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Alex's Wedding (1993), a superb African documentary, is a 45-minute ethnographic film with an implied feminist vantage. Filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno is visiting Cameroons when a native friend, Alex, insists that Teno video tape his connubial celebration. Teno agrees from politeness, and films as Alex's friends and relatives, in jackets and ties, gather at the young bride's house. He interviews Josephine's unmarried girlfriends, and Josephine herself, shiny and nubile, and bursting with happiness.
A typical wedding anywhere on earth?
There's a hitch: polygamy! Alex is already married to Elise. They'd been together for 18 years and have 6 children. Alex is a Catholic, but the ceremony occurs outside the Church, which doesn't abide several wives at once. But here in Josephine's house stands the Catholic priest, and also Elise. That's the rule of native ceremonies: both wives must be in attendance, the old and the new. Elise isn't happy about it, standing cross-armed amidst a room of strangers. The male attendees aim to put all at ease with joking advice to the shared husband: "Be fair with your wives. If you kiss one, kiss the other."
And then it's off for the wedding night, to Alex and Elise's tiny house in another village. Teno's camera scampers along, too, for a dramatic change of setting. Here, young Josephine loses her bearings, a freaked-out adolescent in a someone else's children-crowded living room. Suddenly, this Cameroonean film connects with Greek myth: Josephine, a mournful Cassandra, dragged into exile. Elise, a jealous Clytemnestra. Alex, the African Agammemnon, proud and vain and amazingly indifferent to the suffering his womanizing has caused.
At the end of the film, Teno's voiceover tips his hand: "This film is dedicated to Elise and Josephine, and to my wife, and to my daughter." No to polygamy!
(Boston Phoenix - February, 2004)
Alias Betty - British mystery novelist Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands is an eye-popping page-turner of the caliber and excitement of Conan Doyle's Hounds of the Baskerville, Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. There's one caveat: the book tumbles apart in the last pages due to some ghastly, labored plot contrivances. Film director Claude Miller finds a deft way to make Rendell's coincidences at the end tongue-in-cheek and palatable in Alias Betty, his French-language adaptation of Tree of Hands. Nothing earlier comes close to the masterly novel: it's a decent movie only, diverting and somewhat entertaining where Rendell's Tree of Hands gets into your heart, brain, and bones.
The story is switched from London to Paris. Betty (Sandrine Kimberlane), a novelist with a child, receives an unwelcomed visit from her somewhat crazy, self-absorbed mother (Nicole Garcia). During that visit, Betty's little son, Joseph, dies in an accident, and some weeks later, a grieving Betty comes downstairs in her house to discover that her mother has provided her with another boy! A kidnapping has occurred, and little Jo (the same name!) has been plucked from a blue-collar neighborhood. It happens too fast and unconvincingly in the film, how Betty decides to keep the boy as her own. In the book, it's a slow process by which Betty grasps that she would be a much better mother for Jo, neglected and beaten by his real-life mom. Claude Miller never achieves what's so moving and tender in the book, the sluggish boy's blossoming and development, nurture over nature.
(Boston Phoenix - March, 2003)
The Ballad of Greenwich Village -
Filmmaker Karen Kramer's best work on The Ballad of Greenwich Village was during production, getting Norman Mailer, Maya Angelou, Richie Havens, and the ever-reticent Woody Allen to reminisce before her camera. For example, its fun to hear how Allen and fellow comedian Bill Cosby used to hang out together on Village streets in the early 60s, between sets. And how Mailer at 16 would head into the Village from Brooklyn with wild dreams of, in his words, "getting laid." But the street cinematography is perfunctory, and the bulk of this documentary is disorganized and pointless, jumping too quickly through 150 years of New York cultural history (there's a Lili Taylor voiceover) to have any impact. And not all the interviews are effective ones, i.e., smug celeb Tim Robbins sitting on a stoop complaining about rich yuppies taking over in the 1980s.
(Boston Phoenix - March, 2006)
The Beauty Academy of Kabul - Filmed in Afghanistan just months after the seeming smashing of the Taliban, Liz Merwin's engaging The Beauty Academy of Kabul already seems a nostalgia item remembering a better, more optimistic time. A bunch of New York hair stylists calling themselves Beauty Without Borders land in Kabul, and set up shop, teaching local women who had suffered under Taliban misogynist puritanism to perm their hair, wear makeup, preen about like Western women. Filmmaker Merwin is wise to allow film audiences to make up their own minds whether the Afghan women are being genuinely liberated or brainwashed into the most frivolous kind of feminity, or something in between. Whatever, lots of the Afghan women are as charming as they are courageous in their harrowing war memories, and somehow this documentary, without being didactic, manages to stretch in compelling ways the boundaries of feminism."
(Boston Phoenix - June, 2006)
Cecil Taylor - San Francisco filmmaker Christopher Felver is well known for The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, his amiable 1996 homage to the Bay Area's poet-in-residence, and he has a 2003 feature, Cecil Taylor: All the Notes, on the legendary free-style jazz piano. Also, he's made films featuring renowned artists declaiming to his video camera.
The most provocative of these is the 1998 Donald Judd's Marfa Texas, concerning the startling move in the 1970s of the Big Apple-based minimalist, among the shakers of the downtown scene, to a flat, Last-Picture-Show, one-light burg in southern Texas. Rejecting the necessary rules of the metropolitan art world, where exhibitions drift in and out, Judd opted for a sedate place for his art to rest permanently. In Marfa, he gutted the insides of a bunch of buildings, most from an abandoned army base, made some changes to the outsides, then filled the insides with his art pieces, including the famous Judd boxes. Judd's revolutionary edict: the inside and outside are all one, complementing each other. You should never walk inside a Judd-rehabbed Marfa building and be surprised by what's the interior. As for the exteriors, Judd respected, and built on, what he found: decent, pragmatic, American architecture. His Marfa architectural constructs are holistic, defiantly modernist.
An on-camera interview with Judd runs through the documentary, in which the white-bearded artist at age 64, is alternately pompous and humorous. But he seems in great health, which makes it shocking-I forgot he's gone!-when a newspaper
appears with the story of "Donald Judd, Dead at 65."
(Boston Phoenix - January, 2004)
Chain Camera It was a simple but immensely effective idea: supply students at LA's multi-ethnic John Marshall High School with video cameras to allow them to make mini-movies documenting their lives. After a week of shooting, they passed the cameras to other students. Lots of video-bios, four to six minutes in length, and the most enticing of them, 16 in all, were put together by supervising professional filmmaker, Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Super-Masochist, Derrida) into a sympathetic, endearing, sometimes deeply moving 90-minute work. Virtually all the choices are good ones, and everyone watching will have his/her personal favorites. I loved a film showing a once-legally blind boy who recently has gained his sight but who now finds himself, an admitted virgin, shy when girls ask him on dates. Two shorts featuring out-of-the-closet gay and lesbian students are inspiring for their courage, and there's a hilariously raunchy girl-guy collaboration in which the girl keeps laughing hilariously, stopping her from going down on a banana in an ersatz blow job. Then there's cute, smart Amy who talks of her insecurities, not knowing at age 17 how charming she will be as an adult. The most touching short of all: one that shows the symbiotic relationship of a chubby Latino girl and her extremely obese father, and has her crying to the camera when alone, fearing that dad will have a fatal heart attack and leave her alone in the world. Kudos for Chain Camera to Kirby Dick, an indie filmmaker who manages a career of integrity and idealism while residing in Hollywood-owned LA.
