Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July Quick Picks and Pans



The Wall (aka: Die Wand) (2012) This contemplative mood piece from writer/director Julian Pölsler, based on a novel by Marlen Haushofer, concerns a woman (Martina Gedeck, in an affecting performance) who suddenly becomes cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible wall.  We never learn how or why the wall originated, but her narration chronicles the pragmatic and psychological concerns about her day to day existence, alone in the Austrian wilderness.  Along with her animal companions, she must rely on her wits and fortitude to survive.  The wall itself serves as a metaphor for her mental and physical isolation.  As the days and months wear on, and she arrives at the conclusion that no help is available, she must confront the harsh realities of her survival.  The Wall doesn’t dwell on idle speculation, but chooses to keep us shrouded in a mystery with no solution. 



Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.




Bettie Page Reveals All (2012) Bettie Page, who passed away in 2008, provides the narration to a documentary about her rise and fall as a ‘50s pinup model and rebirth as a latter-day counter-culture pop icon.  Told through photos (the older Page is heard, but not seen) and interviews with artists, models and friends, Bettie Page Reveals All is an amusing, informative and touching portrait.  Filmmaker Mark Mori takes a balanced approach, counterbalancing Page’s own words with first-hand accounts from the people who knew her best.  We learn about her seven-year stint as a photographic model, as well as her history of sexual abuse, failed marriages, legal troubles and mental illness. The film also explores one of the most curious aspects about Page, as a woman with strong religious conviction, but a relaxed attitude about nudity and sexuality.  Even with the inclusion of so many biographical details, it still seems as if there were some missing pieces from her life story, but it’s probably as complete as we’re going to get.  It’s a fascinating profile that should satisfy Bettie Page enthusiasts, as well as anyone wondering what all the fuss was about.



Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.





Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) Frank Pavich’s documentary is a big “what if,” covering filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel Dune to the big screen in 1975.  The 84-year-old Jodorowsky is incredibly lucid and energetic as he recounts his travails to create something that would have been a truly mind-blowing experience.  Every aspect of the film would have been larger than life, with a cast that included Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger.  In addition to music by Pink Floyd, artists H.R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Brian Foss were brought onboard, with Dan O’Bannon providing special effects.  Despite this impressive assembly of talent, short-sighted Hollywood studios were reluctant to back the French production.  Much has been said about how this version of Dune would have been the greatest science fiction film of all time, but I’m unconvinced that the production, if it ever received the green light, wouldn’t have imploded under the collection of massive egos involved in the film.  What ultimately could have been, the world will never know. 



Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD





Gentlemen Broncos (2009) ”Polarizing” is probably the best way to describe director/co-writer Jared Hess’ train wreck of a movie, which appears to be set in the same alternate-reality ‘80s universe as (his better film) Napoleon Dynamite.  The basic story involves teenager Benjamin (Michael Angarano), who attends a camp for young writers, only to have his science fiction novel plagiarized by his literary idol Chevalier (Jemaine Clement).  Surrounding this central hub are several sub-plots, involving Benjamin’s fashion designer mother, a pseudo-father figure, and an inept filmmaker.  Generally, I enjoy films that depict unconventional individuals, but in this case a little restraint would have gone a long way.  In a film that feels burdened by an overload of quirky characters.  In its eagerness to please, Gentlemen Broncos borders on contempt for the subject matter, choosing to have us laugh at, not with, the characters, and taking a condescending approach to the science fiction genre.  The movie is not without its fleeting charms, however, especially when we witness a couple inspired iterations of Benjamin’s protagonist Bronco (Sam Rockwell) fighting mutants in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Angarano is also good as the young writer – the only character who doesn’t seem contrived.  These moments elevate the film enough to give it a mild pass.



Rating: ***.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Independent Eye: Little Films You Should Check Out



Today marks the debut of what I hope to become a semi-regular feature, spotlighting noteworthy independent films that might have slipped past your radar.  While it seems as if more people than ever are making movies these days, few filmmakers have the chops to assemble a talented cast, pull off a captivating narrative, or display unique visuals. Here are a couple examples of independent movies that are more than worthy of your time and attention:




A Measure of the Sin (2013) Directed by: Jeff Wedding; Written by: Kristy Nielsen and Jeff Wedding; Based on an original story by: Kristy Nielsen; Starring: Katie Groshong, Starina Johnson and Stephen Jackson; Available on DVD or VOD (Amazon Instant)



Rating: *** ½



This meditation on mental and physical slavery tells the story of Meredith (Katie Groshong), a woman raised by her mother in an isolated farmhouse, under the watchful eye of a domineering man (Stephen Jackson) who shrouds himself in religious zealotry.  She shares her repressive abode with two other women who seem resigned to their fate as virtual property.  A Measure of the Sin features excellent cinematography, shot in Tennessee on 16 mm film by director/co-writer Wedding, and the wonderful haunting score by J. Alan Morant sets a somber mood throughout.  The film, based on a story by Kristy Nielsen (who also co-wrote the screenplay) paints a portrait of hopelessness and desperation, ultimately leading to a heartbreaking finale.



