20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

20,000 Days on Earth (2014) movie poster

directors Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
viewed: 02/26/2015

I love Nick Cave.  I really do.  He’s one of my favorite musicians.  I’ve been listening to his music for over 30 years.  I’ve seen him in concert several times.  I even got to see him interviewed in person in Austin, TX two years ago.

So, I was very much looking forward to this non-conventional documentary made about him.  20,000 Days on Earth is unusual in that it is shot with a keen eye to aesthetics, a far cry from anything Cinéma vérité, including poetical voiceovers by Cave while shots of him driving or working unreel on screen.  He is interviewed at one point by his therapist(?) and delves into aspects of his life story, his approach to art and writing and editing and music and performance.  He discusses his private life with his wife and children as well, explores his past, as well as his present life in Brighton, England, where he lives.

He’s also seen working with Warren Ellis and other members of the Bad Seeds on their album from 2013, Push the Sky Away.  They show them writing, recording, and performing songs from it, which is kind of cool.

Sadly, I think it’s his worst album I’ve heard, so the insights into him and his process aren’t nearly as interesting as when he was creating more significant or impressive works.  He seems more at peace with himself, so I hardly begrudge him, but the facts are the facts: it’s just not that good.

The movie is beautifully-shot and is interesting, featuring cameos from Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue, and Ray Winstone, chatting with Cave in his car on topics relevant to their relationships.

I don’t know.  It’s not a bad film.  It just didn’t interest me nearly as much as I would have thought it would.

Though I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile before.

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (2000)

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (2000) DVD cover

director Garry S. Grant
viewed: 02/25/2015

I’ve been getting into Mario Bava over the past 10 years, slowly working my way through his oeuvre and liking and increasingly loving his movies.  He’s really become a favorite of mine, a nouveau favorite, if you will, but more and more a favorite.

I’ve had this documentary about him in my film queue for pretty much the whole time since I started going through his films, but it lingered on there among the hundreds of other films.  You know, I’m not even entirely sure what inspired me to finally pop it to the top and finally watch it.

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre is an adequate documentary, featuring some historical narration about the man and his career as well as a plethora of clips and a spate of interviews with family, collaborators, and fans like Joe Dante (who seems to be the most frequent interview subject in documentaries that I’ve watched over the past year).  Bava’s inventiveness and innovation are explored, having brought the horror film back to Italy, spawned the Giallo film genre, maybe spawned the slasher film, among his many career highlights.  His relative obscurity is also addressed, credited to his having stayed in Italy in his career as part of why his “never got famous”.

As I said, Bava is becoming a favorite of mine, which may sound like cautious and maybe faint praise, but honestly, my favorite directors is a personally hallowed list to which not just anybody suddenly sidles up and jumps on.  This movie is only an hour in run-time but to its credit, it covers the basics of his life and career, workman-like in manner, not really terribly insightful but practical.  So, I found it useful.

Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour (2014) movie poster

director Laura Poitras
viewed: 02/24/2015

Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden and his exposure of the U.S. government’s unprecedented spying on citizens won Best Documentary at the Oscars last Sunday.  The film’s controversy around its production and relationship with Snowden, breaking his story journalistically, meeting with him in secret in Hong Kong to film him and learn what he had to reveal, helped to build the film’s reputation and notoriety.  I was excited to see the film, myself.

Though touted as being as tense and dramatic as any fictional thriller, I’ll be honest and say that I found Citizenfour much more a slog than a nail-biter.  While the story is utterly compelling and significant, the film focuses on Poitras’s introduction to Snowden through encrypted emails, coordination with other journalists, namely Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, and their covert connection in a Hong Kong hotel room, poring over encrypted stolen files, deciding what to publish, how to publish, and how to evade eventual arrest by the American authorities.

Snowden’s revelations are important.  He’s a very smart man who had been given access to CIA and NSA data and data structures as a specialist in protecting, implementing and organizing the surveillance and data collection that the government began culling in earnest post-September 11, 2001.  He found that numerous corporations colluded to share private data about citizens, utterly unrelated to concerns of any crimes, raising terrifying truths about information age privacy and freedom.  His vantage and knowledge offered a perspective on this secret and its significance that many others probably would have a hard time getting their head around.

Frankly, it’s unsurprising.  There is more data available in our world today about people and their practices than ever before.  And a lot of it isn’t even hiding much less protected.  It’s not hard to fathom governments or corporations or even really intelligent and motivated hackers gaining access to the mass, evolving algorithms to make sense of it all, to spy with cameras, credit cards, text messages, internet activity and knowing way more than anyone ever could have about someone, all someones.  In fact, it’s almost inescapable.

