Monday, August 31, 2015

No Escape

What's a guy to do? You stick a big, fat anti-West message in your suspense/thriller, and still you're accused of being racist, xenophobic, and just an all around jerk. Well, my heart goes out to John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, makers of fine fare such as Quarantine and Devil, who've crafted a solid potboiler about fleeing from a foreign city during a revolution, but made the mistake of not making the heroes Swahili and setting it in Seattle.

Hand to God, the first guy out of the theater after us said, "It was good! It was racist, but it was good."

I wanted to stop him and say, "Hey, here's a movie about Cambodian revolution, where one group of Cambodians is, by and large, killing another group of Cambodians (and also all the Americans), where the good guys and the bad guys are all freakin' Cambodians—how is any of this racist?" But he was on his way to the bathroom, and these conversations never go well anyway.

It's racist because it...uh...shows non-white people in a negative light. We're gonna pretend that far worse didn't happen in Cambodia not long ago. We're gonna pretend that it's any different from Les Miserable, for that matter.

'cause it makes us feel good.

Oh, by the way, they don't actually say it's Cambodia, but Cambodia was convinced enough to ban the film. And, hell, their goal is to follow the river into Vietnam. I guess it could be Laos. But it was Cambodia.

Nonsense aside, this is, as I said, a solid film, in the mold of The Warriors, Blackhawk Down, '71, or any of the multitude of non-Asian-based "trapped in a hostile foreign city" movies. The twist is, instead of a band of soldiers, we have poor sap Owen Wilson and his hapless family who arrive in The Unnamed Southeast Asian City six hours after a bloody uprising has occurred. Especially unfortunate for Owen and Co., the impetus for the uprising is centered around his new boss, who is in some sort of public utilities business.

This is one of The Boy's (and my) favorite genres of films. Outnumbered, angry mobs at every turn, not knowing who to trust, and the movie starts out with a bang by putting the wife and kids in jeopardy.

It's really a good gimmick, putting a family into the mix. I feel like we've seen it before but I can't place where.

This movie has quite a few really excellent aspects: The suspense is pretty strong, especially at first. The characterization (despite what you may have read) is also very good, and is shored up by excellent acting from Wilson, Lake Bell (In A World), and the two cute little girls who round out their family. When the movie takes a break from the action, it fills the pauses with some effective drama and even realistic family moments. (Like your post-toddler having to go to the bathroom and being too embarrassed to go in her pants, because she's not a baby! Oh, but if anyone moves, you'll all get hacked to death.)

There are some missteps. Early on, when the family is contemplating jumping from one building roof to a nearby one, there's an extra standing around who appears to have as his only purpose being murdered so as to show how dangerous things are.

The biggest misstep comes at the end of the second act, though, with Pierce Brosnan. Now, Brosnan shows up early on, and he's obviously A Serious Dude, and Brosnan is certainly up to portraying a grizzled (yet handsome) mercenary/operative/super-spy/whatever. But tonally, his appearance deflates the real dread the film had managed to create. His character is too Hollywood, as The Boy put it.

His appearance signals what kind of movie we're in and how it's going to turn out. It didn't ruin it for me, and The Boy was quick to say that he really enjoyed it—he just wanted more with all the potential that was there. We've talked a lot about that extra layer of polish and love you see in some movies (whether it's The Third Man or City of Mice 2), and he felt that extra something was missing here. Left out in haste, perhaps.

I would still rate this higher than the 72% audience RT score, but the 40% score is just embarrassing to the critical establishment. Learn the difference between racism and justified xenophobia, guys.


America's full of rags-to-riches stories, or in this case, not-quite-rags-to-amazing-riches stories, and I seldom get tired of them. But Rosenwald, the story of Julius Rosenwald, son of Jewish Immigrants who parlayed a modest life as a clothier into mega-riches as the CEO of Sears Roebuck is only partly about that.

It's tremendously fun to listen to how Rosenwald made bank in Men's clothes and then seized an opportunity to invest in Sears, ultimately becoming the CEO through a process that was a 19th century version of creating His people came from peddlers, who had to place all their wares on a blanket every town they went to. The idea of creating what came to be known as "the wish book"—the Sears catalogue—and then demanding that products were delivered as promised, and quickly, bears a remarkable resemblance to Bezos' empire, only with roller skates and conveyer belts instead of drones and computers.

Sears' IPO—the movie seems to claim this was one of the first IPOs, which seems unlikely since the very first one was Bank of North America in 1782 and Sears IPOed in 1906—made Rosenwald a billionaire, which brings us to the next phase of his life, and the movie.

In the second part of the movie, we learn of Rosenwald's philanthropy, which was shrewd, effective, and humble in a way one can hardly imagine today. He was not interested in personal glory; many of his projects were given his name, but by affection, not officially. In fact, he seemed positively chagrined at the notion that he might raise money for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago while calling it The Rosenwald Institute. And so, it was never officially called that, but if you Google it, well, that's another story.

This part of the film is also fairly good, and gets at the theme of the movie, which is Rosenwald's contributions to the black community. In a time when racial tensions were possibly at their highest (pre-WWII), Rosenwald's foundation built thousands of schools. Well, correction: Rosenwald contributed a third of the funds, a third of the funds had to be raised locally, and the remaining third had to come from somewhere else, presumably the surrounding white communities or state and local governments.

But then, rather brilliantly, with money in hand, the community literally built its own school, made it their own, and made it a focal point for community activities. Rosenwald actually suggested buying the buildings from the Sears catalogues, but Tuskegee University architect Robert Taylor insisted on this approach, and the two of them seemed to have a felicitous influence on each other.

