Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Documentaries of 2010

(photos of Joan Rivers, top, and Banksy)
By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat, 12-29-2010

The golden age of documentaries continued in 2010, with filmmakers tackling all sorts of subjects with stylistically innovative approaches. But you had to work hard to keep up with them. Our local independent theaters didn’t book everything. Some played first-run on cable-television’s video-on-demand platform; others on HBO. And thank goodness for our great Public Library system, which seems to buy every documentary available as soon as it’s released on DVD. Here are my 10 favorite docs:

1. Inside Job: Charles Ferguson’s masterful look at the unchecked greed that caused our economy to almost collapse in 2008, and at the close ties between those charged with monitoring Wall Street excess and those getting rich from it. It unfolds like a great thriller, filling you with outrage while at the same time making a complex subject accessible.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop: Count me among those who believe this Banksy-“directed” look at the world of street art and its cooptation by consumer culture isn’t really a straightforward documentary. But if the movie itself is a prank, it’s a deeply layered, clever one that makes you love it — and art itself — all the more.

3. A Film Unfinished: This disturbing, mournful meditation by Yael Hersonski on the meaning of 60 minutes of forgotten raw footage that the Nazis shot in the Warsaw Ghetto is an important addition to Holocaust studies. It shows the cavalier, inhuman way the Germans tried to exploit as Jewish-caused the horrors of ghetto life — starvation, corpses in the streets, improper sanitation — that their own genocidal policies caused.

4. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: Director Tamra Davis had interviewed the doomed young artist in the 1980s, right as he was becoming an art star, and uses that footage as a starting point to build this perceptive study of his life. Among her important points is that he wasn’t a naf — he was well-informed on art and culture and smart about his intentions.

5. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern treat Rivers with respect, not as the desperate, aging celebrity that pop culture likes to present her as. She rewards them by revealing the tough, sensitive, shrewd, outraged and outrageous comedian-philosopher that she has always been.

6. Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Alex Gibney intricately lays out the way Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, working with the Republican House Majority leader Tom DeLay and others (including former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney) put the interests of the country (and, in some cases, Abramoff’s own clients) second to their own financial interests. It’s a strong, penetrating indictment of Republican politics in the George W. Bush era.

7. Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?: In the year’s best music documentary, director John Scheinfeld reminds Boomers (and educates younger viewers) about how gifted a singer-songwriter the late Nilsson was. While he doesn’t shy away from depicting the artist’s self-destructive, substance-abusing side, he also shows that Nilsson never stopped trying to be a productive, caring human being.

8. The Tillman Story: With the cooperation of Pat Tillman’s family, director Amir Bar-Lev methodically unravels the government cover-up about how the football-player-turned Army Ranger was killed in Afghanistan, and the attempt to turn the atheist, intellectual athletic star into a clichéd stereotype of a God-fearing, unquestioning soldier. After the movie, I felt I knew him much better.

9. Gasland: Thanks to HBO for presenting this provocative, artfully made film by Josh Fox about the environmental dangers of a form of natural-gas drilling called “fracking” and the role Vice President Dick Cheney played in making it easier to do. It’s a useful, unexpected addition to the debate on energy policies.

10. The Art of the Steal: Don Argott’s look at the history of Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection of priceless Impressionist art portrays the imperious Dr. Albert Barnes as a rebel against Philadelphia blue-blood society who fought to keep his art out of their greedy hands. I don’t completely buy it — Barnes seems to have confused the collecting art with the making of it in terms of importance — but this is a lively, opinionated slice of American art-collecting and museum history.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 Was an Epic Year for Crime Dramas


It was an epic year for crime dramas

Cincinnati CityBeat, 12-22-10
. . . . . . .

Any short list of Best American Movies would include Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films from the early 1970s, maybe as a single entry. Using the world of crime for its potential to offer great drama and action through interlocking narrative, they also serve well as knife-sharp metaphor for the political and economic rot underneath the nave American Dream — they are deserved masterpieces. Epics, even.

So maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Hollywood rarely if ever tries to equal that achievement, anymore. Coppola certainly failed with 1990’s Godfather, Part III. The kind of complexity and real-world relevancy is just too hard — and maybe too, well, challenging for today’s American movie audiences.

And yet 2010 was a year filled with attempts to make “crime epics” worthy of the first two Godfathers’ ambitions and acting levels, if not always with the same kind of resources available to realize the vision of Coppola’s classics. But they’ve moved beyond the American dream — these new attempts often come from abroad and play the art-house circuit. And, increasingly, they’re being made for television. Two great American examples — Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire — are on cable channels. The British Red Riding trilogy, while released to theaters and video-on-demand in the U.S., started life as a television project.

French director Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is the fact-based story of the Venezuela-born terrorist/revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who committed violent acts on behalf of radical groups the world over, including the brazen 1975 kidnapping of OPEC ministers at a meeting in Vienna. It already has played in the U.S. as a Sundance Channel miniseries. A shortened version that still packs a wallop is now available on video-on-demand and in some theaters, and gives Edgar Ramirez a showcase for acting.

Jacques Mesrine was a notorious, egotistical French criminal who had delusions that his crimes — bank robberies, kidnapping, prison escapes — in some way constituted revolutionary acts. Before French authorities finally ambushed and killed him in 1979, he seemed invincible. In the four-hour biopic Mesrine (divided into two separate films, which played here briefly) directed by Jean-Francois Richet (and based on the criminal’s own autobiography), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) as Mesrine shows swagger, passion and the sexiness, but also cold-hearted cruelty and volatility.

Ajami, an Israeli film that played here briefly, locks together separate stories about Arab and Jewish residents of Tel Aviv/Jaffa, showing its characters’ interconnectedness. It starts with a drive-by shooting in a gritty Arab neighborhood called Ajami, a payback for another shooting, and from there builds as the various parties become ensnared in both the problems of a criminal underworld and the society at-large.

Set in Melbourne, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom — an almost-hit on the art-house circuit — features a family of low-life criminals ruled by a deceptively cheery matriarch played memorable by Jacki Weaver. Living in a suburban-style home, at war with a corrupt police force but by no means an honorable alternative, they are deromanticized and made ordinary by this film. Their world seems like ours, which makes them all the more relevant. And horrifying.

The British Red Riding trilogy, an adaptation of novels by David Peace, made it to American video-on-demand as well as a few art houses (not here) this year and is now on DVD. Consisting of three separate but interrelated movies by three directors, it’s set in the era of the real-life Yorkshire Ripper serial killer — 1970s to early 1980s. But the trilogy is far more concerned with a corrupt, murderous police force that sees the Ripper as a nuisance at most. The trilogy boils over with the atmospheric rot and bleakness of a crumbling urban society.

Ever since The Sopranos, there’s been recognition that American cable-TV series about gangsters can, given the time to burrow deep into their settings and develop their characters, provide profound commentary on the American experience.

So far, one great post-Sopranos crime series has emerged — AMC’s Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, which finished its third season this year. But rather than occurring in a Mafia-laden New Jersey, it takes place in the bright, sunny Southwest, the land of growth and promise. An Albuquerque chemistry teacher stricken with lung cancer and distraught over medical bills, resorts to making the best meth possible to support his family. Bryan Cranston has won three Emmys as that teacher, Walter White, and the series has followed as he slowly travels ever deeper into a world of evil he struggles to stay above. It’s a slow, transfixing Dostoyevskian journey.

Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that just completed its first season, is set in the wide-open Atlantic City of the Prohibition Era and is modeled on the life of a historical figure, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who got rich making sure booze stayed plentiful in that resort town. As played by Steve Buscemi with estimable range and subtlety, the somewhat-fictionalized “Nucky” is the city’s treasurer and undisputed political boss.

Created by Sopranos writer Terence Winter, Boardwalk’s ambition is to place crime (and greed) front and center as a shaping force of the 20th-century American character, and to show how politics, urban development, personal relationships, entertainment — wealth — depend on it. With a sizeable production budget and a Ragtime-like sensibility for mixing real-life figures (Warren Harding, Sophie Tucker, Al Capone, the Chicago Black Sox) with literary creations, it aims to be a genuine crime epic.

So while we wait for more mainstream American movies to pick up the Godfathers’ mantle and carry it, just look elsewhere. You’ll see it’s been a good year for these kinds of filmed stories. They’re just not often at the multiplex.
(Film still from Carlos)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Film Review | True Grit (2010)

No Country for Young Women

by Thomas Delapa

True Grit may not be reckoned a great movie, but it does have a fistful of great scenes—and all of them with young Hailee Steinfeld, sitting tall in the saddle in the Coen brothers’ sprightly Western remake. As a 14-year-old pigtailed whippersnapper hell-bent on revenge, Steinfeld nearly lassos the picture right from under marquee stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

Old-timers will recollect that John Wayne bagged a Best Actor Oscar for the original 1969 oater, based on Charles Portis’ gem of a novella. As boozy U.S. marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the Duke himself had a sharp female foil in Kim Darby, playing the part of the headstrong Mattie Ross out to avenge the murder of her father.

