Monday, May 29, 2017

Three Trembling Cities

Three Trembling Cities
Written and directed by Arthur Vincie

The web series is made up of 10 video chapters each 5 to 10 minutes long.
It is about the immigrant experience currently in the USA, specifically in New York City.
The first 5 chapters are about two women friends one Indian the other Hungarian and an Iranian brother and sister. These are educated professionals, academics, a lawyer, and one is an actor. Some of them are children of people who came to the USA.

In Chapter 2 these four people are in restaurant scene. At one table are the two women introduced in chapter one, one Hungarian the other Indian. At the other table is a brother and sister of Iranian descent. The Iranian actor is going back to Iran to perform in a play. His lawyer sister is concerned for him, not being clear what the situation is there.
We switch back and forth between their conversation and that of the women at a different table. At the end of this is nicely set up so that one person from one couple is in the extreme foreground while the opposite person from the other table is in focus in the background and the dialogue is  intermixed. They soon all meet.

For me the series really takes off in the last 5 chapters which is a separate story focusing on the more working class struggles of undocumented men who work off the books in a restaurant. They are much more on the edge compared to the relatively privileged and documented who are preparing for international flights and can come and go.  (I mean I can’t even afford international travel.) These three men share a small apartment. Two of them are in one room and one of them is crafting jewelry which makes noise and disturbs his roommate. This man is also working two jobs and sending money back home to family in Africa while crafting his jewelry in his “spare” time. The viewer is introduced to the natural humanity and charm of these three men through the solid performances of the three very nice looking actors.  

This business with documentation is not normal in human experience. Actually it is a recent construct of bureaucratic industrial societies something very new in the story of human society. I’ve been reading the novels of B Traven. I’m currently reading The Death Ship. It involves a seaman who was in port as the nice ship he worked on sails away without his. He is stranded without his seamen card and whatever documentation he needs to get a job on another ship and somehow get home to the USA. He ends up being exploited on the worst kind of ship having no alternative. In this and other works Traven likes to talk about the time before WWI when a person could travel all across the world without papers, claiming that all this is new, after the “War for Democracy”.
Yet even if the papers had not been an issue for the African men in the web series, they surely would have confronted cultural and racial barriers in certain civilizations that could have been insurmountable.

Three Trembling Cities is very well done technically with beautiful photography, by producer Ben Wolf and sound. The production makes very workable choices with the budget constraints. I loved how the restaurant where the men are working is never seen, but implied as we see them outside on short breaks from work in their aprons.

It is fine series that should be seen and it felt like it was just getting rolling. It would be lovely to see it go into a second season and on to Netflix with everyone getting a nice paycheck for this work.  

See it for free on Youtube and other streaming video sites:

http://threetremblingcities.com
  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Mark Duplass: 2 movies with 2 players, less than 90

Last night I watched Creep (2014) written and performed by Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice. Brice is the director.
The night before I watched Blue Jay (2016) written, performed by Mark Duplass. Sarah Paulson is the other actor.

I liked both movies.
They have in common Mark Duplass writing, acting in them.
They are also both very small two-actor productions that are less than 90 minutes long.

Blue Jay has Clu Gulager in it for a very brief scene and it was nice to see him again. But other than that brief scene, it is all Duplass and Paulson.
Creep has two actors. No other actors appearing on screen.
I admire the economy of the two-actor short feature. It appeals also to whatever DIY feelings I have about film. I could never mount a big production, but a two person piece. . .well, maybe, at least in my dreams.

Why are movies most always 90 minutes or more? I suppose it has roots in olden times when regular theatrical showings of Double Features were abandoned. During the Double Feature era, there might have been a 90 or 120 minute feature on the bill, as well as a couple of short subjects 10 minutes or so long, and the second B-movie feature that might have been only 60 minutes long.
Then they dropped that and basically had one feature film on the bill with maybe a cartoon. So the movie had to be around 90 minutes or more for the exhibitors to feel that they were giving the public their money’s worth of an evening’s entertainment.
Live TV, by which I mean broadcast TV, is/was linked to start-stop times on the hour or half hour so the programs would be more easily listed and viewers would know when to tune in. The 90 minute movie length was also suitable to a two-hour commercial TV slot with ads filling the remainder of the time.