There's a digression here into Tuskegee University which is amazing. (Tuskegee, not the digression) Taylor designed TU to be self-sufficient, given that they couldn't count on help from the outside world. So, not just construction and cleaning, but gardening, plumbing—everything!—was done by the students in addition to their academic and artistic efforts. That to me sounds like a perfect school. (In fact, I had that very idea for a school when I was in college.)

But, here's the thing: The last third of the movie is just wall-to-wall digressions and tangentially related stories of people who Rosenwald's fund influenced. Worse than that, they commit the crime of just listing off bunches of names of people. I wouldn't dispute the greatness of the people on this list, particularly the ones they highlighted (e.g., Marian Anderson), and there are some moving stories told.

Still, it's not exactly keeping the eye on the ball, narrative wise. Rosenwald died in '32, meaning that the last third of the movie deals heavily in stuff that happened long after Rosenwald—who cleverly sunsetted his foundation in '48 so it didn't become a monstrosity like Ford, Rockefeller, etcetera—had shuffled off his mortal coil.

The Flower didn't mind this aspect so much, perhaps because the stories are not without interest. The Boy absolutely hated it. He felt lectured to, and he's not crazy about lectures.

I had a slightly different take. Emotionally somewhere between The Flower and The Boy, I was more intrigued by the movie's absolute failure to address the elephants in the room. And there's a herd of elephants.

It's perhaps unkind to note that the world all the commentators (John Lewis, Maya Angelou) are waxing on is gone, and they either helped it on its way or silently watched it go. I hate to get all judgy here, but a world where everyone is encouraged to achieve and advance on the same playing field is far preferable to what we have now: A world where everyone is encouraged to fail and beatify their failures by blaming others.

You can't help but know that the teachers of the Rosenwald school would've slapped a kid upside the head for claiming grammar was a microagression. They were suffering macroagressions—lynchings, often deadly segregation, alienation from the general culture—and they overcame them.

Maybe that's not fair. Rosenwald was a great man, and he did great things. But there's a distinct break in what he did and where we are right now as a country, and the movie's nod toward that is to be dedicated to #blacklivesmatter. Somehow it's hard to believe that he'd be for a movement that promotes the random killing of police officers.

On The Scale:

1. Subject matter: Worthy, historical, and necessary.

2. Technique: Adequate to telling the story. Photos and historians for the earlier stuff, filmed footage where available. Music a mix of classic jazz, ragtime and "It's A Wonderful World".

3. Bias: Yes. And it's the sort of bias you see a lot: The unchallenged assumption among the Left that The Good Guys Are Always On The Left.

They call Rosenwald "progressive" at a time when eugenics was the Great Hope for progressives. And what did he do? Well, he facilitated traditional education, emphasizing practical skills, self reliance and other things that today would probably be called Hebrewsplaining.

Hell, the whole thing was a classic libertarian example of private charity, with zero handouts—even the artists had to produce to get something—working with communities and churches, with the larger government only peripherally involved at best.

A lot of times I suspect the documentaries we see are funded to make sure the Holocaust is never forgotten, nor the history of Israel, and I suspect that this one was funded to try to improve relations between Jews and Blacks, which would be a good thing. Maybe in that context, the last third makes more sense.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The End of the Tour

Restricting my fiction reading, as I largely do, to things written prior to 1950, there is nothing I can say about The End of the Tour's representation of David Foster Wallace. I was aware of the Infinite Jest craze, and have read recently that it's one of people's favorite books to have pretended to read. I will say the movie's a pretty good buddy flick, though.

The story is that Wallace (Jason Segel) has just hit it big with Jest and frustrated writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg)—himself having just published a little read book but also little sold and talked about book—cons his boss at Rolling Stone (Ron Livingston, Office Space) into letting him interview the lauded author. (As if Rolling Stone was interested in heady things like, you know, reading.)

As it turns out, Wallace is a bit of a weirdo, a kind of fragile shut-in in some ways, possessed of amazingly keen insight on the one hand, and completely oblivious on the other. It was interesting to see this so close to seeing the Marlon Brando documentary, because there's an awareness here of how the media-packaged personality David Foster Wallace is not the real David Foster Wallace.

Basically, you have two guys who are part of the media machine: One who has this sudden fame and glory and is made uncomfortable by that, and one who wants that fame and glory more than anything. The awkward product (Wallace) and the uneasy producer (Lipsky). Unlike Brando, however, we're not given any background to help understand why Wallace gets depressed—suicidal—as he does, and the interview is filled with these "don't look into this or that" demands by Wallace, which Lipsky, as a guy both admires and wants to be admired by Wallace acquiesces to.

It's a journalistic transgression, but since the whole selling point of the interview is to dig up dirt on Wallace's alleged heroin addiction from the '80s, ethics are nowhere to be seen at a professional level.

Wallace's character, as portrayed, is interesting because he's a sort of lazy hedonist. He eats junk food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He doesn't own a TV because, he says, he would do nothing but watch it all day long if he did. And when he gets in front of a TV, that turns out to be true, nearly to the point of missing a tour event.

He's aware of some other issues, too, enough to avoid them. Such as parlaying his fame into easy sexual conquests. He has enough awareness to realize that would just make him sadder and lonelier than he is. But he's honest enough about wanting to do it anyway.

He's aware that his practice of shielding himself from his past failures by dismissing successful things as popular tripe backfires in the face of his own success.

He relates his depression to the American ideal of doing something about it. And he feels like that was his big mistake, because there's nothing he can do about it. That really stuck out to me. It may be a strange thing to observe about someone who is considered one of the great wordsmiths of my generation, but his whole outlook was essentially juvenile.

The junk food, the TV, the lack of commitment to relationships, the "sour grapes" attitude toward the success of others, and the notion that because everything doesn't always work out, you're not even going to try—these are childish things.