Youngins expecting either a blackly comic or tongue-in-cheek treatment from the brothers Joel and Ethan (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), will be mighty disappointed. Neither bloody nor simple, this is truly an homage, not to any one star in particular, but to the classic Western as whole, from its rugged, wide-screen vistas to the old-school sense of morality and violent retribution.

“There is nothing free except the grace of God,” is how Mattie commences to narrate her neo-biblical quest in the valley of the shadow of death, otherwise known as the Old West. True Grit rises to the heights when it most closely follows the trail of Portis’ language, a richly idiosyncratic blend of colorful prose and quaint 19th-century regionalisms. The “pitiless man who loves to pull a cork” is none other than the ornery, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, sought out by Mattie to make good on her vendetta. The lowdown varmint they’re after is Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), rumored to be hiding out with “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang.

In an old flour sack, Mattie lugs around a hulking six-shooter that belonged to her father, and she aims to use it on Chaney. But in this mean, windswept country overrun by desperadoes and other bad men, Mattie’s most potent weapon is her tongue. In likely the movie’s best showdown, Mattie puts a few holes in the ego of LaBoeuf (Damon), a puffed-up Texas Ranger who makes the fool mistake of trying to put Mattie in her place. It’s not a hard chore to begin with, but Damon’s low-key, likably simple-minded part will make you forget all about singer Glen Campbell’s sorry misfire in the original.

Toe-to-toe against the towering Hollywood legend of John Wayne, the Oscar-winning Bridges trots out in a different, meandering direction. Sometimes drunk and usually disorderly, Bridges underplays his hand, taking Brando-esque mumbling out on the range, while frequently burying his lines. But this Rooster sobers up and flies right just long enough to do what a man has got to do, especially one with true grit and a dead shot. Mattie isn’t just on a quest for her father’s killer, but a fatherly knight in shining leather.

Shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins in New Mexico and Texas, True Grit rides to the screen as a handsome elegy for the classic Western, but armed with a modernist afterglow on the moral consequences of violence and revenge. In this barren and brutal land, even Mattie has a fall from grace, tumbling down a mineshaft crawling with snakes. In the Eden that once was America, the God-fearing and righteous also succumb.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Who Is Harry Nilsson -- Really?

Who Is Harry Nilsson? (Review)
Lorber Films, 2010, Not Rated

By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat (12-15-10)
. . . . . . .

Harry Nilsson was a late-1960s/early-1970s Los Angeles-based songwriter’s songwriter — The Beatles adored him and Three Dog Night recorded his “One” — who also had such a fluidly expressive vocal range that he briefly became a best-selling recording artist with both hits that he wrote (“Me and My Arrow,” “Jump Into the Fire”) and ones he covered (“Everybody’s Talkin,’ ” “Without You”). But a weakness for booze and drugs, as well as a reputation for being difficult and ambivalent about success, caused a fade from public view long before he died of heart disease at age 52 in 1994.

On his way down, Nilsson and John Lennon once famously got ejected from an L.A. club for heckling the Smothers Brothers.

For this documentary, which has a wealth of archival footage — as well as excerpts from candid audio interviews with Nilsson about his life — director/writer John Scheinfeld sets out to explore in depth just how strong his artistic accomplishments were. And he doesn’t shy away from the self-destructive aspects of his personality.

A who’s-who of L.A.’s great Boomer songwriters (Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson) are on hand to share their opinions and remembrances. (So, too, are the Smothers Brothers.) Richard Perry, the producer of his million-selling breakthrough Nilsson Schmilsson album, offers deep insight into the creation of that classic, as well as some damning opinion about why Nilsson subsequently tried to sabotage that success.

But actually, as you hear the music he went on to make — including a stately album of standards and a lovely song for the movie The Fisher King — you wonder if Perry was right. Nilsson also honorably dedicated himself to handgun control after Lennon’s assassination and tried to do right for his family as he grew weaker from ailments.

Overall, he emerges as a kind, caring but deeply flawed man and a terrific songwriter. Grade: B+

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Film Review | Black Swan

Bird Watching

by Thomas Delapa

In the jarring clash between high and low art that is Black Swan, let’s just say that culture takes it in the neck. Darren Aronofsky’s freakish thriller set in the ballet world even turns Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into an ugly duckling.

For this dark backstage fantasy of ambition, sex and jealousy, Aronofsky (The Wrestler) shines a spotlight on Nina (Natalie Portman), a mousy ballerina with more Freudian baggage than Norman Bates. A 30-year-old virgin, Nina lives with her controlling, passive-aggressive mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her own dance career when she had Nina.

In the featherweight script (by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin), Nina’s art takes over her life—the plot is a pale, sexed-up knockoff of Michael’s Powell’s classic The Red Shoes. Nina’s dream comes true as a nightmare once the company’s crude, autocratic, but so French director (Vincent Cassel) chooses her for the double lead roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake.

Aronofsky’s bizarre Frankenstein creation is sort of like David Cronenberg grafted onto Margot Fonteyn. As the fragile and neurotic Nina, Portman comes up short as a prima donna, skittishly tip-toeing through the movie less like a swan than an anorexic deer caught in the footlights. Aronofsky’s camera follows Portman relentlessly, framing her in a series of mirrors that reflect her own narcissistic and delusional traps.

But Aronofsky cheats in both plot and his urban-gothic visuals, dancing around what is real and what are Nina’s paranoid delusions. Just as Nina gets the lead, she’s haunted by a doe-eyed rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who’s everything—confident, sexual—that Nina isn’t. Aronofsky peels away the beauty and grace to find the pain and obsession underneath, yet he also simplistically (and perhaps chauvinistically) reduces Nina’s neurotic compulsions to her fear of sex.

This is where Black Swan takes a nose-dive. Despite its guise as a modernist, female-centered psychodrama, underneath it’s mostly lurid male fantasy, trumpeting on one pole Portman’s sex-starved nymph and Kunis’ wanton, lesbian leanings on the other. Somehow Nina wins the lead role, despite her lack of oomph as the Black Swan. The director is fond of sexual euphemisms to criticize Nina’s rehearsals. When he’s not French-kissing her to tap into her inner vixen, he’s yelling “Let it go!” as if she’s making a porn movie, not a ballet. Lily’s rehearsals, on the other hand, are sultry and seductive. “She’s not faking it,” he sneers at Nina. This is not your father’s George Balanchine. Achtung, you don’t need a German dictionary to figure out that the shadowy Lily is Nina’s doppelganger diva, whether real or imagined.

Black and white or in living color, Black Swan tries to soar with the eagles, but crash-lands into high-toned kitsch.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Film Review | Avatar

Pandora’s Box

by Thomas Delapa

Since its release one year ago, Avatar has soared to become the biggest box-office hit in the known universe, even leaving writer/director James Cameron’s own Titanic in its wake. Yet audiences following the advice of the DVD tagline (“Return to Pandora...”) may well be amazed by the sci-fi fantasy’s epic lack of depth, made even clearer when bereft of the digitally generated 3D theatrical spectacle.

While it’s notoriously difficult to argue with—or stem the tide of—any Hollywood blockbuster, the few choice discouraging words that greeted Avatar now loom larger now, with or without glasses. Whether you derisively dub it Dances With Smurfs or Bambi Goes to Outer Space, Cameron’s environmentally correct outer-space morality tale uproots just about every cliché in the revisionist book, transplanting them for a story that pits tree-hugging big blue humanoids against an armed invasion of evildoing Earthlings.

In place of Union soldier Kevin Costner going native in the old West, Cameron drafts wooden B-lister Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who lands on the faraway planet of Pandora. In this Alien-ated, energy-starved universe, the ruthless RDA Corporation is set to mine all of Pandora’s precious “Unobtanium.” Standing in the way are the super-sized Na’vi people, a race of ten-foot-tall, blue-hued natives who are one with nature. While a compassionate scientist (Sigourney Weaver) wants to make nice with the Na’vi, a scarred, sneering colonel (Stephen Lang) is happy to terminate them with shock-and-awesome firepower.

A Y2K Spielberg with his pulse on the anemic poundings of popular culture, Cameron shrewdly mines the burgeoning video-game anti-aesthetic to boot up the plot. To surreptitiously befriend the Na’vi on their own turf, the scientists have developed hybrid humanoid shells called Avatars—much like the fantasy alter-egos beloved by players in the cyber-game universe. These ginned-up genetic disguises allow Jake and company to leave their bodies behind at the lab so they can fraternize with the locals. In his Blue Man guise, Jake instantly strikes up a relationship with the lithe and loinclothed Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Cameron’s Pandoran Pocahontas.

