KPK on the CINEMA (September 2016)

Cinema

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> Only 10 films on the roster this month, but I awarded four of them over 4 stars! Few films but a lot of entertainment!  (A reminder: all films are rated on a 5 star basis.)

> This time, we have a gander at the following titles:

BLACK MASS  (2015) ***+

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS  (1967) **

22 JUMP STREET  (2014) ***

ZOOTOPIA  (2016) ****+

THE LAST LIONS  (2011) ****

THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS  (1978) *****

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!  (2016) ***

ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON THE ICE  (2013) ****+

THE KENNEDY FILMS  (1960) *****

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

BLACK MASS  (2015) ***+

Cannot say gangster films are among my favorite genres. I gave this one a spin because character chameleon Johnny Depp received rave reviews for his metamorphosis into crime kingpin “Whitey” Bulger. Some felt he was unfairly passed over for the acting nom at Oscar season. I agree he was very good in the role, all but disappearing into this scarily volatile monster. In fact, he was the best thing about this solid but unremarkable crime biography. Good acting, high production values, some fine moments, but aside from Depp’s powerhouse performance there just isn’t much here- certainly not much material we have not seen again and again in similar, and often better crime films. Competent, if not spectacular entertainment.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS  (1967) **

Finally got around to seeing this seminal schlock artifact from the late sixties. Taken from the Jacqueline Susann bestseller about Hollywood backstabbing and rampant drug use in the industry. My interest was piqued while watching LIFE ITSELF, when I discovered in his early years, the great Roger Ebert was an uncredited screenwriter on the project. I expected this celebrated exploitation film to be rote, cliché-ridden and blandly plastic, and after a very promising first reel that’s exactly what it devolved into. It is interesting to see tragic figure Sharon Tate in one of her last screen roles before becoming a victim of the Manson family rampage, and more than a little ironic that she is playing an actress with no particular talent, forced to resort to French “art films”, (a euphemism for soft-core nudies), to care for her ailing husband. Typecasting? It seems so. As a kid, remember having a big crush on Patty Duke, but she is absolutely terrible here, once she makes the transformation from eager, sincere young talent to bitter, nasty star. It’s a one-note performance that is all sniveling snarl and over-the-top histrionics. This pleasant turkey is interesting as an iconic time capsule of the style, mores and mindset of this transitional period of U.S. history- but not much more. By today’s standards, the constant use of the term “fag” as casual hate speech is shockingly egregious. When I was a vulnerable, sensitive child, “fag” was the worst thing playground bullies could think to call you. Now, such vileness is appropriately inappropriate. I imagine Roger Ebert had grown quite embarrassed by this crudeness before he reached the end.

22 JUMP STREET  (2014) ***

There were several points during this film that I found myself wondering why I was wasting my time with such silliness. I couldn’t help but doubt that there was much pleasure in this blatantly youth-oriented trifle, for a man of my years. Fratboy humor just doesn’t usually strike me as very humorous. But Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum do make an appealing odd couple, and there were sufficient pleasures in the preceding 21 JUMP STREET to give this sequel a whirl. 22 JUMP STREET, it turns out, was nothing more than a rehash of 21, but the filmmakers use this to their advantage, repeatedly commenting, in sly asides, about the striking similarities to the first outing. When it does work, it is because of the chemistry between these two game leading men. Their “partner” relationship is consistently mined for laughs in a way that flirts with the homophobic. Is it really such a revolutionary idea that two men can love one another without being gay lovers? Clearly the “bromance” is still an uncomfortable plot device for many. Without that societal discomfort this light comedy would not have worked at all. And that’s a little disturbing… Please don’t bother with a 23 JUMP STREET, boys.

ZOOTOPIA  (2016) ****+

Critics absolutely loved this Disney animated treat, and audiences seemed to agree. Count me in! Even though this project sounded silly and childish and the previews looked to verify this assumption, ZOOTOPIA was that rare animal- an original story that played equally well for adults and children. I could not have enjoyed it more. The characters were unusually well defined, voiced by accomplished actors like Jason Bateman and Idris Elba. The title song, belted out with verve by Shakira, was that increasing cartoon rarity: a good song, well sung. I was stoked to see the film celebrate the mistakes we make, as crucial learning opportunities. ZOOTOPIA is actually a detective mystery, involving the first bunny-cop in this utopia where traditional prey and predators have learned to live in harmony, and her unlikely partner- a con artist fox. Kids loved the talking animals; adults were treated to a fine, fun, literate script that never talked down to them. Several laugh-out-loud funny moments were clearly aimed at the adults in the audience. The scene at a DMV manned by painfully slow sloths, was a one-joke gag- drawn out as far as it could possibly go. Yet, the longer the scene played the funnier it became. I cannot recall ever laughing so loudly at a Disney cartoon, (though I remember THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES as being similarly mirthful). I noticed six (or was it seven?) screenwriters listed in the credits. This is usually a very poor sign, often indicating that too many chefs have spoiled the broth. Not so here. This zesty romp was remarkably tight and coherent for having so many contributors. Though the ‘message’ of ZOOTOPIA was fairly labored and obvious, (tolerance, equality, empathy, justice), it was genuinely moving. In fact, it’s a liberal’s wet dream personified, dealing with weighty ideas like inequality, respect, trust, stereotyping, bullying and prejudice. That’s reaching pretty high for a family film. I enjoyed this film so thoroughly I am looking forward to seeing it again someday!

