Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

julien donkey-boy (1999) movie poster

director Harmony Korine
viewed: 08/25/2013

As I’ve noted before in writing about films of Harmony Korine, I’d kind of vowed not to watch any more of his movies after seeing his Gummo (1997).  I’ve since gone on to see most of his movies, though this is many years later.  The film that I guess was the one that I avoided more than others was his follow-up to Gummo, 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy.  Coming right after Gummo and dealing with a lot of similar motifs and ideas (so it seemed), I doubted it would be much different.  But now, having finally seen it, I’m really thinking that I should at least refresh myself with Gummo so that I’m speaking coherently about my feelings towards his films.

I’ve long held this idea that if it has been more than 10 years since interacting with a film or book or whatever, it might be worth revisiting to establish that my opinion has not changed.  It’s a simple formula.  Ten years is a significant time.  You forget, even something that made a serious impression a decade ago, you don’t fully remember.  But you also change, your perspective changes, who you are changes, so your idea of something may well change too.

It’s not a mandate.  But if you’re trying to examine something related, it’s better to have a fresh impression to work with.

In this case, I was trying to work my way through some of the films that had been on my queue for 10 years.

I think if I’d seen Julien Donkey-Boy back in 1999 or so, I’d have probably hated it as much as I hated Gummo at the time.  It features an actor playing someone mentally deficient and acting like a kook.  In this case, it’s Ewan Bremner playing the title character Julien.  Julien is based on an uncle of Korine’s who suffered(s) from schizophrenia and apparently the character’s behaviors and speech are modeled specifically on that real person.  And this portrayal is meant to be sympathetic.

Korine’s fascination with fringe American characters is highly on display here.  There is a community of deaf people, a man born with no arms, the mentally disabled, the drug-addicted, the more generally crazy.  Riding a line of exploitation and endearment is something that Korine does, though arguably with many slips into either side.

Bremner’s performance is earnest but also annoying.  Werner Herzog is the patriarch of the dysfunctional family. Chloë Sevigny is the pregnant older sister.  Pregnant by her brother Julien.  So there’s incest too.  And a creepy relationship with a young blind girl (who has some affecting little scenes).

The film was made in accordance (though also out of accordance) with the Dogme 95 rules.

Strangely, though I found pretention and obnoxiousness in the film, I somehow also found something evocative.  It’s hard to say exactly what or how or why.  I guess that is my consistency with Korine’s films: conflicted ambivalence.

Blackfish (2013)

Blackfish (2013) movie poster

director Gabriela Cowperthwaite
viewed: 08/25/2013 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

I’d taken the kids to documentaries a couple times before (Project Nim (2011) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)), and I thought that they would be interested in a documentary about orcas in captivity.  But it wasn’t until Clara told me that another friend of hers had seen Blackfish that I realized I wasn’t being all that radical in taking children to a movie about the tragic consequences of a particular male orca who has been involved with the deaths of three humans.

I’d read an article from Outside Magazine about the event of the most recent death, “The Killer in the Pool” by Tim Zimmerman, which was written closer to death.  The killer whale in question is named Tilikum, captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 at the age of three.  In his first long-term home, Tilikum was in Sealand of the Pacific with two female orcas in especially closed confines at night and brutalized often by the dominant females.  When a trainer slipped into the water, the orcas grabbed her and played with her, dragging her under and beating her about until she died.  There were conflicting reports about which of the whales were the most aggressive in the attack, but in the wake of it, the park closed and Tilikum was sold to Sea World.

Being an adult bull, Tilikum’s sperm is worth its weight in gold to the chain of theme parks that have built their empire on the presence of performing orcas.  And the real question for the film Blackfish isn’t just about Tilikum but about all captive killer whales anywhere in the world.

Orcas are long-lived highly intelligent, highly social animals, with large brains highly developed for emotion.  In the wild, the orcas that are born to social pods never leave them, staying with their mothers throughout their long lives.  The taking of a baby from its mother is as traumatic as imaginable and can be seen in the film in clips of captive mother orcas crying out when their babies are separated from them for distribution to other parks.  The wailing is visceral.  It transcends our ability to “understand” these creatures’ communications.