It's hard not to like these guys, though, even when they're being petty, jealous and awkward. They're trying. Wallace struggled along enough to where Lipsky could be surprised when he finally did kill himself.

Good performances. Joan Cusack has a good turn as the Minnesotan "handler" for Wallace. A low-key but not dull story. I liked the direction by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) but I didn't object to his portrayal of Lipsky as some did.

And it'll take a lot less time than actually reading Infinite Jest. Though less time than pretending to read it.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

This is one of those movies where the trailers made me nervous. The story is about a poet who is locked up for committing the crime of poetry, and the poems are like the musical numbers of a musical—you have to like the music to like the movie, pretty much. It's not really even poetry, so much as poetic prose. (You know, there's no meter, rhyme, or any of the traditional hallmarks of poetry.)

It's not so much that this is a good movie—it is—it's that it's surprisingly good at what it's trying to do, which isn't easy. The story is very simple: After 12 years of imprisonment, Mustafa is being freed from his cabin prison on Orphalese, on the condition he go home and never return to Orphalese. The catch, if it's not obvious from the start, is that the authorities don't plan to let him go so much as they plan to get him to the water's edge and kill him—unless he denounces his own words.

The movie, then, is basically the walk from the cabin to the water, escorted by an officious sergeant, where at each point along the way he is greeted by worshipful villagers, all of whom he treats as at least his equal, stopping to share one of his "poems" with them.

The poems are all done in different styles of animation, abstractions of the ideas being presented, by different directors even. Including one by comic animation genius, Bill Plympton, who plays it utterly straight while still being thoroughly recognizable.

The shocking aspect of this is revealed in the 20-point split between audiences and critics: Namely, Gibran's poems are deeply, deeply conservative, at least as presented here. What do we learn from The Prophet?
  • No work is beneath you. The meanest of work is worthy of dignity and gives dignity to the man who does it.
  • Monogamy is vital. Don't be fooled by the allure of those who would take you away from your true love.
  • As a parent, you are the bow from which the arrows that are your children are launched. This was a fascinating poem, and true, I thought. It allowed that it was okay to try to emulate your children, but not to try to force them to emulate you. 
  • You are greater than the earthly powers that try to imprison you.
None of which fits into the current leftist worldview dominating this country. Mike Rowe has made legions of enemies just by suggesting the same thing about work. Monogamy is mocked in the popular culture. And you can't really create the workers of the future out of your children if you can't make them believe all the right things.

Ultimately, though, this is just a beautifully poetic film of beautiful poetry. The story of Mustafa's relationship with the mute little girl Almitra is as touching as it is predictable. But that's sort of the way of this movie: It say true, simple things well, and the real surprise is that you're surprised to be hearing it.

But then you probably won't hear of it because won't get a wide release. It only opened slightly bigger than the Jewish sex documentary, The Lost Key (which we saw the following week).

Salma Hayek produces—she was the impetus in getting this made, perhaps due to her Lebanese roots—and voices Kamila, Almitra's mother. Almitra is voiced by Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Liam Neeson is Mustafa. The great Frank Langella plays the evil military leader, Pasha. John Krasinski (Away We Go) plays the lovesick Halim. Alfred Molina is the Sergeant.

We were actually looking to see it again, we liked it so much. And The Boy wanted to take his girlfriend. And when we did see it, one of the guys who works at the theater was there for his second viewing.

So, yeah. Well done, Ms. Hayek!

The Lost Key

A lot of people don't know this, but the Jewish scriptures, the Torah and the Talmud, talk a lot about sex. You don't have to think about it for very long to realize: Of course they would: They are the guiding knowledge for the oldest extant religion on earth. Sex probably would come up some time in the past 5,000 years. I think I first heard about this in the '90s, when I ran across some story about a man being required by rabbinical decree to have sex with his wife (whom he'd been neglecting) at least three times a week.

It's one thing to acknowledge this, of course, and another thing to make a movie about it and send it around the art houses of Los Angeles. We're pretty closed-minded out here. This is one of those movies made to be buried in obscurity. Seriously, this has 20 ratings on IMDB, with one 45+ age woman giving it 10, and the average being 4.2. On Rotten Tomatoes, it's got a total of two critic ratings, one positive, one negative, and is 0 for 5 with the audience.


The Boy and I really enjoyed it. But then, I don't think we felt threatened or ordered around as I imagine some folks must have felt.

The premise of the film is that there is a higher purpose for sexual intimacy beyond pleasure, and outside of procreation, which is a physical and spiritual oneness, a transcendence beyond the mere carnal. This is perhaps unique to Western religions (though surely not Eastern), but there's a catch.

There were several times where I leaned over to The Boy and whispered "homophobia!" and "transphobia!" and "gender roles!" in humor, but of course you're not going to dig up ancient Jewish traditions and have them be just groovy with the perversity of modern society.

So, this is about a man and a woman. And more than that, the man has to be A Man and the woman has to be A Woman. There has to be a lot of "preparation" prior to "intimacy". There aren't prohibitions on activities per se, except for a few (which are never mentioned), but the "main event" is to be the Main Event, with none of your onanism or fancy acrobatics.

I enjoyed the subversiveness of it. In this tradition, to achieve transcendence (essentially) through intimacy, is to be completely naked, in the dark, in a room dedicated to the purpose, with the man on top and the woman on the bottom. This is so that each is facing their "source", Man being drawn from the earth and Woman from the Man.

The dark is so that you're not distracted by looking.

This stuff is revealed in a series of interviews between Rabbi Manis Friedman and various couples, of varying degrees of conviction regarding the whole process. I confess my favorite was the most dubious of couples. The rabbi says "No TVs in the bedroom" and they say "We have a TV in the bedroom. We use it to watch porn during sex."