With the rise of streaming on demand services all these time constraints disappear and there is no reason at all that a moving picture presentation has to be any particular length at all. While I’m aware of the current trend of the continuing story multi-season series of an hour episode each that can be stream binged, there is also space for one-shot short features like these productions with Mark Duplass.   

I like this. I like the story to be complete in an hour and a half or less. Although I see the attraction of the long form with further character and plot developments, I’m not drawn to that myself. The exception is half hour Netflix comedies such as Kimmy Schmidt, or Master of None.

These two moving pictures have Mark Duplass in common as writer/performer. They both only have two actors. Mark Duplass is an entirely different, complex character in each.

Blue Jay is a male/female love story. The woman, Sarah Paulson is back in a small mountain town to assist her pregnant sister. She runs into her old high school love, Mark Duplass,  in the supermarket. Their relationship was 20 years ago. The man is not married. She is married but her husband is not with her on this trip. The movie is the two of them reminiscing, drinking some beer, playing together. Things are revealed and there are hints of what could have been. It is a brisk entertaining movie with an powerful emotional core of love and loss. The two actors have to carry the movie and do that very well.
It is 80 minutes long.

Creep is an entirely different product. A sort of suspense horror drama with only the two actors. Patrick Brice plays a videographer who answers an ad to video a man, played by Mark Duplass. It is mostly all Duplass’s movie since the camera view is supposed to be the video the hired guy is making. He is very strange from the outset and stranger as we go on. He claims he has terminal cancer with a pregnant wife. The video is to be left to the son he will never get to see. It is very good pathetic nut villainous role that Duplass has devised for himself.
Creep is a psychological horror movie, but indeed Creepy.
It is a brief 77 minutes.

Duplass is an intense and focused actor in both of these. I was drawn to watching his every move because he has an aura of total unpredictability. I will be looking at move of his work.


Both these movie are on Netflix at this writing.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Written by Donn Pearce & Frank Pierson

There are many movies I watched as a child that had lasting effect on me, became part of a beloved memory, scared me, or just entertained me, but were memorable. I probably was around 16 when I first saw Cool Hand Luke and as it shows up repeatedly on TCM and is considered a classic I started to wonder why I had no real recollection of it. I watched it last night on a very nice big HDTV. It looked good with Conrad Hall’s cinematography.

I guess I didn’t remember it because it had no emotional impact to lodge itself in my memory or in my heart as somehow beloved. I guess there was some doubt as I started watching since I didn’t at all remember it fondly, or remember it at all, but I sat down ready to revise my view and watch a great classic.
OK, it’s a southern chain gang movie. How can one go wrong with that? It’s an anti-authoritarian set up. I go for that stuff and I certainly have liked other prison, chain gang injustice movies. For instance I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) is one of my all time favorites, a social justice classic and an engrossing emotionally captivating movie. So I was pulling for Cool Hand Luke from the beginning, but soon it was clear that it was not a movie with that type of depth, more of a guys in prison comic book really and not a particularly good one.

At the outset I began to wonder. “OK here we are in the south, where are the black guys?” Is this a blue-eyed whitewashed racist movie? I mean there are no black people in this prison camp, overseers, inmates, none. There are only two black people in the whole movie. They are a couple of stereotypical grinning country boys who are conveniently on hand and willing to assist Luke in one of his attempts to escape. OK, I let that go. Maybe the prison system is just segregated so therefore no black people in the movie, fine, whatever.

