26 September 2016

Punks


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.

BONUS TRACKS
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.

BONUS TRACKS
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.

BONUS TRACKS
"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.

LEADING CONTENDER


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."

AUTEUR, AUTEUR

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."

FAVORITES

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 REST

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.

BONUS TRACKS
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."
  

29 August 2016

One-Liners: Millennials uprising


THE BRONZE (B+) - This tale of a washed-up gymnast -- a bronze-medal winner for Team USA in 2004 who is back home 12 years later in her tiny Ohio hometown, terrorizing her single father and the townsfolk as a nasty, bitter spoiled brat -- is raunchy, guilty fun.

Melissa Rauch (Bernadette from TV's "Big Bang Theory") stars in this labor of love that she co-wrote with her husband, Winston. She plays the pointedly pony-tailed Hope Ann Gregory, still skating by on her Olympic achievement. Never seen without her baggy stars-and-stripes track suit, she trades on her fading celebrity for free meals at Sbarro and her own parking spot downtown, where she idles her whale of a late-model Buick while she shoplifts scrunchies at the mall.

She mistreats her dad, Stan the mailman (a delightfully dumpy Gary Cole), worse than a misbehaving pet. (She also steals mail from his truck.) She viciously denigrates an old classmate, the son of the owner of the local gym that she used to train at, calling him Twitchy because of a facial tic that is exacerbated by her mere presence. That would be Ben (Thomas Middleditch from HBO's "Silicon Valley"), who still crushes on Hope and lamely attempts to woo her.

Rauch revels in the role. Her version of Hope comes across as a character that has been faithfully workshopped for years with an improv troupe. Rauch thoroughly inhabits the role and shows no fear in spewing foul-mouthed insults through a lived-in Midwestern twang or exhibiting the dark corners of her character, such as an early scene in which Hope masturbates while watching a tape of her medal-winning performance. (She theatrically sticks the landing, so to speak.) A late bout of ridiculously wild gymnastic sex rivals the famous puppet porn scene of "Team America: World Police."

The plot turns on Hope's estrangement from her stern former Eastern-bloc coach who lures Hope into coaching the town's newest phenom, Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), who might have what it takes to win gold. Hope's first instinct is to sabotage the perky little teen (Richardson is infectiously giddy in the role) to protect her own legacy; but will the ice queen's facade melt under the influence of Stan, Ben and innocent Maggie?

Some parts don't quite work. Middleditch lapses in and out of his idea of an Ohio accent, sounding more like dose Chicagah Superfans. Hunky Sebastian Stan is a bit overbroad as Hope's male rival, Lance Tucker, who vies for the right to ride Maggie's train to potential superstardom. SNL's Cecily Strong feels misused as Maggie's working-class mom.

But Rauch sells this from beginning to end, and a late reveal of the reason why Hope could no longer compete by the 2008 games is perfectly executed. "The Bronze" is almost too laugh-out-loud funny to be merely a guilty pleasure.

LOLO (B-minus) - It's hard to deem a Julie Delpy movie a waste of time.

As a writer/director, she is known mostly for her modern takes on classic Woody Allen, "2 Days in Paris" (easily her best effort) and its companion piece, "2 Days in New York." She has occasionally skirted the line between clever and cloying, and her latest, "Lolo," is the most uneven of her efforts.

Delpy plays Violette, a hip fashionista who falls for a pedestrian computer programmer whom she meets while on vacation with a pal in the resort town of Biarritz. After their whirlwind week, Jean-Rene moves near Paris to pursue their romance. The sticking point is Violette's young-adult son, Eloi (aka Lolo), who takes an instant dislike to Jean-Rene and sets out to sabotage the relationship. It's apparent early on that this is Lolo's modus operandi -- a way of keeping his mom to himself.

Well, that's not so apparent to Violette -- and that's just one of the flaws in Delpy's rickety narrative. If that plot description reminded you of "Cyrus" -- the 2010 dark comedy with Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill as the creepy mother and son -- you're not far off. "Lolo," however, doesn't have the edge that the earlier Duplass brothers offering brought to the proceedings.

Instead, Delpy plays it soccer-mom saucy, especially when Violette banters with her bawdy bestie, Ariane (Karin Viard, "Delicatessen," "Polisse"), like a couple of frat boys. In the opening scene, the two are chilling in a whirlpool, and Violette complains about getting a "pussy massage." Ariane insists that Violette seriously needs to get laid. When there's a character reveal about Jean-Rene, Ariane cracks, "He was in deep cover, your muff-diver."

The movie is both charming and confounding. It is loose-limbed but in a way that sometimes feels lazy. In his sabotage efforts, Lolo actually sneaks itching powder into Jean-Rene's clothes drawer -- a gag probably not seen since the Three Stooges' heyday. Is that some sort of French homage?