(Boston Phoenix, May 2003)
Chronicle of a Disappearance Palestinian narrative cinema, the little that exists (where would funding come from?), has been hearfelt, urgent, but often crudely executed "Israelis, get out of our face" melodrama. What a difference is Elia Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance, an arthouse movie so formally sophisticated that non-film people might get lost a bit in the labyrinth of experimental strategies.
Suleiman, a Palestinian from Nazareth, spent twelve years in New York, where, before returning to Nazareth for Chronicle of a Disappearance, he obviously studied world cinema. (French directors, Godard and Tati, seem influences, Godard for the politically-minded master shots, Tati for the dry, deadpan, terrific sight gags.) The first section of the film, done in static long shots, is devoted to random observations of the everyday life of his mother, father, aunt in their middle-class home. Suleiman also films in the streets: the comatose Arab Laurel and Hardy, who sell fake holy water actually sneaked from the tap in their Holyland souvenir store; a Russian Orthodox priest who complains that the Sea of Galilee has turned to exrement from "Americans and Germans eating Chinese food."
In part two, Suleiman (who is on camera) goes into Jerusalem, where, an almost-invisible man (the plight of the Arab intellectual?)he peaks in on PLO-type terrorists preparing bombs, and stands by passively as Israeli police charge through his apartment with machine guns. It seems clear that Suleiman is for peace in the Mideast, though he's also disturbed by Israeli cultural imperialism. The final shots are of his Palestinian family at home in Nazareth watching TV sign off with the playing of "Hatiqva" and the waving of three Israeli flags.
(Boston Phoenix, September 1997)
Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day Christopher Munch did very well with a footnote to pop history with his first film, The Hours and Times (1993), dramatizing the alleged 1964 tryst between John Lennon and Beatles manager, Brian Epstein. This time, with Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, Munch chooses the wrong footnote. Or he dramatizes it wrongly. In either case, viewers aren't going to care much about how, in post-War 1940s, a 23-year-old Chinese-American, John Lee, returned to operation the dormant Yosemite Valley Railroad.
John's obsession with this railroad seems private, fetishist and, due to the awkward, sleepy-faced, first-time thespian miscast as Lee (Peter Alexander), totally unconvincing. Even experienced actors, such as the eccentric psuedo-poet Henry Gibson, sublime in Robert Altman's Nashville and The Long Goodbye, lose their charisma here. I blame Munch's misdirection for his actors' obvious discomfort; and the most lost of all is REM's Michael Stipe as Alexander's railroad partner. His character seems to be secretly in love with Lee, but it's honestly hard to understand, because of his mumbling, what the rock'n'roller is so distressed about.
Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is shot beautifully by cinematographer Rob Sweeney, in handsome black and white, featuring Ansel Adams-like vistas of the American Northwest, Rarely has there been such a disparity between a film's splendid look and its stultefying content.
(Boston Phoenix, November 1997)
The Conformist Alberto Moravia's novel, The Conformist, came out in Italy in 1950, after the War, and it's an unforgiving of his counry's embrace of Fascism. Search hard for a creepier protagonist than Moravia's Marcello who, as a boy, murders a potential pederast in cold blood (or thinks he has), and, as a gloomy adult, works for Mussolini's secret police. Judas-like, he helps get his partisan ex-professor and the professor's wife assassinated by a fascist hit squad. Would you recognize Marcello in the street, a boot-stomping, villain? No, he's a desperate conformist, whose fascism takes the form of fitting in as a bourgeois, as "normal" as possible, including marriage with child.
Moravia was repulsed by his protagonist and, in the novel's most contrived moment, he has Marcello killed off on the last page by allied planes.
In making his masterly 1971 film version of The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci has explained how he switched Moravia's tale of "fate"--there's no deus ex machina airplane-- to a Freudian film of the unconscious. Whose unconscious? At the time, the future The Last Tango was deep into psychoanalysis, and he discovered, he says in interviews, that he was far more aggressive than he believed he was. Aggressive against whom? His kindly dad who, like the murder victim in the story, was an anti-fascist professor during the War. The Conformist is a Death-of-the-Father movie, with rightist Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) acting out the oedipal wishes of leftist Bernardo.
The Conformist is also one of the most sumptuously shot works in the history of cinema, thanks to DP Vittorio Storaro; and Dominique Sanda as the bisexually active professor's wife, delivers one of the most torrid performances in movies, Casablanca's Ilsa as toughened up by Marlene Dietrich.
(Boston Phoenix, September 2005)
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street Cult directors fill their movies with references to the jarring closeups and inventive editing of "B" director Sam Fuller. Yet Fuller, who died in October, went the same movie-quoting route in his 1972 Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street. There are respectful steals from The Maltese Falcon and Breathless, and a mirthful scene in a Cologne movie theatre shows a dubbed-in-German Rio Bravo.
Typically Fuller, spectacular action sequences (and, here, inspired non-Berlin German locales) are in combo with awkward writing and dubious acting. The story is about a cheap detective (sunbaked Glenn Corbett, a bologna-sandwich performer) searching Europe for tawdry photographs which can ruin his client, a Nixonian US senator (Fuller himself in a Republican-baiting cameo).
(Boston Phoenix, December 1997)
Deep Crimson he dedication for Arturo Ripstein's ghoulish Mexican crime tale, Deep Crimson, comes at the tail of the film: "To Raymond, Martha, and Leonard." Any ultra-extreme cultist knows that's a reference to the homicidal duo within, and the director (Leonard Kastle) of, the magnificently morbid "B" tabloid, 1970's The Honeymoon Killers.
In that one (check your video store), an obese nurse joins up with a smooth little gigolo in a scheme for him to marry hapless old ladies, then murder them for their money. The killings are shockingly nasty, but The Honeymoon Killers gets its undeniable power from the very odd protagonists' intoxicating l'amour fou.
Deep Crimson is The Honeymoon Killers transplanted in 1940s Mexico, and moved from black-and-white to color, perhaps the better to display the blood. Raymond has become the migraine-tormented Nicolas(Daniel Giminez Cacho), who carefully pastes down his hairpiece before courting lonely widows. His soupy claim is to be from Spain, Don Quixote-in-exile seeking his Dulcinea.