Next bump in the roadwork was the hot babe washing the car scene. Like the blacks, there are only two women in this movie, OK, it’s a guys in prison movie. This car wash scene surprised me. I was actually amazed at how tacky and unrealistic it was. The chain gang is working and nearby a young woman is washing an old car. I get that they could have got all worked up seeing a young woman, and seeing one wash a car, but the scene is so crudely staged and shot that rather than accent the point it takes the movie directly out of any social realism potential and into naughty men’s magazine land. It is badly staged. Where is the woman on the landscaped compared to the men? We don’t know. Actually I think she was working on a different day than the chain gang shots that intercut. We see her working, cut to chain gang drolling, and back and forth. We are given closeup shots of her in her little hillbilly dress and the guys comment as if they can see the closeups we are shown. They see a safety pin, and comment on it, that is holding the top of her dress together. Really? At what distance in a safety pin visible? I didn’t buy it at all. This is the late 1960s and she is washing a giant old car from 20 years earlier simply because the movie wanted her to have to stretch and reach, giving the prisoners a tease of an up skirt shot. Plus wet top stuff. They could have done something like that, since they apparently felt the need to go there, by having a realistic car wash scene and cut in with the fantasy view of the men, but the scene is not treated that way. What was the point of this at all? Was it to derail the obvious homoerotisism of the shirtless muscled guys in prison content? It did nothing the forward a plot. I basically lost trust in the movie at this point.

The movie failed to regain my trust in following episodes.

The fight scene.
More movie phoniness. The lead bully prisoner fights the new uncooperative Luke. He’s a big guy. They are wearing boxing gloves and he easily beats the smaller Luke who hardly gets a punch in as he takes numerous head blows. He goes down, gets back up, goes down, the other prisoners tell him to stay down so the punishment can stop, but he gets up and goes down again and again in a long drawn out brutally dull scene.
All right, got the point, Luke ain’t a quitter. Geez! Of course since this is a typically phony movie fight scene, Luke has no lasting damage, no broken nose or missing teeth in the next scene. He’s the same pretty Paul Newman. Don’t try this at home.

“I can eat 50 eggs”
Of course after the fight scene the bunkhouse bully is now his chum. Apparently there is no budget constraints in this prison and the inmates can get all the eggs they want to play with. It’s a brag and bet scene which is another long drawn out episode as Luke eats hard boiled egg after hard boiled egg.

Then escape and since Luke is a hero now they all help out.

Capture, escape, repeat.

Beyond that there is more S&M content with Luke forced into supposed submission by the cartoon overseers. There are no real characters in this movie. But since he has submitted he is now shunned by the rest of the guy, no longer a hero.

Oh the guys. There are a lot of very fine actors in this movie. Many did excellent work just a few years later, but this is no ensemble movie so they are given literally nothing to do but hang around as glorified extras. They don’t even get to talk, well, Harry Dean Stanton gets to sing and play guitar.

Then escape again to a silly, in the church, talk with God scene and on to the miserable conclusion with a coda of the happier days of the smiling Luke montage stills at the very end.

I’m not at all opposed to anti-hero movies, after all I’m an anti-hero in my own little life drama. (Which is a hell of a lot more interesting and nuanced than this movie.)

The more I think about this movie the less I like it so I had better stop.

I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang has a much better story with real depth and character development and only asked for 92 minutes of my time. This thing went on for 126 minutes of shirtless white boy crap.  

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ram Dass, Fierce Grace (2001)

Ram Dass, Fierce Grace (2001)
Director:
Mickey Lemle

This is a documentary film about
Richard Alpert who became Ram Dass and focuses on a life changing stroke that occurred in his mid 60s.

It goes through his story. He was a child the Boston elite, his father a wealthy industrialist. The film has clips from home movies shot in the 1930s and 40s on their 300 acre estate in New Hanpshire, complete with 3 hole golf course. He was the youngest and darling of a family of three boys.
He becomes a Harvard professor. At Harvard he meets up with Timothy Leary, gets into LSD research with him and gets fired from Harvard with him. They land for a time in Millbrook, NY at the Hitchcock Estate and continue the LSD work in a much freer way than they could at Harvard. Ram Dass revisits Millbrook in the movie and marvels at the enormous house it has, with 50 or 60 rooms. This becomes a counter culture scene that went on for about 5 years 1963-68. It eventually falls apart, Alpert describes it getting excessive with him and others obviously overindulging. Alpert breaks from this Leary dominated situation.

