One More Time with Feeling


Nick Cave in his element.

Nick Cave in his element.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Picturehouse) Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Susie Bick, Thomas Wydler, Earl Cave, Else Torp, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, George Vjestica. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Nick Cave is one of those artists who people either never heard of or fall in love with. His sonorous voice isn’t the kind you associate with pop music and while his songs are beautiful and haunting, they generally have a darkness to them that some find uncomfortable. It isn’t an accident that one of his best albums is entitled Murder Ballads.

Cave had begun the recording of his sixteenth album with his band the Bad Seeds when tragedy struck; his 15-year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff near his Brighton home and died of the injuries he sustained. Cave and his wife Susie Bick were devastated as you can imagine and work on the album stopped for a time.

Now the songs of the album are infused with the presence of the son who is gone. The lyrics are dark and bitter, like a coffee infused with burnt chicory. The tragedy becomes the elephant in the room and in order to keep from answering endless questions about it, Cave enlisted Dominik, whose film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was scored by Cave and his usual partner-in-crime Warren Ellis.

Most of the film is in black and white (there are a couple of color sequences, one involving Cave’s surviving son Earl and a sequence in which Danish soprano Else Torp lends her voice to one of the songs on the album) and that seems perfect for the somber situation, and for Cave’s catalog in general. That’s not to say that this is all ashes and sackcloth however; there is some teasing that goes on, particularly from Ellis who claims that Cave’s hair “never looked better.”

The music is at the center of the film and quite frankly, I was motivated to buy Skeleton Tree almost immediately after arriving home (thank you, eMusic) and I haven’t regretted it since. The music is haunting and beautiful and sad – sad can be intensely beautiful – and will stick with you for a long while. I’m still listening to the tracks from the album in almost constant rotation.

Speaking of constant rotation, one of the annoying things about the movie is that for nearly every song Dominik has his camera circling on a dolly around the piano Cave is playing or the microphone Cave is singing into. There are some lighting effects that go with some of the songs but Dominik could have changed things up a little more from song to song. Frankly I ended up closing my eyes and just letting Cave’s voice wash over me for most of it and maybe that’s the intent. Cave’s voice is raw and real; reading the lyrics on the page are fine and they reveal his anguish and grief, but to really get the truth of his pain one must hear his voice. There are few singers who are as emotionally communicative as Cave is.

Another issue I have with the film is the interviews with Cave, particularly early on in the movie. Often Dominik (I assume it is Dominik doing the interviewing; it could be someone else) interrupts Cave and finishes his sentences. Sometimes Cave says “Yeah, right” but other times he says “No, not really…” as Dominik tries to express what Cave is feeling. A cardinal rule of interviewing on-camera is to let the subject do as much of the talking as possible; you never interrupt them nor put words in their mouth. Your function is to ask a few questions and the occasional follow-up but to keep your mouth shut as much as possible, particularly when you have someone like Cave who is intelligent and thoughtful. I would have preferred to hear more of Cave and less of Dominik.

Dominik is, however, a gifted visual director and some of the images here are amazing and poignant, particularly as the film goes on. Dominik chooses not to say anything specific about the tragedy that clearly haunts Cave so if you were initially unaware of his son’s passing you may end up getting snippets of some sort of unexpressed trauma but it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie that Cave and his wife speak openly about the death of their son and they never tell you specifically what happened. The film’s final image – of the cliff where Arthur Cave spent his final moments – is a haunting one and will stay with you nearly as much as the music that precedes it.

This does make a fine companion piece to the album although I don’t know how much it is going to enhance the listening experience of sitting down in a nice quiet place, turning on the headphones and letting the music of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s expressive voice wash over you. If Dominick’s direction had been less intrusive this easily could have been a contender for best movie of the year. As it is it will certainly merit a certain amount of contention for my top ten list, although likely the second half. Skeleton Tree is more likely to vie for my favorite album of 2016 however, and you might feel the same after seeing this and more importantly, hearing the album.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely amazing. Cave is a thoughtful interview subject. A fascinating look at the creative process for what will be a landmark album. At times, the film is emotionally wrenching.
REASONS TO STAY: Dominik is too intrusive a director. The interviews are poorly conducted.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Other than a screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film debuted on September 8, the day before Skeleton Tree – the band’s sixteenth album – was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listening to Skeleton Tree in a nice quiet place.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Max Rose

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Say "cheesy".

Say “cheesy”.