Snowden’s exposure sheds light on the fact that the U.S. government (and other governments) actively spy on (essentially) everyone.  It’s Orwellian in ways that Orwell could never have conceived, far more pervasive and extreme.  And what does this really mean for us as private citizens?  What is privacy in this day and age?  And Greenwald and Snowden rightly raise concerns about what this signifies for “freedom”.  This is all true, massively, massively true.

But this is one genie that will never be returned to its bottle.

Whether laws are passed or not, that the data exists, there are the technologists (or hackers) who can and will access it, cull it, expose it, use it, exploit it.  The paranoia that Poitras and team are under is real.  Snowden is wanted presently for crimes equated to treason.  And this story, so important and newsworthy, is far from finished.

Like Bradley Manning’s leaks of classified government information, exposed by Wikileaks and Julian Assange, the role of internal whistleblowers and the press and their relationship to public knowledge and information really stands out for me here.  Snowden approached the press because he wanted help sorting through what to share and what may not have been relevant.  He wanted dedicated journalists to assess what he had uncovered to shape the message and release of information.  This I think helps to justify the Snowden and his goals.  Like Daniel Ellsburg before them, there is great relevance in finding out what goes on behind the closed doors of the government, and surely the government would like to keep the public out, branding its exposers as traitors and the information released as a great risk to national security.

Where Manning was a very low-level cog in the information machine, though with still very intensive access, Snowden was an expert, a consultant, whose access depth was necessary to delve into the works and workings and goals of the machine.  His understanding of what he saw and what he chose were much more sophisticated and all the more damning and deep in what it revealed.

Frankly, I think Citizenfour is important as part of the story of unveiling these truths, but I would say that it’s not as compelling or dramatic as many would have you think.  It will be interesting to see where it falls as history unfolds, in what it documented and what it tells as this becomes part of the greater story of our time.  It’s a good documentary, but more than anything, it’s about a very relevant and important subject.

Do I think that Snowden or Manning are traitors?  Not in the greater sense of what that implies.  Surely they had access to information that they had levels of clearance for and which they knew were criminal to release.  I haven’t seen the data Snowden released, merely have heard it encapsulated.  It’s massive, the amount of it.  Was some of it more dangerous than others?  I don’t know.  You wouldn’t know from watching Citizenfour.

I think the revelations are important.  What they signify is an immense truth about the modern age in ways that we are all too naive about unless we consider them, know of them.  I think the vigilant folks that fight for our rights, freedoms, and privacy are in many stripes, on the front lines and even on different sides.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry (1955) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/22/2015

The thing about Alfred Hitchcock is that I’ve been actively revisiting (and visiting for the first time), film by film, his whole oeuvre.   I’ve been delving into Hitchcock with my kids, something I only started a few years back after a long lag in seeing his films.  Why the long lag?  I don’t know but for the most part the kids have been pretty into watching Hitchcock films.  The Trouble with Harry seemed like a good one for us.

Somewhat a-typical for “the master of suspense” is this rather dark yet very light comedy about a small Vermont town and a suspicious corpse that suddenly appears on one of its gorgeous hillsides.  Edmund Gwenn is a poacher who thinks he’s accidentally shot and killed the man.  Mildred Natwick is a spinster (at 42!) who thinks she’s killed him with her shoe.  Or maybe it was Shirley MacLaine (insanely pretty in her first screen role) who turns out to be the wife of the itinerant body.  Harry gets buried and unburied several times with the help of roving artist John Forsythe and the crew, who all for various reasons of ranging a-morality don’t have much trouble helping to cover up the murder, no matter who done it.

This was one of those Hitchcocks that had fallen out of availability until the 1980’s and got a lot of play when they were re-released.  I could have sworn that I’d seen it, but after watching it with Felix and Clara, I think it’s fair to say that I hadn’t actually seen it before for whatever reason.

I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, though I suppose it isn’t one of Hitchcock’s great films.  It has a strange tonality, of lightness and humor, while a strong component of awkward darkness.  Because it is light and nothing really bad happens in it, and it’s funny too, but the undertone is about how happily and readily all these would-be small town sweethearts of people so willingly contrive to cover up a crime (the kids were quite perplexed by their attitudes on this front, though I reckon that is the whole point).  Light and deft and good-natured and fun but quite cynical deep in its roots.