Little matter that neither Cameron nor the audience can figure out how the Avatar process practically works. Throughout his adventure, Jake constantly ping-pongs back and forth between his Edenic life with Neytiri and his time back on base, but it’s never clear how this is possible. This is a guy who never sleeps, and has the magic ability to be in two places at the same time.

On the small screen, Avatar’s eye-popping, computer-generated splendor fades against a plot and characterizations that are, at best, wallpaper. With the zeitgeist of ecological cataclysm during this year (cresting with the BP oil spill), Cameron’s message obviously hit a mother lode with worldwide audiences, grafting environmentalism with pro-Native (American) sentiments. Yet as with most Hollywood big chiefs, the director’s naive, touchy-feely themes are no match against his delight in delivering massive battle scenes designed to bring out the popcorn warrior in us all.

Once the Jake-led Na’vi insurgents go on the warpath, how their arrows manage to smash through the glass of heavily-armed space helicopters is a mystery only Yoda could solve. Yes, Jake goes native in a big and tall way, even taming the king of flying dragons to take the homeland fight back to the colonel’s evil corporate army.

At the 2010 Oscars, while his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked off with the Best Director and Best Picture awards for The Hurt Locker, Cameron nevertheless won the box-office war in a rout. He still may be the king of the world, but in today’s diminished Hollywood, that world is very small indeed.



Saturday, November 20, 2010

Vincent Cassel -- Public Enemy No. 1

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Review)

Vincent Cassel rules again in tale of real-life French gangster
By Steven Rosen
(From Cincinnati CityBeat 11-17-10)

Part two of the lean, explosive, unsentimental French biopic of that country’s most notorious gangster of the modern era, Jacques Mesrine, has just as much rivetingly realistic, kinetically filmed excitement and great acting as part one, which is just finishing its run at the Esquire Theatre.

Public Enemy No. 1 basically covers Mesrine’s life in France in the 1970s — one of numerous bank robberies, shoot-outs with police, prison and courtroom escapes, lovemaking with beautiful women, prideful boasts to anyone who’ll listen and occasionally frightening outbursts of violent anger — that finally ends with a veritable assassination by police.

The action in the film — directed by Jean-Francois Richet from a screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri (with Richet) — happens furiously fast and unfolds with verite-style breathlessly tense realism in the assured hands of cinematographer Robert Gantz. There is barely time for expository transitions. But what there is time for is the amazingly alive, alert and downright magnetic performance by Vincent Cassel as the chameleon-like Mesrine.

Looking like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Raging Bull-era Robert De Niro (including a sizable paunch as he ages), with moments of Robert Mitchum-like late-period heavy-lidded sadness alternating with a mischievous sparkle, Cassell keeps you watching every scene he’s in. And that’s every scene.

While this is not a panderingly sympathetic portrayal, it’s hard to not feel the character’s sense of loss in short, tender scenes with his daughter and dying father. Public Enemy No. 1 also has excellent supporting acting — especially Mathieu Amalrec (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as a far more cautious criminal accomplice and Georges Wilson (who since has died) as an elderly millionaire who takes a fatalistic attitude toward his kidnapping by Mesrine. Grade: A

Monday, November 1, 2010

Remembering George Hickenlooper's "Mayor of the Sunset Strip"

From HARP Magazine

“Mayor of the Sunset Strip”

By Steven Rosen

Rodney Bingenheimer is a rock ‘n’ roll Zelig. He’s also a rueful Ponce de Leon, searching for his Fountain of Youth in pop culture.

In “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” the enormously entertaining and surprisingly poignant – revelatory, even – documentary about him by George Hickenlooper, we see the short, pixieish Bingenheimer as a stand-in for Davy Jones of The Monkees on the set of the TV series. They’re side-by-side on the set, the same build with the same circa-1960s modish features. Both are young, of course, Bingenheimer only recently has arrived in L.A. from northern California, where he was a misunderstood adolescent. (The film will be released theatrically in March.)

Thirty-five years later, Bingenheimer is still with the hot rock celebrities he has befriended – only now as a late-night weekend deejay playing whatever he wants on modern-rock station KROQ. Coldplay and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani are among those seen with Rodney in this film.

And he still looks ageless – a tiny slip of a man dressed in casual black outfits and wearing his brown hair in a still-1960s modish, rooster-style cut with bangs. His face still has its little-boy gentleness, although a crease around the mouth now gives him a frown-like smile like the comedian Joe E. Brown.

Hickenlooper, whose fine documentary “Hearts of Darkness” was about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” has a very different subject from Francis Ford Coppola in Bingenheimer. He seems to cruise through his life passively rather than trying to shape and change it. He is a facilitator rather than an artist, but he’s always where the action is.

This film nicely separates Bingenheimer’s public and private lives, without losing sense of him as a mysterious whole. The public life is a delight – Hickenlooper extensively uses archival film and video footage as well as the subject’s own material. There’s even a taped phone call of a very young Bingenheimer trying to reach President Kennedy in the White House.

To a giddy and exhilarating rock sound track, Hickenlooper shows Bingenheimer with everyone who ever mattered musically to L.A. rock from the 1960s onward. He’s seen with Sonny & Cher, Nancy Sinatra, X, Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Bowie and his beloved groupie friends the GTOs. Many of the celebrities sit for new interviews – Bowie, Jones, Sinatra and Courtney Love are especially insightful, loving even.

And the rowdies of L.A.’s 1970s-era glam/glitter scene, where Bingenheimer ran Rodney’s English Disco and was one of the first to champion arty, theatrical British rock, are present here, too. The towering Kim Fowley is hilariously vulgar – scary, even – as he talks about all the sex he got from the young girls who went to Bingenheimer’s club.

But the film captures the other side of Bingenheimer, too. There’s a loneliness reflected in his quietude – he admits to longing for a family he doesn’t have. In some emotionally raw footage, he tries to tell a younger friend, Camille Chancery, he loves her while she sits uncomfortably by his side.

His mother has recently died, and he keeps her ashes in his crowded apartment awaiting a trip to England to spread them. Hickenlooper follows him to England, where he releases the ashes on a tour boat and silently prays.

Bingenheimer also is resentful, although he’s too polite to get angry about it, that his radio station has slotted him on a graveyard shift – Sundays midnight-3 a.m. He’s never earned much, so it’s unclear what his future will be. “It’s unbelievable somebody could be in music this long, help so many people and just be in it for the music,” a younger KROQ deejay observes of Bingenheimer.

Indeed, it is – it’s also a little painful, too. But the great music that still makes him happy, and is as much a part of this movie as he is, alleviates as much of that pain as is possible.

(George Hickenlooper died Oct. 29, 2010.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lebanon: Claustrophobic Israeli Film About War

By Steven Rosen
(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 9-24-10)

Grade: B+

Today’s war movies — like today’s wars — are a long way from The Longest Day. The Hurt Locker, Restrepo (a documentary) and now the Israeli Lebanon are claustrophobic and involved with the almost existential day-to-day survival of their soldiers, mired in tight quarters in Mideast wars where the impossibility of decisive victory seems a foregone conclusion.

Lebanon, from director Samuel Maoz and based on his own experiences during Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon, ups the ante. Virtually all the action occurs either within the tight confines of an Israeli tank alone in a hostile town, or as seen from the gun sight of it. The four young soldiers are grimy, sweaty, nervous, scared, sometimes profane, sometimes philosophical, sometimes heroic and sometimes not. In this, they seem very human — which is the film’s main draw after one tires of the limited setting.

The four are Shmuel the gunner, commander Assi, ammunition loader Herzl and driver Yigal. Comparisons to Das Boot are inevitable, but the spaces here are tighter (and the action is less dynamic). Because they are played by actors working from Maoz’s script, the characters are more dramatically satisfying to watch than the real American soldiers in Restrepo, whose macho-obsessed lack of introspection wore this viewer out.

Israel is clearly haunted by that war — there’s a tough, embittered melancholy to this as well as 2008’s animated Waltz With Bashir that’s overall much more mature and weary than American movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, which still are full of posturing. But, sadly, it looks like there will be all too many opportunities for our current war films to improve.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Film Review | The Social Network

by Thomas Delapa

With a friend like Mark Zuckerberg, you obviously don’t need enemies.

In The Social Network, writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher flip through the dirty back pages in the life of the whiz-kid billionaire Facebook founder, and it all makes for a good and juicy read, but a slick one.