(2006) Fantasy (Picturehouse) Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander, Boris McGiver, Emmy Clarke, Genevieve McCarthy, Mary Duffy, Lynn Marie Stetson, Gwendolyn Bucci, Eric Gingold, Christina Rouner, Marceline Hugo, Emily Bergl, Matt Servitto, David Green, Sandriel Frank, Krista Coyle. Directed by Steven Shainberg.

In the 1950s, housewives were expected essentially to be seen and not heard. The only voice their husbands wanted to hear was “Welcome home, honey” and “Here’s your martini” and “Dinner’s ready” and maybe “Yes, dear.” Of course, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at things and most wives, even back then, had voice and were heard, although they often had to find subtle ways of doing it. Diane Arbus was never the strongest of women, but she had a vision and her determination to express it led her to places that she could not have expected to go.

Diane Arbus (Kidman), the quiet, mousy daughter of fur magnate David Nemorov (Yulin) and his overbearing wife Gertrude (Alexander), is also the devoted wife to would-be photographer Allan (Burrell). She has aspirations to being a photographer herself, but has had little time to pursue that dream, helping her husband run his portrait studio as well as clean their apartment and raise their children. However, her passions and eclectic nature have led even her children to label her “weird,” although her saintly husband is willing to overlook her occasional emotional outbursts and supports her in nearly everything she wants to do.

However, a drastic change ensues when the mysterious Lionel (Downey) moves in upstairs. He only ventures in public wearing a sweater mask; that is, when he ventures out at all. She finally summons up the courage to go introduce herself to the new neighbor and discovers he suffers from a rare disfigurement; his hair grows rapidly and all over his body, turning him effectively into a living wolf man. Once she gets over his appearance, she wants to take his portrait but he keeps demurring, offering her a glimpse into a world of what used to be called the freaks; a world of dwarves and dominatrix, giants and gender benders. She begins to immerse herself more fully into that world, withdrawing more and more from her own family. Which world will Diane Arbus eventually choose?

Kidman is asked to carry this movie while retaining the obedient and subservient demeanor of a 1950s housewife. Much of her dialogue is in a whispering, excuse-me-for-speaking voice which at times gets irritating, considering you’re asking the audience to retain an interest in her character. To her credit, Kidman’s  acting is right on the money for the character as written, but pales when compared to Downey’s Lionel.

Essentially pared of facial expression for most of the movie (except for the very last reel in which Kidman tenderly – and sensually – shaves the fur from his skin), Downey uses his eyes and his voice to great effect. Although he received no acting nominations for any major awards for his performance, he was certainly deserving of consideration. If they’d used a fictional photographer loosely based on Arbus in many ways this would have been a better movie, because then they could make it about Lionel. In addition, Burrell does a surprisingly good job as the husband helplessly watching his wife drift away, wanting her to be happy and yet needing her love and support. You can see the potential he would eventually fulfill in Modern Family.

The filmmakers capture the energy of New York circa 1958 rather nicely. The apartment set by Amy Danger and Carrie Stewart, is spot-on. The set decoration, both of the Arbus’ apartment with its 1950s normality, and the more whimsical loft of Lionel, is bold and striking. Carter Burwell’s score captures the jazzy feel one associates with the city in the era of the Beat Generation. The legendary Stan Winston’s make-up for Lionel makes him the perfect Beast to Kidman’s Beauty.

First of all, I don’t like the whole concept. Why create a fictional account of Diane Arbus’ life? I’d much rather prefer to see a movie about her actual life. Wasn’t it interesting enough? I also find it highly telling that in a movie purporting to be a tribute to the world-famous photographer they use none of her photographs. I found very little of Diane Arbus in this movie, at least as far as I could detect. While Kidman does a pretty good job acting, she is asked to essentially carry the movie and yet be reserved and quiet (most of her lines are delivered in almost a whisper), leading to a curiously flat quality to the movie. We never get a sense of who Diane Arbus really was or why anyone should bother making a film about her life.

No. I honestly think this does a disservice to the memory of Diane Arbus and her work. I felt after seeing it that I hadn’t gleaned anything new about the artist; in that sense, you’re better off picking up a book of her photographs (of course, that’s pretty much true of any artist). Despite Downey’s wonderful performance and Kidman’s presence, the movie is neither inspiring nor informative and sadly, not really entertaining either.

WHY RENT THIS: Downey is compelling. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We don’t ever see any of Arbus’ actual photographs. Would have preferred seeing her actual life story. Kidman speaks in a whisper and we never get the sense that Arbus was of any interest whatsoever.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is much explicit nudity and a graphic sex scene. The adult tone to the film make it unsuitable viewing for any but the most mature teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Steven Shainberg’s Uncle Lawrence was a close friend of Diane Arbus.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2,3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 3.5/10
NEXT: Selma

Mongol


Mongol

There are more than four horseman of the apocalypse in Mongolia.