It all supports the idea of trauma that has affected Tilikum throughout his long-tortured captive life and how such experience could lead him to develop psychoses.

It’s not really that different from similar poaching of baby elephants from their mothers, another large, intelligent, highly social animal that has been trained to perform for human entertainment.  While circus animal exhibition has become more and more diminished over years that hopefully have led to understand that these animals are best appreciated for what they are naturally and not what they can be made to do, it certainly raises questions about the continued practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

The kids both thought that the film Blackfish was “sad”, which indeed it is.  It’s pretty compelling and well-made.  Though Gabriela Cowperthwaite interviews a lot of disillusioned ex-trainers, no one from SeaWorld would be interviewed for the movie.  It’s the challenge of a film like this to try and show “the other side” as it were because anyone smart enough on “the other side” knows that there is no winning in trying to argue your points.  Maybe you don’t have a leg to stand on to being with.  But I am definitely of the mind that orcas should not be kept in captivity.

As a child I once went to SeaWorld Orlando.  Killer whales are remarkable animals, utterly beautiful.  But ones to appreciate in their natural world.

A League of Their Own (1992)

A League of Their Own (1992) movie poster

director Penny Marshall
viewed: 08/24/2013

I was director Penny Marshall’s movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) over 20 years ago when it came out and yet not once since, despite moments of it having moved into the canonical famous film quotes.  The story of the inception and inaugural year of a professional women’s baseball league that was organized during World War II is captured with humor and light pathos and a few good performances.  It’s funny but I recall leaving the theater thinking that it was pretty good but pretty “saccharine”.  That was my word at the time.

It’s true that the framing opening and closing “present day” elements, which included a few of the real actual ballplayers reunited, strikes the most sappy of tones, sentimentalizing hardcore.  It is nice to see some of the real women who played in the league because there is an aspect of documenting this fact in popular culture that this league existed.  Oddly a documentary might be hued closer to the reality and truth of the events, but a fictionalized version of a film, especially one crafted with a few key iconic moments perhaps establishes knowledge of the league in more comprehensive ways.  20 years out, most people seem to be familiar with this movie and therefor its subject matter.

My kids were not of that group before, but when this movie was recently brought to mind, I thought it would be a good one to watch with them.  And I was right.  They both enjoyed it.  Typically, Clara more than Felix, but both of them.  I enjoyed it too, largely.

Geena Davis is good as Dottie, the star of the movie and star of the show.  She never looked more beautiful.  Lori Petty as her younger sister Kit is apt though kind of annoying, too.  Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna as the Brooklynite sass-tossing girls are well-cast and charming in their roles and rapport.

But the real star of the film is Tom Hanks.  It’s kind of ironic, really, that with all the women, and that the film is essentially an ensemble picture that Hanks stands out above everyone else.  I would say that he is very good, perhaps short of great in the film.  Hanks, of course, had worked wonderfully with Marshall a couple of years before in Big (1988), Marshall’s other very good film.  Here, playing the sloppy, drunken, washed up Jimmy Dugan, unenthusiastic manager of the Rockford Peaches, he gets the film’s best lines and nails them.  “There’s no crying in baseball!”  It’s a great line and it’s a great scene.  But oddly enough, he’s the one who gets the most satisfying character arc, sobering up and realizing his love for baseball.  In a film sort of about female empowerment/historical female disempowerment, I think it’s ironic indeed that the man still gets the best role.

Davis and Petty as farm girl sisters from Oregon with a natural sibling rivalry is a good core for the story, but the development of the nature of their competition and their own story arcs kind of lack something.  Dottie is a natural at baseball and a serious looker, but she’s as ambivalent about it as can be.  She can take it or leave it  and leaves it after one season without looking back.  Her sister wants to be better by so much and cares so much for baseball and winning that it drives them apart.  But really, Dottie’s ambivalence is the thing that makes it all odd.  Makes it feel like something is missing.

Maybe this could have worked out somehow to be more satisfying without changing the core of it, but there is something sort of missing in the film.  At least for me.