Then he goes to India, meets guru Neem Karoli Baba and is amazed by his powers in mind reading. Neem Karoli Baba asks to try some LSD and takes a massive dose afterwhich he exhibits no effect.
I remember reading about this in the old Ram Dass book Be Here Now. Frankly I have trouble buying into it. Neem Karoli Baba might have been a sort of great teacher, but could have also been a bit of a trickster magician. He could have very easily been given the tiny LSD tablets and not actually consumed them. At any rate this is profoundly impressive to Alpert and he goes Indian and returns to the USA as Ram Dass spiritual teacher in Indian like dress and manor, himself transforming into a guru for the new age, the hippie generation. The film shows lovely footage of him in early stages of this at the family's estate where young people have come to be with him and receive his teachings. They chant, sing Hari Krishna on the golf course, young westerners, seekers, embracing this very exotic Indian religious stuff.

This is the background information of a film that is about the aftermath of this stroke. We see him in the year 2000, now reverting to western clothing going through physical and speech therapy, and struggling to get around with the right side of his body not cooperating as it had before.
He speaks of being “stroked” and taking it as a new lesson that he needed even though he did not particularly welcome it.

Ram Dass comes off in this movie as a very nice man. His teaching, not very clear in the movie, appears to be benign at least, a type of self-help therapist. He is clearly a child of wealthy elite and exhibits no hesitation at talking on a leadership role. It is something he feel entitled to. There are a lot of people like him. I have not read any of his books, Just pieces of Be Here Now, but as a popular cultural figure he doesn’t appear to be harmful. I am convinced that many people have found things in his work that help them through life.

The film shows this and depicts him as a caring, compassionate, person.
Yet as I followed the story I saw a man lucky wealthy by birth. A situation that makes even the stroke aftermath, with so many people working to serve and help him, a great deal easier than it might be for so many of us who are less privileged. This does not discount what he has to share but I think it is best listened to in privileged context.

It is not unusual for the psychedelic experience to reset people into “spiritual”. I know people personally who are more or less transformed in this way, some embracing surprisingly exotic modalities. This didn’t happen to me. LSD instantly gave me a new view of life, the planet, and my place within it. But I didn’t feel the need to name it, remediate it, and turn this profound direct experience into something as codified as religion, or “spiritual”, as many others apparently are drawn to do. The attaching of this experience to symbols of religion is an interesting phenomenon for sure.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

American Ultra. (2015)

American Ultra. (2015)
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Written by Max Landis

This movie reunites Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg for what I think is the first time since the delightful Adventureland. These two play very well together. They are like Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor with a high level of screen chemistry that they are hard to resist. (I was watching them a couple weeks ago on TCM)
Adventureland was more or less a teen coming of age rom-com, a good one. To reunite they make a very good choice with American Ultra. It retains some of the rom-com elements but puts it all into a CIA conspiracy sci-fi  action movie. I thought it worked and that if they wanted they could continue with this in sequel.
There is a lot of violent action and blood. It is mostly a sort of lucid chamber music violence, not the big confusing orchestrated violence commonly found in mega budget product.
And the stars get some very well done two character scenes together. We also get an amusing performance by the great John Leguizamo ( yes I'm the person who thinks The Pest is a good movie), as Mike’s pot dealer buddy.
A really fine entertainment product.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Writer/Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

This is not an objective telling of the JT Saga. This is flat out Laura Albert memoir. She seems to be in total control of the story. We hear her tapes of conversations with the stars, we mostly see her in the on-camera interview sections.

We don’t see what all these celebrities are thinking now, not so much just after the revelation of how they were fooled, but I can’t imagine a self-respecting celebrity appreciating Laura Albert sharing their presumably private phone conversation with the assumed boy prostitute to the world via this movie.

