RBG


The Notorious R.B.G.

(2017) Documentary (CNN Films/Magnolia) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Arthur Miller, Clara Spera, James Ginsburg, Brenda Felsen, Jane Ginsburg, Lisa Frey Inghausen, Martin Ginsburg, Mary Hartnett, Aryeh Neier, Wendy Williams, Sharon Frontiero, Ted Olsen, Amina Sow, Eugene Scalia, Kelly Sullivan, Frank Chi, Helen Alvarez, Lilly Ledbetter. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

For the American left, Supreme Court Justice is an icon approaching rock star (or more correctly, rap star) status. In the last few years she has become something of a pop culture touchstone, with her beaded/lace justice robes (in place of ties) and her nickname “The Notorious RBG” taken from the name of a rap star.

The bookish and somewhat reserved Ginsburg is an unlikely pop icon but the truth is she has been a tireless crusader for gender equality her entire career, starting when she attended Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of just nine women in a class of over 500. Since then she’s argued as a lawyer six cases before the then-all male Supreme Court, winning five of them.

She might never have been a Supreme Court justice (the oldest sitting on the court currently) had it not been for her husband Marty. As gregarious and outgoing as she was quiet, he was the yin to her yang. Although he sadly passed away in 2010, he used his contacts in the Bill Clinton administration to get his wife an interview for the vacant bench position. Clinton later realized in the first few moments of the interview that he knew he had his candidate. Marty and Ruth made a formidable team.

Since then she’s been one of the few liberal voices on a largely conservative court and has mostly penned minority opinions but those opinions have been some of the most thoughtful and well-researched legal papers of the last thirty years. Say what you want to about her politics; Ginsburg has a first class legal mind. The filmmakers do a particularly stellar job in presenting some of these opinions in an easy-to-digest manner, making sense of her legal arguments for laymen.

There is definitely more than a little lionizing going which is understandable – she has long been a hero to feminists and liberals – on here and much of the focus is on her gender equality work. While Ginsburg doesn’t really consider herself a radical feminist, she certainly believes very strongly that women should have the same opportunities as men and should be paid commensurately for their skills.

If I have a complaint about this film it’s that it makes Ginsburg out to be something of a one-trick pony, really glossing over other subjects she has also weighed in on in favor for her stances on women’s issues. The filmmakers do show her to have a bit of an impish sense of humor as she is bemused by her current status. We also get a sense of the closeness of her family who address her fondly as bubbe and take great delight in teasing her about her terrible cooking which she herself admits to. Everyone needs a flaw to be human, right?

While Cohen and West aren’t going to win any awards for outside the box documentary filmmaking with RBG, they did do something even the best documentarians sometimes fail to do; they gave us insight into their subject. That’s not necessarily an easy task especially given that their subject is notoriously reticent and fiercely private. I would have liked to get a bit more about how her progressive viewpoints came to be but essentially they came from her parents so I suppose that there isn’t a lot that Cohen and West could have done to elaborate further.

I suspect most readers who tend towards the right side of the political spectrum will want nothing to do with this movie and I can sympathize with that that. I tend to give the films of Dinesh D’Souza a miss since I disagree with his politics vehemently so I can’t condemn conservative viewers for doing the same thing I myself do. I can only say that one of the more charming sequences portrays Ginsburg’s long-time friendship with the late Antonin Scalia, her very conservative colleague on the bench. Some liberals do grouse about this sequence but I think it illustrates her willingness to understand all sides of an argument. If Ginsburg and Scalia could find a way to mutual respect and admiration (both were opera devotees) perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the country.

REASONS TO GO: The explanations of her legal decisions are superbly handled. While there is some hero worship going on, the subject comes off as very human. Certainly those of a leftist persuasion will enjoy this film.
REASONS TO STAY: There really isn’t a lot of explanation as to how she arrived at her progressive beliefs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some content discussing controversial subjects.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ginsburg was one of nine women to graduate in the Harvard Law School class of 1956 with over 500 men.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best of Enemies
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Lean on Pete

Gimme Danger


Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it's 2016.

Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it’s 2016.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Magnolia/Amazon) Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Danny Fields, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Ewan McGregor, Ed Sanders. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

The aphorism is that true artists are not appreciated in their own time. That is certainly true of the Stooges, a seminal Midwestern hard rock band that erupted from Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 60s only to self-destruct in 1971, only to return a year later like a bad penny, then break up again for nearly 30 years in 1973 until a resurrection in 2003.

Their music received scathing reviews from critics who didn’t know what to make of them and the public took little interest; their record sales were tepid at best. Still, they became one of the founding influences of punk rock and their music influences nearly every heavy music artist of the 80s and afterwards.

Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is a clear fan of the band, having cast frontman Iggy Pop in two of his movies and it is equally clear that this is essentially a love letter to the band. Although incomprehensibly Jarmusch begins his film with the 1973 break-up, he then goes back to their roots and tells the story in a more linear fashion from there.

Mostly told through the music documentary tropes of talking heads interviews interspersed with performance footage and animated recreations of events, the movie captures the band’s management woes along with their descent into drug addiction – nearly the entire band was at one time on heroin which led to missed gigs, sloppy performances and poor decisions. In their glory, the band was raw and primal, a kind of primitive rock and roll which would have been equally at home with banging on rocks as it was with electric guitars.

Pop was the consummate front man, performing shirtless and dancing like an epileptic male exotic dancer whose DNA was equal parts Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. His bandmates – guitarists Ron Asheton and James Williamson, bassist Dave Alexander, saxophonist Steve Mackay and drummer Scott Asheton – tended to stare at the floor and move very little allowing their frenetic frontman to do the heavy lifting.

Pop and Williamson are the only surviving band members of the band’s glory years and each of them is compelling in their own way (Mackay and the Asheton brothers both lived into the 21st century and there are plenty of interview clips with them; Alexander passed away in 1975 and as a result we see him only In performance clips and publicity stills). Pop is surprisingly intellectual and a pretty entertaining raconteur; Williamson, who spent most of their post-breakup era as a software engineer for Sony, has a much more objective perspective of the band.

The solo career of Iggy Pop, which netted classic rockers like “Lust for Life,” isn’t mentioned here although the post-Stooge efforts of the other band members is gone into in some detail. There is also little outside perspective of the band itself; nearly all of the interviews are with the band members, Danny Fields and Kathy Asheton, sister to the Asheton brothers. Only bassist Mike Watt, who performed with a 21st iteration of the band, is interviewed.

There is also surprisingly little of their music used on the soundtrack. We do get to hear those magnificent opening chords to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” but we hear it several times during the film. I get that there is precious little performance footage from the band’s 1970s era but one gets a sense that what we’re seeing here is pretty much readily available elsewhere, or at least that’s what I get from Internet comments on the documentary by fans of the group.

I was a bit surprised at how ordinary the documentary was. Jarmusch has a reputation for turning convention on its ear, but this is as conventional a music documentary as you’re likely to find. Maybe Jarmusch is too close to the subject; they are surely worthy of a documentary but this is one of those occasions where the subject of a documentary isn’t done justice by the documentary itself. Still, the Stooges are so compelling a story, Pop so entertaining a storyteller that I can freely recommend this to not only fans of the group but students of rock music history in general.

REASONS TO GO: The Stooges make for compelling subjects and Iggy is an interesting storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is disturbingly light on actual music.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of profanity and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Danny Fields had been sent by Elektra Records to scout the MC5 for which the Stooges were opening; impressed by both Michigan groups, he signed the MC5 for $20K and the Stooges for $5K.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We are Twisted Fucking Sister
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Doctor Strange

The Prisoner: or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair


Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

(2006) Documentary (Truly Indie/Magnolia) Yunis Khatayer Abbas, Benjamin Thompson. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

In the miasma that was the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it wasn’t uncommon for overeager American military intelligence to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens who had done nothing wrong. It is not unusual for an occupying force to behave with paranoia; after all, it is actually true that the population is out to get them.

Such was the case of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a respected journalist who had been imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime for expressing views critical of the regime. We see Abbas in an anonymous hotel room, dignified and dapper, his goatee flecked with grey but his eyes much younger than that as he describes (and we see footage of) his arrest at the hands of American military forces. Along with two brothers, Abbas is accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Abbas would be held for over nine months in the notorious Abu Gharib prison. During that time he would undergo a goodly number of inquisitions and some torture both mental and physical. He would also be befriended by Thompson, an American soldier on duty in Abu Gharib who utilized Abbas as a translator – his English is in the main flawless although from time to time he makes the occasional syntax error. Thompson, who gradually comes to believe that Abbas is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, tries unsuccessfully to get Abbas released but as with all things military the wheels grind slowly.

Filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein (who are married in real life) first met Abbas during the filming of their previous documentary Gunner Palace about American troops stationed in the lavish palace of Uday Hussein. They augment their footage with home video footage and cartoon-like animations that are as amusing as they are unsettling.

The story itself is very compelling as we witness a man who supports the United States protest his innocence over and over again as those who provide the faulty intelligence that put him in prison refuse to admit they were wrong even though all the evidence seems to indicate that they are; nonetheless they are forced to cover their ass and hope that Abbas is broken into confessing that he is a terrorist. Abbas however never breaks and by the film’s end you’ll wind up admiring the man’s quiet dignity.

