Monday, August 27, 2007

Movies watched, week of August 5 to 11, 2007

A Touch of Greatness, Leslie Sullivan, 2003

A tribute to what is increasingly becoming a rarity, yet so essential to building our capacity for learning: a phenomenal teacher. Albert Cullum, an elementary school teacher in Rye, NY, in the 50s and 60s, was an innovator in American education, emphasizing elements of play in the classroom and inspiring children to channel their “touch of greatness.”

Most memorable is the black and white archival footage shot by Robert Downey Sr. (quite a difference from Putney Swope) of Mr. Cullum’s students putting on Shakespearean plays. The performances transcend the typical grade school assemblies that I remember; these children demonstrate impressively haunting acting skills, especially for fifth-graders with little to no prior experience; the images of children in such serious roles (and taking the roles very seriously) is remarkable. But then, it’s remarkable just to see fifth-graders who are passionate about Shakespeare to begin with, which speaks to the effectiveness of Cullum’s approach.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, Stanley Nelson, 2006

While this PBS documentary about Jim Jones and the strange, disturbing legacy of People’s Temple may not p
rovide a lot of new information or insight into the tragic massacre at Jonestown, the archival video and audio footage, much of it only recently declassified, absolutely makes it worth seeing. The sounds of Jonestown’s final hours, of children screaming while Jones preaches, chanting “Mother, mother, mother, mother, please” and “Wheres the vat, the vat, the vat...Bring it so the adults can begin” are hauntingly devastating.

Jones is portrayed as a poor Indiana child born into a family of alcoholics and bigots, who
aspired to something greater. He would grow up to be a charismatic preacher promising a utopian community, free of prejudice, where people took care of one another. One was meant to devote their life to the cause, donating every last cent of their earnings (save a $5 weekly allowance) to the church—in return they would (theoretically) never need anything—food, medical attention, camaraderie, spiritual guidance, and so on. But, as we now know, the community was far from utopian—congregants were subjected to physical, sexual, and mental abuse, deception (for instance, Jones planted his secretary in the pews so she could be "healed" before the parishioners), and brainwashing.

One of the film’s most disturbing moments comes when a former member states that the Koolaid massacre had been rehearsed back in California, when Jones served what he falsely claimed to be poisoned punch as a test of his devotees’ faith—really, more of a test of his power, which he exercised on a level that paralleled Stalin’s. Congregants were compelled to turn in their own family members if they showed the slightest inclination towards dissent, essentially slaves to the increasingly deranged Jones.

It might have been interesting to interview psychologists in an attempt to provide more
insight into why people are drawn to cults (although, as one survivor eloquently points out, nobody “joins a cult”—they join a political movement, or a religious organization), and, in turn, how one man could influence people to such an irrational degree that they would put up with such cruelty and abuse, follow him across the world to Guyana, and, ultimately, pour cyanide down the throats of their own children. But then, it may be more effective to leave this for us to ponder, as a question that seems (and may be) unanswerable.

Deliver Us From Evil
, Amy Berg, 2006

As if I hadn’t subjected myself to enough disturbing material for the week, I decided to watch another documentary that takes a scathing look at religious figures, only where
Jonestown focuses on one strange (nut)case, this one takes on the whole Catholic institution. And just as Jonestown is about the abuse of power, this too exposes the corruption that even the Catholic Church, an institution that prides itself on its piousness, can succumb to as a result of its supreme authority and influence.

Father O’Grady, an Irish Catholic priest who relocated to Northern California in the 70s, was known by nearly all who came in contact with him as the pinnacle of godliness, someone worthy of their trust and respect—and yet, O’Grady has admitted to the sexual abuse of dozens of children (including a 9-month old) over the years. Shockingly (although not all that surprisingly when you think about it), after the first incident was reported, the Church hierarchy allowed this behavior to continue by taking every possible step to protect O’Grady and suppress the facts. Instead of de-ordaining him, or at the very least sending him off to a monastery where he would be far away from children, he was simply moved from parish to parish, more or less left to do as he pleased with the poor, unsuspecting parishioners.