Still, the film has a pleasing arc, and Delpy and Viard play together like a poor man's Edina and Patsy. Delpy is an earnest storyteller, and she provides an interesting female voice in the world of relationship cinema. It's really difficult to say no to her.

BONUS TRACKS
Delpy opens her film with some kitschy animation scored to Andy Williams' "Music to Watch Girls By," and she shuts it down with Etta James' muscular workout "Plum Nuts." Here they are:




 

25 August 2016

Live in L.A.: Gold Star for Robot Boy



Robert Pollard has achieved a minor level of sobriety – he wasn’t blind drunk by the end of Guided By Voices’ endlessly infectious show at L.A.’s Teragram Ballroom last Saturday night – and perhaps a sense of clarity. 

He took a moment to scoff at the memory from 20 years ago of Matador Records urging him to go to the label’s version of the Betty Ford Clinic. “Fuck that,” he spat. “I’m going to the motherfuckin’ Rock 'n’ Roll Hall of Fame.” He quickly laughed at such a ridiculous thought. The little band from Dayton, Ohio, that could couldn’t get a letter to the editor printed in Rolling Stone, let alone get the nod from Jann Wenner to enter the pantheon. 

Thirty years on, Pollard powers Guided By Voices the only way he knows how:  by riffling through dozens of songs that barely scratch the surface of all the great tunes he has written over that time – more quality songs than Lennon and McCartney (separately or combined), and Harrison, too, or whoever else you want to throw out. Lyrics and hooks have poured out of him nonstop for three decades, starting with the wisps of REM knock-offs to his mid-'90s heyday (with a trilogy of perfect albums) and through to the band’s umpteenth release, this past spring’s “Please Be Honest,” on which, “McCartney”-like, he plays all the instruments, a back-to-basics movement (and, finally, a needed break from producer/collaborator Todd Tobias). Pollard also has retooled the touring band – crucially bringing back the talent and discipline of lead guitarist Doug Gillard.  With that tweak of America’s great pop band, Pollard has also shaken up his set-list, digging deep into that voluminous catalog, as if to prove his case before the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Committee.

The show was a Deep Cuts version of the band’s concert persona. Instead of “Pop Zeus” (from solo effort “Speak Kindly …”) he pumped up “Do Something Real.” Instead of “Chasing Heather Crazy” (“Isolation Drills”) he went with “Fair Warning.”  Instead of “Bulldog Skin” (“Mag Earwhig”), he dug deep for “Not Behind the Fighter Jets.” Instead of “Everywhere With Helicopter” (“Universal Truths and Cycles”), there was "Back to the Lake." From a 2006 solo release he shunned "Dancing Girls and Dancing Men" for a heartfelt "Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft." He has shelved, for now, pop gems like "The Best of Jill Hives," "My Valuable Hunting Knife," "Postal Blowfish" and "Jar of Cardinals."  At least one-third of the songs were from the comeback era, 2012 to the present, expertly woven in with the old hits, so as not to sap the energy of the crowd.

Pollard paid homage to the band's heritage -- he flashed a few high kicks and microphone twirls for old times' sake -- while sending a clear message that his newer songs matter and he's not ready to become an oldies act. He's proud of his output the past five years. He spotlighted side projects like Boston Spaceships ("Tabby and Lucy" was a highlight) and Ricked Wicky (about which Pitchfork notes in Pollard "a renewed sense of purpose"). He gave it his all on new material that promises to launch sing-alongs someday -- choruses like "Come back to me, my zodiac companion" from this year's release. And the crowd in L.A. was made up of just as many millennials (chanting along to the anthems) as geezers. GBV is not ready to be set in amber in the alt version of the Rock Hall.

Pollard has long been a frustrated arena rocker. (He closed one encore with their familiar cover of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly.") The last band he put together before the 2004 farewell tour was way too muscular for the clubs the band never grew out of, and too often the band cranked the noise up to 11 just because they could. Here, too, the band tested the limits of the venue’s speaker system; songs from “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes” (the ultimate pop gem “Echoes Myron” and the anthemic “Game of Pricks,” for example) lost any semblance of lo-fi nuance and were blasted at the crowd, almost to the point of distortion at times. Gillard and drummer Kevin March, with his prodigious thuds and snaps, are back from the turn-of-the-millennium backing quartet. 

For better and worse, Pollard has reclaimed Guided by Voices from his youthful mates, in particular Tobin Sprout, who was the Paul/George to his domineering John. Gone is the subtle sweetness of Sprout's minor-key workouts. This is full-on power pop that borrows from a range of genres, from '60s freak beat to '70s prog rock to '90s lo-fi (amped up to hi-fi). 

