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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Movie of the Day: Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie (2013)

Evocateur

I have to admit that ever since news of his death from lung cancer in 2001, I hadn’t given much thought to Morton Downey, Jr. Not to seem unkind, but truthfully, there wasn’t much to think about. Downey’s legacy in television history is so forgettable that the subsequent generation has no idea who he was. If you’ve ever seen “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” you probably have an idea why.

For 20 months from 1987 to 1989, Downey ran a self-titled TV talk show that was part-riot, part-circus, a little bit Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and a dash of Michael Moore. What would come of his show would be an example, not for others to follow, but for others to correct upon. Downey’s show was a loud, obnoxious and fairly monotonous platform of screaming and bullying, the format of which (he said) was to give a voice to the silent majority.  Actually, it was a textbook case of ratings at any cost – Downey wasn’t shy about this.  He prided himself on the fact that his show was a platform for cheer-leading sensationalist bad behavior. His audience, comprised mostly of young college kids, behaved as if they were attending a hockey game.  Downey screamed in the faces of every kind of guest from vegans to the gun nuts to the KKK and even celebrity guests like Ron Paul and Alan Dershowitz. Famously, he clashed with Al Sharpton over the Tawana Brawley incident, in which the young woman falsely claimed that she was raped and then left for dead by six white men and then covered in hate slogans and feces.  The story would be exposed as a fraud, and it would be the first of several incidents that would bring the show to a sudden stop.

The new documentary “Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” examines Downey’s brief rise and quick demise from television. This is a professionally-made, talking-head documentary that features interviews with former colleagues, family and friends who try to help us get inside Downey’s head to figure out what drew him to become the screaming meemie of late-night television and what personal demons drew him to television and what led to his eventual downfall.

We learn that he was a bitter man, the son of a celebrated Irish Tenor (whom his son loathed) who was a friend and neighbor of the Kennedy clan. The junior Downey grew up in the shadow of his old man, even attempting to launch a singing career of his own. His singing voice was competent but unremarkable. His looks weren’t exactly top drawer either; he bore a strange resemblance to Don Knotts. Despite his familial legacy, Downey would become a walking irony. He would make his living destroying his voice, by screaming on television and chain-smoking four packs a day.

Downey would prop himself up as the voice of the angry right-wing Republican, sort of an Archie Bunker with a lectern – even down to the smoking habit and the white collared shirts. His show wasn’t exactly insightful. Fellow talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael remarks that his show was “that prurient excitement of not-nice people saying not-nice things.” His show would turn talk shows on their heads. The common thread of talk shows in the mid-80s was the polite, conversational style of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and a newly minted Chicago-based neophyte named Oprah Winfrey.

The difference between Downey and his contemporaries (even Springer) is that they stayed off-stage, letting the audience run the circus. The mistake was that Downey tried to play the role of ringmaster, lion-tamer and lion, and so the show had nowhere to go. His singular quest was ratings and he got them, until the television audience grew tired of the act. The movie doesn’t shy away from the facts of why the show – and Downey’s career – came to an bitter end.

The movie finds some measure of pity for Downey, but it never backs down from the fact that he was the propagator of his own downwards spiral, particularly with the Tawana Brawly incident. After the demise of his show, Downey would try to make headlines by falsely claiming to have been beaten up by skinheads in an airport men’s room. After that, nothing he could do would peak anyone’s interest, not even an attempt to become the damaged voice of anti-smoking when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  When he died in 2001, the public reaction was barely a whimper.  The result of this documentary is the pitiful, but not unmoving, story of a man who built his house on sand and got caught in his own trap.

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Movie of the Day: Stories We Tell (2012)

StoriesWeTell

Even the loneliest man who ever lived had a mother and a father. No matter how superfluous he may have been in later life, he was born somewhere and meant something to someone. That’s the great truth of humanity. We all come from the same space; we all come from the same reproductive process. We all exit the birth canal. What happens after that is built, not on the great cosmic luck of the draw, but on the lives led by those who surround us. The circumstances that bring us to the moment of our expulsion into the world can remain a mystery held in the stories told by those who come before.

As Sarah Polley’s deeply intimate documentary Stories We Tell gets underway, she sits her father Michael down in front of a microphone to narrate his memoirs. Michael Polley is an actor, known on Canadian television for his role on the series “Slings and Arrows” on which Sarah has had cameo role. Michael Polley, through a craggy English accent, speaks eloquently about the mystery of who he was in the decades before his own birth. “It is clear to me that I was always there,” he says, “somewhere in my ancestor’s DNA just waiting to be born. So, this unique ‘I’ has always existed, even in the mystery of nothingness.” The mystery of what happened in Sarah’s own “nothingness” is the center of “Stories We Tell,” in which she films her family members telling the story of how her mother and father formed a relationship that eventually led to the moment that Sarah would enter their lives. Polley is an actress and a director. You may have seen her in films like “Go” and “The Sweet Hereafter.” Recently she’s turned to directing films like “Away from Her” and “Take this Waltz.” This is her third feature, and just the nature of it says a great deal about her as a director and as a person.

