Thursday, August 31, 2006

Grey Gardens

I’d always read about this 1975 Maysles Brothers cult documentary about a mother and daughter who live an eccentric lifestyle in the very upscale East Hamptons, NY but just got around to seeing it. Glad I did because it’s a strange and intimate portrait of two originals that are completely disconnected with the world around them.

The dilapidated mansion, dubbed Grey Gardens, is a squalid, falling down structure with holes in the walls, dirt everywhere, raccoons living in the attic (fed bread and cat food by Little Edie), numerous cats roaming the house and brush overtaking the outside. The doc opens with clippings from newspapers about it being declared off-limits to the Beales until it was cleaned up. They get to move back in but the house is still an utter mess.

The mostly bedridden “Big” Edie and her daughter “Little” Edie, spend ninety minutes in or outside the house in various states of argument, song or conversation. Both love every second of attention that the camera gives them, which makes me doubt the honesty in their actions at times. The Maysles film the goings on with a level of intimacy that draws the viewer into the oddball ramblings and philosophies of both Edies.

Grey Gardens is a strange little doc that reminds me of another documentary filmmaker—Errol Morris. This story is right up his alley but without the structured interviews he’s known for. The Maysles just try and capture the Beales roaming the house, engaging in odd conversations, as they are likely to do every single day.

When the Levees Broke

I'm loathe to get political on CineRobot but after watching When the Levees Broke, a recently shown on HBO documentary by Spike Lee that chronicles Hurricane Katrina and its ghastly aftermath, I have to mention certain politicians after seeing it.

What struck me as I watched this is that the hurricane did a tremendous amount of damage to the city but it can’t compare to the damage done by the federal government, FEMA, inept local politicians, the Army Corps of Engineers, insurance companies, some neighborhood never do wells and a host of other people after the storm. As usual in cases like this, those that have paid the price have been decent, tax-paying, insurance buying people from children to senior citizens.

When the Levees Broke is a riveting four hours that will make you completely angry and boil your blood regarding what happened during and after Katrina to these people. The one-year mark just passed the other day and President Bush made grand statements about “never forgetting” and “rebuilding” the city—but his words are so unbelievably hollow in the face of his actions during this disaster that it makes me sick to my stomach. Bush's disregard for these people is tantamount to a criminal act in my opinion. Sure, the mayor and governor were incompetent too but the president should have taken control IMMEDIATELY when he saw that these events were over their heads. That is what presidents are supposed to do, right? They are supposed to take the initiative in a disaster situation, right? Bush didn't. Bush failed these people.

I don’t know why the government has held these people in such disregard or contempt since the disaster but I’ll wager a guess: class and race. These are largely poorer people who also happen to be African-Americans and let’s be honest here—poor, black people don’t quite register with this administration. Had these neighborhoods been full of wealthy white people the levees would have never been allowed to get dirty much less break. This is just one more example of Bush’s lack of concern with a segment of the American population and it’s kind of sickening to see from an American president.

Lee has assembled a diverse and varied collection of individuals who either lived through the disaster or have some level of expertise to the region. The anger and pain in most of these people is so palpable that it jumps from the TV screen. When the Levees Broke is a mesmerizing documentary that is horrific and painful to watch, it’s also surprisingly inspiring to witness the resolve of the New Orleans people as they face down a government that doesn’t really give a damn about them, their histories or their future.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Sometimes I see a much-hyped film like Little Miss Sunshine and I spend the entire movie wondering why this film is being fawned over by press and audiences alike? The first hour of this dysfunctional family comedy I didn’t laugh at all. Maybe I was in a bad mood or something? Maybe it was the crowd around me that caused me to not enjoy what I was watching? Maybe the film was not as good as advertised?

But miraculously, as sometimes happens, the film won me over and the ending was probably the best ending I’ve seen all year in a movie. It’s a funny, joyous, unpredictable and full of life ending and it completely changed the way I thought about Little Miss Sunshine. Now I’m thinking of watching it again to see if I misjudged the early bits.