Sprout used to sing of "this awful bliss." Pollard has dropped the qualifier. He's living in the moment while celebrating his legacy, and he's putting on the best shows of his career. This -- this is bliss.  

BONUS TRACK
I could unleash a torrent of videos. Let's just begin and end it with the infectious concert staple, "Teenage FBI" from 1999's "Do the Collapse." Pogo along with the crowd.


  

19 August 2016

Blame the Man


CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (A) - I think this is what Steven Spielberg movies must seem like to the masses. I was a puddle by the end of this comic drama about a man living off the grid with his six children in the immediate wake of his wife's death and leading them back to civilization to deal with the in-laws who want to take the children from him.

Viggo Mortensen seizes the red-meat role of Ben with gusto but also a decent amount of nuance, and he is surrounded by impossibly appealing and talented children who help him create a believable alternative world, one with heft and consequences. Ben's wife left the practice of law when their oldest son was young and followed her man to the wilderness, where they home-schooled their children to brilliance and taught them survival skills, such as killing and gutting an animal for food and clothing or setting a broken bone. Ben talks to them like they are little adults, at one point explaining the mundanities of intercourse to the youngest (about 5 years old) as matter-of-factly as a high school teacher would to his students.

The children, indoctrinated by Ben in far-left political theory, subscribe ardently to a radical worldview.  "Power to the People," they chant. "Stick it to the Man!" The youngest, Nai, likes to push the boundaries of the no-nudity-during-meals rule. The group takes a break from their road trip to get a cake from a local grocery store to celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. (It wasn't easy for me to keep all of the kids straight, particularly the two teenage girls. And I thought the youngest one was a girl and the second-youngest was a boy -- they both had long blond hair -- but IMDb suggests that it's the other way around. Either way, Charlie Shotwell as adorable little Nai nearly steals scenes from Mortensen.)

The kids' mother was bipolar and struggled with her health, to the point where she went back to civilization for treatment, only to take her own life. Ben is summarily informed by his rich father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella, exquisitely measured), that he is not welcome at the funeral services. Rising to the challenge, Ben packs the kids in their kitted-out school bus and heads to the foothills of New Mexico, intent on bidding a proper farewell to his wife. (When informed of Jack's threat, one kid spouts, "Grandpa can't oppress us!")

Out in the "civilized" world, the children come off as little freaks, particularly the oldest, Bo (George MacKay), who is confronted by a love interest for the first time. They stop in at the home of Bo's sister, Harper, and her husband, Dave, and their two lumps of adolescent boys, whose minds are rendered into mush by their phones and video games. The couple is played by the delightful pairing of Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn (casting in rhyme!), exuding quiet exasperation, especially when Ben, accused by Harper of damaging his children by denying them proper schooling, proceeds to call in his youngest child to embarrass her sons -- imbecilic victims of an American public school -- by reciting the Bill of Rights and placing it in a political context. (Among the reading materials for the children on display are The Brothers Karamazov and Guns, Germs & Steel.)

The rest of the children manage to carve out their own identities. (It helps that they have been given genuinely unique names like Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai.) One sharp scene finds Ben pressing one of the older girls on her interpretation of Lolita, pushing her to analyze beyond plot; the girl's response is thoughtful and insightful, with just the right tone for a teenager. It is in moments like this that Matt Ross's script resonates. Ross, who also directed, is a noted actor (he plays the nefarious head of the Google-like empire in HBO's "Silicon Valley") whose last outing behind the camera was the devastating relationship film "28 Hotel Rooms" in 2012. 

Ross weaves together several strands of a compelling plot. Bo, the eldest, secretly harbors a mainstream ambition. One of the teen girls spills some secrets of Ben's questionable parenting decisions to Jack, sparking an anti-rebellion. Ben starts questioning his whole philosophy of child-rearing and is consumed with doubt and guilt. Did he drag his wife out to the jungle against her will? Were they a team or was he brutalizing a mentally unstable woman? Few actors could juggle such character angst better than Mortensen. The closing credits feature a new version of the Bob Dylan song (popularized by the Band) "I Shall Be Released" with its acutely appropriate lyric about "a man who swears he's not to blame." Is Ben deluding himself?

Some might see the resolution of that dilemma as overly simplistic in a too-tidy ending. But, again, Mortensen -- perhaps sensing a career-defining role -- welds everything together with integrity. I was not only brought to tears more than once, but by the end I was choked with emotion. Often the proceedings border on precious, but each time Ross survives the tightrope walk. A memorial sing-along of Guns 'N Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" is way more touching than it deserves to be.  It shouldn't work, but in context it does.

"Captain Fantastic" has a lot to say about a wide range of topics, from geopolitics to family dynamics to a man questioning everything in life he has ever stood for. Perhaps the loose ends of this story tie up just a tad too neatly in the end, but neither Ross nor his lead character should be blamed. Those of us who seek to disturb the universe and take down the Man deserve a marginally satisfying outcome, at least once in a while.

