense pop philosophy. Heavy hitters like Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro sink their teeth into bit parts.

It sprawls, it shambles. It shoots for the moon. The Coen brothers were on a hot streak. And Goodman was shooting lights out.

BONUS TRACKS
The trailer for "In Memory of My Father":



The opening and closing tracks for "The Big Lebowski." First, Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me" from "New Morning" (playing over Roger Deakins' great opening shots):



Finally, Townes Van Zandt with "Dead Flowers":


19 March 2017

New to the Queue

A fresh start ...

On its face, it's our worst nightmare -- a mopey post-WWI love story -- but it's made by the wonderful Francois Ozon, so we'll take a chance on "Frantz."

And it's with trepidation that we approach the reunion of childhood friends whose fates have diverged in adulthood, "Donald Cried."

Kristen Stewart and director Olivier Assayas re-team after "Clouds of Sils Maria" for another personal-assistant story, this one involving a spiritual medium hunting down the soul of her dead brother: "Personal Shopper."

Part of the latest genre dubbed Greek Weird Wave, director Argyris Papadimitripoulos imagines a middle-aged creep vacationing at a beach and trying to ingratiate himself into a group of hedonistic young adults and one 21-year-old woman in particular, "Suntan."

The latest from Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda about an author trying to bond with his son, "After the Storm."

A documentary about the Jon Stewart of Egypt, not an easy gig, "Tickling Giants."

A documentary about people facing a gloomy future in the title town of 94 people on the Texas-Louisiana border, the aptly titled "Uncertain."
  

18 March 2017

One-Liners: Mama Mia ...

Oh for two.

CATFIGHT (C+) - A writer-director approaching middle age -- a male one -- thought it would be a hoot to have two women -- Sandra Oh and Anne Heche -- play two former friends who meet up again and beat the shit out of each other. More than once.

Niche filmmaker Onur Tukel creates a cartoonish revenge flick without providing the motivation for the altercations between the women. He also tries to create a dystopian near future in which a Trump-like leader accelerates the decline of the United States by starting a war in the Middle East, reinstating the draft (and lowering the age to 16) and dismantling the health-care safety net. The disturbing events are presided over by a slapstick Greek chorus consisting of a smarmy talk-show host and a farting sidekick in a diaper.

If none of this is really believable on any level, what are we to make of it? Tukel comes across as a knock-off of Bobcat Goldthwait (especially "God Bless America") with even less subtlety. He posits Heche as Ashley, a struggling artist trying to conceive a baby with her wife, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), and Oh as Veronica, a controlling, wine-guzzling rich trophy wife who suffocates her teenage son. When Veronica shows up at an event catered by Ashley and Lisa, the old friends revive some vague old dispute from college, and the first round of fisticuffs ensues.

Veronica ends up in a coma, and Ashley's finds success with her hellish images, which find an audience in a time of war and unraveling of society. Veronica awakes from her coma broke and alone. With their roles reversed, Veronica will eventually seek out revenge. Round 2. Amazing coincidences ensue, as the fates of the women continue to mirror the other's (when each is down on their luck, they must turn to the assistants they'd been mean to when there's nowhere else to turn).

There will be a Round 3, but it is hoped that the women will make peace. Whether they do or not depends on your interpretation of happy endings. But Tukel is all over the map with this one. Nothing coheres. The presence of Tituss Burgess from "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" calls to mind that silly Netflix sitcom and serves to point out that Tukel has more of a basic-cable sensibility than a big-screen one.

Heche and Oh give it their best, but they are flailing with this material. A few supporting characters manage to amuse, including Dylan Baker as a coma doctor and Ariel Kavoussi as Ashley's baby-voiced assistant, Sally, whose simple drawings of happy blue bunnies contrast with Ashley's horrifying nightmares on canvas. You grasp for whatever you can find appealing in this relatively amusing trifle.

MIA MADRE (C) - Nothing manages to stick with this ponderous drama, again from the male mind, about a female filmmaker struggling through a rough patch in her life.

Nanni Moretti ("We Have a Pope") offers a muddy script and a sluggish pace to tell the story of Margherita (and understated turn by veteran Margherita Buy), whose mother is dying, whose relationship ending, and whose latest production is getting bogged down by a vain hack of an American actor, Barry (John Turturro). Moretti cycles through these cross-sections of Margherita's life, whether sitting loyally at her mother's bedside or squabbling with Barry on the movie set.