Like many documentaries, there is an inordinate time viewing the interviews with the subject and despite the bells and whistles added here, there just really isn’t a way to make a talking head all that interesting. Overcoming that, the story and the personality of Abbas will stay with you and lead you to once again question our involvement in this country and the methods we used while we were there. It will come to pass that someday down the line it will be a time and events that our descendants will not be proud of.

WHY RENT THIS: Compact and tight. Compelling story with nice cartoon-like visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a bit rough and there are some fairly mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The initial arrest, shown here, was filmed during the directors’ last documentary Gunner Palace.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,103 during its domestic release; overseas numbers and production budget unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Standard Operating Procedure

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Son of No One

Blackfish


Tilikum performing.

Tilikum performing.

(2013) Documentary (Magnolia) Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, Dawn Brancheau, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Keltie Burns. Directed by Gabrielle Cowperthwaite

Children are for the most part fascinated by the animal world. Animal parks like SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom as well as traditional zoos and aquariums are well aware of it – the animals on display in these parks are siren calls to kids and their parents. Performing animals can bring oohs and aahs to kids of all ages.

However on February 24, 2010 things got serious. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most respected and safety-conscious trainers in the business, was killed in an incident during a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando. The incident involved Tilikum, an orca (popularly known as a killer whale) who was one of SeaWorld’s mainstays and a veteran performer.

As time went by, there began to be questions asked about SeaWorld’s policies. One of the first facts to come out was that this was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved with; one involving trainer Keltie Burns in Sealand of the Pacific where Tilikum had been brought as a young whale and then later a bizarre incident when Daniel Patrick Dukes apparently entered Tilikum’s tank illegally after hours and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back.

Filmmaker Cowperthwaite examines Tilikum’s story from the time he was taken from his family as a young whale until the incident with Brancheau and its aftermath. She interviews a number of former SeaWorld trainers as well as orca experts to discuss behaviors of orcas both in the wild and in captivity. She also looks at several incidents in which trainers were injured or killed, including a particularly gruesome incident at Parque Loro in the Canary Islands.

It is clear that there is an agenda here as there is with most documentary films. Cowperthwaite’s point is that the captivity of these animals is inherently wrong and inhumane and that the motivations for SeaWorld and parks like it is profit rather than the education and appreciation of those animals. While I think that there is room for argument there, there’s no doubt that SeaWorld does make plenty of profit through park admissions and merchandise sale with the visage of the orca Shamu being essentially SeaWorld’s corporate identity.

SeaWorld in fact has gone to great pains to portray themselves as good corporate citizens and it is true that they have a rehabilitation program that has helped over 22,000 injured, orphaned or abandoned animals in the wild and nursed them back to health for re-release in many cases or permanently cared for those that were deemed unfit to sustain themselves in their native habitats. They have also contributed to and encouraged contributions to conservation causes and preach respect and care for the animals that they display. These are points not brought up in the movie.

However, it is also true that SeaWorld hid from their trainers Tilikum’s dangerous past and his part in the death of Keltie Burns. It is also true that they have misrepresented the life spans of orcas in the wild vs. orcas in SeaWorld’s care (studies show they do live longer in the wild, contrary to SeaWorld’s claims). SeaWorld has an interest in maintaining their image in that the perception of cruelty or inhumanity might adversely affect their bottom line, so their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve that image is at least understandable.

In the case of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA stepped in to litigate against SeaWorld, accusing them of violations of safety standards. SeaWorld denied those allegations and defended themselves vigorously (testimony from the trial is presented in the film). OSHA did eventually win the case although it is currently being appealed. This is why if you visit any SeaWorld park, you won’t see the trainers directly in the water with the orcas; there is a barrier between them. SeaWorld’s allegations that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail wasn’t proven; it also seemed to me (although the filmmakers didn’t say so outright) that given how many cameras are stationed throughout SeaWorld that if the footage had shown without a doubt that the ponytail was the culprit, they would have brought that footage to court. Since they didn’t, we have to assume that the footage showed otherwise. Certainly the eyewitnesses to the event were clear that Tilikum had grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and dragged her into the pool.

For my part, I’ve always wondered what the allure is in trained animal shows. Maybe I’m just weird but I always get more of a charge watching an animal in its native environment doing the things it does naturally. The shots of orcas swimming in waters off the coasts of Washington state peacefully and majestically was far more thrilling to me than watching one cruise around a tank waving a fluke at the audience. However it is undeniable that the audiences in the footage looked awfully thrilled at the various behaviors of the orcas here.