Those in need of a heavy volume of dramatic irony will find it in this breezy chronicle, which shows how one lonely, brilliant misfit can make a million virtual friends and several fortunes while deleting all his real friends in his rise to the top of the Internet heap. Call it Revenge of the 'Net Nerds when Harvard undergrad Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has the idea of a “cool” way for his fellow students to connect and form friendships online–not to mention get girls.

But along with his vision of a brave new virtual world, Zuckerberg’s own profile includes a marked like for smart-ass sarcasm, double-dealing and outright betrayal, judging by this biopic based on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires. Did Zuckerberg copy his idea from two rich Harvard frat boys and then cheat his best friend Eduardo Saverin out his rightful stake in the company?

In zippy jigsaw flashbacks, Fincher and Sorkin paste together the genesis of the now-holy Facebook, but they also make the connection between Zuckerberg and the revolutionary zeitgeist mindset that places the impersonal virtual world head and shoulders over the real one. Starting with Eisenberg, Fincher’s young faces turn in impressive performances, including Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who slithers in as Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley Mephistopheles.

As well as The Social Network works with its wit and drive, it also leaves you unsatisfied on a deeper level, not unlike Fincher’s Fight Club and his other punchy contemporary dramas. He and Sorkin are so busy turning the Facebook/Zuckerberg pages, they don’t seem to much care about what’s going on between the lines.


Originally published in The Perpetual Post, 10/7/10

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Review of The Tenth Inning

Hits, Runs and Errors
by Thomas Delapa

The Tenth Inning
of director Ken Burns’ winning PBS Baseball series felt less like a fall classic than a classic forties film noir: A foul sense of doom and gloom was ever lurking on-deck, despite the two decades of on-field drama and brilliant heroics. The lurking gloom, of course, was steroids, Major League Baseball’s crippling scandal that made the Black Sox cheaters look like bush leaguers.

Fans of the game must have been crying in their beers during Burns’ painful blow-by-blow on the rise and fall of such tarnished diamond stars as Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Roger Clemens. Taking up his chronicle in the early 1990s, Burns returns with his documentary instincts intact, though not the same behind-the-scenes team that made the first nine episodes so much of a hit. Lamentably gone is the seasoned narration by John Chancellor; Keith David is only average off the bench. Burns’ lineup of sportswriter commentaries was also a bit out of left field, with too much playing time given to lesser-knowns at the expense of veterans. The largely generic background music is a weak out.

In the last two decades, professional baseball has been it’s own worst enemy. A renaissance in the grand new era of urban ballparks was followed by the near-suicidal players’ strike in 1994. All-star stories like Cal Ripken’s Iron Man endurance record, the superhuman hitting feats of Ichiro Suziki and the New York Yankees’ deep-pockets resurgence are left on base while Burns ploddingly shadows baseball’s surly dark knight, Barry Bonds, in his unholy quest for all those once-sacred home run records.

An unsung refrain in this ode/dirge doubleheader is “greed, greed, greed.” Most fans, however loyal to their teams and the sport itself, blame the players in our era of multi-million free-agent contracts for banjo-hitting utility infielders. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, indeed.

As to the ugly Steroid Era (which may still be playing at ballpark near you), muted whistle-blowers like Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci have their turn at bat, sending blistering line drives in the direction of the players, the owners and MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who all happily played Three Blind Mice during the travesty. Ironically, however the baseball world cheered the 1998 McGuire/Sammy Sosa home-run race as welcome relief from the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, ultimately baseball was far worse at cleaning up its own dirty laundry. On the subject of the ever-woeful Chicago Cubs after the infamous 2003 Steven Bartman foul ball, Verducci hits this winner: “They’ve had a bad century. It’s time to rally.”

But in Boston, long-suffering Red Sox fans finally rejoiced in 2004, burying the Curse of the Bambino as their team won its first World Series in 86 years. In this bright highlight, Burns swings for the fences and gets there, wrapping up Boston’s amazing, history-making comeback against the hated Yankees, a series that miraculously turned on the few inches between Dave Roberts’ hand, a glove and a stolen second base. Like a home run disappearing in the night sky, the lyrical play-by-play comments from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and columnist Mike Barnicle lift The Tenth Inning from mere sport reportage to a poignant sweet spot deep in every true fan’s heart.


Originally published in The Perpetual Post, 10/1/10

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Film Review | The Tillman Story

Not Coming Home
by Thomas Delapa

It’s long been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. When it comes to the tragic Pat Tillman story, truer words were never spoken.

All-star NFL football player. Free spirit. Square-jawed jock. Patriot. All-around good guy. Pat Tillman was all of the above. When he and his brother Kevin enlisted in the Army in 2002, shocking their friends and family, even the White House stood up and saluted. Upon learning that Pat Tillman was to be sent to the frontlines in Afghanistan, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent out a paternalistic memo to the Secretary of the Army, stating “we might want to keep an eye on him.”

By now we know the recoiling hollowness of Rumsfeld’s words. On patrol in April 2004, Cpl. Pat Tillman was shot to death by his own men, in an outrageous—and still baffling—case of friendly fire. The official military term is “fratricide”, though there was nothing brotherly about what Tillman’s Army band of brothers did to him—either then or in the six years since his death.

Much as many Americans would like to bury the long-running wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, director Amir Bar-Lev’s explosive film The Tillman Story brings the war home, front-and-center. For Tillman’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, she and her vociferous family willfully enlisted to make the documentary to “set the record straight.” It’s a story that, for the Tillmans and countless others, has become a heart-broken record after more than eight years of war.

When Tillman joined the Army, walking away from a million-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals, the media shot off a salvo of praise for this seemingly gung-ho American. In death, he was eulogized by President Bush as a “fierce defender of liberty.” Of course, those tributes were delivered when his death was initially reported as a result of enemy fire. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor, and the nation, led by the flag-waving Fox News, rushed to memorialize him as a fallen hero.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to Arlington. To start with was Tillman’s expressed wish not to be given a military funeral. Cracks in the propaganda myth started appearing before the plaster had dried. By late 2004, the Tillman family began to suspect that the Army was lying to them about Pat’s death. Partially through their own investigation, corroborated by witnesses, the family determined that not only was their son killed by friendly fire, but that military authorities had covered up the facts in the case from day one.

Through interviews with former members of Tillman’s Army Ranger unit, as well as recent footage from the Afghan mountainside where he was killed, Bar-Lev methodically reconstructs the chaotic firefight that took place on April 22, 2004. Since there was no Taliban in the area, when the smoke clears, it becomes horrifically apparent that Tillman’s death came at the hands of jumpy, trigger-happy members of his own unit. To date, no individual has been held responsible for his murder, while only one higher-up—Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger—was sacked for the cover-up.

In what amounts to salt in the wounds, the makers of The Tillman Story recently lost their battle to get its rating switched from “R” to the more box-office-friendly “PG-13” —chiefly because of its barrage of F-bombs. Audiences who do see this powerful and poignant film will quickly realize that the real obscenity is what happened to Tillman, from his outrageous death to the cowardly and disgraceful burial of the facts.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 9/24/10

Friday, September 17, 2010

Film review | I'm Still Here

Nowhere Man

by Thomas Delapa

Joaquin Phoenix may be still with us, but his really awful mock documentary, I’m Still Here, is going nowhere fast.

Dumped in theaters with little fanfare, the film has now been revealed to be a hoax. In a recent interview with The New York Times, director Casey Affleck said that virtually the whole act was made up. Except for the truly gullible (“Unflinchingly honest” raved Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman), the few people who’ve actually seen Phoenix’s bizarre pseudo reality show might have hurriedly left doubting what they saw.

In a long, 108-minute crash-and-burn, Affleck follows Phoenix from his 2008 “retirement” as an actor to his to aborted rebirth as a hip-hop performer. From the tabloid fodder of his disastrous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman to his mawkish auditioning for rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Phoenix implodes before the cameras, looking like a cross between Charles Manson and the Unibomber. In his private, profusely profane, moments, he lets it all hang out, starting with his pot belly. When he’s not trashing his friends and cronies in fits of mumbling paranoia, he’s imbibing with cocaine and hookers. The spectacle quickly goes down the toilet, bottoming out in a disgusting scene of scatological revenge. The meltdown climaxes in Phoenix’s short-lived appearance at a Miami night club, where he hops into the crowd to fight a heckler.

While Phoenix and Affleck may have pretentiously meant I’m Still Here as an attention-getting satire on celebrity, the laughable joke is on them. Phoenix doesn’t need a director or even a therapist. It seems obvious that this sophomoric poseur still needs to be potty trained.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Film review | The American

Born in the USA

by Thomas Delapa

George Clooney isn’t just a bona fide movie star. He may be the last American matinee idol. In a time when most U.S. leading men are either fading (Jack Nicholson), aging (Al Pacino), strange (Mel Gibson), selective (Tom Hanks) or forever adolescent (Tom Cruise), Clooney still shines with the kind of looks and charisma that hark back to old Hollywood.

