Friday, May 26, 2017

Classic Movie Review: JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December (1994)

JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December (1994)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Whenever I watch a film from late period Godard – pretty much anything he made starting with Histoire(s) du Cinema (begun in 1989) – I am torn between two reactions. One is that Godard is still obviously a genius – his ability to create striking, memorable images – and in particular his editing and sound design is truly amazing, and several times during the runtime of one of his films, you are struck dumb by something you see or hear. But the other part of me thinks that most of what Godard has down in that period is self-involved claptrap – intellectual exercises for an increasingly small number of people, as he looks down on everyone else who isn’t a genius like Jean-Luc Godard. Is this some of this perhaps my own insecurity – worrying that I don’t understand what Godard is talking about? Undeniably – I really don’t have any clue what he’s talking about half the time in these films.
In his 1994 film, JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December is an hour long film in which Godard considers his own place in cinema history – as well as who he is as an artist at this late stage (he was in his 1960s by then). By this point, Godard had already become less and less commercial viable – something he seemed to actively court for nearly 30 years, as he more and more abandoned narrative film for avant-garde essays and montages. Godard looks morose throughout much of the film as he considers his past successes – and how out-of-sync he is now. There is also a little bit of playfulness in the film – as Godard interacts with his cleaning ladies (which you could choose to see as playful, or sexist, or perhaps both) – and then pokes at his critics who have accused him of anti-Semitism, by explaining stereo sound with a diagram, that ends up being a Star of David. And like any late Godard film, there is lot of philosophical quotes – as Godard seemingly brings up arguments, and then shoots them down in rapid succession.
There is much to admire about this film – and over the years, I have learned with late Godard to try not to parse it all too closely, to find out Godard’s precise meanings for everything – they’re going to fly over my head (and so be it, I guess) – but, as with much avant-garde cinema, to try to take it all in as a sensory experience. That’s probably why my two favorites of Godard’s late period are Notre Musique (2004), a brilliantly edited montage of the three kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and his latest film Goodbye to Language 3-D, which made brilliant use of 3-D technology, in ways I had never seen before (and my least favorite is Film Socialism – a film that seems to be deliberately visually ugly). Honestly though, I’m more than a little tired of Godard making films about Godard – and really do wish he had spent the last 30 years applying his genius to something more. But that’s a selfish complaint – just because late Godard isn’t really for me, doesn’t mean that he should listen to me. Much as I have said about the last few Terrence Malick films – when others complain that they wish he’d tell stories again, I always wonder why we want the one filmmaker doing something completely his own to be like everyone else. I didn’t much care of JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December, but if it’s your thing, enjoy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Movie Review: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper  and Jack Paglen and Michael Green based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (David / Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), Jussie Smollett (Ricks), Callie Hernandez (Upworth), Amy Seimetz (Faris), Nathaniel Dean (Hallett),  James Franco (Branson), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw).
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) remains the best film in the franchise – a pretty much perfect horror film that set an impossibly high standard for anything to compete with. When James Cameron made Aliens (1986) – he was smart to make more an action movie than a horror film out of it – it allowed him more room to make his film different than Scott’s. When Scott returned to the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus, he made a horror film to be sure – but it was one filled with ideas – some better than others – about mankind’s creation. I liked that film more than most – I dug the fact that in a film of that size, Scott was daring to try to do something other than repeat himself – address some bigger ideas. Yes, the characters do some incredibly, incredibly stupid thing – characters in this series have always been doing stupid things, but Prometheus pushed that to its breaking point – but I did like Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw as a successor for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and loved Michael Fassbender as the curious robot David. And on a technical level, the film was a big, bold, beautiful monster – sure, the “Engineers looked a little funny – but so much else was great, and the alien abortion sequence is one of the best in the franchise. In short, I’ll take some big ideas – even if they’re big, dumb ideas – along with the special effects over a film that doesn’t have any ideas at all.
It took five years to get a sequel to Prometheus – and I think Alien Covenant is an even better film than its predecessor was. There are still ideas here – but Scott tones them down a bit, plays up some of the horrific set pieces, and turns Fassbender’ s David (the only real returning character from the previous film) into the series’ best, non-Alien villain – a Frankenstein’s monster who becomes Dr. Frankenstein himself. Yes, once again, the characters do some almost inconceivably dumb things (keeping your fucking helmets on people! And do not look into the writhing, squishy egg David asks you to) – and the film introduces an interesting idea about faith, and then complete abandons it – but these are flaws the movie can deal with, because so much else works so well.
