15 posts categorized "not rated"


Walking the line, barfing the barf

"I'm Still Here," which is at times desolate, desperate, shocking and unbelievably sad, is Joaquin Phoenix's version of "Eat Pray Love."

The lost year (or longer) for the mentally tormented and seemingly self-destructive two-time Academy Award nominee would more aptly be titled "Drugs, Rant, Barf."

Phoenix, constantly ranting and desperately, it seems (if it's for real),  in need of intervention, lashes out verbally at close associates in extended screaming rants.  When they subside, Phoenix and his associates concentrate on his new career as a heavily bearded rapper.  When Phoenix finally chases down would-be hip-hop mentor Sean "P. Ditty" Combs, Combs asks Phoenix if his new calling is just a lark.

Hoax or not, and I'm leaning in the direction of not, "I'm Still Here" is a backstage (and often bathroom) pass to Phoenix's year or so of living dangerously, both professionally and personally.

There are some compelling moments.  The now infamous appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show" is covered in detail and with added insight.  That entire day was a blur for drugged-out Phoenix, who also had commitments that day to promote the premiere of his final (so far) film "Two Lovers."

A moment or "scene" where Phoenix instructs the limo driver to pull over so he can breakdown at the side of the freeway is either very good acting or a point where someone -- and this could be you Mr. Affleck -- jumps in to get Phoenix some help.

If Phoenix's antics turn out to be an elaborated Andy Kaufman-like orchestrated hoax, it's a darn good one.

Certainly this documentary, if that's what it is, isn't entertainment by any stretch of the imagination.  The director is very good actor Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone"), Ben Affleck's younger brother and Phoenix's brother-in-law.

Now the sticky wicket, so to speak, in verifying "I'm Still Here" as nonfiction.  In the film's sparse production notes, Phoenix and first-time director Affleck are listed as co-writers and co-producers.

Granted, the credits for documentaries sometime list writers when there's narration to connect scenes.

There's no such thing going on in "I'm Still Here," however.  A camera hones in on the talented, but conflicted actor who drew his second Oscar nomination channeling the late Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line."  Phoenix blurts out in the fall of 2008 that he's through with acting, that he's launching a hip-hop singing career.

That quickly becomes a nightmare for his agent, manager and inner circle of assistants.  "I'm Still Here" begins with a home video circa 1981 taken in Panama.  Joaquin, a child in a bathing suit, is trying to summon up the courage to jump off a rock into a waterfall fed pool.  

Cut to 2008 and a bloated, mumbling Phoenix shrouded in a blue hoodie says:

"Hate me or like me.  Just don't misunderstand me."

The first two requests are ultimately up to Phoenix, not us.

The third?  Impossible using "I'm Still Here" as a guidepost. 


The F-bomb-laced path less traveled

What were you doing during the summer of 1988?

Motor home pitchman Jack Rebney was having an expletive-laced meltdown in Iowa.

Years later, his fly-swatting, F-bomb-laced tirade surfaced as one of the Internet's first viral videos.

University of Texas at Austin film professor Ben Steinbauer was fascinated by the very funny -- as in someone slips on a banana peel funny -- burst of wacky outbursts of outrage.  But he wondered about something else.

Whatever happened to this guy; the middle-aged bundle of frustration named Jack Rebney?

The documentary "Winnebago Man," directed, co-written and co-produced by Steinbauer, takes the audience along on a cold path to find what turns out to be a self-professed hermit living in the hills of Northern California.

"Winnebago Man" doesn't aim to bring down institutions that have done wrong by the little guy, as Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine") likes to do. 

This one's all about a little guy; an angry little guy who retreated from society.  Now in his mid-70s, Rebney has mellowed only slightly.  He's quite willing to stand in front of his local Walmart and rant against the politicians that have and are, as my own father used to say, "sending this country to hell in a hand basket."

Steinbauer makes his feature film debut with "Winnebago Man."  Soft-spoken and perhaps a little shy, he may be missing some revelations by letting Rebney call all the shots.