THE LAST LIONS  (2011) ****

I, for one, am stoked that Disney decided to get back into the arena of the family documentary with their production arm Disneynature, a fruitful partnership with National Geographic. There is little doubt the partnership has produced some stunning images, and this newer crop of nature docs are so much more sophisticated than BEAR COUNRTY or THE VANISHING PRAIRIE. Unfortunately, they seem all but incapable of avoiding the most egregious anthropomorphism, and while the voice-over on this one is nowhere near as patently ridiculous as it was in CHIMPANZEE, the narration is chockfull of silly conjecture written to humanize the lions- and again, adults might be better off watching with the sound turned down. Jeremy Irons has a lifetime contract to be the voice of Disney, and while he is a superb actor with a fine, mellifluous voice, his delivery is so calm and flat and placid, it is all but sleep-inducing. All this being said, THE LAST LIONS is dazzling to watch, and more than a little heartbreaking in its implications. There were 450,000 lions when I was a child. There may be 20,000 now. Considering this great manmade extinction, films like THE LAST LIONS and the other Disneynature docs perform an important function in ringing the alarm bell for this and future generations. The photography and editing here are impeccable, reminding us that the natural world is vital, endangered and steadily declining. Is it already too late for the lions of the world? I fear so. I hope not.

THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS  (1978) *****

Five stars! Who woulda thunk it? Six decades of soaking up movies like a thirsty sponge in water, and there are (apparently) still classic gems out there for me to discover! I had heard of this film- from back in the heady days of art house cinema. It was often half of a double-bill at places like the Fox Venice and the Sash Mill Cinema, theatres that came out with big monthly calendars of the films that changed nightly. In these days it was not unusual for me to go out to the movies three days a week, and what I was seeing was (mostly) the cream of the cream. This Italian film took the big prize at Cannes the year it was released. Wikipedia sez Al Pacino has often called it his favorite film. I can see why. THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS is perfect. At two minutes shy of three hours there is really nothing extraneous in it. In fact, it feels like something major is left out at the sad and inevitable ending. A crucial revelation is referred to the way one might in a play, and not shown. In film, we are more used to seeing such pivotal confrontations. But that might just be a mater of the conventions I have been trained to expect. I won’t second-guess such a sublime film. Clearly director Ermanno Olmi knew exactly what he was doing in every frame. It’s a very simple story of peasant life in late 19th century Italy, showing their joys and sorrows, their work and family life, in an unblinking matter-of-fact way that feels documentary-like in its verisimilitude. Four families live together in a flat owned by the out-of-touch landlord, who plays opera on his new hand-crank phonograph to entertain himself and impress the lower classes. They work hard for him- long hours every day of the week, keeping his animals from which they get milk, and eggs, and occasionally, meat. We watch them working, listen to them sing to pass the time, eavesdrop on a storyteller around the evening fire, observe their courtship rituals and the slaughtering of animals. In short- nothing happens. It’s just life, and it’s mesmerizing. It helped that none of the parts were played by professional actors. This naturalistic film was cast with real people, playing real people. The main drama revolves around the plight of one unusually bright child who is sent far afield every day to attend school. He only has one pair of clogs, and when one breaks, it imperils his education. His loving father makes a desperate choice to help the child- a choice that comes back to haunt the family later. Summon the patience, turn down the lights, pop a beer and let this film wash over you and embrace you in its bittersweet arms.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!  (2016) ***

