Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Strong New Documentary on Folk Singer Phil Ochs Released on DVD

Phil Ochs: There But For Forture (Review)

First Run Features, 2011, Not Rated

By Steven Rosen
from Cincinnati CityBeat, July 27, 2011, http://www.citybeat.com/

Phil Ochs was Bob Dylan’s chief rival as a Folk-based protest singer in the 1960s — Christopher Hitchens, interviewed in this documentary, maintains Ochs was better, more politically pointed and with a more sarcastic and thought-provoking lyrical bite. But while Dylan went electric and became a Rock & Roll star, Ochs struggled with the transition to Pop, although his first ambitious attempt — a heavily orchestrated album called Pleasures of the Harbor — had astonishing variety and great beauty.

Ochs, a good-humored idealist who studied journalism at Ohio State, idolized President Kennedy at first but grew ever more radicalized at the outrages of the 1960s and early 1970s (the assassinations, Vietnam, civil-rights turmoil, Watergate). He also had personal demons — alcohol and depression, especially. This all led to him working against his best interests career-wise and fading from public view. After all sorts of misfortunes in the 1970s, he committed suicide in 1976 at age 35.

This documentary by Ken Bowser, produced by Ochs’ brother Michael, moves at a fast clip but gives due to all the facets of Ochs’ career and life, both the tragic and triumphant. And it does delve into what he did in the 1970s, away from the limelight, when he was struggling. The variety of archival footage, including performances, is impressive, as is the lineup of those who wanted to be interviewed about Ochs: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Sean Penn and more (but not Dylan).

There are times when the film tries to be a primer on the politics of the era and loses track of its subject, but it always returns. It also makes a pretty good case for the music Ochs recorded after Pleasures — his derided-at-the-time attempts at flat-out Rock and even County. Grade: B

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Discuss the Meaning of "The Tree of Life" This Sunday

Discuss "The Tree of Life" This Sunday (July 24) after 1 p.m. Screening at Cincinnati's Esquire Theatre

Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" -- winner of the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- has provoked all sorts of discussion on its meaning and the nature of its narrative structure. Some people find its investigation into existence and the presence of cosmic consciousness to be profoundly spiritual and religious, the first great mainstream American movie to address such questions since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "2001." Others are just perplexed or wary -- they wonder why a film ostensibly about a family in small-town Texas in the 1950s has an interlude with dinosaurs, or shots of a mysterious flickering light. And why does the story line jump around so much?

This Sunday (July 24th) at 1 p.m. at the Esquire Theatre, 320 Ludlow Ave. in Cincinnati, you can see the matinee and then stay for an audience discussion moderated by Steven Rosen, Cincinnati CityBeat film writer. The price is $6.75 -- standard matinee admission.

Malick has only made five movies in a long career, starting with 1973's "Badlands," and each is painstakingly personal and marked by an attempt to see his characters as players on a larger stage where nature, itself, has equal billing. Is "The Tree of Life" his masterpiece? Or is it overly ambitious?

This is your chance to see the movie, discuss it and hear other ideas. Weigh in on one of the year's most talked-about films and a potential Oscar nominee. For more information, visit http://www.esquiretheatre.com/.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Revisiting "Benjamin Button" as an Allegory for the Bush Presidency

The Curious Case of Benjamin ... Bush?
Is David Fincher's film a veiled allegory for America under George W. Bush?

By Steven Rosen
(This first appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat, Feb. 18, 2009

I’ve been perplexed by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which leads all movies with 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Yes, it’s beautifully crafted, with transformative makeup and digital effects to support its central concept — a man ages in reverse while those he knows get older. And the acting, too, is involving.

Brad Pitt unsentimentally plays Benjamin as an everyman, and his New Orleans accent has a pleasantly melodic ring. Cate Blanchett is spectacularly attractive as his great love, Daisy.