The film is about another giant spaceship – the Covenant – which has 2,000 colonists aboard, heading to a far off planet that they will eventually call their own. The only one not in hyper sleep is Walter (Michael Fassbender) – a slightly newer model than David (who we see in the films first scene, talking to his creator – so we know he’ll come back). Things go wrong, of course, the crew is woken up – the Captain is killed, etc. Drawn to a nearby planet by a rogue signal (a John Denver song) they put on hold the rest of their journey (another seven years of hyper sleep await them) – and decide to explore. It, of course, is not a good idea. The planet seems deserted – but of course it isn’t. David is there – and he’s got some friends.
Undeniably the best new character in the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson – who in the span of just a few years has become one of my favorite actresses, following Inherent Vice and Queen of Earth). She was married to the Captain who died (many of the crew are married couples – which makes sense given they aren’t on a single mission, but are out to colonize a new planet) – so she’s already dealing with her grief when they land on the planet – and things start to go wrong. Most of the other crew members are there as alien fodder – you know the drill – although I would have liked to see them do more with Billy Crudup as the second in command who becomes Captain – and says that as a man of faith, they didn’t trust him to lead the mission. Also, Danny McBride acquits himself nicely in a more dramatic role, Upstream Color’s brilliant Amy Seimetz probably made some money as his wife (and she’s pretty good) an Carmen Ejogo is mainly wasted as Crudup’s wife. The star of the movie is Fassbender however, doing a dual role as David, who barely tries to cover his ulterior motives, and Walter – who is newer model, but also less evolved (he says the robots of David’s time creeped people out because they were too real). Fassbender, playing the embodiment of evil for the second time this year (following his role as Satan in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song) is having a blast with his dual role – especially when David and Walter interact with each other, and David teaches Walter how to improve his fingering.
The film doesn’t rise to the level of perfection of the first two films in the series. Like everything that has come after that point, Alien Covenant is an imperfect monster. But this one is scary, and fun – and has a hell of an ending, even if you see it coming from a mile off. In short, it’s about as good as a movie like this, in 2017, can be expected to be.

Movie Review: Mommy Dead and Dearest

Mommy Dead and Dearest
Directed by: Erin Lee Carter.
The story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Deedee is tragic no matter how you look at it. It is a story of h
orrific child abuse that lasted well into what should have been Gypsy Rose’ adulthood – and eventually will lead to murder. From this strange, sad case director Erin Lee Carter has created one of the better true crime docs in recent years – one that isn’t all doom and gloom, but may actually have some hope for the future. In a case as messed up as this, perhaps that’s the best result imaginable.
Gypsy Rose was barely 3 months old, when her mother Deedee had her hooked up to a ventilator. From there, followed more than two decades of lies, in which Gypsy had to undergo countless medical procedures, for countless ailments and illnesses that she never really had. Her father saw her sometimes – but believed his ex-wife Deedee was doing her best to care for their sick daughter. She had such an extensive medical file, and an assortment of ailments because of the treatments, that even those doctors who expected something was off, didn’t really do much to stop anything to stop it. Deedee was estranged from most of her family – who viewed her with such skepticism and disdain that when they heard what happened, they figured it was yet another scam. Because, you see, Deedee was using all of Gypsy’s illnesses to get free stuff – from charities like the Make a Wish Foundation, and other places. Deedee did everything she could to isolate Gypsy from the outside world
Sooner or later however, you cannot control your child anymore – and that happened when Gypsy started using the internet – including a Christian dating website. She connects with Nicholas Godejohn, who has his own issues (he is on the autism spectrum, and was arrested at McDonalds once for using their free wifi to watch porn for 9 hours). The two fell in love, but of course, Deedee would never have let Gypsy go anywhere. Which is why she and Nicholas plotted and carried out her murder.
This story is tragic because as you watch it, it does become clear that none of the three main people involved – Deedee, Gypsy and Nicholas – are mentally healthy. The film diagnoses Deedee with Munchausen by Proxy – a mental disorder that has her manipulating everyone around her to get Gypsy the medical care “she needs”. Suffering for years under this abuse, never knowing what was normal, and spending all of her time with a master manipulator, Gypsy is immature and naïve, but also not above manipulation herself. Nicholas Godejohn has a strange, warped view of right and wrong – and love and sex – which allows him to do what he what he does as well. There are no winners her – Deedee is dead, Gypsy and Nicholas are in jail.
This marks Erin Lee Carr’s second film, following the interesting Thought Crimes, about a New York cop, who wrote extensively online about his desire to kill, rape and eat the various women in his life – he insisted it was all fantasy, and he would never all do it. That film had a fascinating case, but I’m not sure it ever really hit its target. Mommy Dead and Dearest does that – and it’s why it’s one of the best docs of the year so far.

