Charlie Says (2018)


Charlie says “kill the rich.”

(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron

 

Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.

While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.

The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.

While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.

There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.

REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
All is True

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40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie


Old hippies just play on.

(2017) Music Documentary (Paladin) Lee Aronsohn, George “Tode” Cahill, Lynn “Flatbush” Poyer, Kevin “CW” Millburn, Will “Wilbur” Luckey, Rob “Poonah” Galloway, Chris “Cemeto” Doyle, Bill “Das” Makepeace, Greg “Sloth” Sparre, Chris “Spoons” Daniel, Tamara Lester, Chuck Morris, Sam Bush, Julie Luckey, Steve “Spike” Clark, Olivia “Speedy” Luckey, Mary Jane Makepeace, Bill Payne, Scarlett Rivers. Directed by Lee Aronsohn

 

There is a time in our lives which we inevitably link with certain musical styles and sounds. It might be the psychedelic noise of the 60s, the arena rock of the 70s, the new wave of the 80s, the grunge of the 90s or…well, you get the idea. We identify with the music and the era.

In Boulder, Colorado in the early to mid-70s, particularly around the University of Colorado campus, the sound was heavily folk influenced with a kind of hippie aesthetic. Most symbolic of these bands was a group called Magic Music, who had enough facial hair to make a Muslim smile in satisfaction and an affinity for flannel shirts which would make the grunge generation scratch their heads and say “I thought that was our thing.”

Spoiler alert: the band never made it big, despite being hugely popular in Colorado and coming close on several occasions. Their unwillingness to bend on artistic matters as well as some self-torpedoing due to drugs, attitude or a distinct lack of business sense kept them from going to the next step. They broke up in 1975 with no records to their name.

One of their biggest fans was TV producer/writer/creator Lee Aronsohn who was attending CU as a sex and drugs major. He went on to success in his field but over the years the music he heard as a young man stayed in his head. He wondered what happened to the band that so inspired him in his youth. Only one of them remained in the Boulder era; Chris Daniels who continued to play music there with a new band. Through him, Aronsohn was put in contact with the remaining members of the band (Lynn Poyer tragically passed away in 2011) and soon a new idea germinated; to get the band to reunite onstage, playing a one night stand at the 800 seat Boulder Theater. To everyone’s surprise, the show sold out.

These are mostly interviews with the band members, former managers, girlfriends, wives, exes and fans. There isn’t any video footage of the band actually playing extant but there are quite a few still photos around and to Aronsohn’s delight some unreleased demos of the band in their heyday were found and used on the soundtrack. The demos accompany the stills, several of which have been animated into motion. That was a pretty nifty effect but as the story moves from the band’s past to the band’s present, those sorts of animations disappear from the film and I for one missed them.

The band utilized some sweet harmonies (think America and Pure Prairie League) with some fairly standard but lovely folk rock (along the lines of Buffalo Springfield and James Taylor). The music is extremely dated largely due to the lyrics which were of the tree-hugging variety (the band at one time lived in school buses in the Rocky Mountain wilderness) with a generous helping of hippie “love is everything” type sweetness.  Maybe a better secondary title for the film would be Smell the Patchouli!!

Which reminds me: why do non-fiction book authors and documentary filmmakers find it necessary to title their works with unnecessary and often unwieldy secondary titles? Every time I see a colon in a title I feel a sense of rage. Do these authors and filmmakers think that this kind of titling makes their work sound more academic? Knock it off, y’all. It just makes you sound pretentious.

Mini-rant aside, the filmmaking is pretty solid here. Yes, there are plenty of talking heads but for the most part the band members are charming and sweet-natured. While there were some rifts within the band, for the most part a lot of water has gone under the bridge; after all, there were more than forty years between live concert appearances. 40 years an bring an awful lot of perspective even to the most angry and bitter of feelings.