It’s a charmer and sappy.  It’s a baseball movie, and Felix noted, being a baseball movie, he knew how it was all going to end.  Well, that’s true.  They either win or they lose.  One or the other.  That’s baseball.  It’s funny that with as few baseball movies as we’ve seen that the cliches are already so obvious to him.

Madonna, 20 years ago, is kind of interesting in the film.  Her character Mae “All the Way” Mordabito gets many little asides that reference the real life Madonna much more than her character (though these asides are couched as if they are about the character).  In 1992, Madonna was at one of the heights of her career and these inside jokes were pretty obvious.  As of writing this in 2013, Madonna was just recognized by Forbes as the top grossing celebrity of the present.  The kids were surprised by her being in the movie when I pointed her out.  Their question: “What does she sing?”  She’s largely pretty good in the small role.  Captured as film does in a certain point of time.  Even as the film tries to catch a different point in time.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010)

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) movie poster

director José Padilha
viewed: 08/18/2013

José Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the sequel to his popular Elite Squad (2007), a film about the Rio law enforcement SWAT team (BOPE) and their brutal, idealistic leader, deepens a further complicates the portrayal of crime and punishment in Brazil’s notorious favelas.

Elite Squad earned some criticism in glorifying or at least endorsing the fascist tactics of the BOPE, led by Wagner Moura as Roberto Nascimento, the squad’s morally dedicated and desiccated leader.  In the first film, the squad is the only uncorrupt and uncorruptible force in a system of massive criminality and cops “on the take”.  All criminals, even college students smoking joints, are seen as part of the problem and due harsh punishment as such.  This ideology and dialog is explicit in the film, though I thought open for aspects of interpretation.

In Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Padilha moves Nascimento into government and politics, the result of another distastefully violent and brutal outcome of a prison riot that his team quelled with bullets despite the left-wing pacifist intervention trying to come to less bloody terms.  In moving into higher up echelons in the system, Nascimento hopes to make greater strides for his fight against crime.  But he finds that politics has made for some hypocritical and ruthless bedfellows and the corruption of Rio’s state is rife to the top.

The story is a bit facile, with Nascimento’s ex-wife having married his political foil, the liberal spokesman for defense of the poor.  But it gives Padilha a handy structure upon which to hang his complicated portrait of the realities of crime in Brazil.  Whether fascist police take down the criminals or not, the rich and well-connected only care about maintaining power, not about the lives of anybody in the slums or out.

It’s a good, rather complex political and action thriller, certainly above the usual levels of thought and polemics.  I thought its complexity made it more interesting but also muddied the film from a pure narrative standpoint.  Comparatively, that is, to the first film.   Still, very good.  Pretty interesting stuff.

The Gatekeepers (2012)

The Gatekeepers (2013) movie poster

director Dror Moreh
viewed: 08/18/2013

The Gatekeepers is a very compelling documentary that features and focusses on interviews with six former directors of  Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence and security force.  Director Dror Moreh was influenced by seeing Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) in which former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara candidly spoke about his experiences in the White House during such critical times as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.  In Morris’s film, McNamara is the lone interviewee, and reflects on times many decades past with genuine doubts, criticism and insights.

The six former heads of Shin Bet in The Gatekeepers range in age and distance from their time in leadership. Avraham Shalom was head from 1980-1986, the eldest and furthest removed from his time in charge. Yuval Diskin, by contrast, led Shin Bet from 2005–2011.

While some of the insights are fresher and less far removed from the present, a fascinating portrait emerges from men who led anti-terrorism response as terrorism was coming of age.  Their perspectives on the Palestinian State and the problems of government are measured and philosophical.  Some led more ruthless organizations under their watch, such as Shalom, and are confronted with questions about some more brutal events and terrible outcomes.  While McNamara only hedged a small amount in Morris’s film, there is less a full sense of total disclosure here.

The film is no less fascinating however.

Moreh deftly employs computer animation on old photographs, giving a sense of presence and relative omniscience to specific scenes.  Omniscience isn’t really something we achieve, that we can achieve but it nonetheless vivifies the moments.

