For the Love of Spock


The Nimoys are all ears.

The Nimoys are all ears.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas) Leonard Nimoy, Adam Nimoy, Mel Nimoy, Sybil Nimoy, Julie Nimoy, William Shatner, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, J.J. Abrams, Jason Alexander, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicholas Meyer, D.C. Fontana, Amy Mainzer. Directed by Adam Nimoy

 

The character of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series was and is a cultural icon. Played by Leonard Nimoy, then a character actor who had never worked more than two weeks on the same project in his career, he was created at a time of great social upheaval and in many ways stood for rationality, logic and self-control in a time when just about everyone was about as emotional as one could get. He also stood for cultural tolerance, as he was best friends with a human which was a metaphor for the racial turmoil going on in the United States at the time (and sadly continues to this day).

Nimoy’s son Adam, a successful television director, wanted to do a documentary on the cultural phenomenon that is Spock and got his father’s blessing to do it. After a Kickstarter campaign netted the necessary funds, Adam conducted an interview with his father and started to talk to other members of the original series cast when his father suddenly passed away at age 83.

The focus of the film changed from Spock to Leonard Nimoy. It became a love letter from a son to his father. The two had a very rocky relationship at times, particularly when Adam’s drug use became an issue, which fueled displeasure from his father, an alcoholic. They went years without speaking, but eventually reconciled.

He tells his father’s story, glossing over his childhood and young adulthood and bringing him to his days in Trek. Much of  the movie focuses on his time as Spock and in between; on the rigors of fame and having to share his father with an adoring fan base. Early on, he and his sister Julie answered fan mail for their father. It was Adam who in the famous prank showed up on the set without his dad’s knowledge wearing Vulcan make-up (the footage is shown here).

Nimoy famously has had a loving relationship with the Trek community of both fans and the cast and crews of the various TV and film iterations; he also had a sometimes contentious relationship with Paramount, the studio that produced the series; his lawsuit to gain the cast royalties from merchandising was settled largely because the studio wanted to make motion pictures based on the show and Nimoy refused to sign for the film before the suit was settled. It was also at his insistence that George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were added to the animated series cast; he felt strongly that the diversity of the original show’s cast needed to be brought over to the animated show and even today both of those actors refer to the incident with great affection.

The younger Nimoy includes plenty of home movies as well as backstage footage from the show and films which for me personally was very nostalgic; I lived in Los Angeles at the time the show and the first movies were being filmed and I was reminded of that watching the film, bringing on in me a strong sense of comfort. It was an idyllic time and an idyllic place.

The movie does run a bit long in my opinion but love letters always tend to. Fans of the TV show and of Star Trek in general won’t mind; I think they’ll kind of prefer it that way. The interviews with the new cast add a bit of dimension in that all of them grew up with Star Trek even if they weren’t fans and those that were (such as Simon Pegg) were a bit awestruck working with Nimoy in his signature role. Fans like Jason Alexander and Jim Parsons talk about what the character meant to them but at the end of the day, it is his brother Mel who breaks down when talking about the terrible day when Leonard Nimoy passed away that gives us the greatest sense of what the man behind the Vulcan meant to us all.

The film closes with a tribute to Nimoy at the Burning Man festival shortly after he passed away and I swear that the flames on the tribute as, like the other temporary art installations at the festival, burned to the ground brought to mind the Federation emblem in the shape of the flames seemed to be the most cosmic of all the tributes. Spock lives but without Nimoy to give the character its essence (with all due respect to Zachary Quinto who plays Spock in the movie reboot franchise) it is mostly the idea of Spock that we have now – and that gives all of us comfort. Truly, this is a wonderful way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original show.

REASONS TO GO: Very much a love letter from a son to his father. It’s an interesting perspective on fame by the children of the famous. The backstage footage is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The movie was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Milton’s Secret

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Louder Than Bombs


Father and son.

Father and son.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Amy Ryan, Ruby Jerins, Megan Ketch, David Strathairn, Rachel Brosnahan, Russell Posner, Maryann Urbano, Donna Mitchell, Harry Ford, Leslie Lyles, Luke Robertson, Peter Mark Kendall, Paul C. Kelly, Sean Cullen, Charlie Rose, Marielle Holland, Bridget McGarry. Directed by Joachim Trier

Florida Film Festival 2016

We sometimes underestimate the effects we have on our children as parents. Our presence can be destructive if we do or say the wrong thing – but not nearly so destructive as not being there at all.

