Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February Quick Picks and Pans

Microcosmos (1996) This French documentary is a fascinating window into a world that most of us ignore. The stunning macrophotography brings us closer than most of us would ever care to be to ants, wasps, spiders, and many other long-legged beasties.  Except for the brief narration at the beginning and end, there’s no voiceover.  Instead, the filmmakers allow the critters to speak for themselves, with a cacophony of buzzing, clicks and chirps.  It’s an intimate profile that might as well be transmissions from an alien planet.  If you ever wondered what snail courtship looked like (and even if you didn’t), this could be the movie for you. Watching Microcosmos is a haunting, beautiful, meditative experience like no other. 

Rating: **** ½.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) Roger Corman directed this thought-provoking cautionary tale, and it’s easily among his best films.  Ray Milland stars as Dr. James Xavier, a researcher who develops eye drops that enable him to see far beyond the visible spectrum.  It’s filled with 60s kitsch and some dicey special effects, but the compelling story about good intentions gone awry shines through. Milland turns in a commanding performance as the scientist who sees too much.  Even when the effects fail to convince, we’re drawn in by Milland’s portrayal of the tortured Dr. Xavier.  His transformation and existential journey are reminiscent of the titular character in The Incredible Shrinking Man, as he follows a one-way road into oblivion.  The DVD contains the original five-minute prologue, which was wisely excised from the beginning of the film, and included as an extra.  It’s easy to see why this ham-handed and completely extraneous segment was omitted after the initial theatrical run.  Be sure to watch for bit parts by Don Rickles as an exploitive sideshow talker and Corman regular Dick Miller as a heckler.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

Monks – The Transatlantic Feedback (2006) Lucia Palacios and Dietmar Post chronicle the brief rise and fall of largely unknown proto-punk band The Monks.  The documentary blends interviews with the original band members and vintage footage to create a composite.  We learn how they met in early 60s Germany while serving in the U.S. Army, and we’re provided with some interesting background information about the political climate of the time, involving JFK and cold war tensions.  When they were eventually discharged, the former soldiers decided to stay in Germany and attempted to break into the thriving rock scene.  Thanks to some unconventional marketing techniques, they developed their inimitable musical style and appearance. 

The filmmakers seem to assume that the viewer has previous knowledge of the subject matter.  As a result, the film doesn’t do a very good job of introducing the band members, and it’s difficult to keep their names straight.  The individual members’ backstories are fairly superficial, leaving me to wonder if the filmmakers could have dug a little deeper.  Also, the film includes too many fragments, rather than complete songs.  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a little-known band that was truly before their time.  It’s great fun to see them performing in New York, 30 years after they broke up, for a one-off gig (Coincidentally, they never played in the States during their initial run).  In the end, the film feels as if it’s not the definitive word on The Monks, but it’s probably the best documentary we’re likely to see about them.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

Suburbia (1983) Penelope Spheeris’ clunky, yet affable tale about a group of wayward teens plays like an early 80s era Rebel Without a Cause.   Spurned by the rest of society, the teens cohabitate in an abandoned house and form a sense of community amidst the backdrop of the L.A. punk scene.  While the acting only ranges from subpar to passable (many of the performers were not professional actors), the main characters look like distinctive, rather than generic punks.  This can probably be credited to Spheeris, who was responsible for the seminal documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and obviously harbors a lot of affection for the characters.  The teens refer to themselves as TR (The Rejected), and seem more misguided and confused than dangerous.  They’re contrasted by a couple of gun-toting rednecks, who threaten their way of life.  It’s not the most original story, but the setting is unique and oddly nostalgic (if you happened to grow up in 80s L.A., like I did).  Watch for a young Flea (listed in the credits as Mike B. the Flea).

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

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