The film claims that the rampant cases of pedophilia in the clergy exist largely because of the celibacy rule, which didn't always exist in Catholicism. But O'Grady is definitely another case altogether, as he admits that he's only turned on by children. His extensive onscreen interviews show him to be quite frank about his past activity, and he seems to be taking steps to contend with his unsavory predilections—or at least attempting to—but that does nothing to assuage the years of emotional devastation his many victims are still feeling today.

It’s particularly telling that the church declined to be interviewed for the film, maintaining silence on the issue just as they always have.

Hairspray, John Waters, 1988
Polyester, John Waters, 1981
Desperate Living, John Waters, 1977

More on this to come.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Movies watched, week of July 22 to August 4, 2007

Last Chants For a Slow Dance, Jon Jost, 1977

Underground filmmaker Jon Jost’s second film—and the first of Jost’s films that I’ve seen—follows a thoroughly unlikable character named Tom as he aimlessly wanders the country in his pickup truck, having abandoned his family. He meets various people along the way—a hitchhiker, a man in a diner, a woman at a bar—carrying on long, banal conversations. This series of meaningless exchanges lends the film a sense of alienation; Tom is trying to make connections with people, but not succeeding. The long takes and general lack of action contribute to the slow, crawling pace and muted feeling—one extended scene shot from the window of a moving vehicle depicts the road passing beneath, accompanied by silence. Moreover, much of the action occurs off-screen, just barely hinted at. The film’s only sex scene is performed with the TV on throughout, legs moving in the corner and faint moaning sounds serving as our only clues to what’s taking place. The film culminates in an act of violence that’s just as random as the rest of the plot, yet it doesn’t seem unexpected.

Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone, 1984

When Sergio Leone was given the opportunity to direct The Godfather, he declined the offer, as he was already at work on an epic mob drama of his own, about Prohibitian-era Jewish gangsters. But while The Godfather is often referred to as one of the greatest films ever made, Once Upon a Time in America is far less widely renowned. Perhaps this owes to the fact that the studio significantly reduced the five-hour original cut to a more commercial running time of just over two hours (even now, the circulating DVD version has only been restored to not quite four hours)—the American public never had the chance to experience its full cinematic breadth. Or perhaps The Godfather simply has more memorable catch phrases (“I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” and so on). I’d have to watch The Godfather again in order to offer my own take on which one is more deserving of praise—but then, this is kind of a silly argument to be perpetuating anyway.

One thing Leone’s film has going for it is the artistry employed in its transitions between eras; the film seamlessly moves through time (both forward and backward), from the 1920s, as adolescent Noodles, Max, and the rest of their gang form the relationships that will irrevocably forge the course of the rest of their lives, to the 1930s, to the 1960s. As an old man, Noodles peers into a peephole and sees his sepia-toned childhood; he steps through a doorway at a train station in the 30s, coming out the other side thirty years later—it’s as if there are time portals peppered throughout the world, and one has only to find one in order to visit another time in his life. (Not that Noodles experiences it this way, but it does evoke a sense of time as nonlinear for the viewer.) The film also boasts beautiful imagery—a man in a pillow factory wading through falling feathers as if in a snowstorm, and a child taunted by whipped desserts in the same way he is by the opposite sex.

The film opens and closes in a 1930s opium den. (A phone starts to ring incessantly, and continues to ring even through Noodles’ flashback, creating an unnerving sense of tension.) Many theorize that the entire film is the product of an opium-induced dream, as Noodles remembers his past and envisions his future. I can only hope this is not the case—the “it was all a dream” cop out might be one of the most disappointing resolutions to a film that I can think of. Otherwise, my only gripe is the soundtrack, which is borderline easy listening. The only appropriate forum for a string instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is in a dentist’s office.

Fuck, Steve Anderson, 2005

This documentary dedicated to the mother of all curse words feels more like a VH1 special than a movie made for the big screen—well, maybe an HBO special, due to the rampant use of expletives. Featuring many talking heads, including Drew Carey, Hunter S. Thompson, Janeane Garafolo, and Pat Boone, Fuck has its high points, but quickly starts to repeat itself, restating the same basic sentiments in slightly different phrasings. I was under the impression that the film chronicled the history of the word and its origins, but it’s actually more of a comment on free speech and censorship—all well and good, but perhaps not quite enough content to fill a feature-length documentary.