Martha is Coral(Regina Orozco), an unhappy nurse whose helper duties include serving at the morgue, why she reeks of formaldehyde. She dreams of romance with suave movie star, Charles Boyer. But the only movie personage she resembles is Petunia Pig. The old cliche about hugely stout people applies: she does have pretty features, but they're all above the neck.
It takes a while, but Nicolas and Coral connect. That's after he robs her, and she doesn't mind, and after she thrusts her children in an orphanage so she can be only his. Their relationship is sealed when she holds tight seeing his unseemly bald pate. When his wig flies away, she weaves him another, out of her own hair. That's love!
But what cements their passion is, of course, the murders, and there are four of them, increasingly gorier. "Why did we do it?" she asks, in a rare moment of self-doubt. "We're accomplices," he says. "Eternal accomplices." "Yes," she agrees, a haunted Medea, "united in blood and death."
I appreciate Arturo Ripstein's directorial skill (he's Mexico's best), the way he plays with the tensions of three in the frame: Nicolas, and whatever woman he is courting, and the jealously homicidal Coral, pretending to be Nicolas's sister. As conceived by Orozco, who is also a Mexican opera singer, Coral is both terrifying and pitiable. But how about those killings?
I first saw Deep Crimson at a film festival, on one of those numb days of five movies in a row. I regarded it as an effective black comedy, and didn't give a second thought to the violence, what Ripstein ( a one-time assistant to Bunuel) calls "the savage poetry." This time I saw it solo, and I must admit that it gets upsetting. I watched it, in fact, on the day that the Massachusetts House voted back in the death penalty by the tiniest margin. If they'd been confonted by Nicolas and Coral's hideous final murders in Deep Crimson, the pro-death penalty vote might have been overwhelming.
(Boston Phoenix, October 1997)
Dog Soldiers Neil Marshall's British-made war-and-werewolf combo movie takes place in a creepy woods in the Scottish highlands. Here, hairy, snarling, yellow-eyed things stand tall on hind legs, and rip out throats and guts. Facing off against them are a less-than-sterling squadron of British soldiers, who, even before a flying-fang attack, long to be home absorbed in an England vs. Germany football match.
If lycanthropy is your bag, you can't go wrong here: a cult-movie-in-the-making which features a capable thespian ensemble, a sexy actress (Emma Cleasby) among the army men, and snappy dialogue along with the requisite blood.
Dorian Blues James Dean looms over Tennyson Bardwell's Dorian Blues. In Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo's Plato, perhaps the first gay teenager in Hollywood
movies, has a photo of heartthrob actor, Alan Ladd, taped in his locker. Dorian (Michael McMillian), struggling to come out in the 1980s, sports a poster of handsome JFK above his bed. Dean's East of Eden was about teen brothers, one beloved, one weird and off-the-wall, fighting for the love of their straightlaced father. In Dorian Blues, stuffy dad adores his football-playing son, Nicky (Lee Coco), but is turned off by mildly sissy Dorian.
It's that old story again, the sensitive gay son, the stern macho father, but perhaps it needs repeating in a hundred movies, as there are always new gay kids suffering on the block. Dorian Blues is an audience-friendly movie to help such kids be comfortable with their sexuality, and a film that could be shown cozily for school discussions. First-time filmmaker Bardwell is straight, and he based his heartfelt story on a college buddy, who died of AIDS.
(Boston Phoenix, October 2005)
Dummy Dummy is hardly a major indie film, but here is Adrien Brody's first starring role since his Academy Award-winning performance in The Pianist. Expect no repeat Oscar for Dummy, but Brody is pretty decent, and night-and-day different, as the shy, pale, passive, and probably virginal Stephen. This post-The Graduate Jewish nebbish lives at home with his abrasive parents (played loudly by a funny pairing of Ron Liebman and Jessica Walter) and his unhappy unmarried sister (played with scene-stealing aplomb by the engaging Illeana Douglas). An out-of-work electronics geek, Steven considers a new profession by purchasing a dimple-chinned ventriloquist dummy (thus the movie title); but his little friend becomes a total crutch, carried on Steven's arm wherever he goes, including on several wobbly dates with Lorena (Vera Farmiga), a woman from the unemployment office. Will Steven ever grow up, be assertive, be a mensch? While you wait to find out, writer-filmmaker Gregg Pritikin gives you a lot of oddball characters to contemplate, and at least one hilarious scene, when Steven brings his new goy girfriend home to dinner at his loud, crazy Jewish household.
(Boston Phoenix - April, 2003)
Elevator to the Gallows French filmmaker Louis Malle (1932-1995) did best at the end, with his masterly collaborations in America, My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42 nd Street. His oeuvre in France was efficient arthouse movies with Big Themes (incest, France under the Occupation) shot in a rather impersonal, accessible way. Elevator to the Gallows, his now-revived1958 film, is the reverse of his 1960s and 1970s work: all form and little content or meaning. This neo-noir of a night in Paris with two criss-crossed murders is 100% mood: Miles Davis's dazzling improv trumpeting on the soundtrack, ambient black-and-white cinematography from the great Henri Decae, shot after shot of Jeanne Moreau's astoundingly chameleon face, as she searches through sketchy Gallic locales for her missing criminal lover. Though quite fun, none of this has metaphysical resonance. It's ultimately a post-grad exercise in show-off style by the then 24-year-old Malle.
(Boston Phoenix - August, 2005)
Fire on the Mountain Oh what am insular world of square-jawed WASP men, all fit and trim in their 70s, talking stoically of their World War II adventures on skis in Fire On the Mountain. It's a 1940s and 1950s time capsule, this filmic universe without blacks, ethnics, women, or irony, and featuring an "aw shucks" voiceover of Boy Scout's enthusiasm. And yet, let's not disparage the genuine heroism of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army, which, half a century ago, climbed Italy's Riva Ridge and surprised the Nazis.
Still, it might be better to read about what the 1Oth Division did than to bother with a documentary. The World War II footage used is stock stuff, and the various storytellers are, well, stiff and formal. Watching, I kept expecting them to query their interviewer, "Can I fix you a cocktail?"
(Boston Phoenix, March 1997)
• Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry Race, don’t walk, to see George Butler’s vivid, impressive, scrupulously researched documentary about John Kerry’s Vietnam years, and bring along an army of the unconvinced. This is the Kerry campaign film of one’s dreams, for it builds an irrefutable case that Kerry really was a war hero, and deserves all of those medals and commendations. Butler takes us back to the Mekong Delta, and shows us actual footage of the Swiftboats sailing up hallucinatory rivers. We hear from a chorus of Vietnam combatants amazing stories of Kerry’s bravery, of how, for example, he chased a Viet Cong sniper into the woods and shot him dead. Pure John Wayne! More important, Butler stays with Kerry as he came home to America, and, more valorous, led the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We see Kerry’s extraordinary testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised by both Democrats and Republicans, and other occasions when this very serious, very determined 27-year old with the Jay Leno chin spoke so eloquently that his rhetoric reached almost Lincolnesque proportions. A traitor? Kerry back then was such a clean-living patriot that even Richard M. Nixon’s "dirty tricks" department could find nothing to discredit him. Butler has been a pal of Kerry for thirty years, and this lovely paean to the Democratic partybearer of 2004 is the ultimate act of friendship.