Movie Review: Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
Directed by: Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie.
Written by: Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie.
Starring: Charlotte Aubin (Giutizia), Laurent Bélanger (Tumulto), Emmanuelle Lussier Martinez (Ordine Nuovo), Gabrielle Tremblay (Klas Batalo).
Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is a monster of a title, but it fits the movie itself, and it’s more than three hour runtime. This film from Quebec takes the 2012 so called Maple Uprising – where students in Quebec took to the streets to protest tuition hikes – as it’s jumping off point, and then envisions a lonely little group of four of those students, who keep right on protesting when everyone else stops. Written and directed by Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, the film sees its lonely group in a clearer way than they see themselves – the film both respects them for their idealism, but sees the various holes in their philosophy, and their basically shallow and immature behavior. Basically, it sees its four main characters as people who reject society, but don’t really know what to do next – they sit around in a dark, dank factory turned living space, and spew their ideals to each other. They make no money, other than what one of their group  Klas Batalo (Gabrielle Tremblay) – makes as a transgender prostitute (the others, apparently feeling no guilt about what she does to support the rest of them.
The obvious model for this film comes from Godard in the 1960s in films like La Chinoise with his “children of Marx and Coca Cola”. The film mixes in real footage of those 2012 protests with what happens next. The characters are energized when they are a part of the movement- even if, its clear early on that they are outside of that movement a little bit, more extreme – most of the protestors have an endpoint in mind, whereas these four want to keep going. But what do you do when you want to protest and everyone else has moved on?
The film is far from perfect. It is way too long, and repetitive throughout – although, I do think that’s part of the point of the film. I do think the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways – both admiring their youthful idealism, and poking fun of it (the best example of this is an early sex scene between two of the group – but once it starts to really get involved, one stops the other – its selfish to think of their own sexual desires, when revolution is needed. Later, various members of the group will get in trouble – and face harsh punishment, either by their own hands, or the hands of others – for “nostalgia”.
The film is largely plotless – the three hour runtime doesn’t help that – and for the most part, the characters are not particularly well defined. I do think you get to see a little bit inside of Gabrielle Tremblay’s character the most – a long scene with one of her clients in perhaps the best in the movie – but the rest kind of blend together. Again, that could easily be the point – that they have become so committed to their cause, that they’ve lost their own identities, sacrificing all to the group. It’s a fascinating film, not an altogether successful one, but one that I do find myself returning to in my mind in the week since I’ve seen it.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Brother's Keeper (1992)

Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directed by: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky.
Four year before they made the excellent Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – a documentary that spawned two sequels, and is often held up as one of the best true crime docs in history, Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky made Brother’s Keeper – a “true crime” doc in a lower key than the other film. It focused on the case of Delbert Ward – and his brothers. They lived in Munnsville, New York – a small town of only a few hundred people – one of those places where everyone knows everyone. And everyone did know the Ward boys – four brothers who didn’t bathe very often, came to town riding a couple of tractors, and basically kept to themselves on their large farm. While no one in town could rightly be called friends of the Ward boys – they weren’t enemies either – everyone basically kept to themselves. That is until the second oldest Ward boy – Bill – was found dead in his bed one morning – and Delbert was charged with his murder.
The Ward boys are not very smart – although, whether Delbert and the others actually suffered from intellectual disabilities, or whether they simply choose to remain mainly cut off from modern life, and hence no wise to its wise, is open for debate. Bill, the brother who winds up dead, had been suffering for a while – coughing and wheezing, complaining of pain in various places, etc. There is no evidence that any of them ever went to a doctor – so when Bill wound up dead, everyone assumed it was natural causes. But the cops find some evidence that confuses them – there’s debate as to whether a pillow was used to smother Bill, and some strange results on the autopsy. The police haul Delbert in for questioning – while there were four brothers, there were only two beds, and Delbert shared with Bill. They get a “confession” out of Delbert – but did they trick it out of him, coax it out of him – bully someone who wasn’t smart enough to know his rights to confess to something he didn’t do? The state at first floats the idea that it was a mercy killing – and then starts talking about something darker, and more perverted than that.
If you’re thinking this is going to be a documentary about a small town divided – you’d be wrong – while a few people do wonder if Delbert really did kill Bill as a mercy killing, no one in town wants to see him go to jail for it. They hold fundraisers for his legal defense fund – and the surviving Ward brothers become more accepted in the community than ever before. The case draws national attention – the filmmakers show the brothers watching themselves in a segment with Connie Chung for example. But what Berliner and Sinofsky capture is deeper than those segments on the show – because they stay there for so long, that everyone ends up simply accepting their presence. One of the other brothers, Lymon, is painfully shy in almost all social situations – but eventually he is able to open up to the camera – at least somewhat. The same is true for Delbert – who’s more articulate with the filmmakers than he is anywhere else.