But this film is roughly three hours, and what is its point, exactly? Yes, it goes to great length to illustrate a truism — you can’t turn back the hands of time. But to quote the philosopher Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Further, Pitt’s Benjamin, while a New Orleans-born everyman, is not an especially smart one. A follower rather than a leader, passive rather than active, he has no special wisdom to impart or lessons to learn from his unusual circumstances. He seems to know that his life is a drag on others, which is why he pulls away from Daisy when she needs him most. But he just plods along toward the inevitable.

Even Benjamin’s journal, discovered after his death — the key plot device — lacks insight; it’s just description. He is incapable of truly enlightening self-reflection. That makes him a tragic figure, and the movie has an overall morose, melancholy and fatalistic tone to match, aided by David Fincher’s direction and its cinematography. One passage is even set in Murmansk, Russia, which looks to be one of the coldest places on Earth.

Benjamin is like an unfunny Seinfeld character — no lessons learned. Or like … George W. Bush? I’ve been wondering if this film can be read as a veiled allegory — or epitaph — for America under the vacuous Bush. An epitaph not just for the Bush Administration, now mercifully departed, but for what’s left of the country — war and recession — in the debris of his hurricane-like wake. The film is not hateful, not angry. It might even see him as a victim, too. But it is filled with a rueful post-9/11 sadness.

In that regard, we are like the film’s aged and dying Daisy, in a hospital bed in New Orleans, retreating into the “fantasy” of Benjamin as her daughter reads from his journal. Is there a parallel to our own fantasy of the past eight years — that the endlessly rising home prices of the unregulated Bush years would take care of us in the future?

This notion came to me because of the ominous way the film starts. As Hurricane Katrina approaches, the hospitalized Daisy wonders what will come next. Katrina, coming about a year after the “re-election” of Bush in 2004, was the event that finally exposed his incompetence even to his supporters. And things really went to hell after that. So making it such a specific reference point in this movie encourages a political reading.

So too does the central metaphoric symbol, also introduced early in the film. After World War I, while everyone in New Orleans is celebrating victory, a Monsieur Gateau creates a train-station clock that works backwards. “So perhaps the boys we lost in the war may come back again,” he explains with doomed naivety. (The device is reminiscent of the French anti-World War I classic, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, in which slain soldiers return to life.)

Benjamin, although he’s born at the same time and, indeed, lives backwards, learns nothing from that clock. The parallel? In America, Bush launched a war in Iraq under false pretenses, still with no clear end. He learned nothing from the past, even while giving us another Vietnam.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I’m desperately trying to read something into the pointlessness of Benjamin’s life. The film’s origins are in a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that is set in the 19th century, so the film is hardly meant as a faithful adaptation.

And Fincher’s other films seem to have a dark, pessimistic, metaphoric attitude. Certainly Se7en, Fight Club and The Game, and reviewers called 1992’s grim Alien3 an AIDS allegory. His last film, Zodiac, about a real-life San Francisco murderer who was never caught, had a sociopolitical context.

The principal screenwriter, Eric Roth, wrote Forrest Gump, a film I detest, but more recently he contributed to Munich and The Good Shepherd (about the CIA), two political films that take a dim view of the costs to a person’s psyche of endless war.

And one other thing: Benjamin, as born, is an aberration — a freakish event, a baby in his eighties. Bush’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2000 was similar, losing the popular vote and needing a partisan Supreme Court decision to stop a Florida recount of disputed ballots. And it’s been all downhill — or backwards — from there.

So what, then, is to be learned from Benjamin Button? An aphorism is repeated several times in the film, “You never know what’s coming for you.” That’s post-Bush America, all right.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Film Review | Larry Crowne

Happy Days

by Thomas Delapa

As cine-therapy during the Great Depression, Hollywood gave us The Grapes of Wrath, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Dead End. During the Great Recession, Hollywood has bestowed on us...envelope please...Larry Crowne?