• Hakke You thought Seinfeld was about "nothing." It's The Iliad next to the obstinately uneventful Hakke, a first feature from Hungary's Gyorgy Palfi. Most of the screen time is taken up observing the expressionless denizens of a tiny Hungarian village going about their utterly dull daily business: sewing in a factory, walking a pig, cooking a meal, playing a Maygar version of lawn bowling. There's sound, but whatever dialogue exists is muffled purposefully, frustrating any possibility that the audience can learn something insightful about the characters. Enigma reigns. Two locals appear fairly often on screen: a wrinkled old man with a chronic case of hiccups, which he accepts with bemusement; an ever-worried-looking policeman, though what he's fretting about is never clear. What's below the placid surface? Perhaps a David Lynchean coven of terrors, as several men in the movie (and a cat) drop dead before our eyes, and a grotesque corpse rots at the bottom of a lake. Is there a murderer loose? At the film's finale are Hakke's only words requiring English subtitling: a wedding chorus sings to a marrying young couple, coaxing the bride to feed poison to the groom.
(Boston Phoenix, June 2004)
• Kontrol - Eastern Europe has faltered in the world film market with its propensity for slow, dour, pessimistic art films. Nimrod Antal’s Kontroll, a colorful existential action picture from Hungary, has US distribution, and it could be the post-Cold War movie that finds a youthful American audience. The premise is appealing: a raggedy, anti-authoritarian squad of metro inspectors patrol the Danteesque Budapest subway system searching for law-breakers, including, comically, a fast-moving punk who taunts them by refusing ever to buy a ticket and, tragically, an eerie serial killer who keeps pushing people under subway cars. The squad is led by Bulecsu (Sandor Csanyl), a handsome, charismatic anti-hero, who has dropped out of a promising university career for perpetual days and nights as an Underground Man. Will he ever again see the light above the tunnels? Kontroll, sharp all the way through, culminates in a creepy Masque of the Red Death-like dance party, where the enrobed murderer makes his last stand. Come on, Bulescu!
(Boston Phoenix, September, 2004)
The Lady in the Lake - There's a Hollywood wisdom that complicated novels end up as screen disasters; but studio adaptations of Raymond Chandler's three finest detective tales-The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye-have resulted in classic movies. On the other hand, Chandler's The Lady in the Lake (1946) is a diminished Phillip Marlowe mystery-a less involving murder plot, far less interesting subsidiary characters, and mostly an absence of the author's famous subterranean-LA ambience- and the same-titled 1946 film that resulted is also a bit of a comedown.
Actually, The Lady in the Lake adaptation is a much-discussed formal failure, for director-star Robert Montgomery had the erroneous idea to tell the story, in a revolutionary way for Hollywood, strictly through point-of-view shots. The camera serves as Marlowe's eyes, and, with the exception of a few cheats in which we catch Marlowe's visage in mirrors, the detective spends the whole movie out of sight, though addressed by the other characters who talk toward the camera. A cute innovative methodology for a few minutes, and then strained, quite a bore. Robert Montgomery might look like a Chandlerish Marlowe, but his voice is too snappy and almost comedic. The film plays like mixed media, for the other actors talk the appropriate way of a movie, and Montgomery responds off-screen with the cadences of a radio-serial performer.
Still, The Lady in the Lake movie has its articulate, passionate fans. Among them are Boston mystery writer Robert B. Parker and his screenwriter wife, Joan H. Parker, who presented, and defended, the film at Brookline's Coolidge Corner's Cinema. Robert B. Parker is a partisan of Raymond Chandler, having completed Chandler's novel, Poodle Springs, for publication.
(Boston Phoenix, April 2004)
Life, Death, and Baseball Sherman's March, Brookline filmmaker Ross McElwee's 1986 cross-America search for love, ended with him involved with a charming Harvard divinity student. Did they marry? McElwee's 1993 documentary sequel, Time Indefinite, showed that he'd done even better, tying the old knot with a graceful brunette with a silent screen actress filmic aura. Marilyn Levine.
Levine has made her own film, Life, Death, & Baseball, playing February 7 and 9 at the Harvard Film Archive. Happily, it's a touching, skillful, subtly emotional memoir, in which Levine examines her worrywart personality against the winning disposition of her sister, Adrienne. But rosiness wasn't enough for Adrienne, nor love for major league baseball. She died at age 16 of cancer.
Decades later, the death still is felt in the Levine family. Levine examines the hurt in poignant interviews with her very nice parents. But the film's deepest moments come when Levine travels with her camera to talk with ex-Yankee hurler, Rollie Sheldon. Adrienne had been president of his fan club.
For Sheldon, the glory days are gone. Standing tall among used cars in a Kansas City lot, the big leaguer's still straight, dignified, imposing, but sad too, as American iconic as melancholy Henry Fonda.
(Boston Phoenix,January 1997)
Lisbon Story "Haven't been on the road for awhile. Good," says Phillip Winter (Rudiger Vogler), the sound-man protagonist of Lisbon Story. Neither has filmmaker, Wim Wenders, many of whose best pictures--Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, Paris,Texas --were old-fashioned, get-in-your-vehicle-and-drive movies. For the first minutes, as Winter tools from Berlin to Lisbon via Paris, Lisbon Story promises to be an exalted return to Wenders at his pre-Wings of Desire purest.
With Liza Rinzler's cinematography in the style of Wenders's 70's favorite, Robby Mueller, Lisbon Story starts as a thrilling montage of slices of highways, changes of skies, shifts in weather, complemented by sound-bytes off the car radio of country-to-country music. Paris is best: a one-second glimpse of the Eiffel Tower way at the end of a bicycle-lane-sized city street.
Then Winter drives into Portugal, his auto gets a flat tire, and Lisbon Story flattens out too, like a cold, unwanted pancake. Winter has come to Portugal to reunite with filmmaker, Friedrich Monroe, who has mysteriously run off. For a listless hour of Lisbon Story, Winter waits, taking wild sound in the city with his tape recorder, interracting with the neighborhood children. Never has actor Vogler been so annoyingly passive. The kids, talking incomprehensible pigeon English, are singularly uncharming.
More time is squandered with musical numbers by Madredus, a just-OK Portugese pop group. Then there's the ageless Manoel De Oliveira, Portugal's greatest filmmaker, who does a guest turn with a pompous philosophical monologue. Finally, Monroe (Patrick Bauchau) turns up, and it seems he's having an artistic crisis, unable to make films any more. But Winter is there for an angel's pep talk: "Move your ass, finish your movie, with a little help from your friends."
The two characters are clearly Wenders in dialogue with himself, confessing his own filmmaking crisis in the '90s. But the sentimental "up" ending won't do. Lisbon Story shows, glaringly, that Wenders remains blocked.
