There isn’t another rock documentary in the world like The Kids Are Alright. This is no familiar biographical narrative or historical overview talking about the band’s generation, but a scrappy, vibrant musical portrait painted in the bold colors of rock itself: impassioned lyrics, power chords, crashing drums and smashing guitars.
Diehard fans of the Who argue that they were the most exciting live band in the world (or at the very least in the world of rock ’n’ roll). Director Jeff Stein dedicated himself to capturing the essence of the band through performance, onstage and off.
The Kids Are Alright features no narrator, no conventional interviews, no intimate confessions of artists reflecting back on a life of music. Stein pulls together his portrait almost exclusively from archival sources — concert footage, TV appearances, skits, talk show interviews. He slips back and forth through the band’s career from 1965 to 1978, contrasting the nerdy-looking boys energetically performing early hits on pop programs like “Ready Steady Go!” and “Shindig!” with the dangerous rockers charging up the crowds at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and the rock legends pumping out “Baba O’Riley” in 1978 with the dynamism of veterans transformed by the power of their own music.
Between shows we see them goof with Tommy Smothers and quip with talk show host Russell Harty. Pete Townshend offers self-effacing comments (“If you stay away from quality, you’ll be all right”), John Entwistle takes a machine gun to a few gold records and Keith Moon plays the prankster in cheeky interludes with Ringo Starr and a rather disinterested dominatrix. Mere months after those segments were shot, Keith Moon died of a drug overdose at the age of 31. Stein’s tribute to Moon is appropriately playful, not a eulogy but a celebration of his life and spirit.
The entire film maintains that spirit and energy, and it explodes in the climactic concert performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” staged for the film. The exhausted band was furious for having to return to the stage for one more song and channeled their anger into rock ’n’ roll. The performance is rejuvenating: Townshend bounces and struts and finally slides across the stage like a teenager and Moon recaptures the drum punk of old in his blistering attack on the drum kit. It’s a thrilling climax to the liveliest, most dynamic portrait of a band — or any artist, for that matter — preserved on film. Rock is dead. Long live rock.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.
Not a lot to speak of as far as my film reviews go this week. In other words, I got the dregs of a pretty weak line-up.
Most interesting of the films is Nacer Khemir’s Bab’Aziz, an allegorical odyssey set in the deserts of Iran and Tunisia. The film never pulled me in to its gentle world of stories and magic, but I was intrigued by the mix of past and present in a timeless, endless desert where characters existed outside of social definitions.
If you can lose yourself in the weave of crisscrossing stories, it’s a lovely, lazy dream movie of marvelous textures and rhythms. If not, the travelogue through Sufi mysticism doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least the music and dance and cultural storytelling make the journey interesting, if not always compelling.
I’m a fan of Stephen Chow, one of the biggest movie stars in Asia – and by extension the world – thanks to his energetic mixing of slapstick comedy, martial arts and rapid-fire wordplay. The latter has been lost in translation when imported into the U.S., but the crazy comic kinetics and loony sight gags of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle survived the trip just fine. But I was frankly confounded by CJ7, his a kid comedy by way of a knockabout “E.T.” spoof, featuring a chirpy little Furby from outer space with a squishy green doll body apparently made of Flubber.
Chow’s comedy jerks through some rather extreme shifts in tone. At its best, the cartoonish action is wacky and absurd — as in Dicky’s fantasy adventures with his magical alien buddy or the epic martial-arts showdowns of adolescent giants (were they raised on a diet of human growth hormones?) between classes. At other times, it’s downright off-key: Father and son play Whack-A-Mole with the cockroaches skittering across the slum walls, and then swap insect guts in spirited high-fives. Ain’t poverty grand?
Bright, bouncy, kooky and comically tone deaf, “CJ7” is the most bizarre kids movie I’ve ever seen. Kids probably will enjoy the elastic excess and adolescent humor (Chow pushes poop jokes into rapid-fire ordnance, complete with machine-gun soundtrack), but the rest feels lost in translation.
Weeks after taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, No Country For Old Men arrives on DVD.