The film includes some commentary from advocates of squeaky-clean language, but the general consensus is overwhelmingly pro-fuck—or, I should say, anti-censorship. Moreover, the naysayers seem unable to come up with effectively persuasive arguments, other than “years ago only sailors talked like that” and “we must protect the children!” (I am so sick of hearing about “the children.”) Pat Boone suggests that people start shouting “Boone!” instead of cursing, which Ice-T makes great use of later in the film.

The highlight, for me, was the inclusion of one of the most incredible quotes uttered by an American president that I’ve ever encountered. I’ll never think of Lyndon Johnson the same way again.

This Is England, Shane Meadows, 2006

While I was never a British skinhead in the 1980s (and so I can’t really say for sure, although I did hang out with a few American ones in the late 90s), this is the most authentic cinematic portrayal of skinhead culture to date. Based largely on Meadows’ own experiences, This Is England depicts the ordeals of a troubled 12 year-old who finds a sense of camaraderie within a gang of skinheads, just as the National Front is beginning to infiltrate the culture. What begins as a harmless group of friends performing minor acts of mischief quickly darkens when an old friend, Combo, returns from prison, hard-edged and eager to recruit his peers to join the National Front political party. It’s particularly telling that those who are most easily persuaded are also the most misguided and impressionable, the ones who lack confidence in themselves. Combo also seems to have some deeper psychological issues—he’s obsessed with a girl with whom he shared a drunken one night stand three years ago, and beats the hell out of someone he’s just professed immense friendship toward (and then freaks out immediately after doing so).

The soundtrack features a decent selection of oi and reggae tracks, such as Toots & the Maytals’ “54 46 Was My Number” and the UK Subs’ “Warhead,” but I would have liked to have heard more along these lines, as opposed to the melodramatic piano/string instrumentals that dominate many scenes.

Scarface, Howard Hawks, 1932
Scarface, Brian De Palma, 1983

A small-time crook with a scar on his face rises to the top, estranged from his disapproving mother and murderously jealous of anyone his sister, who wants in on his criminal lifestyle, attempts to date—these are about the only similarities between the original Scarface and its remake. The 1930s film takes place in Prohibition-era Chicago, closely following the story of Al Capone, while the 80s version is about a Cuban drug lord who flees to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift, when Castro emptied Cuba’s jails and sent the prisoners to Miami. The latter film has me seriously questioning Al Pacino’s acting abilities (first Scent of a Woman, and now this?)—I hope I’m not the only person who finds the fake Cuban accent to be ridiculously overacted. The gold chain-wearing, cocaine-snorting, cash flaunting, disco dancing atmosphere lends the film a cheesiness, and not in a fun, nostalgic way. You could say that it’s just reflecting its era, but that doesn’t make it any more stomachable.

I disliked both of these films, but I suppose if I had to pick one I’d go with the original. (At least it doesn’t have the godawful soundtrack of the De Palma film.) In its defense, while by today’s standards pretty tame, Hawks’s film was rather brutal for its time. I did have to laugh at some of the silly, gut-clutching, death scenes, almost expecting to hear Tony cry, “They got me!” as he staggered to his knees. It’s not the first film I’ve seen with a disclaimer at the beginning: “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty.” Etcetera. Thankfully, there’s no longer a censor board that requires such inane statements to validate any kind of unpopular social commentary.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog, 1998

The basis for Herzog’s recent feature film, Rescue Dawn, this documentary tells the story of a German named Dieter Dengler, who fulfilled his lifelong dream to be a pilot by joining the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. Shot down over enemy lines, Dieter was captured, tortured and imprisoned, weighing a mere 85 pounds when he escaped. Incredibly, Dieter recalls these harrowing events with a calm detachment, matter-of-factly describing what took place, offering no political context or opinion. Even as he somewhat perversely reenacts these events, having his hands tied and led through the jungle by Vietnamese villagers, he appears composed, although he does admit that his heart is beating a little faster. The villagers actually look more spooked, and Dieter has to remind them that it’s only a movie.