(2007) Biographical Drama (Picturhouse) Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren, Aliya, Ba Sen, Amadu Mamadakov, Ba Yin, He Qi, Su Ben Hou, Ji Ri Mu Tu, A You Er, Hong Jong Ba Tu, E Er Deng Ba Te Er, Sai Xing Ga, Bayersetseg Erdenebat. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

 

Speaking for myself personally I have a great love for history. Understanding what has happened in our past helps us to understand who we are in the present. The history of Asia, Africa and Australia are largely unknown here as we are mostly taught the history of the United States and Western Europe.

Temudjin (whose name should properly be spelled Temuchin) would later be known as Genghis Khan, a man even ignorant Western ears have heard of. However, as the movie opens up, he is a little boy (Odsuren) whose father (Sen) is a warlord who needs to see his son betrothed. While his father is eager for a more politically advantageous union, his son becomes smitten with Borthe, a young girl (Erdenebat) with a feisty nature. Temudjin manages to convince his father to allow him to become betrothed to Borthe, promising that he will come to claim her in five years. The party heads for home.

On the way home his father is poisoned by a treacherous tribe betraying the Mongol tradition of hospitality. His father names him Khan which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the warriors who know that Temudjin’s mother was the war prisoner from a different tribe.

One of those warriors, Targutai (Mamadakov) spares the life of the young Temudjin, claiming that Mongols don’t kill children but they apparently do leave them in the steppes to die. Temudjin is found face down in the snow by Jamukha who becomes his blood brother.

Later, Targutai captures Temudjin and enslaves him. He escapes and grows to manhood (Asano) without a tribe. He is once again captured by Targutai who is now free to kill the adult Temudjin but the young man escapes anyway and this time finds Borthe (Chuluun) and resolves to bring her back to his family. However, they are attacked by the tribe Temudjin’s mother had been captured from and he takes an arrow. Borthe whips the horse Temudjin is on, sacrificing herself for the man she loves and becomes the slave/concubine of the warlord Chiledu (Ga).

Temudjin approaches Jamukha (Sun), now a Khan himself, and asks for help in liberating his wife from the Merkit. Jamukha agrees to this, but a year passes before the attack actually takes place. In the interim Chiledu has passed away and Borthe has had a son by Chiledu. Temudjin takes the son as his own, despite the mutterings of both his own warriors and those of Jamukha. The next morning when Temudjin takes his leave to return home, a pair of warriors from Jamukha’s tribe accompany him since Temudjin distributes more plunder among his warriors than their former Khan. Jamukha rides after them and demands their return but Temudjin responds that every Mongol is free to choose their own Khan. Jamukha warns Temudjin that this will undoubtedly lead to future conflict which it does when Jamukha’s brother is killed attempting to steal the horses back of the warriors who had defected to Temudjin’s tribe.

Jamukha has vast numerical superiority and quickly overwhelms Temudjin’s forces. Rather than execute his childhood friend, however, he chooses to sell him into slavery. Borthe is misinformed that her husband is dead. Will Temudjin be able to escape once again?

This is  magnificent sprawling epic of the sort that David Lean used to make. Using a pair of cinematographers, Bodrov manages to create magnificent vistas of the barren steppes as well as lovely recreations of ancient Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) as well as villages of the era. This is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see in the last five to ten years.

It also boasts the fine Japanese actor Asano. While the movie is subtitled, Asano is magnificent with his facial expressions. You may not always understand what he’s saying but he conveys everything he is thinking and feeling with his face and eyes, his expressiveness giving flesh and blood to the historical figure Temuchin. Asano also has fine chemistry with Chuluun who amazingly enough is not a professional actress but was someone that the casting director met in the Russian embassy in China when she was leaving after having searched fruitlessly for the right actress to play Borche.

Now, as far as historical accuracy is concerned things get a little dicey. For one thing, not much is really known about the great Khan’s childhood and young adult life as the Mongolians didn’t really believe in written records. Much of what we see onscreen is conjecture and to be honest some of it seems somewhat unlikely given what few facts we do know.

There are plenty of battle scenes here with lots of arterial blood spurting in graceful parabolas through the air to liberally coat the camera lens. It can be pretty brutal and not for the squeamish. We also don’t get a whole lot of insight into everyday life on the steppes. We just get the sense that Temuchin went from slavery to battle to battle to slavery and so on. I’m quite sure there was more to his life than that.