(Boston Phoenix, October 1997)
Mark of the Vampire The ever-hammy Lionel Barrymore, brother of John and Ethel, is the name above the title of Mark of the Vampire. The MGM star goes slumming in this budget genre flick, arriving in the middle of the Czech(?)-set movie as a local professor who affirms the anti-rationalist arguments of half the characters that unexplained neck wounds, and bats flying ominously against windows, and Bela Lugosi in his Count Dracula outfit lurking about, probably add up to... VAMPIRES!!! For this 1935 movie, mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer disguised itself as Universal Pictures, home of "B" horror movies, with its gypsies-and-graveyards cobwebbed ambience, but the film gets tiresome and talky, even at its mini-feature, 61-minute length; and Todd Browning (Freaks, Dracula) proves, as always, a cinematically sluggish director, no matter how alluring his subject matter. There is a fascinating lesbian subtext, however, with Lugosi's pale Goth, somanambulist daughter, Luna (Carol Borland) mesmerized by the film's Garbo-acting feline heroine (Elizabeth Allan).
(Boston Phoenix, October 2003)
Medea (1988) My favorite Lars Von Trier films were pre-Breaking the Waves (1996), before he became so swell-headed about his artistic genius. Case in point: his dazzling Medea (1988). Trier's mini-masterpiece is Euripides' Greek tragedy retold via a secular screenplay from Denmark's greatest filmmaker, Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet), though never brought by Dreyer to the screen. Trier, a fellow Dane, begins his film with a dedication to Dreyer, calling his film "an homage to the master." Trier's Medea takes place in some timeless Vikingland, and his heroine (Kirsten Oleson) is less a conjuring sorceress as in Euripides than a gypsy-like peasant who has been wounded by the cheating and adultery of her husband, Jason (Udo Kier). The incredible black-and-white photography reminds of both early Bergman (The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring) and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's Japanese retelling of Macbeth. In fact, there are several scenes in this superbly visual movie for which Trier literally quotes moments from Kurosawa, of characters caught in a fog, then lost-physically, spiritually- in the primeval forest.
Mongolian Ping Pong (2006) - Decades and decades ago, I was teen table-tennis champ of Columbia, South Carolina (let's brag: singles and doubles). So I looked forward keenly to that great sport finally being represented on the silver screen: Ning Hao's Mongolian Ping Pong. Can't you see it, a kind of Asian Rocky, about a loser in life who becomes, cushioned paddle in hand, a winner, with the eye of a tiger and a backhand smash to die for? Well, what you get is a totally different movie, pleasant but hardly enthralling. It's a Nanook of the North-like ethnographic story of a Mongolian family, non-actors playing versions of themselves, residing among sheep on a rural plain at the end of the earth. They're under Chinese dominion but so out of it that they've barely heard of Beijing.
One day, the sameness of Mongolian life is broken when a ping pong ball comes floating down a tiny tributary, a happening as inexplicable as a landed flying saucer. The young boy of the family, Bilike, plucks it out of the water. What is it? His grandma deems it a magical pearl, and the neighborhood rubes covet it. A policeman identifies it as a 'ping pong ball," but what is that? In a funny scene, the family tries to watch a TV by hoisting a makeshift antenna , tin cans and scrap metal, high in the air to catch a signal. They hear on TV, but can't see, a discussion of how ping pong is the national game. That gets the kids thinking they need to return that talisman ping pong ball to Beijing. They set off, by horse and motorbike, across the Gobi desert in search of China's capital.
That's not a credible plotline, but there's just so much the Chinese filmmakers can do when the centerpiece of their movie is a cryptic plastic ping pong ball. What's the audience to do? Savor the Mongolian vistas, and enjoy the humor when, periodically, an itinerant salesman arrives with his odd wares, such as "an American kind of tea called coffee."
(Boston Phoenix - June, 2006)
Mothra (2004) - A close friend of Akira Kurosawa and also Kurosawa’s assistant director, Ishiro Honda moonlighted by directing silly but highly enjoyable sci-fi genre pictures such as Godzilla (1954), often borrowing Kurosawa’s prestigious actors for his campy, disreputable projects. Takashi Shimura, star of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and The Seven Samurai (1954) plays a hardboiled, Perry White-like editor in Mothra (1961) pushing his reporters for the big scoop. It seems that a Japanese vessel has landed its men on an uncharted South Seas island hit by post-atomic bomb radioactivity. In addition to native people, this island sports a set of cute Thumbelina-sized female twins and a giant egg containing .... what? When the mini-twins are kidnapped and made a novelty show-biz act back in Tokyo (think Carl Denham returning to New York with King Kong), the egg explodes, and a gargantuan larva comes swimming toward Japan’s capitol to bring the girls home. MOTHRA!! The larva evolves into a flying moth, and poor Tokyo crumbles under the onslaught. Though a bit of a Godzilla retread, Mothra is insectious fun.
My Dad is 100 Years Old (2006) Among very advanced cineastes, including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Martin Scorsese, the cinema doesn't get more profound than the movies of Roberto Rossellini. For just about everyone else, Rossellini's films are forgotten, as his daughter, Isabella Rossellini, sadly acknowledges in My Dad is 100 Years Old, a 16-minute centenary birthday present she wrote and starred in. A dreamy film homage to her father.
Isabella enlisted her friend, the ultra-imaginative Canadian filmmaker, Guy Maddin, to direct, so what emerges is a happily eccentric hagiography. Roberto Rossellini floats through the movie as a mountainous stomach. That's Isabella's sensate memory of him, a huge-tummy blob of intellectual energy lying through the workday in bed, from where he ate, edited his films, met with visitors, and greeted his children. Instead of a mother's breasts, Isabella's maternal remembrance is embracing her dad's warm and welcoming pot. What else in the short? Isabella leaps about, disguising herself in male drag as a bevy of movie personages, who offer droll commentary on Rossellini's doggedly artsy, anti-commercial career. She does Federico Fellini, who was her father' pal, but the other three impersonations, while fun, seem pretty arbitrary: Chaplin, Hitchcock, and Gone With the Wind producer, David O. Selznick. Finally, she chips in as her mom, all dolled up 1950s style. Her Ingrid Bergman is pretty decent, especially when you realize the stretch, that mom was Swedish, she's half-Italian.
(Boston Phoenix - June, 2006)
My Mother Likes Women (2004) Imagine old Lear gathering his flock: "Goneril, Regan ...I’m gay!" Something that preposterous starts My Mother Likes Women, Ines Paris’s and Daniela Fejerman’s banal, conventional Spanish comedy at the MFA. Three adult daughters gather for the birthday of their concert-pianist mama, Sofia (Rosa Maria Sarda), and she spring on them her new love, a young Czech woman named Eliska (Eliska Sirova), with whom she plays Schubert duets. The daughters are shocked, suddenly homophobic, because it’s their dear mother who’s a lesbian. The most upset daughter is the movie’s ditsy heroine, Elivira (Leonor Watling), who is an Annie Hall-like bundle of confusions and neuroses, about work and her own sexuality.