But King George is also reluctant movie royalty. Apart from his lucrative roles in the leaky Ocean’s Eleven franchise, he prefers to swim upstream in risky, offbeat and independent films. For a heartthrob, he’s a wallflower when it comes to old-school romance. To this critic, there’s no question his most likable performance was as a conniving convict in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Likable is likely the last word you’d use to describe Clooney’s role in The American, a stark, Europeanized thriller that’s as far from Hollywood as Tuscany is from Tuscaloosa. Just to get our attention that this isn’t your father’s George Clooney, in the first scene he shoots a woman in the back.

In a role that only the NRA could love, Clooney’s Jack is an itinerant underground arms dealer who specializes in custom-built guns. He works alone, travels alone and—mostly—sleeps alone. His only contact is a chilly superior (Johan Leysen) who warns him to, above all, “don’t make any friends.” Ambushed in Sweden, Jack hightails it to Italy, where he goes on the lam in the harsh (and earthquake-prone) mountainous region of Abruzzi.

If Clooney’s vehicle is of a peculiar anti-commercial caliber, it also isn’t especially original. It’s loaded with homages that recoil with imagery from cinema’s minimalist past, from Fred Zinnemann’s fine The Day of the Jackal to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s famed existentialist dramas, such as 1975’s The Passenger.

In their adaptation of Martin Booth’s 1990 novel (A Very Private Gentleman), director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe seem to want to ascend to the lofty peaks of allegory. Jack isn’t simply an American, but the American–in the oft-quoted words of D.H. Lawrence, “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Clooney is all those things, and less. We know nothing about him, other than he has a butterfly tattoo on his back, is bravura in bed, and is equally adept breaking a man’s neck with James Bondian license-to-kill authority.

For the other dramatic details, we’re supposed to read between the lines. The trouble is, those lines are as meandering as the curves on the prostitute that Jack shacks up with in the small town. For all the chaste anti-commercialism that the movie shoots for, Clara (Violante Placido) is the sort of happy Italian hooker that only Hollywood could dream of: sweet, young, voluptuous and ripe for the taking.

In Jack’s daytime hours, he gets busy filling a custom rifle order for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an alluring assassin and master of disguise who looks like she belongs on Goldfinger’s payroll. As Jack works methodically to assemble the gun and its special silencer in secret, Corbijn packs these scenes with minimalist pop, crafting a statement on the torrid longstanding love affair between firearms and the man.

Elsewhere, Corbijn and his cinematographer put Jack in the crosshairs, positioning him alone in composed long shots that underline his isolation, if not desolation. Despite the warning, Jack tentatively befriends a wise local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who refutes Jack’s naive Americanized notion that he can “escape history.”

If Jack is aimed to be the violent, allegorically ugly, American, neither can Clooney escape his fateful inability to express his character through an arsenal of long silences, blank stares and airless ennui. I’ll grant that Corbijn’s nifty twist finale finds its target, but otherwise The American is more miss than hit.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 9/8/10

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Animal Kingdom" Is a Roaring Good Aussie Crime Drama

Animal Kingdom (Review)

By Steven Rosen

From Cincinnati CityBeat, Sept. 7, 2010

As movie catch phrases go, it’s up there with “I drink your milkshake” from There Will Be Blood. Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), the Lady MacBethian mother of a dysfunctional family of Melbourne criminals in Animal Kingdom, stares at a crooked cop — her eyes alight with knowingness as she smiles — and states, “And you’ve done some bad things, sweetie.”

God, you think, she seems so delighted to say that, so turned on. What kind of person is she? As played by the late-middle-aged Weaver, a slightly heavier version of Beverly D’Angelo, she’s a blonde-haired matron who is part Carmela Soprano and part Angie Dickinson’s Big Bad Mama.

She’s ultimately very dangerous, yes, but also nice, not imposing or intruding until circumstances demand it. Her domain is a suburban home also occupied by her three adult-age sons, who are involved in armed robbery. Her loving relationship with her troubled sons seems beyond merely supportive — it’s flirtatious.

If the Australian criminal world — and life itself — can really be compared to the animal kingdom, then she is the Lion Queen. And with her colorful wardrobe, she is also part peacock.

Director David Michod and cinematographer Adam Arkapow first shoot her swathed in dramatic blue light — climbing a stairway, slightly out of breath, announcing her arrival.

She has come to an apartment building to rescue her 17-year-old grandson “J,” a tall, quiet young man who, as the film starts, is sitting on the sofa blankly watching a game show while a woman besides him naps. It’s a scene of blissful domestic banality, something out of an R. Crumb comic.

Then, men in uniform stride past the picture window and rap on the screen door. “What’s she taken,” they ask? “Heroin,” he replies. As they unsuccessfully try to revive the slumping woman, he stands by, turning from that scene to the TV. That’s his mother dying, and he’s an innocent lamb lost between illusion and reality.

All alone, he calls grandma Smurf, whom he barely knows — she and her daughter fought years ago over a card game. She cheerily comes and brings him home (she doesn’t seem to care about her daughter’s death) and asks her sons to welcome and protect him.

Her brood tries to, but they are not an easy bunch at accepting strangers. The worst is Andrew, known as “Pope,” a dead-eyed psychotic with a hair-trigger temper, chillingly underplayed by Ben Mendelsohn to exude menace and elicit fear without going over the top.

He subtly taunts fragile, repressed younger brother Darren (Luke Ford). The sleazy, tattooed Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a drugged-out loose cannon who’s always close to a meltdown.

The brothers have a friend-in-crime, a handsome family man named Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton, looking like a Disco-era Barry Gibb), who would like to move from this risky profession to the stock market. When something unexpected happens to him, it sets off a chain of uncontrollable events as the clan seeks revenge on those responsible — in this case, some innocent cops. And “J,” still the lamb, has to figure out what to do.

This frames the narrative: Can “J” break free of this toxic family bond to help a paternal police detective (Guy Pearce) bring them to justice? And can he do it soon enough to save his young, rebellious girlfriend Nicki (Laura Wheelwright) from an increasingly depraved “Pope?”

That’s maybe a traditional crime-film story arc, but calling Animal Kingdom a traditional crime film is misleading. It’s not soaked in blood and mayhem at the expense of character development. It doesn’t aspire to the epic sweep of The Godfather or Martin Scorsese’s major mafia dramas. It actually could better be compared with the recent Winter’s Bone — a teenager, left to his own devices by a parent’s desertion, has to negotiate survival in an alien environment where bad people hide in plain sight.

It also heralds the international arrival of a very talented and assured Australian writer/director, Michod. The film won this year’s Grand Jury Prize — Drama in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema competition and is based on a true incident. Michod is very self-assured. Except for some brief narration by “J,” exposition is stripped to a minimum; scenes and plot developments are edited to move as quickly as possible while maintaining overall coherence.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Michod as screenwriter has trouble establishing the rules of engagement for his characters, especially the police. They act like cold-blooded executioners in some scenes, yet in others are frustrated bureaucrats in the face of legal maneuvering by the Weavers’ corrupt lawyer (Dan Wyllie).

But the director’s feel for naturalism overrides those rough patches. He has a flair for finding the perfect tone for his most audacious scenes. The aforementioned opening one is slow and infused with pathos. However, one that closes the film is sudden, shocking and unforgettable.

Animal Kingdom is unforgettable, too. Grade: A-


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Film Review | Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Hugh Hefner Superstar

by Thomas Delapa

Celebrities, here’s a tip worthy of the Playboy Advisor: If you consent to a documentary biography, make sure you hire a pal to direct.

After making Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, the only remaining to-do items for director Brigitte Berman is to nominate her subject for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in time, canonization. P.S., if you read the press-book fine print, you’ll discover that Berman and Hef have been friends for years.

While an Oscar-winning filmmaker in her own right (Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got), Berman doesn’t exactly pursue the naked truths behind her controversial and paradoxical subject, despite being granted unique access to Hefner’s voluminous personal archives. The portrait that emerges is less a sharp profile than a glossy, R-rated edition of This Is Your Life, complete with a gallery of genuflecting testimonials.

That’s a shame, because Berman uncovers lively facts and footage that focus on Hefner’s part-time career as liberal-minded social activist. While undoubtedly most famous (or infamous) as the founder/editor of the first mainstream nudie magazine, Hefner can also be credited for his work—however opportunistic—on such landmark 1950s and 1960s causes as racial integration, free speech, and anti-McCarthyism. Only in recent years has it come to light that Hefner’s activism merited the snooping surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI during the tumultuous Vietnam-War era.