Meredith’s voiceover narration is the film’s strength and weakness.  There are some lovely poetic passages that reveal Meredith’s inner thoughts, but in this case less could have been more.  In some instances, I was hoping for more than the occasional snippets of dialogue between Meredith and her captor.  We never learn very much about him, or his motivations, making him appear more like a caricature than a three-dimensional individual.  Compared to the rest of the film, the bear is a bit overwrought as a metaphor for Meredith’s adversity.  These are only minor quibbles, however, about an otherwise impressive film.  Groshong deserves special notice for her courageous performance, and Wedding does a terrific job maintaining a pervasive sense of melancholy and despair.  A Measure of the Sin proves that Wedding is a filmmaker to watch.





Standards of Living (2012) Written and directed by Aaron Mento; Starring: Scott Yarborough, Bill Ferris, Derek Houck, Emily Marsh and Randy Raphael



Available online through http://www.standardsoflivingmovie.com/



Rating: ****



The fact that writer/director Aaron Mento shot Standards of Living on an iPad 2 didn’t exactly engender confidence that the finished result would be watchable.  The fact that he pulled off a cracking good yarn demands our respect. With a story consisting of equal parts absurd, creepy and funny, Mento proves you don’t need a Hollywood-sized bankroll or elaborate equipment to create a compelling movie-watching experience.



Peter (Scott Yarborough) runs a not-too-successful comic/soothsayer act. With the assistance of his lucky charm (a circus peanut spray-painted silver) he makes half-assed prophecies and tells unfunny jokes to a less-than-appreciative audience (he’s attacked by a pregnant woman).   To his surprise, he gets a call from one of the audience members, asking him to make a private appearance for 100 dollars.  Eager to meet one of his admirers and earn some quick bucks, Peter arrives at the caller’s house to find a sickly man and his assistant (played by Bill Ferris and Derek Houck, respectively).  Peter soon learns about the true nature of his visit, which has little to do with any talent.  The man possesses the ability to make objects disappear for 10 minutes and re-appear, and wants Peter to be a part of his latest experiment – to find out what lies beyond.



I don’t want to spoil the odd chain of events that follows, but you can probably guess it doesn’t go very well for our hapless protagonist.  Not all of the random elements thrown in (including a visit from a sadistic hired thug) work, but Standards of Living hits much more frequently than it misses.  With a plot that keeps us guessing and a twist ending that would make Rod Serling proud, Mento reminds us to be careful what we wish for and there are tradeoffs with everything.  Standards of Living has more interesting characters and situations than you find in half a dozen typical productions – and you can watch it for free through the official website.  So what are you waiting for?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cinematic Dregs: Glen or Glenda?




(1953) Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward D. Wood, Jr., Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller

Rating: ***

“I’m a young punk and here I’m working with the great master and I was fighting the fact that am I doing right by the man; am I doing right by the film?” – Ed Wood (on working with Bela Lugosi, excerpt from Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey)

“To me, Ed Wood was the Orson Welles of low budget pictures.” – Dolores Fuller (excerpt from documentary The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.)


Schlock cinema finally gets its due in the AccidentallyHilarious blogathon, hosted by film writer/researcher extraordinaire, Fritzi of Movies Silently. I’m proud to contribute with my review of the film that entrenched Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the collective unconscious of bad cinema connoisseurs everywhere, Glen or Glenda.  So, without further preamble, get out your blonde wigs and angora sweaters, because it’s gonna be a wild ride.

 
One of the most common nuggets of advice to fledgling scribes is to write what you know.  Triple-threat (writer/director/star) Wood, a cross-dresser himself, obviously took this advice to heart, in his exposé of the soft, satiny underbelly of transvestite culture.  Mr. Wood, under the pseudonym Daniel Davis (you’re not fooling anyone, Ed) starred as the title character, who grapples with his dual identity.  Produced by George Weiss for $26,000, Glen or Glenda was released in some markets with the more lurid titles I Led Two Lives or I Changed My Sex.


Bela Lugosi, as the Scientist, appeared to be acting in a completely different movie (or universe).  When he’s not sitting in a chair, providing oblique commentary on Glen/Glenda’s dilemma, he’s performing science-y experiments with beakers and test tubes.  Lugosi threatens to steal the show from Wood as the sage overlord, with proclamations such as “Beware of the big green dragon that sits under your doorstep” and “Pull the string!”  Ever the consummate trouper, he deserved an award for treating Wood’s material with more dignity than it probably deserved.   