And so it goes, with each suggested prohibition. But the Rabbi never says "you can't", he just says that "you won't achieve this oneness that way".

It's like you're inviting God in, but most people are probably a bit conflicted and confused about the relationship between God and sex. So much so, most people probably never think of sex beyond the pleasure and procreation (and mostly in terms of avoiding procreation).

Another nugget that might make a lot of people uncomfortable: When you're married, you've married your soul mate. When you divorce, you're divorcing your soul mate. But then, should you remarry, that person is just as much your soul mate as your first spouse.

I don't consider Rabbi Friedman infallible, and I actually always have this split reaction when someone talks about spiritual "events": Might be a good thing, might be a bad thing, depending on where it comes from, you know?

I guess some people were also confused thinking this was a "how to", but I don't think it was meant that way at all. I think it was meant more as a "Well, this is possible, did you even know?" You know how some people get irritated when they hear a Christian say "Did you know Jesus died for your sins?" Well, imagine the level of resentment they'd feel if they heard "Did you know you're missing out on the greatest act of sex?"


Well, look truth is truth, and it's not something you should resent, even if you didn't know it. So maybe keep an open mind, and enjoy an interesting look at life.

The director Ricardo Adler is a man who seems to have found something more meaningful in these teachings, motivating him to make the film. (Co-directors Ricardo Kora, Belen Orsini.)

Oh, yeah, the three point scale:

1. Subject matter? Hell, yeah, it's interesting. It's sex. Sex is supposed to sell!

2. Technique? Run of the mill. Interviews, dialogues, none of those floating, freeze-framed, 3Dized photographs the documentary directors love so well these days, but this isn't really a historical documentary.

3. Bias? Sure. It's biased that the whole premise isn't complete nonsense and that there might be something tucked away in those old Jewish scrolls.

It might've been more interesting to hear a number of rabbis debating the best way to achieve this heightened state (and this would be a good prequel to that), but for what it was, it was good.

And easily the most transgressive film I've seen in a while.

Listen To Me Marlon

When he was alive, Marlon Brando used to tape record himself talking. (No word on whether he continued this in death.) Writer/director Steven Riley and co-writer Peter Ettedgui have fashioned a fascinating documentary about a man some would call the greatest film actor of the 20th century, using primarily his own words. (The words that are not his are those of interviewers, and Bertolucci when we get to Tango, but there is no other narration, except for the occasional title card.)

Brando was an interesting guy with a severely dysfunctional background, and the looks and talent to turn that background into a supremely dysfunctional life. This isn't a movie with a lot of biographical detail. We hear of two of Brando's children, but he had at least, well, double-digits. Five from his three wives, three from his housekeeper, three others by different women.

We do learn that his mother, whom he adored, was a drunk, and his father, who he hated, was a rambling man. He struck out on his own as a teen and fled to New York City where he was cared for by one of the teachers at The Conservatory (?); Stella Adler, I think. No mention of any other sort of relationship with her, it's described her as more of a maternal, selfless thing, which Brando was unused to.

My dad had a theory that The Method, for all the often good results it had, was very, very hard on a person. (Recall Laurence Olivier's advice to Dustin Hoffman on the set of the Marathon Man: "Why don't you try acting?") Of course, selection bias is strongly in play here (Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and we're dealing with actors to begin with, but if you needed an example, Brando would probably be a good one.

It's rather compelling, and a little humorous, just because it's almost like listening to Brando's Colonel Kurtz, from Apocalypse Now for 90 minutes. (Brando's ranting actually was improvised for that movie.) He was not without insight, perhaps the greatest of which was that the famous Brando was not him. You get the sense that with a little more to draw on in terms of familial or community support, he might've been okay, even happy.

But if he'd had any of that, would he have been the same Brando that ran away from home and lived on the street, and gave himself to his art?

On the three point scale:

1. Material. Interesting enough. Ultimately, I suppose books and movies get made of boring actors, but Brando is a worthy topic both for generational significance and sheer oddness.

2. Style. Very sparse. You get some filmed images, and footage of his old estate, as well as from the movies he worked on, as he discusses the various problems (there were always problems) associated with them. But this is largely an auditory experience.

3. Bias. There must be some bias at play here, just by virtue of having sifted through hundreds or thousands of hours of tape and selecting the interesting tidbits, but I think it's not just forgivable but necessary.

Not a by-the-numbers biography at all. You may not know anything more about his life coming out than you did going in. But you'll have some sympathy for the man.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Doctor Zhivago (50th Anniversary Edition)

Ask me if I want to go see a three hour movie. (Go on, Peter Jackson, ask me.) The answer is likely to be "maaaaaaaaaybe". Now, tell me it's by David Lean, the great director of Lawrence of Arabia. I'll have my popcorn in hand before you finish rolling your "r"s, which you should do, if you're saying "David Lean, the great director of Lawrence of Arabia".

Dr. Zhivago is, in fact, 3 hours and 20 minutes, and longer if you factor in the intermission and the overture, but much like Lawrence, it leaves you wanting more. But before we get into that, let's just recap the plot: The eponymous Zhivago is orphaned at a young age and taken in by some family friends who have a daughter his age. Zhivago and the daughter fall in love and get married, and live happily ever after, in the manner of all protagonists of Russian novels.

Nyet! But seriously, things are going all right, at least for their little family, and then there's a bit of trouble in the form of World War I and the October Revolution. In the tumult, Zhivago ends up manning a hospital full of injured with the help of Lara, a nurse he has crossed path with several times previously, and who is now married to a fanatical revolutionary.