We don’t see any of the REALS. Actual street kids, West Virginia truck stop kid prostitutes, if there even are any, like in one of her books, the only one I read, Sarah.
The fact that she would take the identity thing so far that she would recruit a stand-in with a blond wig, a woman, pretending to be this boy genius street hustler, gives it all the whiff of a minstrel show of some sort. What do the real ones think?

Except, we are informed, it is still authentic because Albert channeled the pain of her own life into the fake identities.. She is so damaged she can’t write about herself or even as herself, she has to take on these other identities to open her heart. I guess that is why she has not written a book about all this but uses this movie instead to communicate her story. It could have been both, still can I guess.

Actually she was into talking even before writing because she used to call various helplines as other identities. Maybe she should start a podcast. Maybe she is way ahead of me and has 4 already hosted by various identities.
Is the on camera Laura Albert in her “punk” outfit in this movie the real one? Is she more Speedie who, to my taste, at least had a better flair for style.


What we do see is this wacky story. It is a very entertaining movie because on some level it is a pretty amazing stunt. And to hell with the trendy celebrities wanting to buddy up with TJ, who actually fell for the whole rather outrageous disguise bit. OK so I guess she pursued them. It’s funny to see them exposed.
Laura Albert is all edgy inside her head.

I had a Gullible Double Feature the night I watched this.
I watched Getting Clear again before it. At least she didn’t write something that enslaved people in some way to some wacky idea or something. Her stuff is just tasteless raunchy entertainment, I guess, minor, soon forgotten

The Brainwashing of my Dad

The Brainwashing of my Dad
A documentary film by Jen Sanko

This is like the big media “13th” in that there is the history laid out before us and it is a very unhappy one of power and control.
The movie is personal stories of people who have watched loved ones become very unpleasantly affected by rightwing talk radio, Fox TV News. This is combined with relevant media studies sort of information. It centers on Jen Sanko’s elderly father. His politics and demeanor changed as a result of first commuting with rightwing talk radio and then Fox News.
Many of us have watched this happen to people we know, or maybe even to ourselves, for many years. It’s sadly too familiar.

The main contributions of the film consist of the information such as the tossing out of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, which unleashed bias propaganda radio, and the Telecommunication Act in the 90s helping to further consolidate big corporate media power.

The movie also is helpful in illuminating the way rightwing media works in locking people in, practically physically, by engaging the emotions in a sustained hateful way that is exciting and oddly addicting to those who expose themselves to it. This was an outstanding section of the movie, for me anyway, already well converted to the POV of the filmmaker.

I don’t recall the film questioning the presence of this media in the home in the first place, like “CUT THE DAMN CABLE AND STOP PAYING THEM EVERY MONTH!”. But the fact is people want their cable TV, especially older ones and it has been ubiquitous for long enough to distort the whole country in it’s own image.

The movie was wrapped before the revelation of Roger Ailes sexually harassing, and more, countless women in his long career and TV, so there is none of that. He’s out, damage done.

I mean, look at this Trump character. Fox TV watcher filled with typical hate driving off the stage onto a wave of fellow brainwashees and surfing into the Whitehouse.
Party on TV people!

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened... (2016)

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened... (2016) Directed by Lonny Price

I have somehow been cast in a Stephen Sondheim show.