Cowperthwaite’s assertion that the deaths depicted here were essentially the results of psychosis largely brought about by captivity is well-presented and certainly backed up by the experts she brings in. I would have like to hear some dissenting opinions, although there was one ex-trainer who did seemingly disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions. Still, we are told that there are no records of an orca killing a human in the wild which is misleading – there have been attacks on humans in the wild although no fatalities have been recorded which doesn’t necessarily mean that none have occurred.

The documentary is a compelling one and the love and respect for the animals is clear in both the filmmakers and the scientists and former trainers that are interviewed. There’s no doubt that the orca is a magnificent creature, graceful and gentle but capable of great power and violence. We have our own human history to refer to when discussing the adverse affects of  being taken out of one’s natural environment and placed forcibly and without permission in an alien and strange environment, separated from all that one loved. That’s not a recipe for harmony and love. While the movie may not necessarily make fans of SeaWorld think differently about the animal shows, hopefully it will give everyone pause to think about the high price that entertainment can sometimes cost.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the subject matter and images are far too intense and disturbing for Shamu’s target audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was altered after Pixar executives viewed this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Baghead

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road

The Perfect Host


Always use your right hand when threatening a guest with a knife.

Always use your right hand when threatening a guest with a knife.

(2010) Thriller (Magnolia) David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Tyrees Allen, Cooper Barnes, Megahn Perry, Annie Campbell, Helen Reddy, Indira Gibson, George Kee Cheung, Brooke “Mikey” Anderson, Cheryl Francis Harrington, Amanda Payton, Joseph Will, Nathaniel Parker, Greg Brown, Mike Foy, Tracy Britton, Maple Navarro. Directed by Nick Tomnay

What makes the perfect host? Is it the immaculate home they live in? Or perhaps the feeling of welcome and hospitality that they radiate? Or is it the details of putting on the perfect party?

When entertaining, one may sometimes be accosted at one’s door by a complete stranger, claiming to be a friend of a friend. Do not immediately assume they are a bank robber or some similar reprobate but invite them in. Should you see evidence on television that they are in fact a bank robber, do not panic and whatever you do, never lose your civility. Should the bank robber pull a knife on you, remember these three things – manners, manners, manners! Offer your guest refreshment.

And by refreshment, of course, we mean wine. But what wine should the perfect host offer in such a situation? Why, red of course! That way when you drug the wine, the powder dissolves more fully, allowing the sedative to move more quickly through your guest’s system. And while he takes a nice refreshing nap, a perfect host always ties his slumbering guest to a chair so that there is no danger of him hurting himself through a fall or being stabbed with his own knife. Thus we see the hallmarks of a perfect host – courtesy, concern and commitment.

Despite his status as a party crasher, a perfect host always includes his guest in the activities of the party. Should a conga line form, make sure it snakes around him – don’t allow him to join the line however, as the physical exertion so soon after a restful nap may lead to perspiration and we can’t have that.

We’ve seen this kind of film before, including the Michael Haneke classic Funny Games but this one has a bit of a twist. Neither one of the protagonists are really likable. The bank robber, John Taylor (Crawford) is a nasty piece of work and although the script works at making him likable, at the end of the day he isn’t a nice guy.

Then again, neither is Warwick Wilson (Hyde Pierce), the titular homeowner whose dinner party Taylor crashes. In fact, Warwick’s hold on reality is extremely tenuous and we’re never quite sure if what’s going on is all in his head or real. Hyde Pierce is perfectly cast, drawing on his stiff-as-a-board Niles Crane role from the Frasier TV series only adding a psychotic edge. The results are very effective.

Where the movie goes off the rails is in the last third; one gets a sense that the writers painted themselves in a corner and rather than getting paint on their shoes hired an imaginary helicopter to fly them out. It doesn’t really work, even as the metaphor above doesn’t work.

Still, the movie is funny (in a sick and twisted way) in places and scary in others. You’re never really sure who has the upper hand and which one of the two you want to see get their just deserts until near the very end. Personally I wish they’d just bitten the bullet and made Taylor a truly despicable man instead of giving him an out. To my mind that would have been a better movie, although the one that they ended up making is pretty dang good.

WHY RENT THIS: Hyde Pierce gives a bravura performance. Well cast, well-written and funny as hell upon occasion.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls apart in the last third.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some sexuality and some violence as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally began life as a 26-minute black and white short.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed, oddly enough although clips of the original short can be seen in the making of feature, the full short isn’t included here for reasons completely beyond my comprehension.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48,764 on a production budget of $500,000; the film lost money during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Misery

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The American Experience begins!