Certainly, one of the better documentaries I’ve seen in a while.  My knowledge of Israeli history is not strong enough to fully comprehend all the details confronted or elided here.

I was also reminded of Waltz with Bashir (2009) which took a much more existential approach to reclaiming knowledge of the past, exposing that which has been repressed.  The Gatekeepers tells what its subject wish to share.  Still illuminating.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 08/17/2013

This viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark was for Clara, who had never seen an Indiana Jones movie.  We had a thing like this for her and Star Wars (1977) which we did in the past year as well.  For all my cinema “education”/sharing I do with the kids, these rather glaring omissions in Clara’s viewing knowledge occurred in part to her being too young when Felix saw them and having simply not revisited them.

I love Raiders.  I think it’s best of the Steven Spielberg films, perhaps the best of George Lucas as well.  Even as it was itself a sort of attempt to recreate a style of film from the early movie serials, it was massively inventive in itself.  And its set pieces are all so cleverly and deftly crafted, it’s quite pure joy to watch.

That said, this time I was less enthralled.  I still loved it but not rapturously.

It’s a very different relationship that one has with a film one has seen many times.  And this situation that I’ve created for myself, to write about a film each time I see it rather than crafting a singular, more definitive response requires me to analyze my specific interaction in a particular viewing.  It’s kind of a weird quirk.  One I am trying to come to terms with in the way that I don’t try to be necessarily expansive in any one post about any one film.

Clara enjoyed it.  It’s likely that we’ll be going through the series in the coming weeks.

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Pierre Coffin Chris Renaud[2]

directors Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
viewed: 08/16/2013 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

I never saw Despicable Me (2010).  It was just one of those films that the kids ended up seeing with their mom and not me, and despite fairly positive reviews, I didn’t feel too left out.  I also wasn’t overly worried about seeing Despicable Me 2 this summer.  And in fact, the kids ended up seeing it also with their mom.  We see a lot of movies.  I can miss one or two.

But it came a day of summertime to go see a movie and the options went from decent to meagre.  And when push came to shove, the kids voted to see Despicable Me 2 for a second time.

I’d seen the trailers fairly often and thus had seen a moderate amount of the film’s opening moments.

It’s about Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell), a former villain turned friendly neighborhood dad to three young girls.  He is recruited by James Bond-like Anti-Villain League to root out a mysterious super-villain.  Love interest, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) appears.  Narrative ensues.

Really, the film’s main storyline is not its strong point.  Gru’s minions, the yellow pill-shaped characters that bedeck the advertising and speak in a goofy gibberish are the site of most of the fun.  Sometimes this is the case with animated films.  The main characters are voiced by famous actors and the story is pretty middle of the road and obvious.  The animators tend to go to town on the comedy relief, really giving a film its best character and characters.  Despicable Me 2 is definitely of this ilk, but its comedy and charms are not limited to the minions (though they get the lion’s share of best scenes).  It’s actually rather buoyant throughout and Lucy Wilde is more charming than the average animated love-interest.

The crowd was rather big, I thought, for a movie that had been out for 2 months already.  And the crowd was really enjoying the film.

This summer’s animated features that we have seen have been pretty middling.  Monsters University (2013) was pretty disappointing.  Epic (2013) was pretty forgettable.  I would not be dragged to either Planes (2013) or Smurfs 2 (2013).  Despicable Me 2 might be the best of this rather uninspired lot.  It’s enjoyable.

Truly, it underscores the weakness of 2013 summer films.  Even the more enjoyable one casts that light on all the rest.

Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm (1979) movie poster

director Don Coscarelli
viewed: 08/16/2013

Phantasm, Don Coscarelli’s independently-produced, late-1970’s horror film is one of those movies that lodged in my brain as a kid.  Lodged in my brain like a flying silver ball with prongs, perhaps.

As I’ve been noting of late, as a kid watching the horror films of the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, I really didn’t have any idea that they weren’t all coming from more or less the same place.  I would never have known that Phantasm was the work of a writer/producer/director/editor/et al., a much more unique and personally specific vision, of a man named Don Coscarelli.  Or that it was actually Coscarelli’s first horror film.  In the same vein that I had no idea that My Bloody Valentine (1981) was a Canadian production, not part of a more cohesive movie production schema.