Everybody? (Two exclamation marks?) No. Not so much, I assure you. Considering this was a spiritual sequel to DAZED AND CONFUSED and also helmed by the reliably interesting Richard Linklater, and taking the generous critical consensus into account, I thought I wanted some of this… I was wrong. Certainly this story of college freshmen baseball players in the hours leading up to the first classes of the year has plenty of lighthearted fun to be diverting, but I guess expectations were unreasonably high. None of the actors looked young enough to be fresh from high school. None of the characters were really developed in any meaningful way. There was no central thrust to the film- with just the time device of the countdown to college and a timid, budding romance to drive things. As a result, it all felt very unfocused and episodic, and you didn’t really care about anyone that much, though many of the gang on the team were very charming actors. Lots of bland white bread here, with one token dark-skinned, white-mannered character, who had nothing else to distinguish himself from the pack. I kept finding myself unexpectedly bored, and thinking: “Is this it? Am I missing something?” Certainly, as a (newly) senior citizen, the subject doesn’t speak that much to me anymore. I’ve seen so many films like it from ANIMAL HOUSE to REVENGE OF THE NERDS, and I left the college experience behind so very long ago. The way I remember it, college was great. But this film really romanticizes the wild, good-old-boy fraternity of the endless party, looking back on the experience with rose-colored glasses. Like the similarly simpleminded 22 JUMP STREET, once I let go of expectations, watching it was more fun. Three stars ain’t bad, but at only three it is absolutely the least of all the Linklater films I have seen- and I’ve seen the majority of them. There was genius in SLACKER, (covering very similar territory), and in the dark mystery of A SCANNER DARKLY, in the vivid philosophy of WAKING LIFE, in the emotional fireworks of the SUNRISE-SUNSET-MIDNIGHT trilogy and certainly in the much-lauded BOYHOOD. Not so much here. Perhaps it was a film Linklater just needed to get out of his system before he could get back into the Good Stuff. I hope so.

ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON THE ICE  (2013) ****+

This film covers the same terrain as Werner Herzog’s documentary ENOUNTERS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, but in a much more satisfying way. Ironically, the DVD of A YEAR ON THE ICE begins with a trailer for Herzog’s 2007 film about the inhabitants of McMurdo Station on Antarctica, only serving to remind one how much better this film is at telling basically the same story. The summer months accommodate about 4000 visitors and part-time inhabitants. When the unimaginably rough long, dark winters arrive most have fled, leaving about 1000 scientists and workers to overwinter at 37 of the 66 Antarctic scientific settlements. Hardy photographer Anthony Powell spent ten years shooting this film about the year-round denizens of McMurdo, and it shows! Mr. Powell had to develop his own equipment to take the lingering time-lapse panoramas we see here, equipment that could stand up to the almost unimaginably hostile environment at the bottom of the world. Between character studies of these hardy and unique ice dwellers we are treated to some of the most stunning nature photography I have ever thrilled to, including some of the most dazzling sunsets I have ever seen and shots of the northern lights that will floor you. It often reminded me of the best of Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQUATSI films- and that’s some pretty damn high praise. Check out the special featurette of a passing penguin attacking and destroying a camera from the cameras point-of-view. It’s priceless. The whole film is priceless. Fantastic work Anthony Powell!

THE KENNEDY FILMS  (1960) *****

Robert Drew & Associates obtained these historic and extraordinary short political documentaries made between 1960 to 1963 by a group of deeply respected documentarians including D.A. Pennebaker, and it is quite a stunning package. Together the films PRIMARY, ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER, CRISIS, and the brilliant tone poem FACES OF NOVEMBER, paint a remarkable record of the rise and sudden tragic demise of John F. Kennedy- from before his election, to the way he governed and was tested by national crises, sadly capped by an essentially wordless look at the way this country’s citizens mourned for their terrible loss. PRIMARY is a cursory but revealing look at the primary contest between Hubert Humphrey and JFK- notable for containing the first known recording of a sitting president using the “F” word. ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER was a television special that brought the inner workings of the White House into the average citizen’s home. CRISIS is a brilliantly edited retelling of John and Bobby’s tense confrontation with a defiant George Wallace, who swore to resist the federal mandate to integrate higher education in his deep south state. It is absolutely fascinating in light of today’s racial struggles and the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. It is often quite breathtaking at the candor shown in these high level discussions. It’s almost as though the participants didn’t know- or completely forgot they were being filmed and recorded. The package is completed with the stark, heart-wrenching FACES OF NOVEMBER, a brief but powerful cinéma vérité chronicle of the deep shock and horror in the hours and days following Kennedy’s assassination. I expected this package to have historical resonance- and it certainly did. But these films deliver a whole lot more. They bring old school American politics into clear focus- something sadly lacking in our current farce of an election.

> Shout out to season one of BETTER CALL SAUL. Okay, so it’s not BREAKING BAD. Bob Odenkirk is still a fractured pleasure to watch and craggy, world-weary character actor Jonathan Banks as the troubled ex-cop working in the protection racket is mesmerizing!  Vive Cine, my minions!

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© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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