Isabelle Reed (Huppert) was one of the most decorated war photographers on the planet. However her job took her away from her husband Gene (Byrne) – an actor – and her two sons Jonah (Eisenberg) and Conrad (Druid). Gene left his career in order to raise the kids while mom was away, which was often. However, she finally announced her intention to give up the life of a war correspondent and spend more time at home with her family. Shortly after that, she died in a tragic car wreck.

Now four years later a prestigious New York art gallery/museum is doing a retrospective on her work and Gene enlists the help of Jonah – who is now married and expecting his own first child in the near future – to help sort through her last photographs, which Gene has never been able to look at. He also needs help with Conrad, who has become combative with his father, blaming him for his mother’s death or at least using him as a target for his blame. Conrad spends a lot of time playing Skyrim and wandering the streets aimlessly and alone; his father has taken to following his son discretely. Or maybe not as discretely as he thinks.

As we find out through flashback footage, Isabelle had secrets of her own and as Gene finds out that one of them is about to be revealed in the pages of the New York Times which will devastate Conrad even further, Gene doesn’t know how to soften the blow, which is the worst thing he could possibly do is continue to keep secrets from his son. As all this comes to a head, the dysfunction of all three of the members of this family will start spinning wheels that will change their lives forever.

This is the first English language feature (and third overall) by up-and-coming Norwegian director Trier. Like many of his films, the undertones here are grim for the most part, dealing with abandonment issues, the pain of betrayal and the dysfunction of a family that has had one member torn from it.

Gabriel Byrne is one of the most reliable actors out there. He’s never flashy, but he always brings dignity and gravitas to his roles. Here he plays a very nice man who has lost his rock and his having trouble finding his own spine because of it. He avoids and avoids and avoids but at the end of the day, that does nothing good. He loves his sons with a passion and misses his wife with an ache that never goes away. The portrait of Gene is heartbreaking to say the least.

No less so is Huppert’s portrayal of Isabelle, a driven woman who finds fulfillment through her muse and less through her family, which makes for a certain amount of resentment and guilt. The dead are no angels in life; Isabelle does some things that will make a few people recoil. And that’s what happens from time to time in life; people who seem decent and good do things that are not. And sometimes it is others that pay the price, but more often, the price the transgressor pays is much higher than one could imagine.

Druid plays the angry teen a little too well – there are times you want to scream at him “You selfish PIG! Do you not understand that you aren’t the only one who’s grieving? That you’re not the only one who’s hurting?” But the truth of the matter is that kids that age often can’t see beyond their own pain. They haven’t the tools to. Time gives us that, and time can be a cruel teacher. Be that as it may, Conrad is so thoroughly unlikable that I had trouble watching him. I probably hated the character more than he deserved. Maybe not, though.

There are some real moments of poetry here but this is mostly an examination of pain, and that can be…um, painful. It’s not always an easy thing to watch people dealing with the absence of a loved one and trying to find the answers to questions that may not be answerable. We can only know those around us so well, but sometimes it turns out that we don’t even know them at all. Louder Than Bombs (not to be confused with the Smiths album) turns out to be a very fine film that is often hard to watch but is worth the effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances by Byrne and Huppert. Heartrending subject.
REASONS TO STAY: The teenage character is accurately portrayed – and thoroughly unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, violent images and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Conrad and Jonah watch together with their dad is Hello Again which actually starred Byrne and Shelly Long.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Midnight Special

Desire for Beauty


The things we go through to look good.

The things we go through to look good.

(2013) Documentary (Green Box) Agata Kulesza, Maria Czubaszek, Lew Starowicz, Mikolaj Lizut, Katazyna Miller, Piotr Najsztub, Julia Pietrucha, Maria Rotkiel, Marzena Sienkiewicz, Agnieszka Szulim. Directed by Miguel Gaudencio

There is no doubt that our society in general is overly obsessed with physical beauty. We place a great deal of stock in it; We choose our mates largely due to it; we buy products because of it. Sex sells, so we all want to be sexy.

This unusual Polish documentary looks at the obsession with beauty as four individuals begin the road to plastic surgery. Kasia, a wife and mother, is going for a breast augmentation. She has always wanted larger breasts and although her husband insists that this isn’t something that he desires, she quite candidly tells interviewer Agata Kulesza (an acclaimed Polish actress, perhaps best known to American audiences for her role as the aunt and judge Wanda in Ida) that she is doing this for herself alone.

Kuba is an aspiring actor who seems handsome enough already; he thinks a little Botox here and there might get him roles that he wasn’t being considered for until now. Monika is having a few nips and tucks done; she wants to remain young and beautiful for as long as she can. However, she is denied the procedures she wants done; the doctors believe she is too young for it.