In “Stories We Tell” Polley asks her family (in separate interviews) to tell the whole story of her parent’s relationship from the beginning. We hear from Sarah’s older sisters Joanna and Susy, and her brothers Mark and John and from people who were critical figures in her mother’s life. At first her family seems somewhat startled by this question, but as they talk, they reveal more and more. As youngsters, both Michael and Diane (Sarah’s mother) were stage actors who fell in love with one another. The relationship quickly began to cool under the imbalance of affection (he loved her more than she loved him.) We learn a great deal about Diane. She died of cancer in 1990 when Sarah was still a child, and it is Diane’s story that makes up most of the narrative. Through stories and old home movies, we meet Diane as a person who was a free-spirit, someone for whom life seemed to be a free-wheeling carnival. She was never fit for a family, a husband, children, a home, school. She wasn’t irresponsible, but we come to understand that she just wasn’t designed for our definition of a “normal” life.

Midway through the film something is revealed about Diane that won’t be revealed here. One of the great things about Stories We Tell is that as Sarah’s family tells more and more stories about Michael and Diane, more and more layers begin to peel back. We learn things about Diane that even Sarah doesn’t seem to know. Then at about the mid-point of the film, it turns into something else. Sarah discovers an entirely new section of her family that she never knew. How she reacts is simply incredible. More on that cannot be revealed without spoilers.

Traditional documentaries lead us to believe that the movie is just going to be a series of talking heads. For the most part we’re right, but Polley experiments with narrative structures that give the revelations more emotional punch then we might have expected. The interviews are very intimate and no two are ever the same. Through the stories, Diane becomes a complex individual and the movie cross-cuts to examine Sarah’s life and how it has affected her.

By the end, we feel that we’ve come to know Diane. She was a woman who felt trapped. She didn’t see her life tied down to a family, but she became trapped by them. That may sound like a tired cliché but as Polley digs further and further, she unearths truths that break the traditional narrative wide open. Stories told over and over have a way of pulling the diamonds from the rough, of covering the negatives with positives. Polley reveals her mother’s positive and negative and allows us to see her as a human being. She was a person who was complex and deep. She was joyful and yet sad. This is the story of the strange bonds of family and the overwhelming ripple effects of the secrets we keep.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Sin City – A Dame to Kill For (2014)

SinCityADametoKillFor

When it’s all over, after you’ve wallowed in the den of scum and villainy wrapped up in the spiky heart of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, you may come away with a sense of hollow indifference. That’s really surprising and achingly disappointing if you have fond memories of the original Sin City from nine years ago. That film was as hardboiled as any modern film noir tribute is every likely to get, and it worked because it employed visuals and story arcs that we hadn’t seen before. It had a tone that suggested what a Tarantino film might look like as an underground comic. Back in 2005, when the first Sin City debuted, this stuff was a shock to the system. The first tentative steps into CGI were new, and so a movie like this seemed revolutionary. Now, nine years later, we’ve seen so much CGI from so many sources that it is now past its freshness date.

The problem with the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is that it offers almost nothing new. It repeats the tone and broken narrative of the original without that film’s energy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the visual trickery but when you try to give a rip about anything else, the movie – at about 2 hours – wears out its welcome around the 45 minute mark. Like the original, this film is a series of stories both in short and long form, but this time they’re hard to care about. Of course, the Tao of Sin City has never been about finding an emotional foothold. They’ve been about mixing the bleak world of film noir with the screaming nightmare of visuals in which heads split like watermelons and naked bodies seem like the glowing fantasies of a photo-shopped girlie magazine. The energy level has been turned down here. This movie is slower-paced so we feel less of a firecracker effect.

We’re back, once again, in the dark heart of Sin City, a hell-bound vision of urban decay in which evil finds its way to riches while the good-hearted find only broken dreams and sadness. The film tells several stories, all of them threaded together with the theme of revenge and lust. Some of the stories interconnect, others do not. Most all involve one form of vengeance or another. In one story, a slick card shark (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) looks to beat a monstrous senator (Powers Booth) at a high stakes poker game. In another, an emotionally wounded stripper (Jessica Alba) wants revenge for her murdered lover (Bruce Willis). Jug-headed Marv (Mickey Rourke) grabbles with memory problems, while a grimy shutterbug (Josh Brolin) grapples with Ava (Eva Green), an emerald-eyed succubus whose effortless sexuality leads otherwise good men to their doom.