We all have a story to tell, however.  And Rebney's reclusive life as a reluctant, but lately compliant (you'll see how in the documentary) "angry man" is fascinating, if not terribly revealing.


Oliver Stone's South American prez tour

Say what you will about Oliver Stone, the multi-Academy Award winning filmmaker.  But the guy is no slouch when it comes to gaining access.

Stone, no stranger to cinematic politics with Oscar noms for "Nixon," "JFK" and "Salvador" and a win for "Born on the Fourth of July," took a little road trip to South America in January, 2009.

His offbeat, odd little documentary, "South of the Border," is a filmed diary of a trek to visit controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that expanded to five countries and chats with seven presidents of the region.

While it fascinates for much of its short running time of just under 80 minutes, filmgoers might be a little startled by what jumps out of them at times.

Stone, looking like he's about to pop a shirt button and perhaps start an international incident at any moment, obviously wants to show that Chávez isn't the monster the "mainstream U.S. media makes him out to be."

Stone kicks a soccer ball around with some South American leaders, sips a little Chardonnay with others and spends quite a bit of screen time fawning about how different some of them are compared to their political reps in El Norte.

During visits with Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Lula da Silva of Brazil and even Cuba's Raúl Castro  (and others), Stone lobs the kind of softball questions entertainment journalists have been tossing him at film junket interviews for decades.

It's more amusing most of the time than journalistically intriguing, really.  Stone's lazy, soft voice is no challenge to the hard-hitting style of Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine," "Sicko").  There is some appeal, but it springs from feisty, casually entertaining moments instead of in-your-face, confrontational hard questions.

With Stone, at least where "South of the Border" (which contains some subtitles) is concerned, the getting there and rubbing shoulders with South American leaders appears to be the primary interest.

That and taking shots at conservative U.S. media, of course.


Where there's a will, but not a way

The best documentaries aim the sunlight of public exposure into the shadows of dirty dealings and deceit.

Say what you will about Michael Moore.  But by infusing humor and, yes, himself, into serious issues such as General Motors pulling out of his hometown, shady politics and health insurance, Moore has at least primed the pump of public thinking.

"The Art of the Steal," directed by Don Argott (who also serves as cinematographer), takes a straightforward, somber approach.  The rock overturned is a huge one, though; the long and vocal struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation art collection valued somewhere between $25-$30 billion.

Hardly posturing Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love, "The Art of the Steal" states a strong case in the other direction.  Dr. Albert Barnes made his fortune in pharmaceutical research after the turn of the 20th century.  By the 1920s he had turned his attention and considerable zeal to art collecting.

He also, according to the long list of the documentary interviewees, got crossways with Philadelphia politicians,  When he set up The Barnes Foundation, a world-class collection of Post-Impressionist and early modern art, it was five miles outside the Philadelphia city limits in Lower Merion.

It doesn't take long to grasp the idea that Barnes, who was married but had no children, also held the notion of art collections as tourist attractions in utter contempt.  His collection, arranged by theme in wall ensembles in intimate rooms, was intended -- and for decades sternly operated -- as an educational facility rather than a museum.

After his sudden death in 1951, "The Art of the Steal" contends, politicians and wealthy Philadelphia citizens began to conspire to get their hands on Barnes' collection of Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos, Van Goghs and other valuable pieces and set them up as a for-profit tourist attraction.    

That might be expected if someone with world-class riches on canvass died without a will.  Barnes, however, sought out the best attorneys he could find to include in his will the specific wishes that his collection never be moved, sold or loaned out.

Every city has its unique disputes.  So why should movie-goers concern themselves with a battle of wills literally and figuratively that played out (and continues) out of our region?

"The Art of the Steal" is superbly structured, for one thing.  Argott ("Rock School") pulls off an impressing list of interviews, although some key figures declined comment.   From former Barnes students, to outspoken art critics and politicians (including Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell), the clearly identified players state their views about what one of them calls "the greatest theft of art since the second world war."

If you appreciate good documentaries and especially if you love art, "The Art of the Steal" is a must-see.