Wood spares no opportunity to milk the cross-dressing theme for all it’s worth, as Glen grapples with revealing his secret to his fiancé Barbara, played by Wood’s real-life girlfriend Dolores Fuller.*  He apparently didn’t know the meaning of the term “heavy handed,” with depictions of Glen walking by a department store window to admire women’s apparel, or lovingly stroking a nylon nightie.  Later in the film, Satan makes a guest appearance at an imaginary wedding, and women cavort in sheer negligees, mocking Glen’s gender-inappropriate clothing decisions.  At one point, the narrator stops to chime in about our protagonist’s sexual orientation: “Glen is not a homosexual. Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” (Do you get it, audience?  He’s not a homosexual.  Why would you even think that?  Bad audience.)  The second half drags (Ba-da-dum!  I’m outta here.) a bit, with several minutes of footage added by producer Weiss of women lounging around in lingerie,** and an extended sequence about a gender re-assignment operation (thus justifying the alternate titles).  Although Wood or Weiss couldn’t secure the rights to tell the life story of the first transgendered individual, Christine Jorgensen, the film lapses into a lengthy explanation of  the sex change procedure. 

* In an interview, Fuller claimed she didn’t know about Wood’s fetish for women’s clothing prior to filming Glen or Glenda.  When she discovered his secret, she commented, “I wanted to crawl in a hole somewhere” (The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood., Jr.).  After Fuller left Wood a couple years later, she found her niche as a songwriter, collaborating on ditties for various artists, including more than a dozen Elvis Presley tunes.

** Weiss needed to pad out the film in order to push the film’s running time to 70 minutes, necessary for securing distribution (Nightmare of Ecstasy).


Because this is a “serious” examination of transvestitism, get ready for a half-assed explanation by a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell, who doubles as the narrator), explaining Glen’s predilection toward wearing women’s clothing: his mother wanted a girl, and his father didn’t pay attention to him.  We’re also informed that Glen’s condition can be cured if Barbara is dedicated enough to him.  In addition to espousing specious behavioral science claims, Wood’s film is a treasure trove of quasi-profundities (“…All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans, which are carrying out their lives.”). 


Ed Wood has often been hyped as the worst director of all time, but I call shenanigans.  While his movies will never be considered AFI-worthy, they’re far from the worst ever made.  One of the biggest crimes a film can commit is being boring, and Wood’s handiwork is far from it.  He approached Glen or Glenda with the naïve assumption that he had something profound to say – the fact that he so utterly missed the mark is our gain.  This accidental ineptitude makes his movie entertaining in a way that self-conscious, pre-fab dreck by filmmakers who should know better (I’m looking at you, Sharknado) will never match.  It’s tough to beat Glen or Glenda for pure, misguided entertainment value.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blogathons, Guest Posts and Theme Months, Oh My!





I’m not sure where the time went, but the Goldblumathon, a celebration of all things Jeff Goldblum, is less than a month away.  I just wanted to extend a big thanks to everyone who’s signed up, expressed interest in, harrumphed their disdain, or expressed support for my little blogathon.  It really means a lot (and the checks are in the mail).*  If you’d like to contribute a Godblum-related review or retrospective, it’s not too late to join in on the festivities.  Feel free to respond to this post, email me, or send a tweet.  You can find more details, including a current list of participants and FAQ here.



* Checks may take several decades to arrive.




Eagle-eyed (or bored) readers might have noticed my recent appearances outside of Cinematic Catharsis, spreading my Cthulu-like tentacles of movie lovin’ all over the web (Yes, I realize how creepy that sounds.  Don’t judge!)  Rupert PupkinSpeaks, the gold standard in movie blogs, invited me to contribute to their Underrated Detective/Mysteries series.  You’ll find my top five picks here.  Also, the fine folks at Movie Fanfare, the blog for Movies Unlimited, re-posted two of my previous posts, ‘80sMonster Movie Faves, and my Das Boot review.  And just in case you missed it, you can hear my caffeine-infused rant about Battle Beyond the Stars, as a guest on Forgotten Films’ Forgotten Filmcast.



Later this month, I’ll be taking part in the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by silent film sage Fritzi of Movies Silently, with my review of the immortal Ed Wood classic Glen or Glenda.  In August, I’ll be reviewing Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream for the 1984A-Thon, hosted by Todd of Forgotten Films.  Last, but not least, I’m planning a review of a title to be named later for the ongoing Troma Super Summer Spectacular Blogathon, hosted by the wise and powerful Vern of The Vern’s Video Vortex.




But wait, there’s more.  As if that’s not enough, Silent September and Horror Month will return,  along with a special theme month to be named later.  Whew! 



Thanks to everyone who stops by on a regular or semi-regular basis. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome and encouraged.  Stay tuned.