Limelight (2011)


To some, New York club culture was more of a religion.

To some, New York club culture was more of a religion.

(2009) Documentary (Magnolia) Peter Gatien, Michael Alig, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Moby, Ed Koch, Howard Safir, Sean Kirkham, Michael Caruso, Edgar Oliver, Frank Owen, Steve Lewis, Benjamin Brafman. Directed by Billy Corben

Once upon in New York City there was a club scene like no other. It was in the late 80s, early 90s and it just about put Studio 54-era discos to shame. Four of them – The Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA and the Palladium – were run by the same guy.

His name was Peter Gatien and he was notorious in his day. He was a Canadian, Ontario-born (although it was said he rooted for the Montreal Canadiens which was not unlike a native of the Bronx being a lifelong Red Sox fan) and wore a buccaneer-like eyepatch which was, contrary to popular rumor, not an affectation. He’d lost an eye playing hockey as a youth.

His clubs were like nothing else seen before or since; full of pulsating music and lights, sweaty bodies and essentially a place where new music was created. Moby has been quoted as saying that without these clubs there would have been no techno. These places were like stationary raves and in a sense were incubators for youth culture which has affected popular culture to this day.

It wasn’t always easy. Gatien started out selling jeans and after his hockey accident used the money to open his own nightclub in Ontario, which he parlayed into a club in Atlanta and then four in New York. In his heyday he was the toast of New York, name-checked by the Fun Loving Cannibals and THE man to know if you wanted to be somebody in that town.

But with notoriety like that comes attention, some of it of the negative sort. Drugs were rampant in Gatien’s clubs and they were sold to the point where some referred to the Palladium as a “drug supermarket.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani used Gatien’s clubs as a focal point for his anti-crime campaign and eventually after failing to pin any drug-related arrests on Gatien, nailed him for failing to pay his taxes (well after the clubs began to shut down) and had him deported back to Canada with only $500 in his pocket.

This after making millions from his cash cows. It was a precipitous fall after a remarkable climb. Gatien remains an engaging character and he’s surprisingly forthcoming in his interviews here. Many of those who were around Gatien – managers, bartenders, DJs and such – all have something to say. Most have never attained the pinnacle of hip that they achieved during those years and they still carry that borderline arrogance that comes from being Somebody.

One of those interviewed here is the notorious Michael Alig, who in a drug-induced haze murdered and dismembered fellow Limelight scenester Angel Melendez. Alig ran several parties at Gatien’s clubs and in fact Gatien was an early suspect in Melendez’s murder.

Corben peppers the documentary with animations and psychedelic images which I imagine gives you more of a feeling of being in an altered state as you watch. The movie is really a rise and fall affair with the beginning on Gatien’s meteoric rise much more interesting than the details of his ignoble fall. And yes while I get that “the higher the rise the further the fall” lesson, that’s essentially a story we’ve seen literally thousands of times, some in more compelling ways.

What I missed here was more of a look at how Gatien’s clubs affected pop culture and their lasting impact on modern society. Really what this turns out to be is a movie made more for the people who were there in that time and place. While I wasn’t a part of the New York club scene, I was part of a club scene in a different city at roughly the same time so some of it is recognizable to me. Fortunately I didn’t see the same kind of drug use and trade to the extent that it was here in my part of the world, although that could partly be ascribed to my own personal naiveté as well as that most people don’t want to transact drugs in front of a journalist.

Be that as it may, this is probably more of interest to those who clubbed in the late 80s and early 90s in general and in New York City in particular. It was an era that has come and gone, and will never return. So in that sense the movie has nostalgia value and on that level works like a charm. Gatien is an interesting enough subject that at least for the first part of the movie his engaging character is worthwhile. It’s only when the story of his downfall starts that your attention will start to wander. Gatien (and by extension the filmmaker) blames many of his troubles on a vindictive government but he’s only partly right – Gatien allowed that rampant drug use and sales to take place in his clubs. They were HIS clubs as he is quick to tell you and thus his responsibility. He has to shoulder at least some blame for his fall – and you get the sense he doesn’t see it that way. That might be the most tragic element of this story.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at maybe the nadir of all club scenes. Gatien is a fascinating character.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The second half spends far too much time on the legal battles that went on, less time on the lasting impact of the scene.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and alcohol and drug use depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Gatien’s own daughter, Jen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60,335 on an unreported production budget; might have made money but more likely just broken even or lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Party Monster

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Eastern Promises

Barry Munday


Barry Munday

Is the football game on yet?