This story makes up the film’s center section and it is Eva Green’s performance that’s really the only joy here. A gorgeous French actress who has been, up till now, known mostly for roles of devastating or devastated women, Green has a presence and a form that is perfect for the film noir seductress. She reminds us of every noir villainous from Veronica Lake to Barbara Stanwyck to Sharon Stone to Jessica Rabbit. The function is the same. She plays Ava as a scheming terror, a woman of luminous form (mostly unclothed) who can turn on a dime, leading a good cop (Christopher Meloni) to commit an unthinkable act.

Green is the only fresh element in this film. The rest wears out its welcome pretty early. It opens well, drags in the middle and then comes to an ending that is as abrupt as it is unsatisfying. That’s too bad, because after nine years, you find that it wasn’t worth the wait. Here is a good-looking movie that never quite gets off the ground.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Heavy Metal (1981)

HeavyMetal

The immediate reaction to seeing Heavy Metal for the first time was one of disappointment.  Myself, like millions of people who don’t opt for bootlegs, spent years hearing about the infamous Heavy Metal, the grown-up cartoon that we were destined never to see.  Mired in lawsuits and copyright issues, the film spent a decade and a half out of circulation where it wallowed in the underground market.  When finally the dam broke in 1996, the public got its first chance to own the film on a properly licensed home video.  Therein is where the film came to me.

It was not worth the wait.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad film and my disappointment may have come from the fact that my expectations has been built up to a fever pitch.  Maybe it’s was all those talented people on board starting with a producing credit from Ivan Reitman, the man who made Ghostbusters.  Perhaps it was just unusual to have a major release of an animated film with this kind of content. Or maybe it just has something to do with the fact that for the first time an animated film brought about the elements of a bawdy comic book and played it out for the mentality of 13 year-old boys.

Whatever the reasons for the success of ‘Heavy Metal’, I’m afraid I just don’t get it. I see the images, I see some original writing in spots, I see the potential for a cult classic. But, for me, ‘Heavy Metal’ looks dated, silly, disjointed and out of all eight stories I find myself defending only two.

I found ‘The Legend of Tarrna’ (the last one) to be a true original. Sure, it seems sexist and Tarrna is a complete male fantasy but I found it to be strikingly original in its visual imagination. She comes out of the sky riding a giant condor and carrying a sword. She walks into the bar, is hit on by three slobbering goons and you can fill in the rest. This well animated scene owes more than a little to the Clint Eastwood westerns (Did I say a little? She even squints her eyes). I caught myself smiling at this scene, that’s why I liked it despite the fact the movie affords the first opportunity to separate the heroine from her clothing.  Not necessary, but we appreciate it.

I have to admit that ‘So Beautiful, So Dangerous’ is curiously funny. An alien spacecraft breaks into the Pentagon and kidnaps a secretary. She is held captive by a trio of robots, one of whom has an over-inflated libido in it’s programming. I wasn’t all that keen on this segment but I have to admit a certain admiration for any scene that opens with a robot and a naked woman in bed after sex and ends with the line: ‘Okay, but I want a Jewish wedding’.

The rest is pretty routine. I liked where the segment ‘Harry Canyan’ was going but it seemed to be over before it began. ‘Den’, a story about a geek who gets turned into a giant blue hulk is little more than a prepubescent fantasy. ‘Captain Sternn’ had some fun dialogue before disintegrating into predictability. ‘B-17’ the disturbing story of a plane being taken over by the living dead is a matter of taste (not mine). The framing material about a sickly green orb that tells these stories to a frightened girl is just plain baffling.

‘Heavy Metal’ is based on a popular behind-the-counter comic book that would make Bob Guiccione blush. The movie isn’t anywhere near the graphic level of that book but to fans of this movie that hardly matters. What makes this film so popular beyond the bombast and the nudity (I think I just answered my own question). I find chunk-style movies like this lacking almost by definition. It has it’s moments, it fills it’s quotient of T&A and graphic violence, but the grand visionary scale that this movie aspires to never really come to the surface.  It wants to be an adolescent fantasy but it doesn’t seem to want to be anything more than that.  It’s all at the service of base pleasures and for me, that’s not enough.