Zhivago and Lara fall in love, though they never consummate, and Zhivago goes back home to find his family property divided "fairly" amongst the survivors of his family and a bunch of poor people who see a good opportunity for revenge. To make matters worse, Zhivago is a poet, and his poetry is on the outs with The Party, so he has to flee into the country—where his path crosses again with Lara.

One of the reasons I'd never seen this film before is because it just sounds boring to me. Much like Lawrence, really. Even now! But there's something magical about Lean, and I can't quite put my finger on it. The cinematography and blocking is flawless, of course—this is a great movie to look at, with its snow palaces and shadowy street scenes. The characters are interesting, sure, even for three or more hours. The story hangs together better than most modern ones, maybe: Instead of a series of things that just happen, every cause and effect here seems thoughtful, even when essentially random from the characters' perspectives.

There isn't a ton of suspense. This sort of movie can make Hitchcockian suspense seem practically gimmicky. But you care, so there is that level of suspense. Zhivago is a good man, even a pure man, which is an odd thing to say to one in a love triangle. Perhaps because he is not a womanizer, just a man blindsided by love. He doesn't seem entirely earthly.

Sometimes you see a movie that everyone loves and agree with them about all the great aspects of it but still personally just don't like it. Sometimes there's a movie like this, where you agree with everyone about all the great aspects, love it—but still don't understand why.

The acting was different back then, I note. I don't want to say it's stagey, but it's bigger than modern acting. There's a scene where the Moscow police/army storm through a Commie protest and mow everyone down. Lean doesn't show the violence, he shows Zhivago's reaction to it, and it's bigger than you'd see today. Not, like, Shatner big, but still: big.

Overall, it's an amazing film, perhaps not quite up to Lawrence but still a classic. Of course, it got very mixed reviews at the time, and there's no need to speculate why. Lean and Pasternak do what Zhivago is accused of in the movie: They tell a story about human beings in a time of great revolution. And there's nothing Romantic about the Revolution.

The movie is bookended by Zhivago's half-brother, a party apparatchik, trying to locate Zhivago's daughter. He tells the story partly to a younger comrade (who notes pointedly that, if the younger generation doesn't appreciate Zhivago's poetry, it's because they weren't allowed to by the State). The possible niece works in a mine or factory or something that falls short of a worker's paradise, and is scared of her would-be uncle who, as a Party Leader, is extremely powerful and dangerous. As he says, "nothing ordered by the Party is beneath the dignity of any man."

He fights in World War I with the purpose of making Russia fail. And succeeds. And counts it as his greatest work.

Lara's husband, insane as he is, articulates the the Revolutionary ideal: "The private life is dead for a man with any manhood." Then in the same breath, when it's pointed out to him that he burned the wrong village, he says "A village betrayed us, a village is burned. The point is made."

Then, after serving in the war, when Zhivago comes home, his home has been #occupied. All of Moscow is, really, and of course, everyone is sick and starving and feeding off resentment of the rich. Zhivago, as a man who writes love poems, is a threat. When they escape to the country, they find their old house unused and boarded up, but with a sign threatening terrible things to them should they dare to use it. And already the Party has spies everywhere.

We don't actually witness Lara's fate, but we hear she may have ended up in the gulags.

So, yeah, I don't wonder that critics judged it harshly, in an era when the New York Times was decades away from admitting Duranty lied. It's a deeply Romantic film at every level and breathes with an understanding that the joyless worker state of Communism is death to Romance.

It was fun to see all these people in their prime that I knew as a child primarily in middle age and late life. Omar Sharif is quite handsome and earnest in a way that keeps things from getting sleazy. I'd always thought of Geraldine Chaplin as okay-looking, but she is heart-breakingly sweet here. Until 2006's Away From Her, I'd always thought of Julie Christie as unremarkable looking, but it's hard not to fall in love with her here.

Rod Steiger does a great job as the epitome of the old world corruption. I imagined Alec Guinness standing there, delivering his lines with the perfect combination of menace and party-toadying, thinking "I'm going to be remembered for swinging around a flashlight-sword."

The music, by Maurice Jarré, is near perfect. About the only thing that I wasn't sold on was the creepy music he used for Lala's (Christie) affair with Komarovsky (Steiger). But I wasn't clear on that whole thing. It was creepy, and I'm not saying Jarré was wrong, or anything, but maybe the relationship needed a little less elision in the movie itself.

Still, here's the key thing: The Boy and I? We would sit down and watch it again in a heartbeat.

If you have a chance to see it in a theater—it's making the rounds for its 50th anniversary restoration—by all means, do so.


We were not exactly clamoring to go see Christian Petzold's latest flick, Phoenix, not having been huge fans of Barbara, but it was an intriguing, almost Danielle Steele/Harold Robbins/Judith Krantz plotline, which we thought would be interesting in the hands of such a restrained director.

Our protagonist, Nelly, is driven into Berlin after being shot in the face in a concentration camp. Her friend, Lene, puts her up and helps through extensive reconstructive surgery. Nelly, a Jew, is obsessed with finding her gentile husband Johnny, from whom she was separated (along with all her gentile friends) when dragged off to the camp.

Lene is against it. Johnny betrayed Nelly, she says, and is agitating to get her money (as her widower). Nelly, who's suffering from an identity crisis, can't let it go, though, and hunts Johnny down. When she finds him, he doesn't recognize her, but he does think she looks enough like her former self to be useful in a scam to get Nelly's money.

And there's your movie.

It's positively lurid, isn't it? And the book it was based on was filmed before as Return from the Ashes with Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar and Herbert Lom. But that movie was a thriller. This not.

That's an observation, not a critique. Much like Barbara, scenes that might have been played as a edge-of-your-seat suspense are played super straight. Everything is played super straight. I could say Petzold lacks showmanship, but that's not really the case: There are some breathtakingly good shots and the final scene is powerful—it really knocked the Boy's socks off—without any orchestral score playing, without any big reactions, without straying from the basically austere style of the whole film.