Margherita seems numbed by the idea of approaching middle age alone; and her mother's demise only drives home the point that we die alone. Buy is awfully glum throughout, and this does not make for compelling drama. Turturro is amusing as the bone-headed buffoon who threatens to derail Margherita's film.

But it's the moping that dominates. And with a running time that pushes two hours, this one is too much of a slog.
 

14 March 2017

Holy Crap! "The Lure"


A couple of mermaids slink out of the sea to dry land in order to fulfill their dreams of being lounge singers in what looks like 1980s Poland.

Newcomer Agnieszka Smoczynska unleashes a trippy fever dream, a nostalgic horror musical with a generous amount of young female flesh, albeit mostly "smooth down there." The director creates a claustrophobic atmosphere centered around a seedy nightclub run by an old sleazeball.

In the opening scene, the mermaid girls peer from the sea uttering incantations, vowing to be as normal as possible -- which means ditching those fins, singing for a living and refraining from eating men. They mostly succeed. They grow legs on dry land, if not a complete set of anatomical parts. They flash fangs whenever they get too close to a juicy neck.

Silver (Marta Mazurek) is the randier of the two. She has quite the mischievous look in her eye, and she has her eye on the cute, shaggy-haired Leif Garrett type, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), who plays bass in the house band. Silver so aches to partake in pure intimacy that she seeks out a bizarre bottom-half body transfer with another woman, which would make her whole.

Golden (Michalina Olszanska) is more wholesome (more of a gill-next-door type), with a Neve Campbell gleam in her eye. Her hunger for men is more of the literal type. Neither gal is shy. They frequently lounge around topless or completely naked, albeit with their genitals erased. The club owner and others don't bother to be discreet about ogling them. Some of them do pay a price, including one guy who gets a thumb bitten off.

Oddly, it is actually an old-fashioned romantic story being told here by Smoczynska. What lengths will we go for love? Or, in Golden's case, what will we sacrifice to achieve our dreams.

But "The Lure" is anything but ordinary. When the girls first appear onstage, they temporarily sprout their fins and are frolicking coquettishly in a giant replica of a champagne glass. As they shadow the lead singer with their backing vocals, they shimmy and smile like old pros. (The original title, "Corki Dancingu," translates to "The Daughter of a Dance.")

The music is pure cheese. The horror touches recall "Dark Shadows." The color palette is seductive. Mazurek and Olszanska are a dynamic duo. Smoczynska has a keen eye for detail and for period kitsch. This comes off like a screwball comedy, but it demands, improbably, to be taken seriously.

GRADE: B

* - Holy Crap is an occasional series about unique films, cutting a wide swath from brilliant to awful. Check out previous entries here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

BONUS TRACK
An early scene introduces the house band doing their version of the Donna Summer hit, "I Feel Love." Here's the original:



Here's a sample of the gals in their debut at the club. The look on Golden's face (she's on the right) is priceless:

  

11 March 2017

Cataturk


KEDI (B+) - It's an 80-minute cat video!

In the working-class neighborhoods of Istanbul skulks an army of stray cats that are an integral part of the fabric of the world's seventh largest city. Filmmaker Ceyda Torun focuses on seven cats that are treated like any other neighbor in a city of more than 14 million people.

Among them are ginger tabby Sari, a mom who hustles all over to find scraps of food to bring back to her kittens; black-masked, crazy Psikopat (it translates phonetically); and soft-grey Duman, who is too polite to enter the restaurant he hangs out at but, rather, adorably paws at the front window when he wants a snack. The various personalities shine through, as if they could speak at any moment.

Torun's camera often tags a few steps behind the adventurous cats, at ground level, as if the critters were characters in a Dardenne brothers movie. She shows great patience in chronicling the life of your average street cat, capturing lazy moments as well as misadventures, from rooftops to fish markets.

Various city dwellers provide a running commentary, mostly in the form of bromides and philosophical observations about the cats' contributions to the hum of the urban culture. We're supposed to see these creatures as zen-like gurus enriching the lives of these working stiffs who dote on their feline friends. (Two women cook up a huge pot of chicken fixins daily for their large brood and others walking the streets.) That theme never quite connects.

But Torun needs some sort of narrative hook -- lest she truly just patch together an 80-minute cat video -- and that one is as inoffensive as any. Another thing that might nag at the viewer is how the filmmakers pretty much ignore the issue of spay-and-neuter policies. This is an uplifting movie, and we're not supposed to sit there and wonder about all the kittens that die from the effects of overpopulation.

But let's not put too much thought into this one. There is charm to burn here. Kitties!