 
 

BLOG: The Reel Jesus

ReelJesus

If you grew up cradled in the nest of the Christian faith, as I did, then you have inevitably struggled at one time or another with the puzzle that Jesus Christ was both God and man.  This is not thought to be a theory.  It is also not a new idea; the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD was the first to recognize and affirm that Jesus’ hypostatic union – the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – was dead solid fact.  From that moment on, this has been an idea that every Christian has had to ponder.

It is also a comforting idea to some of us that Jesus could bear the divinity of God while at the same time pulling together the doubting qualities of a human being – the paramount attribute of God is that he is flawless while the paramount attribute of man is that his anything but.

For me, I am comforted by the fact that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, that he made himself human in an effort to have a sense of empathy with the human race.  That comfort comes to me from one small passage in the book of Mark.  On the night just before Jesus is to be arrested by the Romans and later crucified, he is hiding out in the garden of Gethsemani.  There he falls to his knees and begins to pray: “Father, with you all things are possible, take this cup away from me.”  What this says to me is that there was a large measure of humanity existing within this man whom history has taken for a divine being.  I am comforted by the fact that if Jesus experiences doubts and fears; if he could struggle with his humanity then maybe it is not so frightening for me to struggle with my own.

The picture of Jesus as a perfect being is of course an adamant of history given to us, not through Jesus Christ himself, but by the testimonies of those who knew him – this is the construct of the Bible’s vision of Jesus, everything we get is basically second-hand and was discovered hundreds of years after he died.  Jesus wrote nothing down and our vision of Christ is built first by “The Gospel According to . . .” and second by the historical vision of the most famous man in human history.

If you disagree with me, I completely understand.  Look around you, no two human beings on the face of the Earth have a picture of Jesus Christ that is exactly the same.  We don’t know what he looked like; We don’t know what he sounded like.  If we saw him, we might not even recognize him – the picture in your mind is probably born of the Pre-Raphaelite watercolors of the Renaissance created some 1500 years after Jesus walked the Earth.  Our vision of him remains within ourselves.

Which brings me to the movies.

I have made it known on the blog that I believe that what is written in The Bible should never be taken as a nailed-down version of history – The Bible is a record of historical events but it is not a history book.  The Bible should challenge you to look at your own life, listen to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and find a path of peace and harmony within the word of God.  Every vision of Jesus and his life and the meanings of what he stood for reside within the individual.  Debates about who he was and what he meant to the world will be debated until the day that mankind ceases to exist.

The artistic world has had its own version of Jesus ever since the moment that it realized who and what he was meant to stand for.  From paintings to statues to the moving image, mankind has always found a fascination with this man.  The movies, my beloved institution, have given lip service to what it thinks about Jesus and what he had to say.  The lesser films about Jesus’ life do him no credit.  They are exercises in hagiography that sap his humanity.

In most cases I am troubled by Jesus’ portrayal on the screen.  In the lesser films about his life, The Robe, Son of God,The 1999 miniseries Jesus; the stop-motion film The Miracle Maker; The Greatest Story Ever Told; the 1979 feature Jesus.  These films feature Jesus as a watercolor dream, as a beatific figure going through the motions as if the filmmakers are afraid of offending the audience.

In these films he is often seen as a remote figure, a distant figure who is so perfect and so beautiful that he loses the ability to be relateable.  The worst movies about Jesus find neither passion nor purpose, they shy away from challenging the audience by giving them only the Sunday School version that turns Jesus’ life into a series red letter moments: He heals the sick, raises the dead, feeds the multitudes, walks on water, gives inspiring sermons and he cheeses off the Romans until they crucify him.  What is missing are the spaces in between.  What was it like for Jesus on an average Tuesday?  What must have been rolling around in his mind while he had a clear vision of what his purpose on this Earth was to be?  It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ dual personality must have caused him great emotional and mental distress, especially in knowing this information.  Christ in these films remains remote and distant, an icon without substance or conflict.  He’s more a bland picture postcard.  Think about how dynamic a man like this must have been.

In my lifetime I have only seen three films that ever come close to the humanity that we know resided within him.  First was Jesus of Nazareth, an epic, glorious 1977 production starring British actor Robert Powell in the title role and surrounded by . . . well . . . every single living actor at the time who had a free afternoon.  I like the film but I have only seen it once because at 382 minutes, I just can’t find a weekend free to devote to it.

I was also impressed by The Passion of the Christ which I am alarmed to find makes many people’s worst list of films about Jesus.  This is, indeed, a passionate film, a film that came from Mel Gibson’s heart and makes me sorry that he gave up directing.  It is straight-forward about the last days of Jesus and gives us a front-row seat to his ultimate suffering and death at Calvary.  Roger Ebert called this one of the most violent films ever made, and that may be true, this is an EXTREMELY violent film.  But the point is to get us to understand the suffering.  If we are to believe that he died for our sins, then we must understand what he went through to get there.

And then there’s the most uncomfortable (and best) of the three, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which cause rage and fire before it was released in 1988 mostly at the hands of so-called believers who reviled and pilloried the film without even seeing it (imagine that).  Based, not on the scriptures, but on the equally controversial 1952 book by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the film has the nerve to focus less on the divine qualities of Jesus but on the torments of his flesh.  Was he tempted?  How human was he?  Was he tempted by Satan to accept a normal life instead of dying on the cross?  Did he have doubts?  Did he question his calling?  These are questions that all of the above films don’t want to deal with.  They don’t want to question what Jesus was thinking on his way to the cross or on his way to his resurrection.

Played in a beautiful performance by Willem DeFoe, Jesus is seen here for his human qualities.  He’s frustrated, he’s angry, he’s doubtful, he’s afraid.  In other words, he’s all of those qualities that I have found in myself and attached to my vision of Jesus from The Book of Mark in which he asks God to “take his cup away from me.”  The movie will not make many people happy.  It questions the mission of Jesus, it questions his purpose, it sees in him the doubting human qualities that we as human beings share.  It’s a glorious film in that way, because it purposes the idea that if he can overcome temptation then maybe it is easy for us mortals to do that same.

Of course, that’s my pathway to salvation.  I find solace in the word of God in more places than just the movies.  Movies are a way of bringing things close enough for us to understand them.  The Bible is and should be an instruction guide to life, not a weapon to heap upon those who see things differently.  That’s my long-winded exaltation on the King of Kings.  Happy Easter everyone, and my God bless.

 

 
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Posted by on 03/27/2016 in Blog

 

Movie of the Day: Kissed (1997)

Kissed

To understand a person’s fetish, my guess is that you would have to share that fetish. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to get close to Sandra Larson, the necrophiliac at the center of ‘Kissed’, a bold film by Canadian director Lynn Stopkewich that walks a very fine line to avoid making the film exploitative or ridiculous. She could have made the worst film of the year but her frankness and restraint keep the viewer fascinated but not repelled.

The center of the film is Sandra who from childhood has had a fascination with death. She describes one summer with her friend when they would find dead animals and have funerals for them. At nightfall she would perform the strange ritual of shrouding the body and then rubbing it on her skin which she calls ‘anointing’.

As a young woman (played by Molly Parker) working in a flower shop she is overjoyed when she is allowed to make a delivery to the local funeral home and soon she is working there. When she touches the bodies we don’t sense a sick fascination but a passage, a transcendence which she calls ‘crossing over’. When she touches the bodies there is a heavenly light, accompanied by an angelic chorus. This could have been done in very poor taste but we understand from the intensity in Parker’s performance that there is something very serious going on, something about setting them free, ‘Each of them has its own wisdom, innocence, happiness, grief. I see it’ While in college she meets a man who, oddly enough, is fascinated by what she is doing. ‘Why would you want to be an embalmer?’ he asks her on their first meeting. ‘Because of the bodies, I make love to them’ she says without missing a beat. He is interested in her attraction but doesn’t understand the emotional bond. He grows jealous of her attraction to the dead and is willing to do anything to gain her affections.

The scenes in which she performs her rituals are done with extreme restraint. Stopkewich uses her camera to suggest what Sandra is doing but then pulls back so that he have only the idea. The movie is never interested in the mechanics of Sandra’s sexuality but more in its spiritual nature.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Bolero (1984)

Bolero

How much tedium are you willing to sit through to see Bo Derek naked?  That challenge may very well test the limits of your motivation if you sit through Bolero, the most boring sex film in many a moon.  One watches a movie like this for the same reason they saw ‘Showgirls’. Even Bo Peepers have trouble slogging through this vapid monstrosity in which Bo Derek takes off her clothes and wanders through one lame sex scene after another but the scenes that come in between are like watching grass grow.

Bo plays Lida a woman discovering her sexual awakening. There’s your first problem.  Take a look at her; does she look like a woman who has yet to discover her sexuality? She runs around the world in search of the perfect lover, which include fumblings with a Spanish Bullfighter and an Arab Shiek. This isn’t a movie it’s a Playboy Video.

Look, you watch a movie like this for the T&A but you can’t find anything here that you didn’t find in ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ which is a movie that is equally as languid but contains just as much skin. ‘Ten’ at least offered a story. It was a very funny comedy that used Bo to the advantage that the essence of her character didn’t require her to do very much. This movie was taylor made for video so you can scan it for the ‘good parts’.