(T)he Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is their masterpiece, a perfect match of story and storyteller. Josh Brolin stars as an easy-going Vietnam Vet poaching in the Texas desert who stumbles into the wreckage of a drug deal gone ballistic and ambles off with a fortune in drug money. Javier Bardem won an Oscar playing methodical mercenary Chigurh, a relentless killer with an indeterminate accent and the creepiest haircut ever allowed in a movie out to recover the money. But the story is really about Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic Sheriff Bell, a dedicated lawman following the trail of the corpses left in Chigurh’s wake and becoming more disillusioned with the world with every death he’s unable to prevent. The Coens don’t explain, they show in meticulous detail with evocative and creative flair, slowly unraveling a story that seems to be spinning out the control of everyone but the filmmakers. Their methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t yet know, and that’s far more dangerous. Cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins gives it the feel of a primeval frontier with his simple, stark images, a world neither compassionate nor cruel, simply harsh and indifferent and unforgiving of stupid mistakes and overweening arrogance.
The film is accompanied by three featurettes. The 24-minute “The Making of No Country For Old Men” is the most interesting, thanks to interviews with (among others) Tommy Lee Jones and the Coen Bros., who sum up their cinematic approach with classic understatment:
“A lot of it is very procedural, people doing things to cover their tracks…,” begins Ethan in a thought completed by Joel with, “It’s about physical activity in order to achieve a purpose, which honestly we’ve always been fascinated by.”
Last week, as reported in Variety, IFC Entertainment signed an agreement to give Blockbuster a 60-day exclusive for all of their DVD releases.
This plan will surely boost profits for IFC, but at what cost to the consumer? Jim Emerson took apart pretty much everything that’s wrong with this deal in his scanners blog on Saturday, a well-researched piece that also captures the utter hypocrisy of Blockbuster’s contradictory policies on unrated films. (Sex comedies like Superbad and American Pie knock-offs? Yes. Sex dramas like Lust, Caution and Bertolulcci’s The Dreamers? Sorry, gotta cut these down to an R rating.) But it bears repeating that this is no help to the audiences that generally seek out these titles.
The Weinstein Company (TWC) struck a similar but more limited deal with Blockbuster over a year ago. They gave Blockbuster a rental exclusive but continued to sell their DVDs through traditional outlets, thus giving any rental store with even the most limited initiative to purchase copies (often at wholesale costs) they could then rent out. TWC responded by putting a warning on the disc that told viewers what they were watching was “For purchase only,” even though the warning carried no legal weight of any kind.
IFC is making their deal with Blockbuster much tighter, giving the store an exclusive 60-day window for both sales and rentals. Competitors can still purchase copies from Blockbuster (at retail price) and rent them in their own stores, though they will likely do so in smaller numbers than TWC titles. After 60 days, the sales window opens to all other outlets, though Blockbuster will still have an exclusive 3-year rental window (which, as the TWC shows, is unenforceable in any legal sense).
But the deal is ultimately a slap in the face to the very stores that have been supporting indie and alternative titles all along: the independent neighborhood stores, the alternative-minded regional mini-chains, all those rental outfits that serve diverse audiences and nurture the interests in titles beyond the blockbuster. IFC senior VP of sales says: “It gives millions of customers increased access to our movies.” (quoted in the Variety report on the deal)
Forget the blandly generic title and the casting of B-action star Jason Statham, a stalwart tough guy with stocky presence and limited range. While hardly a crime-movie masterpiece, The Bank Job is more than your generically gimmicky heist movie. First off, it’s not Hollywood but a homegrown British production based on (or, more accurately, imagined from the skeletal details of) a real life 1971 bank robbery. The “Walkie-Talkie Robbery,” where thieves made off with the contents of hundreds of safety deposit boxes (to this day, many of the box-holders have not revealed the contents stolen), was a headline-grabber for days, and then suddenly disappeared from the media completely thanks to a government D-Notice, a gag order slapped on the case. The script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais is based more on rumor and supposition than fact, an entertaining hypothesis on the story behind the robbery and what could have possibly hushed the whole thing up. The director is Roger Donaldson, a smart and often tough-minded director who, at his best, has a knack for scuffing up the smooth surfaces of his scripts and roughing up the edges of his characters. This a perfect project for those talents.
Michael Seiwerath, the final founding member of the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) still actively involved in the running of the organization, announced last week that he was stepping down as executive director.