(2010) Comedy (Magnolia) Patrick Wilson, Judy Greer, Chloe Sevigny, Jean Smart, Cybill Shepherd, Missi Pyle, Shea Whigham, Malcolm McDowell, Billy Dee Williams, Barret Swatek, Christopher McDonald, Colin Hanks, Kyle Gass, Mae Whitman. Directed by Chris D’Arienzo

 

There is no shortage of guys out there who live for the conquest. You’ll find them in bars and clubs, trolling for potential one night stands, out to sleep with as many women as they possibly can with varying degrees of success. It’s how they define themselves. What happens when you are suddenly faced with having to redefine yourself?

Barry Mundy (Wilson) is one of those minor league Don Juans who seem to have that magic touch when it comes to scoring with the ladies. He has had plenty of sex without any consequence; but one of the girls he seduces comes complete with an angry father who administers the beating of a lifetime to Barry in a movie theater. When the smoke clears, Barry is missing some good buddies – his testicles.

Bitter, angry and feeling betrayed, he holes up at home, only to discover that he is being served with a paternity suit. The woman who is suing him, Ginger Farley (Greer) is a bitter, snarky woman who is about as unpleasant as a porcupine enema. For his part, Barry doesn’t remember sleeping with her. At first he wants to fight the suit but when he thinks about it he realizes this might well be the very last chance for him to leave anything genetic behind him, so he throws himself enthusiastically into the idea of being a dad.

The trouble is, Ginger isn’t so sure she wants Barry around and she makes it completely unpleasant for him to be around. She reluctantly introduces him to her family – her parents (McDowell, Shepherd) and her slutty stripper sister Jennifer (Sevigny) who takes an unhealthy interest in Barry. Still, Ginger is warming to Barry and he to her. Can they change enough to be good together and more importantly, good parents?

This is one of those indie movies which is going to seem very familiar to you if you’ve seen any indie movies in your time. Many of the characters have that familiar quirkiness to them that makes them endearing – the first twenty times around. By this point endearing indie quirkiness is annoying for the main part.

Patrick Wilson often plays the romantic rival and a lot of the characters he plays are real shmendricks. Here he plays a part we really haven’t seen him tackle much and he carries it off nicely. I haven’t seen many other parts of this sort come his way since; I hope some casting directors see this and consider him for more of these sorts of roles.

Judy Greer has also made a career for the most part out of the driver’s seat, often playing the wacky best friend. She is thoroughly unlikable through much of the movie which is risky; it’s hard to root for someone so bitchy but Greer pulls it off for the most part. She is definitely a fine comic actress but I suspect she’d do real well in the dramatic field as well.

While this is based on a novel, I couldn’t help but feel that the writers were occasionally unsure how to proceed. The movie flounders awkwardly in places although I can easily accept that life is all about floundering awkwardly. Still, when the movie seems to lose its focus it’s hard for the audience to maintain theirs. It’s a cardinal filmmaking sin. Fortunately the performances are such that the audience focuses on that rather than the story.

This is one of those movies that is elevated by the stars. Greer and Wilson aren’t known for carrying movies but they show they are well able to do it. I would really love to see the public discover them both in that sense. This movie isn’t necessarily the vehicle to get them there – it’s very flawed but it isn’t without merit despite the clichés  – but it’s certainly worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Wilson is surprisingly deft in a romantic comic lead. Greer boldly makes her character wholly unlikable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many indie clichés. Seems to be rudderless at times.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might imagine from the subject matter, there’s a good deal of sexual content and dialogue. The language is a bit foul in places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had its premiere at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a faux PSA about the horrors of genital detachment.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Matrix Reloaded

The Queen of Versailles


The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel, power couple.

(2012) Documentary (Magnolia) Jackie Siegel, David Siegel, Virginia Nebab, Lauren Greenfield, Richard Siegel, Oscar Goodman, Tina Martinez. Directed by Lauren Greenfield

 

The American Dream; we all have it to at least one extent or another. We want to be free of the cares of the world;  we want to have the freedom to do what we want when we want. That’s the freedom that money and wealth provide. Not all of us want to live extravagantly but most of us would like to at least live comfortably.

At first glance, the Siegels seem to be the embodiment of the American Dream. David is the owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately-owned timeshare company in the world. He is a billionaire many times over. He lives here in Orlando in the exclusive Isleworth community, where such celebrities as Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal live.

He is married to Jackie, a beauty queen, former model and incongruously a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. She’s beautiful, gracious and vivacious and 30 years younger than he. She’s also quite fertile – she and David have seven children together and are raising an eighth, the teenage daughter of Jackie’s sister.