And finally there’s Kamilla, whose nose has been the cause of much bullying (we see a re-enactment of her school days when a bitchy young girl, after borrowing some smokes in the bathroom, proclaims haughtily “If I were you, I’d get plastic surgery.” Fed up with the teasing and the bullying, she resolves to get rhinoplasty which she sees as the key to finding peace and happiness for herself.

We follow all four of these subjects through the various stages of surgery, with Kulesza conducting periodic interviews while in Kamilla’s case, we see re-enactments of the teasing she has to endure. In fact, this is an odd mixture of documentary and drama; one reviewer characterized it as “reality TV” and she isn’t far off the mark. This isn’t scripted all that much but there are segments which certainly are. How much of it is scripted however is not very easily discernible; some of the situations seem rather contrived and/or convenient if indeed they are real.

The cinematography is exquisite here; some of the images are downright cinematic paintings. Subjects look pensively into the horizon, the light of the setting sun creating an angelic corona around their heads. Mothers play with children, chasing after them in the park. Friends hang out in clubs, dancing to the mechanized beat of modern music. While not all of the footage is germane to what is happening in the storylines, the movie would be less beautiful without it.

The subject of beauty and our attitudes towards it has an inherent problem; the subject itself is shallow. Beauty is, indeed, only skin deep and the societal obsession with it is something that would make a great documentary. At times there is some depth to the conversation here but it is incomplete; the director, who has done a couple of features as well as a passel of award-winning music videos, seems more focused on beautiful images than in depth of thought. Perhaps that is his point in a nutshell.

Nonetheless, I would have liked to see more on why society is so wrapped up in physical beauty and why it is such a driving force. This much is universal; it’s the same in Asia as it is in Europe and the Americas. Why is beauty so important to us? Why aren’t we more focused on, say, intelligence, or character? Alas, these questions aren’t even asked and perhaps this isn’t the right venue for it. The people who are focused on here are fairly simple and even though they are all already beautiful, they are not satisfied with it. That is, perhaps, the point after all.

The movie received a brief theatrical release in Europe but is hitting VOD here and can also be seen on Vimeo. While this is certainly not the last word on the subject, Desire for Beauty serves as an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on how this obsession with looks is impacting society – and ourselves.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Interesting blend of drama and documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: Not always easy to tell where dramatic recreations begin and documentary ends. Unavoidably shallow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity and harsh language as well as some graphic surgery footage not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kulesza accepted her role in the film after meeting with the director despite the fact that there was no script written.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Roar

Somewhere


There is always something to be said for room service.

There is always something to be said for room service.

(2010) Drama (Focus) Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius, Lala Sloatman, Amanda Anka, Ellie Kemper, Laura Chiatti, Damian Delgado, Benicio del Toro, Kristina Shannon, Karissa Shannon, Ruby Corley, Angela Lindvall, Maryna Linchuk. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Fame isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. What do you do when any desire you could think of is yours for the asking? I think it’s very easy to become jaded and numb to everything.

Johnny Marco (Dorff) is in such a state. A longtime star of meaningless action films, he has boozed and pilled his way through life. His love life has become meaningless encounters that don’t always include sex – he likes to hire twin strippers (Shannon and Shannon) to do pole dances in his bedroom of his Chateau Marmont apartment. Chateau Marmont is representative of his life; no fixed address but there are staff members to pamper and cater to his every whim.

Into his life comes Cleo (Fanning), a daughter from a brief and ill-advised marriage. She needs somewhere to stay while her mom is in rehab. Johnny is agreeable enough; she’ll cramp his style somewhat but the role of father is one he hasn’t played yet, and Johnny needs to stretch himself.

So between Johnny and his best friend Sammy (Pontius) they act in a dad/buddy way, taking Cleo along for the ride in an endless parade of publicity events, interviews and award ceremonies. Johnny isn’t the best role model there is for his daughter, but at least he makes something of an effort. He isn’t unkind to her, although he tends to shift her out of his sight when she gets in the way of his priorities.

Coppola has some experience with this, being that she’s been around the industry all her life (her daddy is Francis Ford Coppola who has been bringing her to the set since she was a baby). How difficult is it to be a parent when you’re living in a world far removed from reality? I suspect quite a bit. If everyone around you tells you that you can do no wrong, how can you teach the difference between right and wrong?