Jerry Mathers appears (have to say I didn’t even recognize him) as a funny pre-Leave It to Beaver oddball kid.  He’s got the best lines and is very funny, too.

Not your typical Hitchcock, but interesting more so perhaps because of that.

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

The Monolith Monsters (1957) movie poster

director John Sherwood
viewed: 02/21/2015

The Monolith Monsters was one of those classic 1950’s sci-fi/horror films, from Universal Pictures no less, that I grew up with from Saturday afternoons and the spate of old films on 1970’s television.  I’d like to say that I loved it, but I didn’t, really.  I liked it.  It has a lot of those elements of the time and character of the films of the 1950’s, the drama, that image of 1950’s America, the strange science.  But the thing is, the film is about an invasion of fast-growing rocks that come to destroy Earth.  It’s kind of like the most boring idea for a monster ever employed seriously in a film.  As good as it gets, it’s still rocks.

That said, it’s still pretty good.  Crafted from a story by the great Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco and capably directed by John Sherwood for Universal, it’s really a pretty good B-movie.  And frankly, the main credit may go to the special effects by Clifford Stine, because those crystal-like monolithic rock formations have their moment, coming through a river valley, descending upon a small Southern California town.

The kids and I watched this film “live,” if you will, on MeTV, this channel deep in the cable box that plays almost entirely classic television shows from the 1950’s-1960’s, the stuff I grew up watching in reruns, later on Nick at Nite, and now have this total sentimental hankering for nowadays.  The film was part of a horror film show, hosted by Svengoolie.  For a movie whose running time is 77 minutes, there were an additional 43 minutes of corny jokes and mesothelioma commercials (much more the latter), which stretched the experience out well beyond endurance (I say literally this because both kids zonked out before the end.)

I recall, even as a pretty young kid, pondering this film after watching it, examining its disappointments and yet still vividly recalling it.  The image of the small town on the edge of the mountains with the giant black rock crystal towers falling upon them, still significantly lingered in my mind.  The milieu is very Jack Arnold, really.  It could be the same small town as in Tarantula (1955) or It Came from Outer Space (1953).  A couple of Stine’s effects were lifted from the latter film.

Strangely, it seems almost a more pure 1950’s science fiction affair.  It’s easy to envision the images on a pulp magazine from that decade or even prior, some unknown element brought to Earth on a meteorite, spelling untold science-y horror and doom for mankind.  That said, the science was probably dubious even in 1957, with these unrecognizable rocks sucking silica from the environment, growing when doused with regular old H2O, but stopped by salt water.

I have to say it, I love this period and genre of horror/sci-fi.  And I think I kind of love this movie, too.

Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl (2014) movie poster

director David Fincher
viewed: 02/19/2015

I’ll keep it simple.  David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a good adaptation of a pretty great crime novel by Gillian Flynn.  It’s well-cast, particularly Rosamund Pike as the missing wife and Ben Affleck as the husband in question.  At two and a half hours long, it packs as much as it can in from the novel and does so in Fincher’s steely, cold style, apt to the material that is so dark at heart.

The thing is that the novel is simply a better read than the film a movie.  I’d only read the book about a month ago, so it was still fresh in my mind, so fresh that I could hear dialogue seemingly lifted verbatim from the page.  And while it was kind of cool to see the visions put into concrete images, the film misses what I found to be the novel’s best innovation and development, namely the deep, disturbing evil at the heart of the story.  The film doesn’t capture the depth of Flynn’s portraiture.

Affleck may never have been so well-cast.  He’s perfect as the good-looking shlub of a cheat of a husband.  Pike is actually more of a revelation as the wife.  Her good-looks and intelligence have a different tone than I’d picked up in the novel but it’s perfectly fit and quite uncanny.

But the novel is better.  Read the book.  The movie isn’t bad.  It’s pretty good.  But the book is pretty great.

Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)

Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004) movie poster

director Margaret Brown
viewed: 02/17/2015

Before watching Margaret Brown’s documentary Be Here To Love Me, I really didn’t know a whole lot about singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt.  I knew that he died young (age 52) and somewhat tragically, that his biggest claim to fame was having written the song “Pancho and Lefty” that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made big in the 1980’s, and I also knew that Brown’s documentary was considered a well-made telling of his story.