The filmmakers also capture this small town brilliantly – and the attitudes in it, and why the police officers and the prosecutors – both from “the city” (what city? Who know, who cares) never do understand. I do worry that we’re going to spend the next four (or God forbid 8) years comparing everything to Trump, and Trump’s America – but you can certainly see the attitude many talk about contributing to the rise of Trump in this film. The locals talk about how everyone from the city thinks they’re all a bunch of idiot hicks – and they look on them, and think they can walk all over them without noticing. The prosecutor describes Delbert and the rest of the Wards as “outcasts” in their community – and he may not really be wrong – but the community would rather have their own outcasts, than someone from the city. The feeling that led to Trump’s rise didn’t spring up overnight – you can certainly see that in this film from 25 years ago. Yet, you can also see the humanity in rural people – some of whom are more open minded than you’d think (as one older man says even if there was sex going on between the brothers, who cares – it’s none of his business).
I won’t reveal the outcome of the trial – although I don’t think, the way the film is structured, that it’s ever really in doubt – especially when we get to the trial scenes themselves, which can be painful to watch. Paradise Lost and its sequels will always be the films that Berlinger and Sinofsky are remembered for – say what you want about them, but they are among the only films ever that you could argue saved someone’s life – but Brother’s Keeper is another triumph for the pair – and one of the best documentaries of the 1990s. It deserved to be more widely known.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Movie Review: Get Me Roger Stone

Get Me Roger Stone
Directed by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
Written by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
To hear Roger Stone tell it, there is hardly anything that has happened in American politics since Nixon that he isn’t at least partially responsible for. Undeniably, some of that is true – as Jeffrey Toobin calls Stone in this film, he is the “malevolent Forrest Gump of American politics” – in that everywhere you look at some major political event, Stone is there – perhaps off to the side, but he’s there. Is he responsible for all of it – or was he just there? No one seems to be quite sure what Stone did and did not do – what is fact, and what is the Roger Stone produced legend of himself. One thing is for sure though – Stone has not been a force for good in American politics.
Stone became a Conservative as a young man – Barry Goldwater was his idol at one point – and during college, he took time off to help work on Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, eventually becoming the youngest person questioned by the Watergate Grand Jury, because, of course he was. Stone makes no apologies for his love of Nixon – he even has the ex-President tattooed on his back for God’s sake. His association with Nixon, oddly, never really hurt him – and he later became head of the Young Republicans, and then worked to get Ronald Reagan elected. During the 1980s – he founded a lobbying firm alongside Paul Manafort (yes, Trump’s campaign manager) – where they specialized in dirty politics – taking money from dictators and warlords, and helping to clean-up their image. That made Stone a lot of money. It was in the 1980s when Stone met Donald Trump – and tried to convince him to run for President. When Trump eventually did run for President, Stone was there of course – a couple more decades, a sex scandal cannot slow down Stone. He was more of a fringe figure by then – going on Alex Jones, pedaling his Clinton rape book and shirts, and right there supporting Trump the whole way. He was on and off the campaign more than once.
To say that Stone is a sleaze isn’t really an insult to him – he relishes it. He wants you – the person watching the documentary filmed by what he calls “lefty filmmakers” – to hate his guts, because that means he’s effective. He knows how to appeal to dumb people, and how to get them to come out and vote. He doesn’t believe most of what he says – because he doesn’t have to. He just needs to convince others that it’s true, or muddy the water so much that they cannot tell what is true and what isn’t. In short, Roger Stone is one of the reasons we hear so much about “Fake News” – he invented it.
Or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think. He wants you to think that he’s responsible for everything – Reagan winning, the election of George W. Bush, the fall of Eliot Spitzer, the rise of Trump. When the Democrats win, it’s because he was sidelined – like during the 1996 election, when a sex scandal got Stone ousted from Bob Dole’s campaign (in the interest of being fair and balanced, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a sex scandal to me – I mean he and his wife were caught advertising for swingers to join them, so he wasn’t even cheating on his wife). He’s too much of a loose cannon, too in love with the spotlight to be a man in the shadows type like Karl Rove. If Stone’s not on TV somewhere, he’ll wither up and die from lack of attention.