If you want to see how depressingly out-of-touch mainstream movies have become, buy a ticket (if you can afford one) to watch Tom Hanks show us the sunny, funny side of unemployment. If life is like a box of chocolates, director/star Hanks tells us that getting fired can ultimately be a sweetheart deal.

As titular everyman Larry Crowne, big-box retail clerk, Hanks earns a pink slip from his smarmy supervisors, ostensibly because of his lack of a college degree. Recently divorced and now downsized, Larry pauses only briefly before he goes to work reinventing himself, usually accompanied by a soundtrack of bouncy, optimistic Tom Petty songs.

Hanks and co-writer Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame and fortune) tick off a litany of topical problems that Larry overcomes as easily as Forrest Gump jumping over shrubs. Big, gas-guzzling SUV? Just trade it in for a cute motor scooter. Too much stuff around the house? Just sell it to a haggling but helpful neighbor. Can’t afford the house? Just give it back to the bank, no questions asked. As for income, we never see Larry waiting in line at the unemployment office or stressing about bills. In short order, he gets a job as a cook at a friend’s diner. Yep, Larry pulls himself up by his bootstraps, enrolling at a local L.A. college where overqualified instructors teach a generation of underachieving students.

“Times are tough” says Larry in his Tom Joad moment, but they’re about to get a lot easier, at least for him. At the college he’s promptly taken under the wing of a pretty young student (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who teaches him to text in class. She also treats him to a hip makeover, accessorized with trendy glasses. But Larry really scores when he signs up for a speech class taught by Miss Tainot (Julia Roberts), a smoldering burnout married to a porn-addicted blogger. Roberts, still flashing that A-list smile and those million-dollar legs, struts in to help turn this big-screen sitcom into a remedial version of Welcome Back, Kotter.

For Hanks and Roberts—crowned with three best-acting Oscars between them—Larry Crowne must have been a lark, not even a job, since neither shows an inclination to do any real acting. Tanned and puffy-faced, Hanks has especially regressed; he’s so dull and uninvolved, right now he’d have a hard time passing muster in his old Bosom Buddies role.

In this cloying, sub-sophomoric movie, no child is left behind, not even Larry’s fatuous classmates who are magically transformed by Miss Tainot’s inscrutable classroom skills. The audience never learns how Larry’s college experience will help him find a good-paying job, but that’s academic. As long as he makes the grade with his hot teacher, life will work out fine and he’ll graduate into his reborn American dream.



Thursday, July 7, 2011

Now "Food Inc." Is Threatening the Honeybee

Queen of the Sun (Review)

New Documentary looks at the importance of honeybees

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat
Grade: B

In the wake of Food, Inc. have come numerous documentaries about how our profit-oriented tinkering with the natural world is producing disastrous results for both our health and that of the plants and animals we depend on for our food. Not to insult another species, but we are pigs.

Queen of the Sun, directed by Taggart Siegel (The Real Dirt on Farmer John) investigates how we’ve now managed to screw up the life of honeybees — there’s a crisis of what’s known as “colony collapse disorder,” in which the worker bees are disappearing from hives. And this has a threatening impact on the entire world, since we’re crucially dependent on pollination for agriculture.

We also learn in the film about a growing threat to American bee health — the wholesale trucking of colonies to California for use by the almond industry. So a lot is at stake in the subject of this film. Yet it is beautiful to watch. The close-up photography is superb — the colonies with their queen and workers, the way that bees are attracted to flowers and crops, the way that honey is produced … we have a front-row seat to watch nature in all its intricacies and delicacies.

We also learn about the grassroots movement toward “green” beekeeping and creation of bee sanctuaries (a movement strong in Cincinnati). And we get some expert commentary on the problems affecting honeybees from, among others, author Michael Pollan and beekeeper/writer Gunther Hauk. And this raises the one problem I had with the film. I attended a screening where Hauk spoke afterward and blamed “colony collapse disorder” on genetic engineering. The film could have gone into that subject in more detail.