Lounging in his familiar red smoking jacket, Hefner makes his case in earnest, and Berman, all ears, hops to it. A parade of impressive guests, from Jesse Jackson and Dick Cavett to Tony Bennett and Bill Maher, toast Hefner’s guts, integrity, and courage under fire. Playboy mansion regular James Caan commends his taste in women. If there’s not enough hot air, we’re treated (seriously) to several stirring refrains of “Blowin in the Wind.”

Backed up by eye-opening vintage footage, Berman isn’t all bluster. On Hefner’s short-lived, hipster TV shows, syndicated in the 1950s and 1960s, we see a racially mixed gathering of guests, including Sammy Davis Jr. and blacklisted folk singer Peter Seeger; as well as the controversial “sick” comic Lenny Bruce. Hefner’s 1960s swingin’ Playboy Clubs were among the first to feature black comics, such as Chicago’s Dick Gregory. And in the earliest of Playboy’s landmark interview pieces ( “It set the standard,” says Hef ), a pre-Roots Alex Haley talked at length with jazz legend Miles Davis.

For token counterpoint, feminist Susan Brownmiller chimes in, along with singer and social conservative Pat Boone. Brownmiller dismisses Hefner’s activism (and literary pretensions) as a clever, self-serving ruse to dress up and legitimize “soft” pornography that thrives on the objectification of women. At bottom, Playboy is essentially a purveyor of male sexual fantasy, and arguably has helped open the floodgates for today’s multi-billion-dollar porn industry. While Hefner rather disingenuously declares his original intent was to show that “female beauty was everywhere”, Brownmiller argues that Playboy’s 57 years of photographic spreads create the voyeuristic and sexist fantasy that “the girl next door will take her clothes off for you.” Of course, in Hefner’s case, it was no fantasy.

For another unlikely defender, Berman beams up director George Lucas, who un-Forcefully claims that Star Wars isn’t so different from Playboy’s layouts of bare naked young ladies with come-hither expressions. “I create fantasy; Hef creates fantasy,” says the creator of Han Solo and Jar Jar Binks.

Apart from a smattering of discouraging words, there are few cracks exposed in Berman’s Mt. Rushmore-lofty tribute. We hear only scant stories from the thousands of women who’ve disrobed for Playboy. In this top-heavy chronicle, Berman brings us up to date with Hefner in his eighties, sans pipe and wives, but still surrounded by a bevy of busty 20-something blondes.

In the age of Viagra, what 84-year-old millionaire playboy needs the fountain of youth?

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
is currently playing in select theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/26/10

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Joan Rivers Has a Documentary Worthy of Mike Tyson

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Review)

Startlingly honest and spellbinding documentary shows comedienne's resolve and desperation

By Steven Rosen
(From Cincinnati CityBeat)

Can we talk? Let’s discuss what a startlingly honest and spellbinding film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is. And this, frankly, is a surprise. Who would have thought Rivers — 75 when this film was made and now 77 — was still so interesting?

It wasn’t long ago that Rivers was regarded as a joke. Her Fox network talk show had bombed, she and daughter Melissa performed high-kitsch red-carpet commentary before award-show broadcasts and she even had the bad taste to star in a made-for-TV movie about the 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. Her days as a tough, pioneering female comic seemed a long, long way in the past. Now there was an air of desperation about her.

One key element of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the documentary made by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, is that desperation does indeed permeate her every pore. But it doesn’t make her a joke; it keeps her humor relevant. Despite the mistakes listed above, she's kept doing stand-up as edgy and profane as, say, Kathy Griffin. Maybe more so.

What makes Joanie run? Fear that one day she won’t be able to.

The revelation of Piece of Work isn’t just how funny (and naughty) her jokes still are; it’s that she’ll do anything to keep working. She holds up an appointment book to the camera and bemoans the lack of bookings. She travels from a shopping-channel appearance in Toronto to a casino in cold, snowy Wisconsin — where she explodes at an audience member who protests a joke about Helen Keller’s deafness (“Oh, you stupid ass, comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot,” she berates him.)

Part of her drive might be that she needs the money. She lives in a rococo-style Manhattan apartment that could be the setting for a film about royal decadence in pre-Revolution France. She has a small staff, wears thickly luxuriant fur coats and travels by limousine.

But there’s more to it than that. “She hears the clock ticking every minute, everyday,” an agent says. She’s also still seething at how mentor Johnny Carson, who made her his favorite substitute host, dropped her like a rock (and maybe blackballed her) when she got her late-night talk show on Fox. She wants a comeback to prove him wrong.

Stern and Sundberg’s background in documentaries about societal underdogs — The Trials of Daryll Hunt (about a man wrongly convicted of murder) and The Devil Came on Horseback (about genocide in Darfur) — have taught them to dig hard for truth and to have empathy for their subject. That serves Rivers well; she needs someone to understand her as a person and not treat her as some kind of icon. (In fact, when a broadcast reporter asks her what it’s like to be an icon, she responds, “I’m not ready, fuck you!”).

The filmmakers also stay out of Rivers’ way. While this is a contemporary documentary, very much a product of our era with its color photography and sophisticated interspersing of vintage clips with current material, it has the contemplative, fly-on-the-wall quality of classic cinema verite.

This film spends too much time on the appearance by Rivers and her daughter on the crappy, corny Celebrity Apprentice TV show, which they both seem to take way too seriously. But it also captures some extraordinary soul-bearing moments, as when Rivers brings a Thanksgiving meal to a wheelchair-bound woman named Flo Fox. She had once been a photographer with as tough and daring an aesthetic as Rivers has for comedy. Rivers goes home to look her up on the Internet, is deeply impressed and then shaken by the unfairness of her fate. “Life is so mean,” she says.

Like Phyllis Diller before, if less extreme, the young Rivers at first used her unspectacular looks as a source for humor. A Piece of Work shows examples from her appearances on shows in the 1960s and 1970s, especially The Tonight Show. And like Diller, she has undergone extensive plastic surgery and now makes that as well as her reliance on heavy make-up sources of her humor. I wonder why. As this film’s many close-ups of Rivers show, the work she has had done looks effective, as does the windswept-blonde hair and the make-up. When she smiles or laughs, she seems much younger than her age.

Since Rivers rants and wails like a mourner at a funeral against the aging process that has left her feeling abandoned by the 21st century (and loss of friends), it’s worth comparing A Piece of Work with another documentary about a cultural figure who, with age, has become more self-aware and eloquently insightful about his mistakes: Tyson. Yet the tragedy that film reveals is there’s little Mike Tyson can do now with his hard-won knowledge — boxing, the sport that made him famous, is a pretty unforgiving profession for a guy in his mid-forties.

Rivers’ lessons learned, however, keep her career in stand-up vital. Everything becomes material. “Good things don’t always happen to good people, and I’m very angry about it,” she comments. “But the anger fuels the comedy.”

This might be the key reason for Rivers’ current comeback. She is getting older and she’s getting better.

Grade: B-plus

Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Review | Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim 1 -- The World 0

Pow! Zap! Crunch! Hey, hey, Japanese manga meets The Monkees when Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) goes mano-a-mano with the seven evil exes of the punky, magenta-haired girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) of his dreams. In this pop-culture compost that starts with Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, director Edgar Wright hits the recycle button with a vengeance for the cartoonish adventures of the super-dorky but awesomely-powered hero. From riffs on Veganism to Seinfeld, kung fu fighting to Pac-Man, Scott Pilgrim gobbles up a generation of X-number of pop touchstones without so much as a burp. For the audience world over age 20, indigestion will likely set in by the overstuffed finale, fed by a steady diet of empty, rock-em sock-em special effects. Like, you’ll wish for “Game Over” before Scott does. With Kieran Culkin. --TD

Monday, August 16, 2010

Film Review | Countdown to Zero

Numbers Game

by Thomas Delapa

Want to see something really scary?

Forget Independence Day, 2012 or any other Hollywood horror story. This summer, Countdown to Zero should land on your Top Ten list. The cast includes such international stars as Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair. The doomsday plot? Unless the world acts quickly, time will run out on our ability to defuse the looming nuclear threat.

In a season of dreamy cinematic escapism, director Lucy Walker’s incendiary documentary hits home with a vengeance. Back in the hot years of the Cold War, U.S. military strategists were called upon to “think the unthinkable.” Walker goes one further, both thinking—and envisioning—the apocalyptic nightmare of either accidental or intentional nuclear catastrophe.

Serving as both past and prologue is President Kennedy’s 1961 address to the U.N., in which he warns of the “nuclear sword of Damocles” hanging over humanity. That was when only a few superpowers had the Bomb. Now that the Cold War has thawed, nuclear proliferation and global terrorism have emerged as the itchiest potential fingers on the atomic trigger. Since the 1960s, Pakistan and North Korea have also joined the nuclear club, and both have been players in the illicit trade of nuclear technology, particularly to Iran.