The fact is, Phantasm stuck out.  The flying ball with prongs.  The “Tall Man” undertaker villain.  The weird cloaked midget minions.  The portal to another dimension.  The finger that turns into a weird fly.  The fact that none of this stuff actually gets explained enough to really have an articulatable narrative.

Since moving from weird phenom into cult classic, Phantasm‘s freaky dream logic, imagery, and overall surrealism makes it stand further out in the crowd of horror films of its era.  A far less cynical vision, albeit quite pessimistic and frightening, it really is the kind of nightmare that I was apt to have as a preteen or teen.

In recent years, Coscarelli has made some more comic fare, no less weird, but with tongue and cheek melded together: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and John Dies at the End (2012).  He made The Beastmaster in 1982 (which may well merit a revisit as well), and three other Phantasm movies in later years, eventually direct-to-video.

But Phantasm stands out.  It weird, inventive, unique, bizarre, creepy.  All very fine things in a horror film of any time.  Very fine things in a very fine, weird, independent horror film.  A classic.

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis (1927) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The second film of the Castro’s Fritz Lang double feature was his masterpiece, Metropolis.  It was only a couple of years ago that I had seen it as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, that time with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.  Certainly, you can’t beat a wonderful live performance with a silent film, but it was great to see it again.

I was enthused to see M (1931) and Metropolis, but I was keen to share it with the kids.  I figured that it would be the more accessible of the two films.  Hard to beat seeing it on the big screen.

Oddly Felix said that he preferred M of the two.

I was again impressed, as I was the last time I saw it, by the dance sequence in which the false Maria lures the rapt, ogling stares of the men, eventually a panoply of eyes.  To me, still the most vivid sequence in a wholly brilliant film.

I spent much of my childhood very curious about silent horror and science fiction films, wondering if I would ever get to see them, poring over the still images snipped from the films.  I don’t think that is something I could or should even want to replicate in my kids.  It was just the way it was in my childhood with my proclivities.  It is, of course, one of the great films of world cinema.

M (1931)

M (1931) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The Castro Theatre features any number of films, double features, festivals or special events that I so want to go to but mostly miss out on.  What makes certain showings more accessible or compelling is a combination of my own capriciousness and the capriciousness of my schedule.  But when I saw that a double feature of Fritz Lang films, M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) were on the bill for the day, I very much felt compelled to take them in.  On top of that compunction, I was keen to take Felix and Clara, too.

In reality, I figured that Metropolis was the more accessible of the two films, visual as it is, fantastical, far out, and with a robot.  Also, it is not a film about a child murderer.  But again, scheduling being what it is, Clara took the opportunity for a playdate and Felix and I took the opportunity for a double feature.

Not exactly a kid-friendly film, M doesn’t really even have a central star outside of Peter Lorre, the serial killer of children.  And the film is not from his perspective.  In fact, we only see his face as he reflects upon it in a mirror, tormented by his compulsions.  He’s initially a shadow, then a mysterious figure.  The rest of the film is an array of non-central characters: the police and the upright citizenry and the criminal underworld.  Certain characters get more screen-time and focus, especially the chief detective and the head of the safecrackers, but the story is not about other individuals, rather it’s about humanity in its structural groups.

The detectives, as part of the establishment, work hard to find the killer.  The criminals, due to pressure from the establishment, organize themselves to hunt the killer as well. Both converge at the same time, but the criminals hunt Lorre down first and set him to a trial in the basement of an abandoned factory.  Though they all want his head on a stick, he is given a begrudging defense attorney and who argues that the child killer is a sick man and needs to be treated as such.  What is fascinating about the way that this whole trial plays out is that the killer receives a fair trial but looks to still get lynched by the mob, only when the authorities finally step in and pull him away.  We never hear what happens in the main court.  Judgment is suspended. Punishment is ambiguous.  The edict is one about protection and vigilance about one’s children.

Felix liked the film, though I’m not sure how well he kept up with the subtitles.