A Romanian cop handcuffed, by definition

You've heard about entertainers so gifted that they could just read from the telephone book and entertain?

Well, in "Police, Adjective," an astonishingly daring offbeat drama from Romania, you might just be transfixed in your seat as the film's main character reads from a dictionary.  

If you appreciate quirky foreign films, don't be hasty to dismiss this drama (with slight hints of irony) as a classified bore.

Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu ("12:08 East of Bucharest") turns the deeply troubled cop genre on its ear with this little tale.  Here we have Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a rebel cop different than any rebel cop you've seen before.

Cristi isn't borderline psychotic like Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.  Nor is he an alcoholic (though he drinks at times), suicidal, a short timer or recently divorced.

This rebel with a cause simply doesn't want to arrest a local high school kid for smoking hash and sharing it with his friends.  Cristi is an undercover cop who's spent about a week trailing a local school kid whose experimentation with dope could, if he's not careful, send him to prison for about eight years.
Cristi's superiors sternly object to his notion that what the kid's doing may be against the letter of the law, but there's no real harm in it.  Besides, Cristi figures, the law will soon change anyway, so why ruin a young life?

A moral stand-off between a cop and his boss may be a simple premise, but it unfolds against a methodical, fascinating backdrop that's impossible to ignore.  In Romanian with subtitles and subtleties, "Police, Adjective" is a battle on two fronts:  words and wills.

When the film first lights up the screen, all we see for what seems like a near-eternity is a slumping man (Bucur as Cristi) walking, walking, walking through ordinary streets (the filmmaker's hometown of Vaslui in northeastern Romania).

If Porumboiu does nothing else with "Police, Adjective," he shows that an audience will sit still as his protagonist meticulously goes through an undercover cop's daily routine.  He prepares his file on the case and tries without much luck to get his co-workers to expedite the paperwork.  Cristi also does his best to avoid his superior officer, who's bringing increasing pressure to make Cristi stage his bust and close the case.

I can't think of another film that provides as much attention to detail.  When Cristi's home, for instance, we don't just see him share a meal with his wife.  Porumboiu's camera, and thus us as well, hang around for seconds on the goulash.

Ah, but that's nothing compared to the battle-of-wills showdown with the cynical police captain, performed superbly and with impeccable timing by Vlad Ivanov (the abortionist in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days").

Quirky cinematic chestnuts can't be rushed.  "Police, Adjective" will stand as a prime example of that.


'La Danse' to the music

"La Danse:  The Paris Opera Ballet" is the ultimate backstage pass to the fascinating world of tutus and pointe shoes.

A must-see and, in fact, euphoria for ballet aficionados, veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's study of gifted dancers preparing for seven ballets offers enticement for dance novices as well.

Mostly in French with subtitles, "La Danse" drops the audience backstage with absolutely no fanfare and no set-up.  Wiseman, taking a minimalist approach, offers no narration and no indication of who's who.

Instead, we're privy to every nook and cranny of the Palais Garnier, which has served as the renowned ballet company's home since 1875.  Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey have obviously set a lofty goal of celebrating what Wiseman has referred to as "the highest level of achievement in the conscious use of the body to express feeling and thought."

Noted choreographers put les étoiles (the stars) through sometimes grueling rehearsals, pointing out what appears to a novice as the tiniest flaw.  When dancers and choreographer are finally in sync, Wiseman ("Domestic Violence," 2001), who's been making documentaries for four decades,  moves on.

But not always to more rehearsals of a mixture of modern and classic ballets ranging from the old chestnut "The Nutcracker" to "Orpheus and Eurydyce" from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch.  Wiseman's camera often wanders the storied halls.  He focuses for a while on a worker painting a door, then visits the lunch room (the fish looks good).  He even takes us up on the roof to see what a beekeeper is up to as he (or she, can't tell really in that protective suit) gathers honey.

Unless you're keenly familiar with ballet on the international level, chances are that company director Brigitte LeFevre is the only person you'll get to know well.  LeFevre offers an in-depth primer into what it takes to mount a world-class ballet.