This is very much a niche film. Most people outside of Colorado and not of a certain age group will have never heard of the band and even those that do, not all of them are going to be all that interested in taking a stroll down memory lane. Still, the band’s reunion does have a pretty good emotional punch and if seeing retired hippie chicks undulating in time to the music is your thing, then there’s reason enough to go catch this in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: The reunion scenes are pretty sweet. Early on I like what Aronsohn did with the motion stills.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really intended for a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aronsohn has been responsible for such hit TV shows as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Andre the Giant

The Commune (Kollektivet)


A communal meal isn’t always a peaceful one.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm, Lars Ranthe, Julie Agnete Vang, Helene Reingaard Newmann, Ole Dupont, Lise Koefoed, Magnus Millang, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, Mads Reuther, Anne Gay Henningsen, Jytte Kvinesdal, Morten Rose, Rasmus Lind Rubin, Adam Fischer, Ida Maria Vinterberg. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

When we think of the 70s, what comes to mind is recreational drug use, long hair, bell bottoms, anti-war protests and free love. Although communes still exist, they are more like co-ops these days rather than all of the inhabitants sleeping with each other, although there are some like that to be sure.

Erik (Thomsen) is a somewhat stuffy professor of architecture at a University in Copenhagen. His wife Anna (Dyrholm) is a beautiful news reader working for the national broadcast network. When Erik inherits what is essentially a mansion from his father in a rural suburb of Copenhagen, he initially wants to sell it; their daughter Freja (Hansen) wants to move into it but it is Anna who comes up with the idea they eventually adopt – to invite friends and strangers to move in and create their own commune.

You see, Anna has become somewhat bored in her marriage and wants variety, but as they say, be careful what you wish for. She and Erik invite friends at first like Ole (Ranthe) who has a bit of a temper but soon they are inviting fascinating strangers and before too long there are a dozen or so adults and children living in the commune.

Things go pretty well at first but things begin to lose cohesion. One of the children who has a heart condition (and quite the crush on Freja) is taken to the hospital, scaring the whole community on Christmas Eve. But to make matters worse, Erik falls in love with Emma (Newmann), one of his students and invites her to join the Commune. At first, Anna is pretty sanguine about the whole situation but she begins to crack and soon the tension in the Commune becomes nearly unbearable.

I’m not so sure this is an indictment of free love and the sexual politics of the 70s as it is more or less simply presenting the pros and cons. In all honesty most of the couples in the commune stay fairly faithful to one another with the exception of Erik – and it must be said that Anna paved the way for that in many ways. Judging Erik by standards that are 40 years after the period depicted here isn’t really fair but by our standards he’s quite the jerk.

The performances here are top-notch; most of the actors are not well-known in the U.S. with the exception of Fares and to a lesser extent Thomsen. The prize though goes to Dyrholm who goes from a strong and confident woman to an absolute mess by the end of the film. Badly shaken not so much by Erik’s infidelity – I think she could have handled an affair so long as Erik still loved her but once it became a case where Erik loved Emma and not Anna she was absolutely destroyed.

The director manages to get the era right between the colloquialisms, the products and the overall attitude. The cinematography is a little bit on the washed out side for exterior day shots (and underlit for night shots both inside and out) which also gives the film a look of a film made in that era.

Despite the pathos and drama (and there’s a lot of the latter) there is some comedy as well that comes up at unexpected times. The Danish have a very quirky sense of humor and it shows here when its needed. What’s not needed is some of the pretentious dialogue – and I realize back in that decade people tended to talk like walking manifestos – and especially the soap opera aspects of the film which are also many. That detracts from a film which most of the rest of the way is serious and fascinating.

Still, human relationships are tricky things whether you’re talking about the 70s or the 2010s. We are complicated little monkeys and we do things sometimes that make no logical sense. It is said that being alone is perfection – you make all your decisions and do as you please when you please. Two is a compromise and three is a disaster. The more people you put at the same table, the more complex things get.

Vinterberg has some really great films to his credit including one of my all time Florida Film Festival favorites The Hunt. This is another strong movie on his filmography and he continues to be a director who hasn’t yet really gotten the credit he deserves here in the States. Then again, he hasn’t done a lot of English language films yet and I’m not sure he needs to. Still, he’s one of those directors whose name on the credits means I’m instantly interested in seeing his film. There are not many about whom I can say that.