The 26,000 square foot home – what Jackie terms a “starter mansion” – isn’t large enough for the Siegels however, so they set out to build a new one on the shores of a lake with a nightly view of the fireworks over in Disney. It just started out being a larger home but as the Siegels began adding in all the amenities they wanted – from a bowling alley to a functional baseball diamond which would double as a parking lot for their event parties – it soon became larger than life. When completed, it would be the largest private home under a single roof in America. The Siegels, who were inspired by the architecture of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas as well as the summer palace of the French royalty in France named it after the latter, Versailles, without a hint of irony.

They are riding at the top and throw lavish parties for the Miss America pageant, a program close to both of their hearts – Jackie as a former beauty pageant winner and David…well, as a man who likes beautiful women. Then comes 2008 and the economic meltdown. David’s business depends heavily on loans from banks and when they’re no longer lending, his business suffers. Suddenly, the Siegels are forced to cut back. Their staff goes from more than twenty down to four.

It turns out to be something of a trauma. David is forced to lay off workers, clearly an act that bothers him very much. When Jackie goes back to her hometown of Binghamton, New York she doesn’t fly on the private jet – she has to go on a commercial airliner which is startling to her children who wonder why so many people are waiting in line at the airport. Shopping trips are to Wal*Mart instead of to the high end retailers of Gucci and Tiffany. Construction on Versailles is halted and Westgate’s new centerpiece property, the Planet Hollywood Towers becomes the object of desire for banks who almost want David to go into foreclosure while he stubbornly tries to hold on to everything.

David boasts early on that he was responsible for George W. Bush getting elected, although he declines to give specifics, only giving us a bit of a twinkling eye and a wink about quasi-legalities. The irony there is that Dubya would preside over the meltdown that would caused him so much heartache.

Looking at all the above, it might be easy to think of the Siegels as arrogant one percenters who got what they deserved but I didn’t wind up seeing them that way. Jackie has a heart as big as they come, and she’s completely disingenuous. Sure, she is ditzy in places but we all have brain farts from time to time but she’s genuine. She’s a lot smarter than she sometimes lets on – between the cleavage and the Botox you probably get the opinion that she’s all sizzle and no steak – but I get the feeling that she uses her looks as a defense. People probably have underestimated Jackie her entire life. Brains can be a curse for a beautiful woman, if you subscribe to the ignorance is bliss theory.

David shows signs of stress near the end of the movie which is understandable, although in interviews he says that it was due to the presence of the filmmakers, whom he has since leveled a lawsuit at for misrepresenting the financial state of his company, which he claims is far more solvent than what the filmmakers let on. To be fair, Greenfield made it seem like Westgate was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy at times which, considering that David is still despite everything that has occurred, a wealthy man, seems unlikely.

The story of David and Jackie is our story, believe it or not. They may not necessarily be able to relate to the problems of the middle class well but by the same token we don’t really relate to theirs. The prospect of losing things you dreamed of and worked for is just as painful for a billionaire as it is for you and me. David and I probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of our politics, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a decent man. Jackie and I don’t have the same ideas when it comes to shopping but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good woman.

I wound up wishing the Siegels well, which was something I didn’t expect. It’s very easy to paint all the top one percent with the same brush and declare them evil because they’ve had amazing success. I have no doubt David Siegel earned his success many times over – even in his 70s he is a driven, hard worker. I can’t begrudge anyone success – after all, it’s what I aspire to myself . I just begrudge those who have it working to prevent others from achieving it. Those that buy politicians and get them to enact laws designed to keep the super wealthy rich and the rest of us in our place as they see it, well, those are the actions I can’t stand. Those who simply want to live their lives in the lap of the luxury that they can afford, while I can’t help but envy them I can’t bring myself to hate them. After all, to a starving family in East Africa I probably appear to be rich as Croesus. I could probably be doing more to help them than I do. However, I would never support laws that would remove programs that they need to survive so that I could keep every penny of my wealth. I would hope more of the one percent would feel that way. I certainly hope David and Jackie Siegel do.

REASONS TO GO: A cautionary tale. You wind up liking the Siegels even if you come in wanting to despise them.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much dog poop. Hard to feel sympathy for the Siegels.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film crew had extraordinary access to the Siegels, staying in their home several days every month for nearly three years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”

CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION LOVERS: Throughout the film, we see the Siegels attitude of more is better; they aren’t shy about enjoying their wealth (not that any of us would be either if we had that kind of money); shopping trips – even to Wal*Mart – are epic excursions. They have a private jet, a fleet of limos and enormous closets full of clothes although David probably doesn’t – he seems a little bit more down to earth when it comes to his cash.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

The Eclipse


The Eclipse

Iben Hjejele gets another awkward call from a psychic service while Ciaran Hinds tries to pretend he doesn’t notice

(2009) Romance (Magnolia) Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton, Eanna Hardwicke, Hannah Lynch, Avian Egan, Mia Quinn, Billy Roche, Valerie Spelman, Jean Van Sinderen-Law, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, Declan Nash. Directed by Conor McPherson

 

Grief is one of the most powerful of human emotions. It can affect us physically, turn us into basket cases emotionally and mentally. We all deal with it in different ways and sometimes it overwhelms us, no matter how well-balanced we might be normally. We never know how we’ll react until it becomes our time to grieve.