The film follows Stone over a period of many months, leading up to Election night, when Donald Trump stunned the world and became President. It does provide some moments with Stone’s family – his wife, daughter and granddaughter, and Stone himself talking about the side of him we don’t see – the private side, the husband/father/grandfather. Thankfully, there’s not much of this (just the right amount) – not because I don’t want to view Stone as human, but because it really doesn’t matter what his private life is like – it matters what he does in public, which is really to debase the American political system. That’s he’s nice to his granddaughter doesn’t really matter in the face of that.
The film is an important documentary for 2017. I’m sure the filmmaker thought they were making a different film when they shot it – a look at how close America came to the brink of electing an idiot, based on the sleazy politics of Stone. That film would play as a warning, and perhaps a relief. The one they made is different – an entertaining tragedy. Because no matter what you think of Roger Stone, they man is entertaining to watch – even while doing so makes your stomach churn.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Movie Review: Risk

Directed by: Laura Poitras.   
Written by: Laura Poitras.
During the time Laura Poitras was filming Risk, her new documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, she also shot, edited and released her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour – which of course, won her an Oscar. That film was a tightly contained, almost thriller, in which Snowden spends a few days in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and a few journalists, explaining all the data he has leaked to them, just before their stories hit the airwaves. It also helped that while there are many contradictory feelings about Snowden out there (and in my case, my own head) – he really does seem to be a fairly earnest, straight forward kind of guy. What you see is what you get, and he’s not really trying to play Poitras, or anyone else. Risk, and Assange, is a different animal as it was shot over the course of seven years, and in fact more footage has been shot and added since the film debuted at Cannes in 2016. Poitras’ feelings towards Assange – and other figures in the film – changes as well. This makes for a very messy film – but a fascinating one.
This isn’t a film to watch if you don’t know anything about Wikileaks or Assange. That would be Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which does a good job running down their history. This is a more intimate film, in which Poitras simply points her camera at Assange as he goes about his days, and films. She wonders why he’s giving her so much access – he doesn’t seem to like her very much she says – and yet, there she is when he and a colleague try and get then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the phone to warn her that all of the State Department’s communication were about to be leaked – not by them, but because they themselves have been compromised (I cannot decide if egomania, brazenness or sheer idiocy that the pair call up the State Department and ask to speak to Hilary Clinton). At first, it feels like Poitras admires Assange and WikiLeaks, as well as Jacob Appelbaum, who also works there, and who we see loudly demanding accountability from Egypt’s telecommunication companies after the Arab Spring. If Assange always seemed like an egomaniac, perhaps doing good work, Appelbaum seemed like a good guy through and through. By the end, of course, her outlook on both changes drastically.
It’s fairly early in the film when Assange gets charged with rape with Sweden – and faces an extradition warrant back to Sweden, which he appeals as high as he could go in England, and when he still loses, starts to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy where he remains today – claiming it’s all just a ruse to get him back to Sweden, where they will end up sending him to America on more serious charges (I’ve never quite understood if that was the case, why America wanted him sent back to Sweden first – why not just get the Brits to send him back – but no, matter). Assange, of course, says the whole thing is a conspiracy against him, and he’s completely innocent. He may well be (since he won’t go back and face charges, we’ll never know) – but in the film he does go on a pretty toxic rant about radical feminists, and lesbian nightclubs, that wouldn’t be out of place on a MRA Forum. That scene is fascinating to watch the women around him, and how they react (or try not to).
Risk ends up becoming a study in contradictions – something Poitras admits in the film, as she didn’t know that was the movie she was making. It is about Assange who wants to expose everyone’s secrets but his own – about Appelbaum, who Poitras admits having a brief affair with – also being accused of abuse and sexual assault, while trying to project a more wholesome image of Assange (he does okay at first – but there are a few more cringe-y moments later in the film). While Assange lets Poitras back after the Snowden affair, he never forgave her for not letting Wikileaks have any of the information – instead allowing it to go the mainstream media. As Hilary Clinton’s emails get leaked, by Wikileaks, Poitras wants to know if he got them from Russia – and he won’t say, although he clearly hates Hilary Clinton.
You can make you want of Edward Snowden and what he did – I’m still conflicted myself – but it wasn’t really about him, and he knew it. For Assange, everything is about him – he masks it behind his ideology, that again, you can agree with or not, but he’s always at the center of it.
All of this makes Risk sound probably more interesting to watch than it actually is. The film is one of those that’s more interesting in retrospect – more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. The film meanders, and doesn’t always have a clear thought process behind what we’re seeing and why (I’m not sure why Poitras felt it necessary to show the embarrassing footage of Lady Gaga, but she does). This isn’t as good as Citizenfour (and neither is as good as her underseen doc from before them, The Oath) – but it is a fascinating one.