She holds business meetings to decide just how close serious patrons (with donations of $25,000 and up) can get to the dancers during a hobnob luncheon.  In another meeting, LeFevre emotionally nurtures (but not too gently) one of the dancers one-on-one in her office.

The focus, of course, always returns to the sometimes breathtaking flow of body parts as some of the most gifted dancers in the world generate fluid motion in search of ballet perfection.

Those unfamiliar with ballet, or perhaps only mildly interested, might squirm a little in their seats before this exquisite backstage pass expires.  After all, "La Danse" occupies the screen for over two and a half hours.

If you love ballet, however, "La Danse" makes its intimate exclusive access pointe and then some.


Room and bored, but deeply loved

During the opening moments of "35 Shots of Rum," you may wonder, as I did, why it's taking so long for something of consequence to happen.

We see a train yard, which turns out to be in or near Paris, and a solemn man smoking a cigarette.  He's watching metro trains come and go.

"35 Shots of Rum," in French with subtitles, sets its own schedule, just like the trains.

Deliberate and quite revealing in its own quiet way, this character study co-written and directed by French filmmaker Claire Denis revolves around a small ensemble of lives coupling and uncoupling.

Denis, who directed the well-received drama "Chocolat" in 1988, worked as an assistant to filmmakers Jim Jarmush ("Broken Flowers") and Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas") earlier in her career.

It's no surprise, then, that the audience is asked to work a little to fully appreciate a story bursting with bridled emotions pulsating just below the surface.

The man at the train yard turns out to be Lionel (Alex Descas), a metro train conductor.  He's a widower of very few words, but also a man who transmits humility and dignity through his silence.  Lionel  has lived for a long time, it seems, with his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), who now attends college.

They're surrounded by long-time neighbors.  Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a cab driver, longs for a closer relationship with Lionel, and, in fact, may have had one at one time.  Noé (Grégoire Collin) is a mystery man who lives alone with his fat cat.  He's trying to decide whether to move on with his life.

Denis manages to entwine these lives in an intriguing manner that's fascinating, to say the least.

Lionel and Jo, for instance, enjoy a special closeness; a loving bond brought to the surface with fascination rarely realized on a movie screen.

It's also time for Jo to uncouple from her dad and forge a life of her own.  One of the things I admire most about this screenplay co-written by the filmmaker and Jean-Pol Fargeau (they also collaborated on "Chocolat") is that Jo is in no hurry to abandon the special bond with her father.

"35 Shots of Rum" reminds me of "O'Horten," the Norwegian import of late July about a train operator wandering through life after forced retirement.  "O'Horten" was quiet and quirky, though.  

This one is quiet, intriguing and deeply moving.


The other major 'save the Earth' documentary

A lot of us are going increasingly "green" these days.

In the name of saving the environment and -- among the more cynical of us, trading corporate printing expenses for our own -- we're forgoing paper bank statements and the like for on-line versions.

Have you ever wondered where and when all this business about protecting Mother Earth from us humans began?

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Robert Stone did.  "Earth Days," generously peppered with U.S. presidents vowing to clean up the environment before it's too late, traces the movement back to what Stone refers to as "post-war rustlings in the 1950s."

The impressive array of concerned citizens facing Stone's camera includes Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, environmentalist Hunter Lovins, Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart and others.

"Earth Days" doesn't feel as, shall we say, lecturery as Davis Guggenheim's global warming doomsday documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" featuring Professor (and former vice president) Al Gore.

This renewed cinematic effort by Stone ("Radio Bikini," "Oswald's Ghosts") to light a fire under all of us to do more to save the only planet we have is just as scholarly, however.  Perhaps more so.  Concerned citizens, many of whom are experts in their respective fields, interest, even fascinate at first.  As the films rolls across the screen, however, a certain tediousness sets in.

Sincere interviewees, some presented too often, tend to morph into talking heads after a while.  The message is no less dire, of course.  It's just that "Earth Days" can't quite stoke the interest as much as "An Inconvenient Truth" managed three years ago.