The number-one shocking lesson to learn in Countdown might be that basic nuclear weaponry isn’t rocket science. A bomb roughly equivalent to the one that leveled Hiroshima only requires a grapefruit-sized quantity of fissionable uranium or plutonium. The creation of that enriched uranium—however time-consuming and expensive—can nevertheless be accomplished with 1950s centrifuge technology. According to Walker’s experts, the hardest part is fabricating a device for detonating or delivering the warhead. Alert viewers—if not Homeland Security—may well ask why these experts so readily broadcast such Nukes-for-Dummies tips on film. After all, armed evidently with only low-tech box-cutters, a handful of terrorists staged the most devastating attack on America since Pearl Harbor.

Today, not only is the nuclear genie out of the bottle, but no one can find the cork. In the former Soviet state of Georgia, one N-plant worker smuggled a small quantity of enriched uranium past the flimsy security. He planned to sell it on the black market so he could buy luxury American cars. Once smuggled, a ball of dense, weapons-grade uranium can easily be hidden within a small lead container. Entrance into a U.S. port might be smooth sailing, given the enormous tonnage of all shapes and sizes that pass daily through our many ports.

Unlike many advocacy documentaries, Walker works to defuses any charge of bias by including experts from a range of the political spectrum, including Republican die-hard James Baker and a grave Valerie Plame Wilson, the ex-CIA agent notoriously outed by the Bush/Cheney White House. For historical benchmarks, Walker summons up haunting black-and-white footage of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. While he famously expressed regrets over his paternity, Oppenheimer also brazenly admitted that “when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.”

While Walker launches Countdown as a cautionary documentary, it hits the target as a hot-button horror show. An interview with a former Minuteman-missile silo officer reveals just how close the Cold War world was to a Dr. Strangelove-style Armageddon. Though today’s arsenals have been reduced as a result of U.S.-Soviet treaties, there are still at least 23,000 nuclear warheads on the ready. One think-tanker soberly concludes, “There’s nothing that makes the launch of nuclear weapons impossible.”

In a blitz of chilling graphics, we see H-bomb blast scenarios laid over maps of the world’s great cities. Try thinking this unthinkable: at ground zero, temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit.

From this unspeakable brink, Walker brings us back down to earth, adding a not-so-disarming coda on the strategies united nations can use to stop this countdown to madness. Judging by these experts, time isn’t on our side.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/13/10

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Chilling Winter's Bone

A Chilling Winter's Bone

By Steven Rosen

(Adapted From Cincinnati CityBeat)

Winter's Bone (Review)

The Sundance Film Festival has always offered a friendly home for naturalistic, rural/small-town-set family dramas with strong suspense/thriller elements; think Ulee’s Gold and last year’s Frozen River.

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — winner of the Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance — continues that tradition, improving upon it in some ways but also coming on a little too strong.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, it tells of 17-year-old backwoods Ozarks girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) who needs to get her missing meth-cooking father to a court date or her family will lose their log-cabin-style home because he jumped bail.

Because her mother has had an apparent breakdown, it’s up to Ree to take care of a younger brother and sister. She could also save the homestead, alternately, by finding proof dad has died — maybe in a messy squabble with other drug dealers, of whom the picturesque but impoverished Ozarks has its share.

The film manages well at incorporating an insightfully sociological -- and evocatively cinematographic -- sense of place, yet not getting bogged down either "meaning" or a rapturous take on nature. As Ree’s search for her father quickly takes hold, putting her in contact (and conflict) with some very tough (and haggard-looking) adults, the suspense elements rise.

Granik — who also co-wrote the screenplay — moves the action and terse dialogue around quickly and economically; you have to stay alert to keep abreast of what’s happening. And the characters are never cheap stereotypes — even the meanest are rendered with subtlety.

The outstanding Lawrence, who has a refreshing fresh-scrubbed innocence (she looks a bit like a young Jewel) to match her character’s spunk and grit, gets some strong support from John Hawkes, who plays her dangerous uncle Teardrop with the ferociousness yet smartness of a young Harry Dean Stanton.

The film has some moments when Ree seems far tougher than her years, as when teaching her younger brother how to gut a squirrel. Other times, as in a wrenching climactic scene in a boat when her father's fate is put in her hands, she conveys a child's horror at the cruelty of her world.

But for all the emphasis on naturalism, that world depicted here seems too cut off from the rest of America as we know it to feel totally authentic. That’s brought home in a brilliant scene when Ree tries to enlist with a wise military recruiter — is this the only contact with the greater government (other than a small-town police officer) that she has?

These aren't Davy Crockett days. Her total backwoods isolation doesn’t quite ring true for our modern times. Still, Winter's Bone reminds us that Americana can be chilling.

Grade: B-plus
Labels: Debra Granik, Steven Rosen, Winter's Bone

Thursday, August 5, 2010

American Idle: Adventures in TV Land

by Thomas Delapa

If you want to seriously study the sick state of TV in the age of Fox News, reality shows and infomercials, spend a few days semi-conscious in a hospital bed.

Some 50 years ago, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow controversially declared television to be a “vast wasteland.” That was when TV was limited to three monolithic national networks. Today, Minow’s diagnosis is no less grim, especially with the metastasizing growth of cable channels into a hundred-headed Hydra monster.

Like a reclined, reluctant tourist in Dante’s Hell, I descended into TV land, armed only with a remote control to temporarily zap the devilish dross I bore witness to. While no one can argue that network TV of the fifties was heaven on Earth, at least the networks sought to edify audiences with such notable dramatic series as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. Where have all the quality dramatic shows gone? A nation turns its lonely, bleary eyes to you, HBO.

In a bloodshot reflection of our splintered society, there’s seemingly a cable channel and program for every interest group, bias, demographic, and gender, all ubiquitously interrupted by a rising tide of noisy commercials. One of the original promises of cable was the absence of advertisements, but that pledge has long been canceled, and is unlikely to ever return in re-runs. Against the swamp of commercialism, PBS remains a lonely oasis of arts and educational fare, despite a notable drop in original content. While the History Channel is a source of informative, if sensationalized, factoid films, the Animal Planet has viciously regressed, devolving the nature documentary into when-animals-attack Darwinism.

Of course, there’s no better advertisement for America’s post-Reagan social Darwinism than the reality show, TV’s version of the Roman bread and circuses—hold the bread. In fact, there’s very little that’s “real” about these spectacles, whether the contrived settings, manipulated action or the exhibitionist participants themselves, who are pre-selected for potential on-camera ballistics. Voyeurism and exhibitionism go hand in hand on these (sur)reality shows, exposing our perverse fixation with the biggest winners of the great American game—as well as its biggest losers.

The only news about cable news is how the 24/7 format serves to both magnify and distort whatever news there is, however trivial or lurid, and often to paranoid extremes. With Fox News, MSNBC and the pioneering CNN now in ratings competition, the battle isn’t for old-school journalistic scoops anymore, but how to out-spin the other with the loudest mouths. On the feverishly right-wing Fox, a scary parade of dolled-up blond pundits march in lockstep with Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, et al., dishing out snide, cynical barbs at anything remotely liberal, intellectual or Obaman. This drone of negativity is best exacerbated when accompanied by a simplistic video prop, like the endlessly repeated disaster-cam shot of the gushing BP oil well, bleeding black gunk in the Gulf of Mexico and killing all those poor pelicans. At no point during the catastrophe did any of Fox’s slick commentators remind us of Sarah Palin’s campaign cry to “Drill, baby, drill.”

Crude is only one of the words that come to mind for most of cable-TV. Outside of the “premium” HBO (which produced the superb John Adams mini-series), the erratic AMC (home to the Emmy-winning Mad Men) and Turner Classic Movies, the small screen’s big picture is a blur of re-runs, inane game shows, old movies, cartoons, semi-pornographic music videos, televangelists, infomercials and, of course, an exhaustively wide world of sports and pseudo-sports, including NASCAR, martial-arts cage matches, and high-stakes poker—my bet as the nerdiest of televised non-events. The Bravo channel, which once merited applause for high-brow fare, has even dumbed down, going gaga for a Lady Gaga photo shoot.

Dazed and discontented viewers may well ask who took the “vision” out of television. It’s become our national id, where egos rule. For every great show like The Simpsons, there are a hundred Hell’s Kitchens or Wipeouts. But in an increasingly insular, bored, home-theater society that wants its TV and MTV, nobody today is yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going take this anymore.” Resistance seems programmed to fail. Like Chauncey Gardiner, the numbed voyeur of Being There, Americans like to watch.