This mixed-up Cordelia can count on her divorced daddy, who reads to her the poems of Sappho and gives vapid advice: "Be brave enough to be yourself." The gals try to sever the relationship of mother and lover, but then there’s obnoxious happy endings for all, on the heels of a gratuitous trip to Prague, which smells of a Spanish-Czech co-production deal.
The Navigators (2001) Ken Loach, England's revered filmmaker of social conscience since the late 1960s, made The Navigators for British TV. It's inconceivable that American television would consider such a class-conscious, Marxist-ambient, fictional drama: about the dire repercussions for laborers employed by English Rail, those laying down the train tracks, as their government-run company becomes privatized. Are we far from Bush country as we witness the strong-armed management team from the private sector rip up long-in-place union contracts, bully workers with seniority into early retirement ("redundancy"), without the slightest worry that they will be prosecuted?
The Navigators loses its urgency whenever it wanders to subplots, one about a worker's divorce, another in which pranks are played on a dim-witted janitor. It's savage best when it stays at the workplace, including the chilling scene of social darwinism in which the new machiavellian boss forces the old paternal manager to do his union-busting bidding, or become redundant himself.
(Boston Phoenix - February, 2003)
Never Met Picasso Never Met Picasso is a sweet and generous first-time feature by local writer-director Stephen Kijak, and throughly professional. But it suffers fatally from the thinness of its narrative. Of course, nothing much is supposed to happen in this story of a lethargic gay slacker, Andy (Alexis Arquette), who lives with Mom (Margot Kidder) and whose oil paintings are blocked. He obsesses of rescue through winning a mail contest which will allow him to paint away in Kenya. Unfortunately, his floundering is neither funny nor saddening. We hardly care that Andy can't do his art, or whether his love relations fail or succeed.
For a time, Andy has an affair with a bearded, pompous historian returned from Poland (Toronto actor, Don McKellar) but, in Kijak's treatment, it's hard to tell if their coupling potentially means anything. It simply passes some time in the movie. Ditto, a relationship between Andy's lesbian pal, Lucy (Georgia Ragsdale), and her spacy, channeling girlfriend, Ingrid (Onewenne). Likewise, Lucy's eventual cruising of Andy's actress mother.
There are some humorous moments surrounding mom's off-Boston stage production of The Naked Tenor. Kijak's film succeeds best in establishing the close rapport between Andy and his equally dreamy gay uncle Alfred (the ART's Alvin Epstein), also a painter. Alfred's the one who invents for himself a life in Paris in the '20s, though, as the title insists, he "never met Picasso." Just as his nephew, stumbling about Boston, never met Basquait.
(Boston Phoenix-November 1997)
Occupation: Dreamland Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, co-directors, get it right with Occupation: Dreamland, starting September 30 at the Coolidge, for which, in 1994, they spent an intense several months living with, and shooting footage of, the US Army's 82 nd Airborne Division, holed up in Falluja, charged with bringing freedom and a lasting peace to post-Invasion Iraq. This documentary is what anyone with sense would think it to be, which means nobody in the Bush Administration will ever watch it. With almost no exceptions, the soldiers interviewed don't understand why they're there, why the war is worth fighting, and they acknowledge that the Iraqis are right to be disturbed that an American army is in their midst, as US citizens would be horrified if an alien military invaded their home towns. What to do? The GIs of Occupation: Dreamland shrug, and keep on fighting.
The Other Network Is that all there is, the tepid stuff we get programmed on the tube? Or is it the inspired, original TV shows that don't make the cut? Two LA producers, Beth Lapides and Greg Miller, went searching for gold on the reject shelf and came up with an evening's worth of strung-together unaired television pilots, which they premiered at a West Hollywood nightclub under the title "The Other Network." The format is simple but effective: a writer or director behind each rebuffed show informally introduces it, railing bitterly but humorously about the lame, shortsighted network that said "No." Then we get an episode. What might have been...
Next!, snubbed by Fox Television, is a Saturday Night Live clone, but with the sketches cut together through rapid montages. The pilot shown includes a hilarious parody of Strom Thurmond on life support lecturing against hip hop and an on-target, and an in-person meeting of a chatroom of geeks: "Dude, no way is Schindler's List better than Superman II!" Lookwell, co-written by Conan O'Brien, features one-time Batman star, Adam West, as a nincompoop has-been-actor-turned-amateur-detective, in the Leslie Neilsen vein.
These two programs are OK, but we've seen them before. It hurts more to realize that ABC couldn't find a place in its schedule for Judd Apatow's North Hollywood, a very smart, polished comedy show about three young actors trying to make a Hollywood career. And surely there would be a cult of sophisticated, obsessed viewers for the supremely strange Heat Vision and Jack, written and directed by Ben Stiller, about a crazy-ass ex-astronaut (the sublime Jack Black) who races about on his talking motorcycle (the voice of Owen Wilson) and has the most zany misadventures. The last might have been the most unusual TV show since Twin Peaks..
(Boston Phoenix, May, 2003)
Power Trip - This terrific documentary, directed and edited by Paul Devlin, offers a Kiplingesque colonialist adventure begun when the AES Corporation, a Virginia-based electricity distribution company, arrives in the post-Soviet country of Georgia, high in the Caucauses, in the year 2000. AES, situated in the capitol city of Tbilisi, has grandiose plans to solve the electricity crisis in this impoverished country. First problem: to get Georgians to pay their electricity bills, something which was provided free under Communism. Second problem: to gain the needed cooperation of the corrupt and murderous government of President Eduard Shevardnadze, a sleazy ex-Communist who had prospered since Brezhnev. Nothing works as planned, as the Georgian people, as shrewdly enterprising as they are improverished, find infinite ways to get their electricity free. As for Shevardnadze, he's a hopeless despot, who, thankfully, was overthrown after this film was completed. But AES gets points for trying, and the AES representatives we follow through this film are a colorful, ironic lot, far more interesting than the usual stiff-necked capitalists.
(Boston Phoenix, May 2004)
• P.S. - Based on Helen Schulman’s slight post-feminist comic novel, P.S. tells the story of Louise Harrington (Laura Linney) an addled, sexually frustrated Columbia University arts administrator. She spends too many hours hanging out with her professor ex-husband, Peter (Gabriel Byrne), too much mental energy obssessing about, decades earlier, her one meaningful love: a high-school boy, who died in an accident. Lo! A college lad (Topher Grace) applying to her Columbia program has the very same name, F. Scott Feinstadt, as the deceased high-schooler, and a similar voice on the phone. Could this be a ghostly reincarnation, calling her from the grave? Soon Louise is chasing young F.Scott and landing him in bed. It’s a pretty silly scenario, further stretched by some unfunny catty scenes when Louise’s supposed best friend (Marcia Gay Harden, uncharacteristically strident) arrives from the West Coast to compete for F.Scott. The best of P.S. is Linney’s determined performance, and there’s one fabulous erotic scene in which Linney seduces the passive F.Scott. All in all, the film is a disappointing comedown for director-co-writer Dylan Kidd, who made the edgy indie Rodger Dodger.