I'm guessing I won't be the only one sitting in the dark feeling a little guilty about letting my mind wander to mundane matters as "Earth Days" reminds us that "society dropouts" frolicked (sometimes sans clothing) to rage against technology's machine in the 1960s.

Eventually, of course, "Earth Days" gets around to the source of the environmentally friendly first Earth Day of 1970.

There are some things to learn there.  But if this environmentally aware British filmmaker (raised both in Great Britain and the U.S.) has his facts straight, a little matter like saving the world is a dilemma too long-term for most politicians to embrace.

We live in a world of constantly decreasing attention spans, according to many experts in such matters.

What "Earth Days" reminds us of right now, right here is that grave environmental issues are not likely to go away.  At least not until we, or whatever human population is alive at the time, go away with them. 


A horse of a different healer

"And then, it all fell apart."

"The Horse Boy," a heartfelt, honest documentary, is about how a Central Texas family and a horse named Betsy put it all back together.

Narrated and produced by Rupert Isaacson, "The Horse Boy" travels half way around the world on a last-ditch effort to soothe the savage soul of Rowan, a young boy suffering from autism.

Anyone who has first-hand encounters or even a brush with autism will be rewarded for investing the time to see how Isaacson, a journalist and former horse trainer, and his wife Kristin Neff, a psychology professor, fought to calm their son's tantrums.  

Not everyone dealing with someone diagnosed with autism will be able to cart that person to Mongolia for hand's on shaman healing, of course.  The beauty of "The Horse Boy" is the loving -- and sometimes tough loving -- nature this Elgin, TX (just east of Austin) couple brings to a problem that threatens their family.

I also like the way director/cinematographer Michel Orion Scott presents his footage.  The audience isn't merely a fly on the wall eavesdropping on the long journey.  It's as if we're a member of the family along on the trip.  We feel the pain right along with all the key players.

And we share the hope when little Rowan, who's cute as a button, by the way, wanders next door and happens upon a fateful meeting with a gentle mare named Betsy.  Betsy might just open a door no therapist could.


Going out on a 'Lemon Tree' limb

What's sometimes missing when a filmmaker takes on the chaos of the divide along the West Bank that induces cold stares between Israelis and Palestinians, is the human element.

What goes on in the minds of neighbors, for instance, when geography has placed them so close together and politics and religion have forged a deep abyss between them.

"Lemon Tree," in Arabic, Hebrew and some English with subtitles, is a genteel drama that nevertheless explores deep churning emotions.  Make no mistake, this touching drama addresses the human element sublimely.

Directed by well-established Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis ("The Syrian Bride," "Temptation"), "Lemon Tree" seems like a simple tale at first.  But it's rooted in a history of conflict that, as one character says, has remained unresolved for thousands of years.

Palestinian Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), who's been widowed for 10 years, scratches out a living tending the lemon grove her late father planted 50 years earlier.   Salma's property is on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank.  When Israel's new minister of defense and his wife move in just across the fence, Salma tries with all her might to make lemonade out of lemons.

On the surface, this is a one-dimension saga of a determined woman to save her land.  The Israeli Secret Service thinks a sniper could take cover in Salma's trees.  So they commandeer the land and schedule the grove for destruction.

Salma takes her case all the way to Israel's Supreme Court with the help of Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian lawyer who's robust in the courtroom but as lonely and needy as Salma in private.

"We are both lone wolves," she tells him at one point.

Abbass, who appeared in "The Nativity Story" as well as Riklis' "The Syrian Bride," exudes personal strength, even when she can be seen from a window breaking into sobs at her kitchen sink.  She fights on, though, not unlike Sally Field battling to save her cotton farm in Robert Benton's powerful human drama "Places in the Heart" (1984).

Tel Aviv actress Rona Lipaz-Michael also excels as Mira Navon, the defense minister's wife who forms a silent bond with her long suffering neighbor.

The beauty of "Lemon Tree," written by Riklis and Suha Arraf (who co-wrote "The Syrian Bride" with Riklis), is in how it examines inner-strength even though almost all the key characters are desperately trying to hang onto normalcy.