The film presents a number of parallels between Vietnam and World War II—Dieter grew up in ravaged post-war Germany, which had been “transformed into a dreamscape of the surreal.” In the same frank tone, he recalls how he would hunt among the rubble, tearing wallpaper from the remains of decimated buildings, which his mother would cook into a stew. Similarly, Herzog’s narration, concerning Dieter’s view from the plane, asserts that “even though it was all very real, everything down there seemed to be so alien and so abstract. It all looked strange, like a distant barbaric dream.” As in all of his films, Herzog provides remarkably insightful commentary regarding humanity, spirituality, and life itself.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Movies watched, week of July 8 to 21, 2007

A Brief History of Time, Errol Morris, 1991
Not so much a history of time as a history of Stephen Hawking, this documentary about the noted paraplegic physicist is
nonetheless engaging. While it’s not my favorite Morris film, it retains many of the hallmarks of his signature style, such as the Philip Glass soundtrack, and oft-visited themes concerning the nature and purpose of life itself. Hawking’s robotic voice—well, really the voice of a computer he must communicate through—lends the film an otherworldly atmosphere, evoking cosmic entities, a sense of disembodiment.

alloween II, Rick Rosenthal, 1981
This picks up right where the first Halloween left off—actually, they overlap slightly, beginning as Dr. Loomis shoots Michael, only to find that he’s escaped, surviving multiple gunshot wounds and a fall from a second story window. While it’s satisfying that it directly corresponds to the first movie, the effect is awkwardly achieved. It doesn’t really feel like an opening, more like returning from a commercial break, the viewer thrust into the middle of the action with no explanation.

My disappointment doesn’t end there. I’m sure I’m not the first person to voice these complaints, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Michael can’t be killed—how is he still alive after being shot six times? Why can he just break through a glass door (or, conversely, why is the hospital door made of breakaway glass)? How is it that he can walk away from a flame-engulfed room? (It does look as though the fire eventually killed him, though not without a fight—oh wait, he comes back in Halloween IV…) I was under the impression that Michael was a psychotic human, yet he seems to have superhuman powers of invincibility. He also comes off kind of like a zombie with his trudging, yet steady gait. I can only hope that the upcoming remake will lose some of the silliness surrounding the original films.

The Pianist, Roman Polanski, 2002
Whereas most films about the Holocaust depict life—or a lack thereof—inside the camps, this film portrays the events leading up to that point, and the hardships endured for those left behind. (In one scene, Szpilman escapes from a building that’s being razed, emerging to an eerie, post-apocalyptic landscape of rubble and skeletal remains of bombed-out buildings—it seems that eventually, everyone suffered, Jews and Gentiles alike.) It’s a hard film to watch, leveling the sense of distance between viewers and this group of people who were exterminated more than 60 years ago—we can see ourselves in their place, and the feelings of dread and shock at what was allowed to take place intensify exponentially.

Secret Honor, Robert Altman, 1984
An uncommon portrayal of Richard Nixon as he dictates a two-hour drunken monologue into a tape recorder—he doesn’t even bother to buy a blank tape, instead recording over salsa music—reflecting on his life, both personal and political. At times sputtering, cursing, and crying, Nixon addresses an imaginary judge, an aide named Roberto, or sometimes just mumbles to himself in incoherent asides.

Atypical of the rest of Altman’s oeuvre, there’s only one character, as opposed to his usual ensemble cast of thousands. It feels more like a play or a one-man show—and now that I realize that it’s based on a play, I believe it was probably more effective in that

My Left Foot, Jim Sheridan, 1989
While the biopic of Christy Brown, an Irish painter and writer plagued by cerebal palsy, is certainly a story of triumph over incredible odds, the film manages to avoid being overly saccharine or insipidly heartwarming. It takes the viewer into territory both dark and humorous, such as Brown’s attempt at suicide after his declarations of love for his teacher are not reciprocated—it’s difficult to tell whether he’s shaking so much because of fear or his afflictions, but he’s physically unable to cut his wrists (thankfully). David Lynch’s The
Elephant Man comes to mind, in that the protagonist is an extremely intelligent person trapped inside the confines of his own malformed body, assumed to have the mind of a three year-old and treated as such by society.

Opening Night
, John Cassavetes, 1977

An alcoholic stage actress is haunted by a dead fan and obsessed with her inevitable aging, which is made all the more obvious through her current onstage role. As her sanity gradually unravels, no one seems to know how to deal with it, sending her to a spiritualist, or pushing her onstage despite her barely being able to stand. The storytelling is complex, at times making it difficult to discern whether a given scene is part of the play or the actors’ reality.