(Boston Phoenix, November 2004)
• The Rider Named Death - During Communism, no Soviet film would ever mention the historical existence of the outlawed Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs), who were the radical alternative to the Bolsheviks prior to 1917. Karen Shakhnarazov's The Rider Named Death, a 2004 Russian picture, finally ends the censorship, but in a hardly satisfactory way. The setting in 1906, and an underground SR cadre moves from Russian city to city, shadowing a duke whom they plan to murder. We learn little really about their politics, except that they are a stiff, disgruntled lot. Among them: Vanya(Artyom Semakin), who retains his Christian convictions, and George (Andrei Panin), who, between failed assassinations, skips between a draggy mistress and a sexy one. Whose side is this movie on? Shakhnarazov directs impersonally, and without a point of view, and the story meanders. Perhaps the SR group are stand-ins for Chechnyan terrorists? We'll never know for sure, watching this clunky, ideologically opaque film.
The United States of Leland probably wouldn't exist as a film if Kevin Spacey hadn't embraced the script, agreed to produce and act, and endorsed utilizing the screenwriter, Matthew Ryan Hoge, as a first-time director. After all, the story of a well-meaning teacher in a juvenile detention prison who can't fathom the random violence of his students mirrors Hoge's work experiences, when he left the safety-net of UCLA film school. The movie brings together Don Cheadle as Pearl Madison, the teacher, and Ryan Gosling as Leland Fitzgerald, a sensitive middle-class kid who's landed in prison after, seemingly without reason, he knifed to death the autistic brother of his former girlfriend. There are some sterling performances: Cheadle,as always, and Donnie Darko's fabulous girfriend, Jena Malone, as Leland's junkie ex. But Hoge might have spent his time better toning down his self-conscious, overwritten script, and perhaps allowed a more seasoned filmmaker to direct. Spacey? He's pretty much wallpaper in a supporting role as Leland's asshole-novelist dad.
(Boston Phoenix, April 2004)
La Petite Apocalypse A quarter century ago, France's Costa-Gavras was among the most important political filmmakers in the world, with Z (1969), his pulsating, heartbreaking recreation of the military takeover in Greece, and State of Seige (1973), his cogent insider's look at ultra-leftist brigands in Latin America. Since, Costa-Gavras has lost his way. The Music Box (1989), in which Jessica Lange's Chicago lawyer discovers that her beloved Hungarian father was a Nazi operative, is his only film in decades to engage an international audience.
The gloomy comedy of Le Petite Apocalypse (1992) reflects Costa-Gavras's twin pessimisms about the world moving rightward and about his aesthetic being passed by. The director-screenwriter is autobiographically evident in two hapless characters: Jacques (Andre Dussolier), a French revolutionary in 1968 who is now, by default, a spineless TV producer; and Stan (Czech filmmaker, Jiri Menzel), a Polish ex-Marxist literary personage who, monosyllabic and vaguely despondent, resides in a cubby-hole in the Paris apartment of his ex-wife and her French husband.
Kieslowski might have made something ironically interesting from this setup. Costa-Gavras concocts a vapid, unpersuasive farce about how Stan's pals, including Jacques, coax him to immolate himself in front of the Pope. That way, his literary work will become posthumously famous. Eventually, everyone travels to Rome, where a sitcom-level surprise ending at the Vatican is the final failure of a wearying, self-pitying movie.
(Boston Phoenix, April 1997)
Le Corbeau/The Raven (1943) Gallic filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique) studied M and other exemplars of German Expressionism to make this cold, troubling, paranoiac work about a poison-pen letter campaign causing havoc in a small French town. Most of the letters are aimed at a gloomy, mysterious, doctor (Pierre Fresnay), accused of adultery, medical misconduct, and being an abortionist. Other citizenry are brought down by these pernicious epistles, until the town feels like plagued Thebes.
Le Corbeau operates as a satisfying intellectual thriller, in which the spotlight switches person to person as to who is the letter-writer. But what is Clouzot really saying? Is this movie a sly attack on France under the Vichy Government, though made with Vichy money during the German occupation? Or, as was alleged by the French Communists after the War, is Le Corbeau an unpatriotic diatribe against the French people, made by a Nazi sympathizer?
In my opinion, both views are awry: this is a work of metaphysical pessimism, misanthropic and Catholic at the same time, anticipating the despairing religious cinema of Robert Bresson.
(Boston Phoenix - January, 2003)
Seeing The Landscape Welcome to Boston, Alberta Chu, a documentary filmmaker who relocated from LA in 2003. Her newly completed Seeing the Landscape: Richard Serra's Tuhirangi Contour, is one cool making-of-an-artpiece movie. This is a fascinating look at a major American artist, Richard Serra, famous for his site-specific environmental works placed all about the world, tackling a knotty challenge. He's to make something great and wonderful, of beauty and monumental scale, which will meld with the rolling hills and verdant land of The Farm, a privately-owned sculpture park deep in agrarian New Zealand.
The owner of The Farm, Serra's super-wealthy patron, is at the center of the tale: Alan Gibbs, a New Zealand zillionaire business mogul who, interviewed on camera, has the macho charisma to run a sports empire, and the thick neck (literally) of a George Steinbrenner or Donald Trump. Maybe he does own rugby teams-who knows?-but Gibbs's obsession here is with modernist art for his Farm. Who can help but wonder (the exchange of money is off-limits for this documentary) what Serra, an American guy, was paid to travel to New Zealand multiple times over five years to be there for the design and construction of his artwork. Manny Ramirez bucks?
After pacing the land countless times, Serra decided on something grand which would be consistent with the curvy lines of the landscape: a huge, winding wall across the terrain, 875 feet long, 20 feet high. To me, it's reminiscent of Christo's Running Fence, a temporary curtain which, in the 1970s, was stretched miles across rural California. But Serra's wall (the "Tuhirangi Contour") would be permanent. It must be made, said Serra, of steel.
"Richard and I have a nice combatative relationship. We both have big egos," Gibbs tells the camera. Off-camera, employee and employer battled furiously about the material for the wall, Gibbs wants something cheaper, lighter, more manageable. Serra stubbornly prevailed, and, after a global search, a shop was located in Germany where mammoth steel plates could be constructed, and sent by New Zealand by ship. Trip one: the ship's captain stacked the plates twenty high, and they tumbled over and broke. A whole year was lost rebuilding them.
At last, 650 tons of steel were dumped in Kaipara, New Zealand, to be lifted high, thrust 30 feet into the ground into a concrete foundation, and joined to form a wall. Fimmaker Chu used time-lapse photography to bring us the months and months of building in a few sublime seconds.