We are all in a big theater in Manhattan and rehearsals are getting underway. There are a lot of people around and I’m the oldest. I’m the oldest in the cast by far and older than the production crew. I don’t feel like I fit into this scene at all, actually I’m a bit frightened of it all. I live on Long Island and need to get back there. I’m not really sure how I got involved in this show but think I’ll just slip away at least from this rehearsal. I probably won’t be missed. The theater is in a large building with many rooms.
I’m filled with anxiety and wonder if I should get some pot, but then that might sabotage the whole thing, which might be what I want to just not be challenged by this involvement.
I go outside and realize that I am downtown, in the East Village and the theater building is very near a building I lived in years ago on 12th St. But the building, and a few adjacent to it have been gutted, they are being torn down to build something new. How could I not know about this? This is a big thing and no one has told me.
I head back into the building and am looking for my stuff so I can slip away and head back home. There is food, but I don’t eat anything. I worry that I will be noticed when I leave because I am not like the others, being the older man.
Now I think the production people are on to me. I guess I get that from the other kids. I’m outside in the yard and a production woman finds me and tells me that they, I guess Steve and Hal, want me to try one of the songs. Well, I, of course think this is great, but having not sung in a while wonder if I can pull this off. I start vocalizing, trying what techniques I know to prepare my voice, get my range to where it should be to get this role. I don’t really want to be in this thing, and travel back and forth from Long Island just for a chorus role, so this is it. . .
***
Moving image in a powerful medium.
The above is a dream I had last night after seeing  Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened on Netflix last night.
This is a well done documentary about the production of a new Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince musical Merrily We Roll Along  in 1980. It is a musical adaptation of a Kaufman and Hart play that goes backward in time with the characters in middle-age going back through their lives to the time when they are graduating from high school years before. Hal Prince had decided that it would be interesting to stage this with young people close to the age of the high schoolers. The result was a Broadway musical in which the first act was performed by essentially, kids acting as middle aged people.
The critics hated the show which became a notorious flop in the illustrious careers of Sondheim and Prince. They did not collaborate again after that even though they had several big hits before.

With some footage from back in the day as well as contemporary interviews looking back, the film focuses on the young cast. They are, of course, thrilled to be cast in this show right off the bat on arriving in NYC to that their turn at attempting Broadway stardom. And it is Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim, star heros of the day who treated them warmly as colleagues. So we hear about the effect of that on them, the unexpected flop and how that might have set the paths of their lives up until the present.


The result is an interesting theater history life story documentary. Probably a must see for actor wannabes and people who care about musical theater.  Watching it I had a notion that maybe it should have been structured like the play itself, starting with the cast now and then moving back to the 1980 show. But maybe Lonny Price thought of that and abandoned the idea.
***
But behold the awesome power on moving image to effect my dreams like that. And I’m a skeptical old man hardly a wide-open-to-influence kid.
I find this mass media power awesome and scary.    

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)
Directed by Asia Argento

I recently saw the documentary about Laura Albert (J. T. LeRoy) so that lead to looking at this byproduct of her work.

The movie is “better” than the J. T. LeRoy novel I read called Sarah. It wasn’t just the distasteful content, it was poorly written.  That is saying very little because I thought the novel was junk. I guess the explanation now it that it is a product of Albert digesting her trauma.

This movie is set in a similar lowlife truck stop abusive to children USA hick atmosphere as Sarah. But the thing is, it is a skillfully made movie. Asia Argento, who also stars as bad momma Sarah (this name again) knows how to make a horror movie. Perhaps it is in her genes. It has some nicely done CGI characters, a couple of recurring red birds, it all clips along at a brisk pace, it doesn’t bore the viewer. The kid who plays Jeremiah, her 9 year old son, is convincing. (I kind of wondered what the actor went through emotionally during this production.)
It’s all quite good, such as it is and taken on it’s own terms.
But I just have to ask myself, “Why?”

It’s a harsh little drama of this boy at the mercy of insane drunk, and otherwise drugged crazy abusive mamma. When he is taken away from her, his has to live with his crazy Christian religious fanatic grandparents who train him to preach on the street, beat his teen uncles, and give them all refreshing morning ice baths.

Is there a purpose for telling this story via film other than some sort of hipster attraction to low-life spectacles? Is it just another form of horror movie?
I was recently watching an interview with David Foster Wallace where he talks about moving image mass media and its bias toward sensation and spectacle in one form or another. He also said he didn’t have a TV because he can’t help but look himself even though aware of the inherent insidious attraction of this sort of product.
I guess I watched it for more or less the same reason. At least I still avoid murder, execution, and suicide viral videos in the “News”.

McTeague: A novel by Frank Norris

McTeague by Frank Norris I come to this through the classic movie Greed by Erich von Stroheim. This is a silent movie that is notorious as ...