I think a big problem in my enjoyment of Little Miss Sunshine was the fact I went to a free screening at the local crappy multiplex. If you’ve ever been to one of these freebies you know they stuff them full of chattering yahoos, who are there to see a free movie regardless of what is being screened.

Well, I found myself sitting next to a young girl who couldn’t have been older than ten who guffawed and laughed every single time people around us laughed. Little Miss Sunshine has a smart script, full of sometimes sophisticated dialogue about Proust, Nietzsche, suicide, drugs and other “adult” subjects.

Frankly, I just do not believe this kid understood what was happening well enough to find the material so humorous. Unless, she’s some kind of savant or is really sophisticated but I swear this girl was about nine years old. Listening to this kid laughing and covering her mouth started to really annoy me and I couldn’t really get into the story. Seriously, it was worse than a cell-phone going off next to me.

Then the ending was on me and I really loved the last part in spite of the phony laughing of the kid next to me. So, I’m confused. Was Little Miss Sunshine a lot better than the first hour seemed? If the entire film was as good as the last twenty minutes (especially the ending), then I let some kid ruin a good movie experience.

One thing is for sure, I don’t know why I keep going to those crowded free screenings, as all they ever do is frustrate, distract and annoy me. I guess the "free" keeps enticing me no matter if it means I'll sit next to some person who will irritate me the entire film.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Made In Sheffield

It seems every month I see a great little music documentary about some band or scene or style of music. August’s entry is the English documentary Made In Sheffield that is on the short side (slightly under an hour) but one that I really enjoyed.

I think the post-punk period from say, 1977-1984 was perhaps the most creative and vibrant period in sheer diversity and newness in rock n roll history. Sheffield was known for their collection of bands in the late 1970s and those bands are chronicled in Made In Sheffield.

What makes this film really timely is that post-punk music has seen a massive “re-birth” in the past few years as every hipster band on the planet it seems has suddenly discovered albums and bands from this era. The kids seem to like all these new bands but the fact is they are largely mimicking a lot of these post-punk bands from 20-30 years ago.

Born in the frenzy of punk rock, post-punk is a much more interesting form of rock music from this era. Punk rock may have kicked down doors and limitations but it quickly became music of stasis, frozen by the rigid narrow mindedness of those writing the so-called rules. To me, punk rock quickly became a reactionary style of music and most of it hasn’t held up artistically in the passing years.

Post-punk though, it is a completely different animal with a wildly diverse collection of groups that relied on guitars AND synthesizers AND anything else that pushed the boundaries of sound and music. The goal was to create new sounds and there were no rules. While punk rock bands were too busy in creating rules that limited what they could do and who could be in the club, post-punk bands were busy making far, far superior music that holds up much better over time.

One reason I'm so into this is I love analogue synthesizers. The synthesizer is the most revolutionary instrument created in the past 40 years, as it’s the only modern, futuristic instrument not based on some string instrument of the past. I have a long running love affair with music made with synthesizers and the zenith is the 1978-83 period that sees a lot of attention in this documentary. So, any film with early Human League footage is going to be adored by me and Made In Sheffield has that and so much more.

Here’s the bands you see and hear about in the film: The Human League, Heaven 17, ABC, Caberet Voltaire, Pulp, Artery, The Future, Vice Versa, 2.3, The Extras, I’m So Hollow, Comsat Angels, Clock DVA and even Def Leopard (!). That’s an incredible list—a few of them I’d never heard of but was blown away by footage I saw in the film—Artery and I’m So Hollow were great and I’m going to look for records by them the first chance I can.

Made In Sheffield is a short look into a city who had a brief explosion of musical creativity in the late ‘70s and whose bands were influential at the time and that influence is still felt thirty years later. Highly recommended for music lovers.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Watching movies while traveling

I’ve been out of state the past week +, New Mexico mostly. Of course, I happened to catch a few films while I was traveling. The best thing about the films I saw was getting to see one in Trinidad, Colorado in a really special old movie theatre called The Fox. More later about that.