Voila! It's up! The wall rusts into a beautiful auburn, and sheep graze happily below it. "I think it's magic," says Gibbs, a satisfied customer.
(Boston Phoenix - January, 2004)
• Sophie Scholl Germans dealing with the Nazi period have to excavate for local heroes who opposed Hitler's regime in a forthright, courageous way. That's why three features have been made about Munich's White Rose group, an underground band of students who, in 1942-1943, distributed anti-Nazi, pacifist pamphlets, before being arrested by the Gestapo and executed. In 1982, the great German actress, Lena Stoltze, played the most famous of the White Rose, Sophie Scholl, in complementary films, The Last Five Days and The White Rose (1982). Both are superior to Sophie Scholl: the Final Days, the speech-saturated German Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. Marc Rothemund's film is forceful and exciting melodrama for its first half hour, when Sophie (an effective Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans are arrested by the Gestapo, and we feel Sophie's isolation and loneliness. The movie loses its momentum as Sophie finds time in prison for long-winded ideological debates with Mohr (Alexander Held), her increasingly flustered Nazi inquisitor. Sophie also manages time in her cell for God and the Savior, an uncomfortably evangelic spin to this legendary anti-fascist story.
(Boston Phoenix, March 2006)
• Supersize Me In this entertaining agitprop documentary, New York filmmaker Morgan Spurlock appoints himself president of our fast-food nation for a month, spending thirty on-camera days binging at MacDonald's, gorging on three greasy, revolting, calory-and-cholestoral-packed meals each 24 hours. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners spill into each other, as Spurlock becomes an ingesting machine of Big Macs and beyond: elephantine shakes, massive Cokes, Egg Macmuffins galore, and enough oily fries to start a mud slide. He's pledged to sample everything on a MacDonald's menu at least once, including the turd-like fish sandwiches and the-what the heck is in them?- Chicken MacNuggets. As he screams out, "Supersize me!"
Spurlock's experiment is to determine if fast food is as lethal for your system as naysayers insist, such as his vegan-chef girlfriend. The answer from his Macmonth? Far far worse, as Spurlock's health goes spiraling out of control, with much-raised blood pressure, horrific cholestoral levels, and frightening liver damage. Where once he was a hot lover, his girfriend reports that he's now sluggish and tired. His weight? The studley, in-shape Spurlock transforms into the pudgy beginnings of Michael Moore.
The whole film is, in fact, Moore lite/light, and Spurlock is as much a camera hog and ham as the Bowling for Columbine maestro. Some will be put off by Spurlock's egotism, and his infantile puke-and-rectal humor. But young people may flock to the film. And if even one vulnerable person decides to avoid the ominous yellow arches...
(Boston Phoenix, May 2004)
• Tupperware! The story of the 1950s Tupperware empire it told with wit and authority in a Boston-made documentary from filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt. Earl S. Tupper, a Massachusetts inventor, came up with the plastic, polyethelene product, "bowls that burped," but it was a female bundle of perkiness, peppiness, and sorority-gal energy, Brownie Wise, who convinced Tupper to pull his product from stores and sell it only through in-your-home parties. While the clumsy, anti-social Tupper stayed in his New England ofice, the dashing, extroverted Wise took charge of the day-to-day business at a newly built Disneyland-like Florida headquarters. It was she-Mamie Eisenhower meets Betty Furness- who built a national corps of eager salespeople, mostly lower-middle class women with high-school educations who used their Tupperware money as second incomes for their breadwinner husbands.
Most of Tupperware! is a valentine to the amazingly successful company, and especially to Wise, the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week. Only in the last act is there a capitalist breakdown, when it becomes clear that there was a glass ceiling in Tupperware management for every other woman except Wise. And then there's the inevitable fight between Wise and her jealous, out-of-it boss, with the loser purged from the company and from the company's memory, becoming a 1950s forgotten icon, like S& H Green Stamps and Studebakers.
(Boston Phoenix - April, 2003)
• Witnesses Vinko Bresan's Witnesses (1993) begins with a never-ending tracking shot incorporating all sorts of passing characters and concluding in murder, a cool homage to the similarly elongated "noir" opening shot of Orson Welles's A Touch of Evil. After that, this Croatian feature turns flat and turgid, even as the filmmaker tries to liven things by telling and retelling his didactic story from different points of view, the cubist-Rashomon shtick. It's 1992 in a small Croatian town, and the murdered guy is a Serb killed by a trio of anarchic Croat soldiers, revenging death on the battlefield of the father of one of the three. Should the local police arrest the assassins, or, because this is war, allow them to return to the battlefield? All in this leaden film walks around in pain, agonizing about the moral issues. But credit Bresan with going beyond blame-the-Serbs, raising questions of Croatian responsibility in the Yugoslavian civil war. Witnesses has won peace prizes and ecumenical jury awards at international film festivals.
Zero Hour! Who is ready for Columbine again exploding in your face?
Ben Coccio's Zero Hour is a potent, unsentimentalized, and definitely unsettling fictional imagining of what lead up to, and what happened, on that kamikaze day of random murder.
The audience is a captive witness to a year of homicidal planning, cooped up with Calvin (Calvin Robertson) and Andre (Andre Keuck), creepy high school lads with a fetishized love for weaponry, a warped romantic belief that they are high school samurais, and an essential American obsession with having their death-trip saga live on for the media. They tape everything, to be turned over, ideally, to Wolf Blitzer at CNN. Zero Hour is shot quite brilliantly, low-res-and-improv Blair Witch-style, and the two unknown leads are charismatic in a sick, nasty kind of way. Zero Hour, a low-rent Taxi Driver Meets Compulsion, deserves a niche audience.
(Boston Phoenix, September 2002)
Zero Kelvin Impressive as Bess's husband in Breaking the Waves, Stellan Skarsgard triumphs again as a demented, ruffian seaman, Ranbaeck, in the potent Norwegian psychological thriller, Zero Kelvin. Randbaeck and his partner, Holm (Bjorn Sundquist), return to dock after a year in Greenland of trapping and scientific experiments. Randbaeck is revolted that, for their next twelve-month voyage, they are expected to take with them an Oslo landlubber, Larsen (Gard Eidsvold), who writes poems and also sentimental letters to his girlfriend.
Norwegian film director-screenwriter Hans Petter Moland is an admirer of Glengarry Glen Ross, and much of Zero Kelvin is a Mamet-like male war of blasphemes. Nobody is as fiercely profane as Randbaeck: "Tell that horse dick one day I'll shit down his throat." Randbaeck especially hounds Larsen, saying "His hands are like a little girls. We can let him cook and watch house." It doesn't take much Freud to see a closeted gay subtext here, old navy stuff in Norway, like Melville's Captain Vere hovering sadistically about fair Billy Budd.
(Boston Phoenix, November 1997)