The Interview (2014)

The Interview (2014) movie poster

directors Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg
viewed: 01/26/2015

That was fast.

The tempest in a teapot that was the controversy over Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s movie The Interview was like so last month.  From the Sony hack to the threats of the hackers that led to the curtailing of theatrical release plans for the comedy about a buffoonish attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to the sudden availability of the movie on Netflix streaming.  I’d predicted that the story of the film’s release and troubles would probably be far more interesting than the film itself, and you know what?  It’s true.

I watched The Interview with my kids (ages 10 and 13) in large part because Felix was really interested in seeing it.  I’d heard that the film was laced with inappropriate and crude humor (and it is), which is the main reason not to do something like that.  But Felix kept wanting to see it and so, push came to shove and entertainment ensued.

Actually, the kids thought several parts of the film quite funny, and to be fair, it has a few funny bits.

James Franco plays an insufferable talk show host and the insufferable part is more just James Franco.  It’s funny but I was thinking back to Pineapple Express (2008), which was written by Rogan and Goldberg and starred Rogan and Franco.  In Pineapple Express, Franco’s character was actually funny.  Here he’s barely tolerable.  And the filmmakers seem to have devolved rather than evolved in the ensuing seven years because the formula isn’t all that different, bromance is still the key word, crass humor overlays the possibilities of funny, rarely being as natural and free as it could be.

In reality, they’ve collaborated on several films now including The Green Hornet (2011) and This Is the End (2013).  I haven’t revisited any of these films since, but the one that stood out the most and still does in my mind is Superbad (2007) with Pineapple Express a reasonable second.  I was thinking of going back to those movies with the kids but then thought the better of it with the crass humor and stuff that I don’t care for.  Maybe in a few more years down the road.

The film’s controversies raised issues about parody and satire and their roles in society.  Events that followed in France, the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices seemed to underscore the potential crisis of free speech and satire — and it may overall.  But I have to say that this film really isn’t even a satire.  It’s a sloppy concept of a movie, buddy comedy, action film, but satire is almost besides the point.

And the film, despite the fact my kids thought it was pretty funny — I think it pretty much stinks, which is kind of what I anticipated from the trailers myself.

At least now that I’ve seen it, hopefully, I can forget about it.

Withnail and I (1987)

Withnail and I (1987) movie poster

director Bruce Robinson
viewed: 01/25/2015

A cult film is a film that most people don’t get but that some people get entirely.  By the very nature of the fact that the film doesn’t appeal to the general population of the world, but has an impassioned group of adherents, it tends to go on to develop an impassioned fixation for some, who appreciate it and winnow out its depths and meanings and joys in ways that outsiders would simply never understand.  And they love it all the more that that is so.

Withnail and I is a cult film that I don’t entirely 100% get.  That is not to say that I don’t appreciate it or see its merits and interest, but rather that it’s a cult film that doesn’t speak directly to me.  I first saw it while living in England in the 1990’s and heard about it in the impassioned rants of young men who thought it the most hilarious movie ever made — which is typical of its acolytes.

Produced by George Harrison and written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based loosely on his experiences as a young actor in London in 1969.  It’s the drunken/drugged wildness of Withnail (the tremendous Richard E. Grant) and the I (Paul McGann), who trundle off to Withanil’s wealthy Uncle Monty (the amazing Richard Griffiths)’s house in the country where they are strange, stranded, and miserable.

The actors are great.  And it’s funny and specific.  And I like it.

But I don’t get it the way that true hardcore fans do.  I wonder how much of that core group of fans is purely English.  The film has its adherents here in the States, too, but I kind of think that this film is so very English that it speaks in specificity to the English more so than the average American (or other non-English viewer).  I raise this as a question.

I like the film.  It’s good.  But as a fan of many a cult film, I can say that I fall outside of this film’s cult, good or bad.  You can’t love ‘em all.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 01/24/2015

So, the kids and I are working our way through the Christopher Nolan Batman films, largely at Felix’s behest.  I hadn’t personally revisited any of them since first seeing them in the theater in their day, in the case of The Dark Knight, a day in 2008.

This is the best of Nolan’s trilogy, which I would credit to what I still think is true of a good superhero movie, which is simply having a good villain.  The better the villain, typically, the better the movie.  And to be a good villain, you need some relationship with the hero.

Heath Ledger’s Joker (which won a posthumous Oscar for the actor) still stands tall.  Seven years out, it’s a striking creation, visually and in character.  The kids liked him, too.

I still think this is the best of the three films, but it’s long and it’s convoluted and packed with tons of plot.  The kids kept getting a bit lost and I had to stop the film to explain stuff to them throughout.  And then the ending, in which Harvey Dent’s Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart)’s crimes are blamed on Batman to keep the tarnish off of Dent and his legacy — the kids totally didn’t get that.  “Why blame it on Batman?  Why not blame it on The Joker?”  And while this might seem a trivial point to bring up, I think it’s testament to the fact that this massive enterprise has such grandiose import and complexity that it nearly stumbles on itself.

Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan, and story writer David S. Goyer packed in the social commentary.  From surveillance to terrorism to human rights, there is a lot going on in the film and interestingly themes that permeate all three films.  The villains all seek chaos as change to the social order.  It almost makes you wonder if there is a part of Nolan that shares this perspective as he imbues his criminal geniuses with anarchy, chaos, and a just anger at the status quo.

Felix really liked it.  He said it was “the best superhero movie” he’d seen.

It’s interesting, as I noted before in writing about Batman Begins (2005) how Nolan’s commitment to practical effects and a realistic or “real world” action film for his superhero Batman is in such stark contrast to the CGi-heavy Marvel Universe which is presently dominating the Hollywood pipeline.  I have to say that I think Nolan’s films will hold up in contrast, perhaps in part to his commitment to this vision, this naturalism, but I also think that it will be all the more anomalous as more and more movies come pumping out of Hollywood featuring superheroes.  I don’t think anyone else is adhering to that sensibility – at least not at present.  It will make Nolan’s films that more unusual in the landscape of the genre.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013) movie poster

director Frank Pavich
viewed: 01/22/2015

Back in 1973, following the successes of his cult films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, with the help of producer Michel Seydoux acquired the rights to the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert and set out to make the most far out movie of all times.  And far out it would have been had it been made.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary that tells the story of one of the greatest films never made with great interviews with Jodorowsky and Seydoux and many others involved in the process.  They spent the better part of two years assembling Jodorowsky’s dream team of visionary “warriors” to construct the vision for this epic concept.  This included the likes of H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Dan O’Bannon and Jean Girard (Mœbius) on the design team, with Pink Floyd and Magma on the soundtrack and the likes of Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí in the cast (Dalí was to play “the king of the universe” or something).

There were drugs involved, but visionary visions as well.  Really of all the far-out ideas and designs spec’ed out for this film, they must have been particularly high to think that they could roll this into Hollywood and get the funding they needed for this proposed 13-hour epic, whose storyboard and design book (featured in the film) was a massive, massive tome.

This was the 1970’s, after all, a period when Hollywood was home to maverick filmmakers.  But it was also Hollywood before Star Wars (1977), both good and bad, because there just wasn’t anyone with the perspective that could have seen the potential in actually seeing this picture through to production.  In reality, the cost would have soared, the whole thing was so insane.  But it would have been brilliant and glorious and FAR OUT if it had been produced, good or bad or ugly.

Frank Pavich’s documentary on the subject is rich and well-done, employing animations of Mœbius’s storyboards, Giger’s and Foss’s paintings, plus the hilarious stories recounted by Jodorowsky himself, now in his 70’s.

It’s one of a new odd genre of documentary, about the great unproduced film.  Another I can think of is L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009) about a film that Henri-Georges Clouzot never completed.  Given the true history of filmmakers, there must be hundreds if not thousands of stories of great films that went through amazing amounts of planning, work, and development only to never see realization, so who knows, this could be the tip of the iceberg for documentarians.  But it must be said that it’s doubtful that there were any as outlandish, grandiose, wild, or even as influential as Jodorowsky’s failed Dune.

Because it is interesting as well how much the work that went into this film ending up playing out in other films, such as Giger’s work with O’Bannon on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and a number of other images cited in the film.  It’s a pretty great story in and of itself and a glimpse at the incredible “what might have been.”

Iron Sky (2012)

Iron Sky (2012) movie poster

director Timo Vuorensola
viewed: 01/19/2015

Moon Nazis.

This comic sci-fi vision imagines that the Nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon in the waning years of WWII and have been hiding out there with limited versions of technology ever since.  But when a mission to the moon, manned by an African-American actor playing an astronaut as a re-election stunt by a Sarah Palin-esque president stumbles on them, an inevitable clash is sprung into motion, including space dirigibles and Nazi moon men.

This Finnish/Australian/German production is a camp piece with a few quite funny aspects to it, though overall it’s almost a Troma film in other ways.  I do give them credit for adherence to silliness.

Felix and I watched this at his behest.  I had queued it up because I’d read something about it being weird or something.  We both kind of enjoyed it for what it was.  Felix was shocked to hear that a sequel was in the works, due out next year at the time of my writing this.

My Bodyguard (1980)

My Bodyguard (1980) movie poster

director Tony Bill
viewed: 01/19/2015

I always liked My Bodyguard.  My mom took me to see it back in 1980 when it came out.  I always liked Chris Makepeace, who I mainly knew from this movie and Meatballs (1979).  He has such an understated likability and charm, a natural real kind of kid you feel like you know him in real life.

My Bodyguard has a great cast including Makepeace (as Clifford), Matt Dillon as the high school bully Melvin Moody, Adam Baldwin as the bodyguard of the title, with Joan Cusack, Martin Mull, John Houseman, and the absolutely wonderful Ruth Gordon as Clifford’s fun-loving grandmother.  Even some more obscure actors in the movie are also excellent, specifically Paul Quandt as Carson, Clifford’s deep-voiced little school chum.

The film is shot extensively on location in Chicago, capturing the city in great detail and natural character.

Clifford and his family (dad Martin Mull, grandmother Gordon) has just moved into Chicago proper, living at a downtown hotel that his father manages.  Moving into an inner city public high school, Clifford runs afoul right away of class bully Moody, who gets kids like Carson and other to pay him protection money.  Ostensibly, he is protecting them from Ricky Linderman (Baldwin), the big kid in school who is rumored to have murdered a boy and lots of other heinous crimes.  Clifford decides to approach the big quiet loner to see if he’ll act as his bodyguard to protect him from Moody, finding out about Linderman’s real background.

My Bodyguard is one of those teen films that really captures a sense of the reality of life, school, kids, everything.  I’d been intending to watch it with my kids for some time and they enjoyed it.  They particularly liked Ruth Gordon and Paul Quandt, though they thought that the drama didn’t quite reach the full crescendo that it should have.

But I really like the good-natured naturalism of the film.  The characters are deftly drawn but (to me, at least) feel so much like real life.  I liked the film back in the 1980’s when I first saw it and I like it today, too.  I think it’s a great little film.

Cocaine Cowboys 2 (2008)

Cocaine Cowboys 2 (2008) movie poster

directors Billy Corben, Lisa M. Perry
viewed: 01/19/2015

Director Billy Corben’s follow-up documentary to his Cocaine Cowboys (2006) shifts the focus from the broader history of the rise in the cocaine trade in South Florida and across the United States and hones in on the particular character of Griselda Blanco, who he highlighted in the original film.  As much as this film keens in on Blanco, it does so through the specific perspective of former small time Oakland, CA drug dealer Charles Cosby who developed a relationship with Blanco while she was in prison and whose story structures the entire film.

Cosby was an early but small operator in the drug trade in California before he wrote a fan/love letter to Blanco, who he heard of through the media.  He became her lover and historian as well as well-endowed member of her inner circle.  This whole film pretty much is told through him and his recounting of everything.

He is an intelligent and well-informed narrator, whose story seems true and legitimate, though it ranges the breadth of outrageous fortunes and shocking extremes.  His is a truly crazy tale that includes Blanco’s attempt to kidnap John F. Kennedy, Jr. as a plot to get Blanco out of prison.  Additionally there is a strange secondary plot that manages to keep Blanco out of Florida’s electric chair and eventually deported rather than tried for many of the murders she was supposedly responsible for ordering.

Like Corben’s first documentary, the movie gets going at a rat-a-tat spate, so fast-paced and packed with information that you barely have time to gasp for air.  Really, a few pauses for dramatic impact would benefit the film.  It’s really almost too much to take in.  Corben edits in moments from the earlier film to supplement Cosby’s accounts of things and it all seems a most believable presentation of the histories of these dark and outrageous times.

It’s kind of amazing that Blanco lived for eight more years in her native Columbia after being deported in 2004 before being finally gunned down in an inevitable assassination.  This film was made in 2008 while she still lived free and while Cosby still lived in fear for her potential vengeance.

These movies are dense, fast-paced, and truly packed with horrific and fascinating accounts of the world at the height of the drug trade.  It would be interesting to know how verifiable all of the information is.  Cosby is an intelligent and seemingly reliable narrator so I’ll take it for what he says.

It’s crazy stuff.

Foxes (1980)

Foxes (1980) movie poster

director Adrian Lyne
viewed: 01/18/2015

This 1980 teen issues film set in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley swings between aspects of realism and eventual “after school special”.  It was British director Adrian Lyne’s first feature film and it features a cast including Jodie Foster, Scott Baio, Sally Kellerman, Randy Quaid, and Cherie Currie, the then lead singer of Joan Jett’s The Runaways.  It also features a soundtrack by the inimitable Giorgio Moroder including the constant theme and hit single “On the Radio” by Donna Summer.

The “foxes” of the title are a group of teenage girls dealing with life in their various broken homes and the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll for which teens all seem to strive.  Foster plays Jeanie, the most level-headed of the gang, who also plays mother to her own mother (Kellerman) as well as her brood of buddies.  Currie plays platinum blonde Annie, the most troubled of the crew, who parties hard and swings out with biker dudes and other guys who offer it up.  Her dad is a fascist cop.  Baio is the sweet young skateboarder who seems to flit around L.A. free from the constraints and cares of his family.

The film is ripe for critique in its genre, portraying the girls as playing at adults, even at one time trying to put on a hoity-toity dinner party only to see it get trashed and ruined.  The parents are children themselves, with Kellerman bringing home schlubs and Jeanie’s dad managing a glam band.  I’m sure its been parsed that way before, so I won’t attempt to delve into it deeply.

There are aspects of the film that really capture the time and place.  The cast is good, especially Baio and the girls.  And the milieu of the time, speckled with junk food and its packaging, as well as the L.A. landscapes are captured well in the set design and cinematography.

Only the film is in some ways an after school special in lots of ways.  I’ve never considered Lyne a particularly able director, though he did have his finger on the cultural pulse for a while (Flashdance (1983), 9½ Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987)), and Foxes, for its qualities doesn’t really overcome its shortcomings and triteness.

That said, there are indeed aspects of the film that connect, be it Jodie Foster, Baio or Currie, the sights of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, or even the pretty classic Moroder soundtrack.  If nothing else, listening to Donna Summer and “On the Radio” hooked some sensibility with me, its melancholy disco tears and joy, connecting to some fragment of my childhood soul.  There is something here.  But it’s not a great movie.

The Bigamist (1953)

The Bigamist (1953) movie poster

director Ida Lupino
viewed: 01/17/2015 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I’d taken the kids to the Castro Theatre to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), but given the cost of admission, convinced them to sit through the second half of the Joan Fontaine film noir double feature in Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist.  I hadn’t really watched film noir with the kids before and The Bigamist hardly seemed like the perfect starting point, but I actually was keen to see it as I hadn’t seen it before.  Oddly enough, just the night before, Clara and I had watched a The Twilight Zone episode starring Lupino.

Edmund O’Brien plays the titular two-timer in Lupino’s earnest, low-budget noir.  It’s more noir in its moral ambiguity perhaps than typical of other noir.  Here the crime is that of bigamy, but not portrayed as outre crime, but as the act of a humane and honest guy caught in a bad situation.  He’s married to Fontaine in San Francisco, though their marriage is at a low ebb.  He’s drawn her into his sales business, which has been great for their business but bad for their marriage, and he finds himself alone and lonely in Los Angeles when he meets “mousy” Phyllis, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant who he falls for and eventually knocks up.

His wife is going through a hard time with the death of her father, so O’Brien does the wrong right thing by marrying Phyllis, hoping for the right time to break things off with Fontaine.  Only he and Fontaine had begun the process of adoption, which required the digging into his background that uncovered his whole mess.

Yeah, this isn’t the kind of story that typically compels 10 and 13 year olds.  But it is compellingly told and framed in a humanist perspective.  Lupino crafts an interesting picture out of the material, working with her ex-husband (and then current Fontaine husband) Collier Young’s screenplay.

After the movie, I was telling the kids about O’Brien’s more famous low-budget noir film, also set between LA and SF, 1950’s D.O.A., which I had just watched last year.  Giving them that set-up, where a man walks into a police department to report a murder, his own, they were immediately interested.

Still, it was a cool day down at Noir City.

Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion (1941) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/17/2015 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I took the kids down to the Castro Theatre to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which was playing as part of the Noir City Festival.  The kids and I have watched a fair amount of Hitchcock films and have also been watching his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show from the 1950’s-1960’s, but we really hadn’t delved into film noir at all, not that Suspicion is truly a noir film or not.  But we’d also recently watched Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), so the Cary Grant angle was also a pull.

I hadn’t seen Suspicion since probably the 1980’s or early 1990’s, so my memory was vague of it.

In it Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a bon vivant, inveterate gambler, and confidence man who seduces the spinsterish Lina (Joan Fontaine, who won an Oscar for Best Actress for the role) into marriage.  Only people start dying around them and Aysgarth is simply allergic to work but not embezzlement, so he starts to arouse Lina’s Suspicion!

Apparently three different endings were shot for the film, including one where Johnnie runs off to join the RAF and fight the good fight in WWII.  Luckily such propaganda failed to make the final cut.  But the more Hitchcockian ending, the one where Lina dies and leaves a note of Suspicion fingering her widower husband also failed to make the final cut.  Instead, we’ve got an ending where all the Suspicion turns out to be in Lina’s mind and that Johnnie is really a bad apple trying to make good.

There are aspects to this ending that seem like they could have worked better if the whole film had been committed to that narrative from the get-go.  But really the film feels like it was really leading up to the Hitchcockian ending that was not used and so the ending where all the Suspicion is in the mind of the hysterical woman just seems weirdly forced and inapt.

As introduced by Film Noir Foundation’s Treasurer Alan Rode, it’s suggested that fans and critics have grown to like the ending that we’ve had to live with all these years.  Me, I don’t know about that.  But I’ll take it in consideration.

The kids enjoyed it pretty well.