There's something to be said for not going the whole made-for-TV-miniseries route, after all, but you should know going in it is a movie with a whole lot of tension, where the payout is internal to the characters. It doesn't even answer the big questions. You're left to decide the sincerity of Johnny's feelings toward Nelly, Lene's feelings toward Nelly, all of her friends feeling towards them. Sometimes that can piss me off, but didn't here.

Fine Teutonic acting from Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, both of Barbara, with great supporting subtext from Nina Kuzendorf, of Woman in Gold.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Best of Enemies

In 1968, a desperate ABC network, unable to compete with the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democrat and Republican national conventions—and let us pause for a moment to consider how a network (back when there were only three networks dominating 90% of the American population) needed to beef up its political cred to increase its revenue—came up with an idea to have a conservative, William F. Buckley, and a degenerate, Gore Vidal, act as proxies for the Rs and the Ds respectively.

Seriously, I was pleased that the documentary identified Vidal as a liberal. But, really, he was a degenerate. He may or may not have said that you should never say "No" to only two things, sex and appearing on television, but the movie makes clear that his goal in going on TV was not to debate the issues, but to destroy Buckley personally.

Which got boffo ratings and destroyed TV debate forever—and if we're being honest, didn't do any favors for debate in general. Vidal, of course, wasn't the only one to do this—it is a hallmark of the Left, at least since Marx, if not going back to the French Revolution.

Never once does the documentary suggest that there's anything wrong with this. In fact, I'm sort of guessing that the makers of this film figure that Vidal was right to do so, and his gotcha moment against Buckley vindicated his tactics. To me, it looked like the moment damaged both of them.

But, hey, what do I know? It's not nice to call someone a "queer"—and they had John McWhorter to tell us how, in modern times, that might even be considered "hate speech"—but I'm not sure why it's less hateful to call a former WWII infantryman a "crypto Nazi".

That's as bizarre to me as the tendency of the Left—on extreme display here—to demonize their opponents by smearing them as closeted homosexuals.

Anyway, it's entertaining, though there are four topics here, and they're all given rather short-shrift: The character of political debate in our society, the changing role of television and television news, the actual debates, and the impact of the debates on two men. On the three point documentary scale:

1. Topic. Reasonably important and certainly interesting, I think the movie might have been better served if they'd kept it entirely personal, though that might have been difficult to pull off.

2. Presentation. The movie is competent, technically, but The Boy thought that the supporting talking heads didn't really add anything—i.e., that they were all fluff. I mention this because The Boy didn't know any of them or their political leanings.

3. Bias. This is is the sort of film that the Left says is unbiased and the Right says, "you say it's unbiased because, like a fish swimming in water: that bias surrounds you at all times, so you don't see it."

Am I exaggerating? Well, I'll give the film some credit: When Vidal caricatured Buckley on the Jack Paar show (with Paar mugging along), they allowed that Buckley disarmed Paar by going on his show and not being the ridiculous joke that Gore made him out to be (echoed in our modern, feeble fashion with Jon Stewart's lazy failure to nail John Yoo.) But it never points out the degeneracy and destructiveness of this whole "Left creates a caricature of Right and claims victory when it can plant that caricature in people's mind, true or not."

You could argue that it wasn't the film's job to point that out, that it should be left to the good wit of the audience, except that the only conservative voice they could find was Buckley's brother, and he's bought into the notion of America as an Empire—straight out of Noam Chomsky, whom they also had on to opine.

Who else did they have? Brooke "liberals in the media are TOO fair" Gladstone of NPR; Ginia "TV's gotten so conservative since the '70s!" Bellafante of the New York Times; Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote "The Death of Conservatism" and refers to conservatism as an "insurgency", and whose understanding of conservatism is so profound, he regards George W Bush as an extreme conservative ideologue; Dick "Sure, why not?" Cavett; Andrew "That's Not Palin's Baby" Sullivan; Frank "Dan Rather did nothing Wrong" Rich; Todd "President of Students for a Democratic Society" Gitlin; and on and on.

The late, lamented Chris Hitchens is here, with little to say, except "Yes, they hated each other for real." While he has a soft place in a lot of right wingers' hearts, he was a liberal who simply recognized the threat of Islam.

They had on Buckley's caretaker, I think she was.

You know who they didn't have on? A single person from National Review, the magazine Buckley founded. Buckley takes exception early on—foreshadowing!—to Gore and the Left's (ultimately successful) attempt to make National Socialism into a right wing phenomenon. These guys couldn't be bothered to have on, say, Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, to give a rebuttal.

Swimming in it. They spend time on the grotesque flop that was Myra Breckinridge and the presumably less grotesque but even more forgotten The Best Man. We learn about Vidal's history as an author, beginning with Williwaw, through his '80s books on American History. It spends no time at all on God and Man At Yale, and little on any of Buckley's '60s books.

Swimming. In. It. The only narrative about Vietnam is the media created one about America having lost in Vietnam, and the only greater tragedy being that it might have won.

I have mentioned it was an enjoyable film, right? It was. If you don't agree with the Conventional Wisdom,  you are used, I'm sure, to seeing the bias, so this stuff doesn't bother you so much as it is just business-as-usual.

I haven't seen Robert Gordon's previous work, but Morgan Neville won for the entertaining (if overrated) 20 Feet From Stardom which also suffered from the desire to create a narrative the audience is already well familiar with.

So, yeah. Gird your loins, because this is one of those movies that needs a rebuttal, but go ahead and see it anyway.

