Monday, October 01, 2007


It seems like every time I make a post I include some kind of disclaimer about how I’m behind on posting—well, today is no exception. I won’t go into all the details/excuses about how summer was too much fun, and that now work is too busy (well, not too many details at least), but as I’m almost two months behind, I’m going back to the good ol’ list format for this one, with brief commentary on selected films. Make sense?

Movies watched, August 12-September 15, 2007

Be Here To Love Me, Margaret Brown, 2004

Border Radio, Alison Anders, 1987

The King of Kong, Seth Gordon, 2007
This documentary about two men who seem to be polar opposites of one another competing to break the Donkey Kong world record is, ultimately, a battle of good and evil. The good guy is Steve Wiebe, an everyman (and somewhat of an underdog) who’s experienced a string of bad luck: most significantly, he was laid off the same day as the closing on he and his wife’s new house. As his good friend says, “I’ve never seen anyone cry as much as Steve” (which serves as a bit of unintentional foreshadowing). Newly unemployed, Steve decides to pass the time by playing Donkey Kong in his garage, in a quest to achieve the new world record.

On the other side of the country is the villain, “hot sauce mogul” (as the movie poster describes him) Billy Mitchell, who was a rock star in the gaming world in the early 80s, and has held claim to the highest score ever played in Donkey Kong since 1982. Unlike Steve, it seems like Billy has always had all the breaks, and he doesn’t hesitate to lord it over everyone (the cocky bastard). It seems Billy will stop at nothing to maintain his title as the top scoring Donkey Kong player in the world, from confiscating Steve’s game console, to suspiciously materializing an old tape in which he beats his own championship score, to refusing to drive the ten or so miles from his house to publicly challenge Steve (even though Steve has traveled thousands of miles to be there). It’s clear that he feels threatened by his new opponent (it seems he’s never really had one before), and rather than nobly facing the situation, he resorts to plotting and scheming, sending his obsequious henchmen in his place to scope out the situation.

Billy is such a stereotypical villain that it’s almost hard to believe. One could argue that his portrayal could be the result of clever editing, but dialogue like “He is the person he is today because he came under the wrath of Bill Mitchell” (he frequently refers to himself in the third person) cannot be faked. I like to think that he’s carefully cultivated this formidable, enigmatic persona, which his many fans/cronies/underlings have perpetuated.

Many people might find this movie hilarious simply because the thought of grown men still playing Donkey Kong and taking it extremely seriously seems so ludicrous—which, to some extent, is understandable. But I can (almost) relate to this, not because of any shared video game fanaticism (in fact, I don’t even like video games...gasp!), but because many of those closest to me are collectors of rare vinyl, another traditionally marginalized pastime; both hobbies involve expending a lot of energy and concentration on something that most would view as trivial or unimportant, something that doesn’t really matter in the long run. But you could say that about almost anything—so what does matter in the long run?


Lenny, Bob Fosse, 1974

Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, Jamie Meltzer, 2003
In the middle weeks of August I watched a number of documentaries about weird, esoteric music, from obscure blues records to pioneers in electronic music, Leon Theremin and Robert Moog. The most memorable by far was Off the Charts, a bizarre, comic, and at times heartbreaking look at the art of the song poem—that is, the end results of magazine advertisements inviting readers to send in their poetry as a means of getting their foot in the door of the music industry. These people would often receive notice that their work was worthy of recording by professional musicians, along with a proposal to do so in exchange for a fee. Eventually they would receive a copy of their song, pressed onto vinyl (or, later on, a cassette tape).

So many aspects of this strange practice are introduced in this 52 minute film, from the people sending in their writing, to those who actually create the music. A wide array of people are attracted to these advertisements, yielding many religious songs (“I’m devoted to TV so I have no time to serve God, so I dwell in confusion forever”), efforts at serious love songs, and others that are downright bizarre. “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” (I still sometimes get that one in my head) and “Annie Oakley” are among my favorites, the latter mainly because of the lyrics (okay, maybe both because of the lyrics), in which a young man channels his obsession with firearms into a nonviolent form of expression: “I have taken a vow of celibacy until marriage / However, if Miss Annie tempted me into her carriage / I might lose to Miss Oakley, it’s not funny / Annie is one of my historical honeys”). This is all quite amusing, until people begin to hint that they’re hoping to start a career in music, and they believe that this is the way to come out with a hit record. You can see both hope and unease in their eyes, as if they’re trying to remain optimistic, clinging to their dreams, and yet, the worry that all of their efforts have been futile remains.

It’s quite fascinating to witness the process of writing and recording song poems: the span of time elapsed between first reading the lyrics to recording a finished song is less than an hour. Everything is recorded in one take with machinelike intensity, churning out song after song after song. These musicians also have an air of sadness about them, regaling the filmmakers with tales of bygone days when they were hobnobbing with celebrities, “bygone” being the operative word here.

As for the songs themselves, their peculiarity is difficult to pinpoint. Regardless of how outlandish the lyrics are, there’s always something amiss—the songs mirror popular musical genres, but the nature of the songwriting is so bizarre that while the style might be familiar, there is nonetheless something vaguely alien about them.

Moog, Hans Fjellestad, 2004

Summer of Sam, Spike Lee, 1999
While I’d heard some unfavorable reviews of this movie, I decided to check it out after reading Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is Burning, which allots a few chapters to the Son of Sam case—unfortunately, my expectations were exceeded. The depictions of David Berkowitz ranting in his sordid apartment and receiving visits from a dog that orders him to kill are incredibly cheesy, especially since Berkowitz eventually admitted that he’d made up the whole demon dog story so he could plead insanity. More importantly, people should refrain from making films about punk rockers when they know nothing about them. In 1977, New York punks did not look like they’d just stepped out of Hot Topic—you could make a case that there was one guy in all of New York who wore his hair in a stupid-looking mohawk and spoke in a fake British accent, but that is clearly not what the film is implying. This is just barely a step up from the Freaks and Geeks punk episode.

Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, 1990

Medea, Lars von Trier, 1988

Kramer Vs. Kramer, Robert Benton, 1979
Perhaps the quintessential divorce film, this story of how a man’s relationship with his son changes in the aftermath of his wife’s leaving him, and the bitter child custody battle that later ensues, impressively manages to avoid becoming overly sentimental and saccharine. This could so easily have been a Lifetime original movie (or the 1970s equivalent thereof), but instead is an engaging drama.

Theremin: An Electric Odyssey, Steven M. Martin, 1994

Desperate Man Blues, Edward Gillan, 2003

Thieves Like Us, Robert Altman, 1974

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Steven Shainberg, 2006
The concept of an imaginary portrait is intriguing; a straightforward biopic highlighting the major events of one’s life tells the viewer nothing about the character’s inner experiences, and is often flawed and inaccurate anyway. So why not take it a step further, using elements of myth and fairy tale to fill in the holes. The enchanting, carnivalesque imagery employed in the film is particularly appropriate to the subject matter of Arbus’ photographs. The ornate, winding staircase leading up to the mysterious masked—and very hairy—neighbor, the secret key that falls out of the pipe, and other such images evoke impressions of Alice in Wonderland, some of it a bit silly and over-the-top, though I didn’t really notice that until reflecting back on the film once it was over.

I’m now in the middle of reading Diane Arbus: A Biography, which has led me to think that Nicole Kidman’s performance didn't really capture the complexities of Arbus’ character. She’d been an artist long before she began taking these pictures, not just a bored housewife who decided to break out of her role (although that was true of her as well—did I mention she was a complex woman?). If you can get past the fact that the film is about a real person, and just regard it as fiction (which in many ways it is), it seems much stronger.


Superbad
, Greg Mottola, 2007
I’d previously avoided movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, probably because I’m a snobby snob, but my love for Michael Cera’s character on Arrested Development piqued my interest in this comedy from the creators of the aforementioned two movies. While I hope this doesn’t reflect badly on Cera, he’s pretty much playing the exact same character—imagine George Michael Bluth a few years older than when we last saw him. Nonetheless, Superbad is hilarious and raunchy in the best way—highlights include the many drawings of penises (a little girl holding hands with a giant cock, a penis riding a torpedo like a bucking bronco, George Washington with a two-foot schlong, and so on), and every time someone referred to Fogell as “McLovin” in complete seriousness. I also loved the bored (and somewhat incompetent) cop characters, although they got to be a little bit over the top, even for this movie, in which they’re driving drunk and shooting at road signs.

I’ve actually watched The 40 Year-Old Virgin since then and while it was mildly amusing at times, it’s not on the same level as Superbad. I guess Knocked Up is next on the list.

Scanners, David Cronenberg, 1981

Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, 1970

Borat, Larry Charles, 2006
Whenever a movie comes along that is so celebrated by my peers that I can’t enter a conversation without someone urging me to see it, it’s a surefire sign that I will avoid it like the plague. I finally got around to watching Borat over Labor Day weekend, and yes, of course it made me laugh—I enjoy a good dose of shit jokes now and again. But it’s kind of depressing that this is what is being hailed as comedic brilliance these days. The jokes are cheap, and the so-called political content is more or less nonexistent. I can see that Borat is taking a shit in front of the Trump Towers (ooh, the symbolism), and that masturbating in front of Victoria’s Secret mannequins could be construed as a comment on the voyeuristic nature of such window displays, or that the whole movie could be interpreted as a slap in the face at political correctness and American culture. But that seems a bit of a stretch: it’s really just a lot of sophomoric dick jokes and cheap laughs—not exactly fodder for genius.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg, 1944
Written by Ingmar Bergman early on in his career, this film is somewhat of a prototype of the modern prep school movie, with faint echoes of Dead Poets Society, right down to the cruel foreign language teacher (in this case, Latin) tormenting his students to the brink of insanity. The story is nothing we haven’t seen before—except it was actually pretty revolutionary for the time.

Loves of a Blonde, Milos Forman, 1965

The Call of Cthulhu, Andrew Lehman, 2005
Created by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and modeled after a 1920s silent film, this movie does a remarkable job of capturing the look and style of the era, though it’s quite clearly not an old movie (the only way to really do that would be to use the same equipment used in the 20s, which wouldn’t be all that practical or accessible). The amount of detail is impressive, especially considering that everything was filmed on an extremely low budget—there’s a boat sailing in the ocean, an island inhabited by a monster, all created using cardboard, fabric, and ingenuity. Adapting this classic Lovecraft tale to film in this manner was a little stroke of genius, not only because it fits the period and spirit of the story, but because it’s an extremely forgiving form allowing for the lack of funds available; there are no fancy special effects here, but then, such technology did not exist at the dawn of cinema, rendering the film even more authentic.

Fletch, Michael Ritchie, 1985

Marathon Man, John Schlesinger, 1976

Little Murders, Alan Arkin, 1971

Alice’s Restaurant
, Arthur Penn, 1969

Okie Noodling
, Bradley Beesley, 2001

A Prairie Home Companion
, Robert Altman, 2006

Fear of a Black Hat, Rusty Cundieff, 1994

1 comment:

Chris said...

I enjoy your reviews! Being a big Townes Van Zandt fan, I'm looking forward to your review of Be Here to Love Me!