I’m not sure that was what Coppola was after though. She has stated that she wasn’t trying to make a linear narrative so much as creating a mood. If that’s the case she’s definitely succeeded – there’s a mood here. I’m just not sure if it’s a mood you might want to get in. There’s an indolent feeling, a lack of energy and inertia that makes the whole movie feel like it’s getting over a bad cold.

It’s a good looking movie though. Cinematographer Harris Savides does a great job of catching the world of stardom through a soft lens. It’s a world of privilege and pampering, of people who have absolutely no idea what real people deal with and one in which Johnny Marco has to come face to face with when his daughter shows up at his door. Yes, it’s exactly like Ginger arriving at Gilligan’s Island.

I think the intentions here were noble but in the final analysis I just didn’t connect with the movie. Dorff, not a household name at least yet, is thoroughly likable in a lot of ways and actually makes the character live but it’s his occasional bouts with self-centeredness – which is really putting it mildly – that make the character ultimately one you don’t want to spend an hour and change with, let alone one you’d want to identify with. The trouble with living the life of the rich and famous is that it is an easy thing to lose one’s soul in doing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Dorff does a terrific job.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lifeless and numb. Makes it hard to get involved in a movie when you don’t get the sense the filmmakers were either.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorff actually lived at the Chateau Marmont during filming in order to get a feel for the lifestyle and the character.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.9M on a $7M production budget; it pretty much broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Janie Jones

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: A.C.O.D.

I’m Still Here


I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix prepares for his next role in the remake of Grizzly Adams.

(2010) Mockumentary (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright, Ben Stiller, Mos Def, Sean Combs, Jamie Foxx, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Natalie Portman. Directed by Casey Affleck

 

We have an image of stars in our heads as self-absorbed divas who throw tantrums if they don’t get things EXACTLY the way they want it (“I told you, no BROWN M&M’s…why is that so hard?”) they throw legendary tantrums. We are fascinated by their behavior.

Which is what the makers of I’m Still Here are banking on. This is a chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who famously retired from acting after the 2008 indie romance Two Lovers to embark upon a rap career. He had a meltdown on the David Letterman show, one in which the host quipped “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight Joaquin” which is shown here.

He also has an assistant named Anton (Langdon) that he humiliates  and abuses mercilessly, so much so that Anton takes a dump into the actor’s face while he’s sleeping. Such is the abuse that you will not think the act unjustified, although be assured that he’s not really doing what he appears to be doing. In fact, Phoenix is abusive to nearly everybody here to the point where it’s amazing that anyone would be willingly employed by him. Which is ironic because in reality, there were sexual harrassment charges brought against the filmmakers which were settled out of court.

There was some debate as to whether this whole thing was an elaborate hoax. At the time people were unsure and many of the reviews of the film from its 2010 release reflect that the critics were unsure and confused.

Let me set the record straight – it’s a hoax. Of course it was. Would Joaquin Phoenix allow a movie that portrayed him as an tyrannical egomaniac that is borderline psychotic ever see the light of day? Think about the logic; if someone is as egotistical as Phoenix is made out to be here, he would never allow his image to be tarnished.

I mean, Phoenix’ rap music is borderline unlistenable – and everybody but Phoenix knows it. Affleck’s camera captures the reactions to the music; from polite disbelief to outright hostility. Nobody but Affleck and Phoenix are in on the joke (and maybe some of the actors, such as Langdon) so you get their genuine reactions to situations that are awkward.

Which is fine, but the audience ends up being caught in the awkwardness, much like watching a friend who’s had too much to drink soil themselves. You want to get up, make your excuses and get as far away from the train wreck as possible which is not how you want your audience to feel. The truth is, this is really an exercise in ego – you’re not let in on the joke (which is a cardinal sin) and expected not to feel the fool when you figure it out – because if you don’t you wind up completely repulsed. Part of my distaste is the portrayal of Phoenix as a borderline drug addict – which considering the way his brother River passed away really stretches the line as far as I’m concerned.

There are a lot of celebrity cameos (as you can see from the credits above) and I believe none of them are in on the joke either. So you get the sense that the hoaxers did their jobs too well – they’ve really put one over on all of us to the point that there are plenty of people who think that it wasn’t a hoax. For me, seeing is believing.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally amusing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A crude exercise in ego. Not nearly as funny or engrossing as they think it is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and drug use, a plethora of swear words, plenty of anti-social behavior and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The person in the film that is playing Joaquin Phoenix’ father is actually Casey Affleck’s dad.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some conversations in which Affleck, Phoenix and various critics and academics discuss the film, the hoax and the aftermath.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $568,963 on an unreported production budget; this might have just made some money

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Spinal Tap

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix