Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) movie poster

(2010) directors Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
viewed: 12/27/10

This documentary about comedian Joan Rivers has been touted as a real testament to her as a comedy icon.  It follows a year in the life of Rivers, while reflecting on her life and career.

Rivers, if nothing else, is an intense workaholic, eternally fretful to keep her schedule fully booked, the money to keep coming in.  She even shows an empty datebook as an image of horror for her.  And she really does have a go-go-go life, zipping here, doing this show, hitting the Home Shopping Network, writing a play and performing in it.  She’s a tiny little thing, but she goes like the Energizer bunny.

The irony to it is perhaps that by spreading herself all over the place, she’s perhaps cheapened her value.  She’ll blithely tells one potential agent that she’ll do anything.  I’ve never been a particular fan of Rivers, myself, and as far as her cultural presence, it’s easy to see why she seems so ubiquitous.  She’s everywhere.  Perhaps if she was more particular about her work, she’d have more respect.

Once the heir apparent to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, being Carson’s regular anointed substitute host when Carson was on vacation, when Rivers signed a contract with FOX to have her own show, produced by her husband, Carson took it personally, that she was “competition” and never spoke to her again.  Her show tanked and her husband committed suicide.  Since then, she and her daughter have become the media faces all over cable television.  And she’s had a ton of plastic surgery.

Which is all well and good, but she looks like she’s had a lot of plastic surgery.  She has one of these faces you see that are freakishly Botox-ed out, God knows what all else.  But this is part of who Rivers is.  She is from another generation of entertainment.  Starting out in the 1960’s, and having traveled through so much of the industry, she remarks that a woman has to keep her looks and that is why she’s done so much under the knife.

All told, it’s not an uninteresting film, but it’s not the must-see documentary that many have called it.  And as a testament to Rivers herself, it shows some of the unvarnished side, opening with shots of her unmade-up face as make-up is being applied.  It shows her amazingly gaudy New York abode.  And it shows a smart, witty woman who doesn’t seem likely to slow down any time soon.

Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver's Travels (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Rob Letterman
viewed: 12/26/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

I would have shunned this film on my own, but both Felix and Clara thought it looked hilarious.  And for the record, they enjoyed it, Clara in particular.

In my opinion, it was pretty dire.

I mean, it’s a Jack Black movie, right?  I remember when I first saw him, in Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son (1999), which I still think is the best thing I’ve seen him in, I felt like I kind of got it.  He was good in The School of Rock (2003) and Nacho Libre (2006) and tolerable in a lot of things, but he’s also kind of demonstrated that his schtick doesn’t have great breadth or depth to it and for many it’s worn quite thin some time ago.

Gulliver’s Travels does not offer him the best material nor direction.  It’s a hack job of a film.

I know, it is just what it looks like.  What was I expecting?  Not much.

But like I said, the kids liked it.  And I actually thought Jason Segal was good as his little friend.

I’m Still Here

I'm Still Here (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Casey Affleck
viewed: 12/25/10

Is it real? Or is it a hoax?  That is the question that is supposed to be nagging at you throughout I’m Still Here, the fake documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s supposed shunning of Hollywood and his unkempt, talentless attempt to become a hip-hop star.  The answer, released only a week or so after the film, is that it was all a hoax.  Phoenix’s brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, and Phoenix himself “came clean” about it in much-publicized explanations.

So, it’s a hoax.

Either way, it’s a tedious and annoying film, following Phoenix being an asshole to his assistants, doing drugs, hiring prostitutes, and rapping badly.  What was meant to be perhaps an Andy Kaufman-like “performance”, an “in character” performance, somehow shedding a dark, ironic commentary on Hollywood and its trappings is really a brutally indulgent and tedious film.  And perhaps most ironically, since supposedly much of the Hollywood elite who appear in the film, such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and David Letterman, were all in on the joke.  So the hoax played out on the media and those who follow the media, not on any Hollywood elite.

I was reminded of a joke from Family Guy in which it’s revealed that Fred Savage is actually Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, and a number of other celebrities, and that they are just characters that he plays.  Lois, who discovers this, says, “Fred Savage is the greatest actor in the world!”  And Fred replies, “That’s all I ever wanted anyone to know.”

Somehow, one can imagine Phoenix and Affleck, not so humbly aspiring to such in making this film.  It’s an atrocity, really, a major waste of time.

True Grit

True Grit (2010) movie poster

(2010) directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 12/23/10 at the California Theater, Berkeley, CA

First of all: Great Movie.

I’ve been looking forward to this film since I first read that the Coen brothers were adapting Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  Several years back, a friend of mine recommended the book, which she took to in her youth, identifying with the story’s lead, 14 year old Mattie Ross, who narrates the novel and whose “voice” defines the book.  She resented the 1969 film adaptation, for its take on the material, though she loved Glenn Campbell.  I never did see the original adaptation, the John Wayne film, for which he earned his one and only Oscar.  But the book.  The book is excellent.

With the Coen brothers at the helm, Jeff Bridges in the Rooster Cogburn role, I was pretty excited about it.  And, it lives up to expectations.  It’s a deft and adept adaptation, carrying Portis’ clever and characteristic dialogue from the novel and into the script.  It’s a great yarn, with great characters, and the cast is excellent.  Matt Damon, who plays the Texas Ranger LaBeouf, was never more likable.

Like many a Western, the story is relatively simple.  After her father his murdered in cold blood by a hired hand, Mattie Ross seeks to find justice.  The Arkansas town doesn’t have the police force to track down the villain, so she looks to hire a U.S. Marshal to bring the killer to justice.  She seeks Cogburn because she deems him to have “true grit”.  He does indeed, but is also besotted often and quite irascible.  LaBeouf is also after the same man for a murder of a judge in Texas some time before.

The Coen brothers, I’ve seen all of their films.  Like many people, I’ll anticipate any film of theirs, even though they have moved away from the pure aesthetics and weird storytelling of their earlier work.   True Grit is a very straight-forward film, including a musical score that is somewhat traditional as well (and perhaps one of the film’s few weaknesses in my opinion).  But it’s a great film, with great performances, great characters.  It’s really quite a hoot.

One of the best films of the year, for sure.

Until the Light Takes Us

Until the Light Takes Us (2008) movie poster

(2008) directors Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell
viewed: 12/21/10

Norwegian Black Metal, a form of thrash metal/death metal spawned in Norway in the late 1980’s, growing into a cult scene in the 1990’s.   Interestingly lo-fi in its sound aesthetics, its visual imagery took its make-up tips from Alice Cooper and KISS, with a large emphasis on ghost-faces minus the Glam.  Lyrically, it picked up where Satanist stylings left off.  But beyond channeling the devil for pure shock value, the meanings took root more in an anti-Christian meaning.

Until the Light Takes Us is a documentary about the Norwegian Black Metal scene, telling of its origins in the 1980’s band Mayhem and the gruesome suicide of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (nicknamed “Dead”) and a commitment to the hardcore obsession with death in the scene.  In fact, vocalist/guitarist Øystein Aarseth (nicknamed Euronymous)  photographed the  gory scene before reporting it to the police.

The film attempts to stand back and let the interviewees tell their stories.  It’s somewhat uninflected.   Which is notable, because the subject matter turns remarkably dark and weird and disturbing.  But it’s also a weakness of sorts because the film is a bit meandering and lacks a real arc.

That said, what’s really shocking is the ideological side of much of Norwegian black metal.  There is a strong Nationalist slant, something that while anti-Christian, is actually anti-Christian and pro the country’s native mythology.  This anti-Christian bent leads to church burnings, showing that the motivation reaches far further than just lyrics.  But what is sad and deplorable is that the churches that they choose to burn are some of the earliest in the country, dating back over a millennium.

As out-there as this is, the crimes reach even further.  One guy, a hanger-on in the scene, committed a hate crime, murdering an older gay man.  And in the coup de grace, Varg Vikernes, musician behind the band Burzum, winds up stabbing Euronymous to death in a bizarre, paranoid episode.  Vikernes is interviewed from prison as he was found guilty of these crimes.

It’s a strange and fascinating scene, this weird subculture.  The film certainly opens the door a crack upon these people, the musicians, the weird politics and even more gruesome crimes.  But it lacks to allow a fuller sense of what it’s all about, to draw any conclusions, make a bigger picture of it.  You’re kind of left wanting to know more.  But it is strangely fascinating, creepy, and unique.

Yogi Bear

Yogi Bear (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Eric Brevig
viewed: 12/19/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16

For as many movies as I see with my kids, and I see a lot, there are a number of trailers for movies that we see that I cringe from and think aloud, “Uh, we can miss that one!”  And Yogi Bear was of that ilk.

Circumstances being what they are, we didn’t miss “that one”.

Actually, the thing is that both kids were pretty amused and interested by the trailer, and while I grew up with the classic Hanna-Barbera character of Yogi Bear, I wasn’t too excited by this notion of seeing this new 3-D, digitally animated mixed-live-action version of the character.  In fact, perhaps we could have missed it.

The bottom line is that the kids enjoyed it.  Clara in particular.  And for me, I was grateful for the lack of fart jokes.

While I’d rank it among the far lesser of the kid-friendly movies we’ve seen (which interestingly enough includes other live-action/animation features like Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007) and G-Force (2009)), I have to say that it’s tolerable.  Perhaps tolerable at best.

The fact that Justin Timberlake voices Boo Boo is worth some weird element of pop culture insanity points.

Inside Job

Inside Job (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Charles Ferguson
viewed: 12/18/10 at the Clay Theater, SF, CA

The global financial crisis, which started cresting into undeniability in 2008, whose impact is ongoing, deeper, world-wide, and far from over, is the subject of Inside Job, a documentary that seeks to expose and explain how it came to be.  Directed by Charles Ferguson, whose film about the Iraq War, No End in Sight (2007), painted a damning portrait of the hubris and failures of that venture, turns his lens on a crisis that was decades in the making and God only knows how long to be in the un-making.  It’s a film that stuns, informs, and pisses you off to no end.

Actually, beyond that, the breadth and depth of the information is overwhelming.  I’ve never had much of a mind or interest for finance.  But Ferguson boils down the housing market fiasco in visual and understandable terms.  What comes out of it is the fact that this Ponzi-scheme of an inflated housing market, which led to a flood of sub-prime loans, was made possible by the deregulation of the financial industry, an undoing to the reforms put in place after the Great Depression in order to stabilize the markets.  And while this deregulation began in the Reagan years, it continued through both Bush administrations as well as Clinton’s.   While the shit really got crazy in the second Bush administration, the underpinnings of the system had been deconstructed for two decades by that point.  This problem has been growing for years.

What’s also shocking is the pervasiveness of involvement in this whole thing.  Business, government, educators, every facet is complicit.  And the outright lies and greed and audacity.  It’s nothing short of stunning.

The whole thing seriously makes my head spin.

I can’t recommend this enough.  Ferguson takes on a dense, vast subject, and while it verges on more than you can absorb in one sitting, it’s the kind of information that everyone should know and understand.

What is also stunning is how the architects of this disaster are the same people called in to “fix” it.  The Obama administration, inheriting this disaster, is basically taking on the same people who could and perhaps should be in jail to help “right the ship”.  But this problem is bigger than the United States of America alone.  It’s so big that it’s hard to fully fathom.    I am somewhat dumbstruck.  Pissed and dumbstruck.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) movie poster

(2001) director Chris Columbus
viewed: 12/17/10

The kids had never seen the first Harry Potter movie, and as Felix was just finishing up reading the first book of it, he was keen to see the film.  It’s actually been kind of hard to get a hold of from Netflix because, I’m guessing, that a lot of people are catching up on the series.  For Felix, it’s been peaking in his interest, and Clara has been enjoying them too.

I hadn’t seen this film since it first came out in 2001.  And it’s kind of amazing that the film is nearly 10 years old.

The kids were particularly amused by how young Harry, Ron, and Hermione appear in this film (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, respectively).  And it is quite striking, especially having just seen the most recent film where they are all now clearly young adults.  Here they are, playing 11 year olds, meeting for the first time.  It cracked the kids up to know end as they meet one another as their youthful selves.

I think I’d been kind of harsh on this film when it first came out, because it’s really a decent children’s film.  What’s telling is not just that the characters and actors are younger, but as J.K. Rowling had written the story, the film’s adventures and story are more age appropriate for that demographic as well.  What is still, if not more, striking, is how well they cast the film.  The child actors are all very good and the adults are all notable English thespians.

And the film’s design, which they’ve hung on to throughout the series, is a lovingly and surprisingly well-rendered version of Rowling’s world.  I would say that the digital effects have aged less well.  The troll sequence, though the kids enjoyed it, looks particularly cheap and cheesy.

The film was much enjoyed by the kids, and more enjoyed by me than the first time around.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Banksy
viewed: 12/15/10

What’s enigmatic about Exit Through the Gift Shop is basically how much of it is real.  It’s a documentary made by famed British street artist Banksy, whose true identity is still unconfirmed after nearly two decades in public art, and whose art itself employs humor, pranks, and irony to a great extent.  So, in many ways, the thinking goes, “If it’s made by Banksy, there has to be a trick punchline somewhere, right?”

In a year when another notable purported “documentary” was released about celebrity Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here (2010) (and next up on my viewing calendar), questioning the verity of a form which by its very nomenclature suggests objectivity has become part of an ongoing conundrum around these “documents”.  Interestingly, it’s the facts that come out afterward (in the case of I’m Still Here), in which Phoenix and director Casey Affleck openly admitted to it being a hoax, in which “truth” comes through.  Who knows about Exit Through the Gift Shop?  The speculations continue.

Oddly enough, the film itself isn’t so radical.  In fact, Banksy constructs the story in a straight-forward, linear way.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is Banksy’s film about Thierry Guetta, and he introduces Guetta from the very beginning from his birth in France to his move to Los Angeles where he ran a vintage clothing store.  Guetta is a manic character to begin with, but once he gets his hands on a camera, he never sets it down or shuts it off.  He’s all over the place.  And when by a chance discovery that a cousin of his is a famous street artist called Invader, he slips into a rabbit hole, becoming obsessed with street art and street artists, following them around filming their work and abetting them.

Guetta, camera in hand constantly, developed the notion that he was documenting a underground movement, and that his footage would eventually become a documentary about that.  He meets most of the major players in the scene, spending a great deal of time with Shepard Fairey in particular.  Another chance situation lands him the opportunity to assist the secretive Banksy, whose work had international recognition.  And after assisting in a guerilla installation at Disneyland and outwitting the Disneyland police, he earns Banksy’s trust, and Banksy allows him to film him working as well.

But as street art begins to turn into mainstream commercial success, Banksy urges Guetta to finish his film, so that the world can see what street art is really about.  What emerges is a 90 minute long conniption fit of fast-paced cutting and ADHD blithering nonsense.  Banksy realizes that Guetta was not a film-maker.  So, Banksy offers to take the footage and make something himself, and in order to get Guetta out of his hair, he suggests that Guetta go make some art of his own.

Only, Guetta takes this notion beyond anything Banksy could imagine, creating a street art persona called Mr. Brainwash, only unlike the regular renegade street artists who require stealth and anonymity to do their work, Mr. Brainwash is very public and creates his own huge art show.  Guetta employs dozens of artists and artisans to concoct a huge installation of his own and cash in as a celebrity himself.

The story of how Banksy “turned the tables” on Guetta, the film-maker becoming the subject of the film, is the ironic twist, if the story really started in the middle.  But the real twists, Guetta’s own generic-looking pop art, co-opted styles from Andy Warhol to Banksy, and the title of the film, suggesting the commercialism at the end of the art show suggests to me that for all his pranksterism, Banksy has really constructed a pretty straight-forward telling of the documentary, it’s just that the subject matter is particularly strange and intriguing, and really, quite a fascinating yarn.

As far as the veracity of the story depicted, I’m leaning on the side of believing that it is pretty much how he depicts it.  Banksy himself appears on camera in a hooded sweatshirt and cast in shadow, with his voice distorted to speak for himself.  But the film also has a third person narrator, in Rhys Ifans, who discusses Banksy “objectively”.  So, like I said, who knows?

It’s a cool film however you slice it, and as time goes by, facts come out, it may become one of the quite fascinating comments on art, fame, and commercialism.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) movie  poster

(1993) director Henry Selick
viewed: 12/12/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

You know what’s scary about The Nightmare Before Christmas?  That it’s 17 years old.  That’s what.  I went to see it in the theater when it came out in 1993.  And though that was a long time ago, the fact that it was 17 years ago is just plain scary.

I took the kids to see the film at the Castro Theatre where it was playing for the Christmas holiday.  I’ll take most opportunities to take the kids to the Castro Theatre.  And The Nightmare Before Christmas seemed like as good a reason as any.

I can’t recall the last time that I watched it.  But it had been some time.

When it first came out, I was a big fan of the film’s design, the extra-odd Halloween-inspired figures of Jack, the pumpkin king, Sally, the rag-doll girl, the vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghouls, demons.   And really, when it comes down to it, that is what the film has going for it.  The design is brilliant.  The film is just okay.

Director Henry Selick has gone on to greater things.  His film of Coraline (2009) has become a personal favorite of mine.   But in The Nightmare Before Christmas, while the animation and character designs are great, the characters themselves don’t have a lot of personality.  The story, about Jack taking Christmas hostage in a misguided attempt to expand his horizons beyond Halloween, is decent at the concept level, but Danny Elfman’s musical score for the film, which includes a number of explanatory songs that elucidate the narrative, is lively but flat.

In fact, the score is perhaps the film’s true weakness.  The music seems to have the right vibe at first, but then the numbers are monotonous in and of themselves and then more monotonous when piled one on top of the other.  In some ways they all sound like the same song, without a real catchy chorus, nor very witty lyrics.  It’s sort of like all the swirling fun is just a swirl.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but embedding so much of the story and drama in the musical numbers, it sort of keeps the film from having character beyond its design.  And, though I enjoy it visually, I find it a bit disappointing too.  The design is so cool, but the film just isn’t all that great.

Which was definitely the criticism of Tim Burton at the time.  This film was adapted from his concept and he produced it as well.  Burton would go on to co-direct another stop-motion animated film, Corpse Bride (2005), but his directorial efforts have fluctuated between mediocre good and mediocre bad.  Style over substance.

So, you’re probably saying, if I didn’t think that the movie was all that great, why take the kids to see it in the theater?  Well, I always did like the way it looked.  And like I said, I’ll take any good excuse to take the kids to the Castro Theatre.  They enjoyed it.  And who am I to be an utter Scrooge?