Van Zandt’s is a sad, tortured tale.  Handsome and from a prominent Texas family, he suffered from manic depression and was submitted to insulin shock therapy which damaged his long-term memory, seeming to only further his rambling and eternal depression and drug and alcohol addiction.  Arising in the 1960’s and 1970’s, his style is part folk/part country, with a fair embellishment of blues.  He began his career with heavy influences from Bob Dylan and Lightning Hopkins.  His record deals were all small ones, and while he never achieved huge fame, he humbly clung to his craft and continued to write and perform.

Brown’s film is comprised of footage of Van Zandt from other films, notably one called Heartworn Highways (1981), which focused on the “Outlaw Country” scene of the 1970’s (a movie I’d be keen to watch), interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, and imagery of the Texas that was his milieu.   The portrait that comes together is one of a damaged but talented soul, his music, and his legacies.

Margaret Brown is a good documentarian.  I’d watched another of her films, The Order of Myths (2008), which I also found quite well-made and profound.


The Blue Dahlia (1946)

The Blue Dahlia (1946) movie poster

director George Marshall
viewed: 02/15/2015

Hm.  The Blue Dahlia.  Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, original screenplay by Raymond Chandler.  Sounds like noir gold, right?

Oddly, though, the convoluted plot, which apparently went through some changes through production, winds up being the kind of thing that modern noir satirists seeming send up.

Three navy buddies show back up at home in LA eager to get back to life as they knew it before the War.  Ladd’s Johnny Morrison though has a beautiful but straying wife (Doris Dowling) who is hooked up with the owner of a bar called The Blue Dahlia (Howard Da Silva).  And after a contentious interaction, the dame gets knocked off, see?  And it looks like Johnny done it.  Or maybe it was bar owner Eddie?  Or maybe Johnny’s PTSD-throttled pal Buzz (William Bendix)?  Or Veronica Lake, wife of bar owner Eddie?

You know, this is one of those noirs that I’ve intended to see for ages, recommended by a friend, I think, because of Ladd and Lake.  Lake is quite the babe.  But I’ve liked her a lot better in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942).  I’ve got to wonder if This Gun for Hire (1942) or The Glass Key (1942), both of which she was also paired with Alan Ladd are better noirs.

Frankly, this one was kind of disappointing.


The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 02/15/2015

Was there ever a better American Hollywood filmmaker than John Huston?  John Huston didn’t quite measure up in the original auteur theory, but damned if it doesn’t seem like the most ripe peach for a hot debate on the topic.

A few years back, I began watching John Huston films in some earnest and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if they aren’t almost all entirely brilliant.

The Asphalt Jungle wasn’t Huston’s first noir, but it has become one of the original or most classic heist films around.  Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett , it’s a gritty ensemble film, with a slew of great character actors and tremendously effective cinematography and framing.  Rock-frickin’-solid.

You know, I don’t have a lot else to say.  Great movie.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/14/2015

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, his first American film, his only film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (though they failed to give him Best Director), was one of those big, famous films that I just plain had never seen.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

With characters like the enigmatic Rebecca, the tortured Maxim de Winter, or the obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is one of the more iconic narratives and Gothic stories of the 20th century.  Starring Laurence Olivier (as de Winter), Joan Fontaine (as the nameless girl and narrator), and Judith Anderson as the eerie Danvers, it’s so strange.  If you’ve never seen it before, as I hadn’t, how imbued the whole thing is with cultural deja vu.  I was left trying to track where exactly all of my foreknowledge had come from.  The Celluloid Closet? The Carol Burnett Show parody?

Like Jane Eyre before it, it’s the story of a young woman out of her element, brought to a lush estate, haunted by the former mistress of the place.  In this case, the unnamed girl is brought by de Winter as his new bride, though he’s given to fits of mania when aroused of the thoughts of the former Mrs. de Winter, the lovely Rebecca.  Mrs. Danvers is equally obsessed, but the mystery herein is in exactly what way are these people all touched by the tragic death of the mysterious lady.

One of the biggest upshots of the film is that it was produced by David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939), and major figure in Hollywood.  His obsessions and auteurist visions and Hitchcock’s didn’t mesh as much as Hitchcock did with Daphne du Maurier, writer of the source novel, as well as the material for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and his later film The Birds (1963).  In fact, the material seems like a fancy dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s later classic Vertigo (1958), with the ghosts of lost wives and themes of obsession and madness.

It’s a pretty great film.  Having just caught a Joan Fontaine double feature a month or so back, it’s kind of interesting.  She’s very good here as the naive and beset young mistress of the house.  She would go on to win her own Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) the next year, though that film (and that performance) aren’t nearly as good as here in Rebecca.

The Oscars have always been confounding.  But Hitchcock is almost always great.