(See, even as I publish this, I keep thinking of rebuttals. Vidal attacks Buckley on the topic of, yes, income inequality, which has resurfaced yet again in the past years. Buckley notes that Vidal is a great beneficiary of income inequality, which they-who-make-the-argument always seem to be, don't they?)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Insidious: Chapter 3

One place where Rotten Tomatoes really has to be taken with a grain of salt is horror movies. Insidious: Chapter 3 originally had thumbs-down worthy ratings, prompting a certain amount of trepidation about seeing it. (The critical rating has crept up to a marginally positive 60% as of now.) But not a large amount, since we liked the first two quite a bit, and the second one was quite negatively received by critics (though audiences received pretty much all three the same, hovering right around 60%).

And while it's fair to say that this is an uneven movie, it's uneven because it uses a relatively fresh device, that of the "Further"—what might have been called the Astral Plane in former times—as a way to ratchet up suspense and bring a little movement into what can be an otherwise static formula.

For this movie, a prequel to the first two, we have once again the wonderful Lin Shaye as our ghostbusting medium. Here, though, she's afraid and depressed over her deceased husband, and out of the ghostbusting biz even when ridiculously cute and wholesome Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott of Disney's "A.N.T. Farm") comes to her looking for help in getting into communication with her dead mom.

Elise (Shay) gives it a shot, but can't really commune with the dead since she had a run-in with the demon from the first two Insidious movies. This actually makes sense in the context of the other two movies, but where this movie is strongest is mostly where it doesn't worry too much about the other two. Okay, with an exception for where it serves as an origin story, of sorts, for the Ghostbusters Biz featured in the previous films with Elise, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (writer/director Leigh Whannell).

Anyway, the disaffected Quinn plans to run off to college to escape her overwhelmed, widowed father (Dermot Mulroney, The Grey, J. Edgar, Zodiac) who relies on her to raise his son, but of course the capricious spirits of The Further get in the way.

There are about three points in this movie where I actually uttered noise in shock. Two of those times, I lost the popcorn I was holding. (It was in a tiny tray, but still, The Boy ended up wearing it one of those times.) This movie does a lot of shocks, and does them well.

There's also a bit of good horror, a fair amount of suspense and even some mystery along with some new characters who, while fairly stock, are also reasonably developed.

As The Boy is fond of saying these days, somewhat sarcastically, "It may not have redefined what horror is, but it was pretty damn good!" Although he usually swears more colorfully. We have a lot of theories for why moviegoers and critics are so tough on horror films, but mostly we just take to ignoring them.

Very solid freshman effort from Whannell.


Judd Apatow movies have the distinct and perhaps dubious honor of being among the raunchiest mainstream movies while also being the most subversive. Where 40 Year Old Virgin challenged male promiscuity, and Knocked Up suggested that maybe getting and staying together for the sake of a child is not such a bad thing, we now have Trainwreck, which challenges that holiest of grails: Female promiscuity.

Some time ago, rather than rein in the men who are dogs, a loud, connected and unimpeachable group of women decided they should "get to be" dogs, too, hence this story of a woman who finds her life of drunken hookups unsatisfying is controversial.

I mean, not to sane people, of course, but to...well, they're out there in the media. You can find them without even looking too hard.

Amy Schumer stars, and she wrote it, sort of by cribbing the opening of Shallow Hal, reversing typical rom-com tropes, and mixing in a bunch of her trademark humor which, yes, is reminiscent of Sarah Silverman and Janeane Garofalo. (In fact, I was frequently reminded of a Garofalo bit where she's kicking the guy out of her apartment post-coitus.)

There's a lot of what typically makes Apatow films enjoyable: Frequent humor delivered with a sure hand, not frantically or desperately, and a supporting cast which doubles both as humor relief pitchers and dramatic backstops. So, while the cute love story between Amy and Aaron (Bill Hader) would be an okay chick flick (like Bridesmaids chick flick, not Beaches chick flick), this movie transcends that with:
  • Aaron's best friend being a very sensitive (and passionate about Cleveland!) LeBron James.
  • Amy's former boyfriend being the phenomenally thick and musclebound Steven (wrestler John Cena), unable to talk dirty, and possibly a little "confused" sexually.
  • Amy's dog of a father, played by Colin Quinn, having MS and being both wildly offensive and lovably human.
  • Amy's sister Kim, played by Brie Larson (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now), who's generally the nice one, but who has unresolved resentment toward dad.
  • Vanessa Bayer as the work friend. I've never seen her before, but she was quite appealing.
  • Dave Attell as the homeless guy who begs outside of Amy's apartment. Attell may have adlibbed all his stuff, it sounds so...Attell-y.
  • Randall Park (Kim Jong Un in The Interview) and "Delocated"'s Jon Glaser play Amy's dorky co-workers at S'NUFF magazine.
  • Mike Birbiglia (Cedar Rapids) and Evan Brinkman have the sort of thankless task of being Kim's husband and stepson (respectively), who must be dorky and unlovable when Amy has one point of view, and then endearing when she reforms.
  • There's an awesome running gag about an arty film called "Dogwatcher" featuring a morose, chain-smoking Daniel Radcliffe as the guy walking seven dogs, and a troubled Marissa Tomei as the woman who wants to give him one more dog.
  • Tilda Swinton as the evil boss and Ezra Miller as the odd intern. Swinton and Miller were the contentious mother and son of the grisly We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Actually, we've seen so much of Miller, we were going nuts trying to remember where. The Boy and I both thought maybe he was part of The Wolf Pack but he had an important role as "8612" in The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Kevin and, hell, going back a ways, City Island.

It doesn't all work. Arguably LeBron James makes the movie, with his earnest Aaron's BFF performance, but then he's gone from the last third of the movie. (He shot all his scenes in one week.) And there's an intervention that features a randy Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Alpert that broke the suspension of disbelief for me.