REASONS TO GO: The sexual politics are captured nicely. The film is very evocative of its era. Thought-provoking, the movie manages to get in a little bit of comedy as well. The performances are strong all around.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, the movie sinks into soap opera a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you’ll find nudity, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a play Vinterberg wrote about his own experiences as a child growing up in a commune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Overnight
>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lady Macbeth

Wanderlust


Wanderlust

Alan Alda is smug because he gets to hit all his marks in a scooter.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, Linda Lavin, Jessica St. Clair, Todd Barry. Directed by David Wain

 

Sometimes our life changes because we decide to change things. Other times it’s due to forces beyond our control. The latter often prompts us to do the former, truth be told – and occasionally that sends us in unintended directions.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a pair of yuppies living the dream in Manhattan. They’ve just bought what is called a micro-loft (but what George correctly identifies as being really a studio apartment) in the pricey West Village (more than six figures and just shy of seven) and they can barely afford it. George is understandably nervous but his enthusiastic wife and snooty realtor (Lavin) combine to get him to give it a good ol’ what-the-hell.

Then those forces beyond their control kick in. George’s company comes under a federal indictment and is shut down. Linda’s documentary on penguins with testicular cancer is rejected by HBO. With no income at all, they can no longer afford the apartment and have to put it up for sale at a tremendous loss, even though they’ve only owned it for a couple of weeks. With their tails between their legs, they go limping to Atlanta to live with George’s brother who has offered George a job.

They drive to Atlanta but have to stop for the night. They decide to try the Elysium Bed and Breakfast but are frightened by the sight of a naked man (they don’t get out much in New York City apparently) and manage to flip their car. It turns out that Wayne (Lo Truglio), the naked man, is harmless and he escorts them back to the B&B.

As it turns out the inn is more of a commune (although they prefer the term “evolved community”) who make them feel right at home and completely free. After a night of skinny dipping, guitar playing, pot smoking and general merriment led by the commune’s de facto leader Seth (Theroux), the friendly albeit somewhat eccentric commune members help turn over their car and send them on their merry way with the invite to join their community if they so choose.

Rick (Marino) is a complete charmless boor whose wife Marissa (Watkins) self-medicates with booze and seems oblivious to his many infidelities. Rick drives George and Linda crazy within a few days and George hits upon the idea to going back to the commune. It would be shelter and food, and they had been happier there than they’d been in a long while. Linda is skeptical but agrees to give the idea a couple of weeks.

Once there the adjustment period seems to take George a little bit by surprise. The food is uniformly bad and macrobiotic, there are no doors and no privacy, Eva (Akerman) has made it clear she’d like to make love with George and Seth makes it clear he’d like to do a lot more than that to Linda. There’s also a subplot going on with a casino being built on their land and Carvin (Alda) the somewhat addled founder of Elysium has misplaced the deed.

This is a Judd Apatow movie and for once Apatow’s involvement isn’t trumpeted to the heavens; while his signature is felt on the comedic aspects in many ways this is less overtly his work than usual. That is a pretty good thing even though I generally like his work, he’s been getting some overexposure from all the films he’s not only directing but also producing.

Rudd excels at these kinds of characters – neurotic yuppies going through transitional phases. He is immensely likable, as is Aniston who also does the high-strung career woman as well as anybody. They’re both charismatic but for some reason together (although they both spent time on the “Friends” sitcom in which Aniston starred) they just don’t have much spark.

The rest of the cast is nice, particularly Hahn as a bitchy commune member, Theroux as the full-of-himself leader, Marino, Watkins and Alda. There are some genuine funny moments that made me bust out laughing and a good deal of sexuality and nudity. There are also some long dead spaces where the jokes fall flat. For sure there is an uneven quality here that keeps this comedy from really hitting it out of the park.

Even though dramas get the lion’s share of attention once awards season starts, I maintain it’s far more difficult to pull off a good comedy than it is a good drama. Human nature being what it is, it’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. There are enough good moments to recommend the movie, but not much more than that. It is the best comedy out there at the moment, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny.  Women seem to find it more relatable than men.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of dead space. Rudd and Aniston don’t generate a tremendous amount of chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content including plenty of graphic nudity both male and female. There’s also some drug use and a heaping helping of swear words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aniston, Alda and Rudd all co-starred in The Object of My Affection (1998).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100. The reviews blow hot and cold.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Richer or For Poorer

THE STATE LOVERS: Five of the acclaimed comedy troupe’s members are reunited here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Babies