It is Michael Farr’s (Hinds) time to grieve. A gentle good-natured shop teacher in a small but bucolic Irish village, his wife Sarah (Lynch) passed away from cancer two years previously. Now he is struggling to raise their two sons alone. As if that weren’t enough, his father-in-law Thomas (Hardwicke) is also dying in a nursing home. Michael does his best to be attentive but his time is limited.

That’s because it’s also time for the town’s literary festival, one of the highlights of their year. Michael has volunteered to ferry various authors around the village for the length of the festival, becoming something of a personal assistant to them. His main charge is Lena Morrell (Hjejle), a noted author of supernatural tales. That’s a godsend to Michael because he’s begun to have some supernatural visitations of his own, not only from his dead wife but from his father-in-law as well.

Lena has some ghosts of her own, mainly in the form of Nicholas Holden (Quinn), a bestselling American author who is, to put it bluntly, a drunken jackass. He had a fling with Lena at a similar literary conference a few years ago and ever since has been something of a stalker, feeling that there is a relationship between them. For her own part, Lena views it as a mistake she made but is too nice to tell the married Nicholas to go take a long walk off a short pier which is probably a lot nicer than Nicholas deserves.

She has begun to grow attracted to the quiet, grief-stricken Irishman who shows her kindness and respect. Nicholas has noticed this and has grown rather jealous. And the apparitions that are haunting Michael are growing more and more disturbing and threatening by the day.

This isn’t a movie that follows conventions. Yes, it tells a story but not the way you might be used to. There are things that happen, there is a beginning and a middle but the end is not so much a denouement as it is a stopping point. And I kind of like it that way. It unfolds at a pace that is its own, on the slow side for those ADHD sorts that make up most of the movie audience these days. It will drive them absolutely batshit.

And because of that, they’ll miss a performance by Hinds that shows why he is so in demand as a character actor. He has the kind of talent to carry a movie on his own as he does here – he just doesn’t have the dashing lead actor kind of face and build. These sorts of generalizations tend to make Hollywood look for stories that only happen to good-looking people, ignoring the ordinary and the less beautiful. Maybe that’s why those in the indie community feel that mainstream Hollywood is so out of touch.

Musing aside, Quinn also gives a damn good performance (and yes, he’s one of the pretty boys Hollywood usually goes for). It’s not a pleasant character and Quinn doesn’t pull any punches (literally) with him. There’s a drunken brawl Nicholas gets into that is note-perfect; it’s not two fighters facing off but two men whaling away on each other. They both grunt like walruses as they launch haymakers and miss. It’s a pretty realistic fight, the sort you really see in pubs and bars.

There’s also the romance with Hjejle, who is kind of caught up in a triangle. It’s not the usual love triangle; she clearly isn’t in love with either man, although she could potentially fall for Michael; it’s just that they live in two completely different and separate worlds. There’s an unspoken element of tragedy – that familiar tragedy we all undergo at some point in our lives when we meet someone we want to love but is completely wrong for us.

That said, there’s the elements of horror that grow in scope as the movie develops; from simple half-glimpsed figures to rotting corpses. I don’t quite know what to make of it; part of me wants to think that it’s more symbolic than anything else. I don’t think Michael is having a nervous breakdown although that’s certainly one interpretation. Still, it remains unsettling and keeps the audience off-balance which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a negative.

Where the movie fails is that it shows a good deal of passion – Michael’s grief, Nicholas’ obsession with Lena – but didn’t inspire any in me. I suspect I will like this movie more as time goes by, particularly if I choose to see it a second time which at this point is problematic. Still, it did at least bring about some intellectual stimulation which is more than a lot of films that purport to do. I’ll say see it, but only if you’re in the mood for thoughtfulness.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances by Hinds and Quinn. Not conventionally told; keeps the audience off-balance throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally slow-paced. Fails to generate much more than intellectual curiosity.

FAMILY VALUES: As befits a story with supernatural elements there are some images that might be frightening, particularly to the sensitive. There is also a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in the village of Cobh in County Cork.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159,852 on a $3M production budget; the film failed to make back its production costs at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: What to Expect When You’re Expecting