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/4/10

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Film review | Metropolis (1927)

Twilight of the Gods: Metropolis Redux

by Thomas Delapa

Of all the great silent films, few approach the curiously hip appeal of Metropolis, director Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic German classic. It was the Cleopatra or Heaven’s Gate of its day, nearly bankrupting the studio—Ufa—that produced it. Yet its influence, principally in Lang’s extraordinary visual design, has been monumental. More than 80 years after its release, Metropolis remains the Citizen Kane of the science-fiction film.

Despite its influence on such movies as disparate as Blade Runner, Dr. Strangelove and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, some present-day audiences may yet agree with the famed British author H.G. Wells, who called it a “most foolish film.” Its campy, ponderous absurdities are no less apparent in a historic new edition, which adds 25 minutes to the extant two-hour version first released in 2002.

Like too many cinematic milestones, Metropolis has suffered a long and torturous post-production history. Originally 2 1/2 hours at its Berlin premiere, it was almost immediately hacked down by its American studio backers (principally Paramount) to 90 minutes for international release. But like any good Hollywood monster, the film refused to die. It’s been resurrected several times, most notoriously in a 1984 pop version by music producer Giorgio Moroder. The latest reincarnation comes amazingly by way of Buenos Aires, where archivists in 2008 unearthed a scratchy 16mm print that’s as close to Lang’s original as exists. That print, digitally cleaned up and married to an existing 35mm master by Germany’s Murnau Foundation, has produced a 147-minute Metropolis, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is now touring U.S. theaters.

Achtung, cinephiles: Before you jump on the autobahn, take note that this is exclusively a digital—not 35mm film—release. In Denver, for example, Lang’s masterwork screened in a tiny matchbox theater and the digital projection was a mere shadow of Lang’s (and cinematographer Karl Freund’s) richly hued black-and-whites. If this is the dystopian future of the world’s cinematic legacy, we were far better off in the reel analog past.

What’s still fascinating about Metropolis isn’t the kitschy pseudo-mythology of screenwriter Thea von Harbou (Lang’s then-wife), but its trend-setting technical innovations and deliriously Expressionist architectural pastiche. Set in the year 2000, the story itself is a rickety synthesis of Christianity, Marxism and Freud. In a stunning skyscraper city crisscrossed by elevated highways (said to be inspired by Lang’s trip to New York), a class of downtrodden workers toil away in underground factories for the moneyed elites, who lead lives of luxury and decadence in the world above. The feared “Master of Metropolis” is tycoon Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), a merger between John D. Rockefeller and Goldfinger.

In von Harbou’s heavy-handed allegory, relations between the owners (the “brain”) and workers (the “hands”) need a mediator (the “heart”), and her chosen one is Fredersen’s epicene son, Freder (Gustav Frolich). He sees the light on first glimpse of the saintly Maria (17-year-old Brigitte Helm) preaching a message of brotherly love amid a horde of orphans. Down to the underworld Freder goes, exchanging places with a worker while nearly crucifying himself (“Father, will ten hours never end?”) on a giant, clock-faced machine that literally demands “hands on” attention. Clocks are central to Lang’s compositional mise-en-scene, brilliantly representing how modern man has been made a slave to time.

For feminists, the alarming part of von Harbou’s script may lie with the creation of the beatific Maria’s robot doppelganger, madly brought to life by the scientist/sorcerer Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) on Fredersen’s orders. Tapping into the dark side of the archetypal female duality, the false Maria is a sexy, leering vamp who drives men wild with lust and unleashes a Pandora’s Box of chaos onto the city. Though Fredersen’s scheme to sabotage the workers’ secret gatherings seems diabolically illogical, Lang’s visual bravura is electrifying. Along with the metallic art-deco robot, Rotwang’s laboratory—crammed with boiling beakers and flashing electrodes—virtually invented the look of the Hollywood horror and sci-fi genre, beginning with Universal’s Frankenstein in 1931. The closed-circuit surveillance cameras that Fredersen uses to spy on his minions are frightfully prophetic.

Explicitly designed to rival the 1920s Hollywood blockbusters (complete with an astounding 36,000 extras), Metropolis was engineered by a German cinema second only to America’s in status and influence. But with the film’s disastrous failure, the Ufa studio and Weimar filmmaking were toppled from their airy perch, the crowning blow arriving in 1933 with the demonic whirlwind of the Third Reich.

Classic zeitgeist-minded critics like Siegfried Kracauer have argued that movies such as Metropolis covertly portended the rise of Nazism, and keen eyes will notice just how cynically anti-democratic (as well as anti-Marxist) the film is. Lang’s downcast, machine-like masses are easily duped by the phony Maria; transformed by her hysterical, Hitlerian harangues into a mindless mob. Only the heroically individualistic efforts of Freder and the good Maria can save the city—and another horde of kids—from apocalyptic destruction.

Not uncommon in today’s “director’s cuts,” the extra scenes added to this classic are important historically, helping to unravel some gnawing plot tangles, but on the whole they subtract from the overall impact. Fringe subplots involving a spy and Fredersen’s secretary reminded me of the long, marginal “plantation scene” that director Francis Ford Coppola restored to Apocalypse Now Redux: chaff added to an already overgrown crop.

After the film’s box-office failure and re-editing debacles, Lang went on to make several more films through the crippled Ufa, triumphing in 1931 with M, his first sound film, but soon after made his getaway to the West. Legend has it, Lang’s escape from Nazi Germany (he was half-Jewish) came after a job overture from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Lang eventually wound up directing in Hollywood, where he continued his career until the 1950s, though never again on the lofty, ubermensch scale of Metropolis.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle 7/23/10

Friday, July 23, 2010

Film Review | Inception

Say Goodnight, Leo
by Thomas Delapa

Even before the summer started, perhaps no other major Hollywood release created more anticipation than Inception, a potential sci-fi blockbuster about a team of cerebral thieves who break into people’s dreams and steal their deepest, most lucrative secrets. With Leonardo DiCaprio on board and writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) at the helm, this was the sort of movie that box-office dreams are made of.

Chock-full of surreal settings, mind-bending special effects and roller-coaster action, Inception definitely won’t put you to sleep. But like most dreams, you’re likely to forget about it in the morning.

You never know which way is up (or out) in this mega-budget fantasy spectacular, which might even leave Freud scratching his head. Nolan’s fractured plot conjures up dreams within dreams within dreams, giving audiences the slightly nauseous feeling of being trapped inside artist M.C. Escher’s impossible, Mobius-strip staircases. Too glib for his own good, Nolan rarely provides as much as a handrail.

Double-espresso intense, DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, a troubled dream weaver haunted by memories of his wife (Marion Cotillard). A high-tech Ulysses in exile, Cobb just wants to go home and live with his two kids. To do that, like many a Hollywood crook before him, he’ll have to pull one last job. Hired by a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe), Cobb and his impossible-dream team must get into the head of a wealthy heir (Cillian Murphy) and manipulate him into breaking up his father’s energy empire. To fully buy into Cobb’s madcap pseudo-scientific methods, you’ll have to more than suspend disbelief: You’ll have to expel it entirely.

The uncanny affinity between dreams and the cinema seems to be on Nolan’s mind, at least at Inception’s intriguing beginning. (How ironic that Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams appeared in 1899, only four years after France’s Lumiere brothers first screened motion pictures.) Like movies, dreams have a logic and reality all their own, create fabulous worlds and can magically whisk the dreamer from place to place and time to time. Desperate to keep his wife’s memory alive, Cobb artificially clings to his own dreams and memories of her. Yet her presence is so strong, at times sinister, she stubbornly pops up at the most inconvenient times while he’s on his illicit dream jobs.

With a slew of exotic locations from Morocco to Tokyo and the trippy special effects, this production must have been a nightmare to shoot. It also must have been Nolan’s dream to whip up a Matrix-like box-office phenomenon. Ever since Memento, his memorable 2000 breakthrough, the British director has all too readily merged into Hollywood’s fast lane, passing up novel, low-budget substance for mass-market pulp. His recent comment to Entertainment Weekly that “it’s not a film that confuses people” still has me scratching my head. In fact, that’s all Inception does, especially when he tacks on a predictable twist that’s far from rousing.

Anyone not daydreaming will notice how often the characters are forced to explain the plot, primarily because the spectacularly overblown action can’t. Cobb and his crew constantly invent and reinvent the rules for their fantastic voyages into the unconscious, tossing out so much arcane jargon (“the kick,” “limbo”) that you’ll feel like you’re in a Scientology psychology class.

So after all the resounding sound and fury that struck me like a James Bond movie on L.S.D., you may be forced to wonder, as one character does, “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” If you think Nolan really has a good answer, well, dream on.


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 7/22/10