In Santa Fe I saw the French action film District B-13. Yes, I wrote “French action film” in that sentence. It’s not a style of film that I’d connect with that country but there are a few good ones from France—La Femme Nikita and Brotherhood of the Wolf are a couple that jump out of my memory.

District B-13 has some thrilling action and chases moments—it’s a style that is known in France as Le Parkour. Le Parkour mostly involves jumping off buildings and using urban elements as props that the participants react off of. So, you’ll see lots of full-on running, jumping, swinging and climbing these urban locations and in District B-13.

Le Parkour is the best thing about District B-13 as the fight scenes get repetitive and the story/script is a bit dodgy but on the whole this is a fun twist in the action genre.

On my last night in Santa Fe I got to see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and thought it pretty humorous. The first half of it I really enjoyed as it has some really unhinged, absurd moments. The last 1/3 begins to drag a little but it’s just so goofy and silly that I had a great time watching it.

The best thing about seeing this was I got to see the trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. I’m a big fan of Cohen’s and Borat looks absolutely hilarious.

As mentioned, I saw a film in Trinidad, Colorado at the Fox Theatre. I was staying in Raton, New Mexico and on a whim decided to drive the twenty-one miles north across state lines to see if there were any old movie theatres in Trinidad. I hit jackpot with this 1908 beauty.

The Fox was an absolute behemoth that I could see from the highway as I drove into town. I paid my $5 to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and entered the cavernous room that was darkly lit. The Fox has seen its better days as it is kind of falling into disrepair but the place reeks of history. There were ghosts of nearly a century of people watching movies in the place and those ghosts were sitting right there with me.

Pirates of the Caribbean sucked. Big time. This will be one of my least favorite films of the year. The story with all the supernatural stuff was absolutely ridiculous, the script too. Johnny Depp’s performance as the fey pirate rogue was charming in the first film—here he’s cartoonish and overacting most of the time. Come on Johnny, you are better than that. Orlando Bloom and Keira “Fake Top Lip” Knightley were there usual awful selves. This movie is raking it in too, ugh, it hurts me when movies are really bad yet get swept up by the masses.

After the film I got to go on a tour of the Fox by Michael, the projectionist and manager. I got the Fox history, went backstage (it was originally a theatre called the West) and even up to the second balcony. There are two balconies in the Fox! They sit on top of one another but the top one—which has these super tall wooden benches hasn’t been used in decades. I left Trinidad after spending an hour looking in all the secret hidden places of the Fox as midnight came and drove back to New Mexico. The Fox may be slowly crumbling but I loved spending some time in it as cookie-cutter multiplexes have nothing theatres like that. Seeing a movie at places like the Fox is real movie watching, not going to the depressing AMC 20 and their ilk.

I was driving home to Tulsa through the panhandle and on a whim stopped in Guymon to watch the horror film The Descent. I’d seen director Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (about werewolves attacking a group of soldiers) a few years ago at a midnight movie in Seattle and really liked it so I was kind of excited to see The Descent.

The film starts out as a kind of all-girl survival film as a group of thrill seeking women enter a scary looking cave to do some rock climbing and exploring. They encounter much more than being able to climb down and back out as something might be living down in the cave.

Ah heck, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know something is down in that cave and the film turns into a complete f'n bloodbath. I’m talking serious gore. I love the gore and caves, with their small, claustrophobic spaces kind of freak me out, so I liked this film.

Although Marshall tries to give the film deeper subjects, The Descent is pretty much attractive girls crawling around in caves with some serious bloodletting. What’s not to like about that? The weird thing is the film could have been a straight up survival thriller about whether or not these women could find a way out of the cave but then these cave creatures show up and start killing and it’s suddenly a completely different film.

There you have it, four films, three states including stops in out of the way places like Trinidad and Guymon.