I mean, I guess the one-on-one basketball between Hader and James was stretching it. But the intervention seemed sort of pointless.

100 year old Norman Lloyd is in it. That was nice.

Raunchy, though. A lot of mid-coitus humor. A lot of post-coitus humor. A lot of pre-coitus humor. A lot of humor in non-coital situations referencing coitus or other sex acts.

As for Schumer, she's not model thin, and that works pretty well for her, although she's not looking great next to the cheerleaders. Literally. I mean, her body looks fine but cheerleaders are top-notch athletes and she doesn't come close. Which is played for a pretty good, if overlong, gag.

Her face, on the other hand? Well, I'll grant that Fox News has some great makeup people, but the Amy of 2015 looks a bit haggard compared to the one of 2010. I don't know if that's due to her fair complexion, or if they wanted to, to some degree, not over glamourize her, but she doesn't quite pull of the "only four years older than Brie Larson" thing.

She is likeable, and a fine actress (as comedians often are)—her interactions with and about her father being truly fine, emotionally moving work (and apparently based on her real life situation with her father).

Anyway, by this point, you should probably know if you like this sort of thing, this Apatow humor, with the condoms and the bodily fluids and what-not. If you do, this is a reasonably good example of same.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

In truth, the trailers for The Outrageous Sophie Tucker were particularly uninspiring. It looks cheap. It sounds cheap. And, of course, it is cheap—it's a documentary, after all—but most documentaries try in the trailers to draw you into the story or the mystique so that you overlook the cheap. These trailers are more of a ta-dah!

You know: "Sophie Tucker: Ta-dah!"

And that's really how the movie itself is. So I can sort of see where the critics tended to give it mixed reviews (currently at 72% on RT) while still siding with the regular viewers (at 92%). The critical detractions are mostly of the "It could've been so much better!" And there were certain things that I didn't care for:
  • They built up a song, "The Angle Worm Wiggle", and the dance for which Tucker was apparently arrested for, and then neither showed it, nor played it, nor anything, really.
  • Tucker played in blackface, and they have a story with her grand-niece calling her on it, with Tucker having some story about having to and getting out of it by "forgetting" it. Consider that a personal peccadillo. I prefer we just admit nobody (nobody white, anyway) thought anything of it and leave it at that. 
  • Dumb story outright stating Hoover was a cross-dresser. The idea that he was a cross-dresser and gay is only slightly less preposterous than the idea it was an open secret in Hollywood.
  • They use the same technique for suggesting Hoover was gay to suggest Tucker was gay, mainly, "Hung out with a member of the same sex for decades." We used to call those "friends".
  • Tucker's son comes off as a loser. I've mentioned here many times that hagiographies are acceptable—it isn't necessary to dwell on a person's failings to make a good documentary. But Tucker abandoned her boy as a youngster and there's no mention of how this might have played into his future womanizing and incompetencies. 
  • The recent practice of animating still photos is weird and creepy. I'm sure it's compelling for the producers, though, given the static nature of a lot of this stuff.
  • The movie ends with producer Lloyd Ecker choking up about Tucker's death. I get this: A lot of work went into this project, and the person feels like a friend or family member. At the same time, dude, you weren't a friend, you were some guy who read her memoir and scrap albums. It's an odd choice to make your emotional response to the 30-year-old death of an 80-year-old woman who lived a great life the centerpiece of a scene.
These are pretty minor points. If there's a major flaw with the film is that it absolutely sparkles when it shows clips of Tucker and yet it shows very few clips. And there, it seems to me, is the real magic that the filmmakers didn't quite bring out.

How does a fat, homely Jewish woman sing-talking about how sexy she is become an international star? That's amazing. (Carol Channing is in this, and she has the audacity to claim that Tucker was beautiful when younger—but the pictures do not bear that out.) And by the time she appears in a movie (the flop vehicle Honkey Tonk), she's 43 years old! According to the movie, the near 60-year-old Sophie Tucker was a pin-up for some soldiers. (One of the best stories of the movie involves a GI who wanted to play the banned "My Yiddishe in Momma" in Berlin.)

Well, one thing movie illustrates well is that Tucker was a true professional with a grasp on publicity, to say nothing of a love of people that great performers have. She always made her commitments. She did her own books. She kept a record of everyone she met and wrote them notes when she came into town. She did product promotions for just about everything. 

She had no problem singing "I Don't Want To Be Thin":
Those slender-waisted women
They make me laugh
My goodness
Men like to see a little fore and aft 
I don't want to reduce
Furthermore, what's the use?
When the men follow me around
Like Mary's lamb 
The girls who talk of dieting
Gee, they get on my nerves
If you want to keep your husband straight
Show him a lot of curves
There's some great back-and-forth with her pianist, too:
"Keep your mind on your music"
"I can't when you're around"
"Look where I am not"
"I can't see that far."
By the way, her weight, according to that song, is 163, which is about the weight of the average American woman. But she could sing that and then sing:
Nobody loves a fat girl
But, oh, how a fat girl can love
Nobody seems to want me
I'm just a truck on the highway of love
She had stage presence. And she had it up to her final performance at the age of 79, when cancer struck her down. Whatever its flaws, this turned out to be a really enjoyable film. On the three-point scale:

1. Subject matter. Interesting, for sure.
2. Presentation. Fairly typical. Nothing especially noteworthy, good or bad.
3. Spin. The aforementioned hagiographic aspects mixed with some dubious sensational elements. Nothing egregious.

Worth checking out.

The Eckers (producers of the film) wrote a fictional memoir of Sophie Tucker which is available for purchase in the foyer, $27.50. $10-$20 for web extras.