This was the first film in a projected trilogy which unfortunately will not be completed – the other two to cover his rise as Genghis Khan and his eventual fall. While the remote locations helped keep costs down in making this movie, the movie was nevertheless unprofitable and the great difficulty in making the movie to begin with has essentially derailed the project permanently. I would have liked to have seen those films, but at least we have this one to excite our imaginations and certainly Mongol does that expertly.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography. Asano turns a magnificent performance in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and is probably a good 15-20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some battle sequences that are quite bloody and gory.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (a province of China where more Mongolians live than in Mongolia itself) in places so remote that roads had to be built by the crew in order to travel there, and where dailies – which normally take 24 hours to make it back to the production, took three weeks to arrive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: 21 Jump Street

Amusement


Amusement

Jessica Lucas hear's her master's voice.

(Picturehouse) Keir O’Donnell, Katheryn Winnick, Laura Breckinridge, Jessica Lucas, Tad Hilgenbrinck, Reid Scott, Rena Owen, Kevin Gage. Directed by John Simpson

When a movie, which has been marketed for a theatrical release complete with release date and trailer, goes direct to video, there’s usually a reason. Sometimes it’s because the distributor goes belly-up, but mostly it’s because the movie is really bad. This is particularly true in the horror genre.

Shelby (Breckinridge) is returning home to Cincinnati with her boyfriend Rob (Hilgenbrinck) who has an inexplicable love of driving in convoys. After she bitches to him about driving too fast, they wind up filling up at a gas station with a guy who has been convoy-ing with them for several miles (O’Donnell) and a friendly trucker. The trucker tells them he heard on his CB that the Interstate was a parking lot and that the smokies were out in force laying bear traps, ten-four.

So of course they wind up driving down this deserted road in the middle of nowhere because those kinds of roads are always the alternative to Interstates and Shelby is nervous because she’s sure she saw a terrified woman in the cab of the truck. Rob is skeptical right up to the point where the terrified woman becomes a projectile that goes straight into his windshield. The other convoy guy and Rob try to find out what’s up with the trucker except of course the trucker kidnaps both the girls and Rob and the convoy guy have to rescue them…except we find out that the convoy guy is the real maniac. Jokes on you, Rob.

Tabitha (Winnick) is babysitting the unholy terrors that are her cousins at the spiffy new digs of her aunt. Everything is mostly okay except that her aunt has a thing for clowns and there are dozens of clown dolls everywhere, including a life-sized creepy clown that sits in a rocking chair and stares at Tabitha, particularly when she gets naked (why is it that none of my babysitters ever got naked?) or takes a nap. When her aunt calls to check up on the kids, it turns out that Auntie Clownlover has no life-sized clowns in the house. It turns out that Soylent Green….is peeeeeeeeeopullllllll or at least life-sized clown dolls are people. Either way you slice it, it’s bad for Tabitha, particularly since the guy in the clown suit is the same guy who went all convoy on Shelby and Rob.

Finally, there’s Lisa (Lucas) whose roommate has disappeared with a guy who apparently is staying in a hotel on the edge of town. Worrywart Lisa sends her boyfriend Dan (Scott) in to investigate and he winds up having a close encounter with a Victorola that has a very nasty speaker system. In the meantime, Lisa waits two hours and rather than call the police, decides to go into the spooky hotel where nobody has emerged from since she started watching it and find out for herself what’s going on. It’s brain-dead thinking like that which keeps the horror film industry alive.

Of course, by now you know that the guy in the hotel is the same guy who kidnapped Shelby and Tabitha…that’s right, kidnapped not murdered…and now they are trapped in his insane revenge game that goes back to some terrible event that happened in the fourth grade, which should teach you kids to be nice to everyone because you never know if they’ll grow up to be a homicidal maniac.

The problem here is that the script is just plain awful. Each of the three stories in this kinda sorta anthology has the exact same twist and by the third time around you’re finding much more interesting things by staring into the pattern on your Pepperoni Pizza than you are onscreen, which is quite a shame. Director Simpson actually has crafted a very good-looking movie with a competent cast that had they been given a better story to work with might have actually come up with a pretty darn good little horror movie. Unfortunately, there wasn’t, they didn’t and you shouldn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Very nice production values and the three leads are nice to look at.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a mess; the three stories all have the same twist and quite frankly by the third time around there’s not a lot to hold our interest.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore per se, but there is a good deal of violence and bad language. Like most horror movies, mature teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was initially slated for wide release but when New Line shut down their Picturehouse division, it was left on the shelf for almost two years before being released on video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sugar