BONUS TRACK
That Dylan classic: 


  

17 August 2016

Soundtrack of Your Life: Outlaw Yoga

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

Date: 13 August 2016, 9:40 a.m.
Place: Del Norte Sports & Wellness
Song:  "What a Wonderful World"
Artist: Willie Nelson
Irony Matrix: 7.8 out of 10
Comment: During the last five minutes of a yoga session, the participants lie in corpse pose -- savasana -- to relax, incorporate all the movement, and ground with the earth. Peaceful music is sometimes played. On this occasion, the instructor -- who is partial to sensitive-dude music -- blessed us with Willie Nelson, of all people, covering the Louis Armstrong classic. While it's a pleasant tune, the cloying standard trilled by Shotgun Willie proved to be a distraction, a felled tree across the road to enlightenment.

I've been a fan of Willie's since high school, but this version of "What a Wonderful World" didn't work for me. It is suffused with strings and generic backing vocals that recall his pre-outlaw RCA days, and it sounds like a corny Christmas song. Let's spin Joey Ramone's version instead:


 

14 August 2016

... And Then You Die


WIENER-DOG (B+) - Todd Solondz has never cared about happy endings. Life is crap and then you die.

The dour director has lately been rediscovering his voice from the '90s, that period when he reeled off "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." He drifted in the next decade, but he has recovered of late with "Life During Wartime" and "Dark Horse." With "Wiener-Dog" he literally calls back to his early masterpiece, "Dollhouse," bringing back an adult Dawn Wiener as one of a series of owners of a hapless dog who can't seem to find a good home.

The vignettes don't hold together very well (though they each share a similarly flat affect), but each one is quietly effective, powered by strong performances. In the first sequence, Julie Delpy is Dina, a jaded mother who has no filter when talking to her child, especially about the horrors of life, including the cruel fate some dogs face, including the marquee mutt, who spends almost all of his time confined to a cage in the basement. Her son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), home alone, frees the pup and feeds breakfast bars to the poor thing, which proceeds to strafe the house and yard with explosive diarrhea. Solondz, wrings a few laughs and head-scratches by choreographing vast quantities of puddles of dog excrement to "Clare de Lune."

The parents take the dog to the vet and plan to have it put to sleep. But it's rescued by Dawn Wiener -- played with loose-limbed jerkiness and nerd glasses by the fine physical actress Greta Gerwig. Dawn runs into an old high school mate, Brandon (a charming Kieran Culkin) at a convenience score, and he revives her old nickname: Wiener-Dog. Against everyone's better judgment she desperately tags along with this junkie on a visit to his brother and sister-in-law in the suburbs. The couple have Down syndrome and are portrayed as clear-eyed innocents. The dog is bequeathed to them and their spacious yard.

The third segment is anchored by sad-sack film professor Dave Schmerz, played with elegant melancholy by Danny DeVito. Dave once had a screenplay produced, but he's been waiting years for lightning to strike again, struggling to get phone calls to his agent returned. Stoop-shouldered Schmerz is treated like a pathetic anachronism; he is mocked by snotty millennials for his old-fashioned screenwriting shorthand technique of "What-if/Then-what." Schmerz seeks revenge by using Wiener-Dog in a provocative and disturbing manner to exact revenge.

Cut to the haunting final act in which a acerbic old woman (Ellen Burstyn), living in her museum-like apartment with a caretaker and Wiener-Dog. She is visited by her hipster granddaughter, Zoe (an artful Zosia Mamet from HBO's "Girls"), and her flamboyant artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), who is working on a maudlin new project. The young woman is ostensibly visiting to catch up with her beloved Nana after a long estrangement. But it's just a matter of time before Zoe hits the old lady up for a cash infusion. After they leave, we see the old woman on a park bench, in a dizzying reverie, interacting with herself as a child. She loses track of Wiener-Dog, and you might want to avert your gaze at that point. Solondz is nothing if not a shock-meister who likes a twist ending.

But the filmmaker is also morbidly funny. (Enjoy the halftime interstitial set to the jaunty original tune "Ballad of a Wiener-Dog.") And while his vision is dark, he ferrets out quiet moments of humanity in the far reaches of the abyss. When a couple holds hands, it is moving and powerful. And the actors are game: Delpy plays against type as the mean mom; Gerwig disappears into her lonely loser aching for a connection; DeVito holds his resentment in his jowls and his dead eyes; Mamet and Burstyn crackle during their generational clash.

This is Solondz's most satisfying storytelling since his breakthrough study of childhood bullying, back when he was picking on a different Wiener-Dog.