The ambitious non-profit organization was initially founded by Jamie Hook, Deborah Girdwood, and Michael Seiwerath, a trio of hardy cinema-loving citizens with more ambition and determination than resources. The Northwest Film Forum was formed with two missions: simply put, to show films that aren’t otherwise getting screened in Seattle, and (through sister organization WigglyWorld) to help the local filmmaking community get films made and, hopefully, screened. They acquired the Grand Illusion in 1997 and opened the Little Theater in 1999 as both a sister cinema and a home for production facilities. When Hook and Girdwood left the organization to pursue new creative endeavors opportunities, Seiwerath became the organization’s godfather and continued its expansion by leading the drive to develop and open a fully integrated center for film exhibition, production, and education: two screening rooms, production facilities, editing suites, equipment storage, a dedicated film workshop and classroom, and office space for filmmakers in a center that carries the name Northwest Film Forum.
As Executive Director, Seiwerath has led the organization’s fundraising efforts for the last few years as well as overseeing the “Start to Finish” program, designed to support and assist local filmmakers produce features with local talent. Among the films produced with the NWFF’s help: “Police Beat.” After thirteen years of such nonprofit activity, writing grants and raising money, producing films on miniscule budgets, giving a home to world class cinema that isn’t otherwise financially self-supporting, Seiwerath has decided to hand the reigns over to the next generation.
“Something’s wrong. The birds are all gone. The animals too.”
Hayao Miyazaki recasts the mythic tale of man’s dominion over the earth with an animist mythology and a conservationist message in Princess Mononoke, his rich fantasy about a battle between the forest spirits and the industrial revolution. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them, and the weapons they produce — from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns — give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world.
Standing against the human charge of manifest destiny is Mononoke, a wolf-pack wild child and the original environmental guerrilla. As medieval industrial baroness Lady Eboshi razes the forests and drives off the giant boars and fierce wolf packs and dark, apelike forest guardians to lay claim to the resources of the land, Mononoke leads the battle against her blood kin. Her face slashed with war paint, she rides giant wolves into battle against armed enemies and invades their fortress with Ninja-like skill and ferocity.
Standing between the two sides in this civil war is a young prince from an exiled tribe. He’s on the trail of a diseased demon that cursed him with an infection that is slowly devouring and possessing him, and the trail has ended here.
Princess Mononoke is an environmentalist epic of blood-and-thunder adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Like so much epic fantasy, it turns on the tension between the natural (magical) world and the human (industrial) world. In other words, progress. Miyazaki doesn’t take sides but rather implores a balance, a coexistence between man and nature. Only this war, pushed into extremes by the greed of a few humans more interested in power than peace, has escalated into such hatred that compromise and truce seem all but impossible.
In this elemental world of animal tribes and woodland spirits and gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps, Miyazaki paints his figures in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing. Grounded in a mythology as rich and complex as Disney’s fairy tales are simplistic, this is animation for adults in the very best sense of the term.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.
Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade was officially released on February 19. I didn’t receive a copy until just last week and have only just gotten a chance to explore the disc, but it us surely one of the most important releases of the year.
Ousmane Sembene, the great Senegalese filmmaker and novelist and the godfather of Black African cinema, died in 2007 at the age of 84. Moolaade, his final film, tackles the issue of female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) in Islamic Africa in what can best be described as a rousing celebration of women’s rights and solidarity. Four adolescent girls flee the “purification” ceremony and request sanctuary from the modern-thinking Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a wife and mother who invokes a tribal power of protection more ancient than the village’s Islamic practices. Her defiance challenges the authority of the elder women who perform the cutting ceremony (they vow to “destroy her power”) and the men who rule the village (they confiscate the radios to stop the spread of modern ideas). Semebene’s style draws from folk storytelling traditions. His dialogue, with its ritualistic call-and-response quality, has a lovely sing-song beauty, and in the climax the women celebrate their defiance in a dance number that merges ceremonial ritual with emotional expression. Beneath the surface simplicity lays a richly drawn community, a serious dialogue about the blind obedience to tradition and authority, and a message of equality, education, and respect.
New Yorker released the film on a deluxe two-disc edition, with numerous featurettes and a video interview with Sembene conducted as Moolaade was being released.
I wrote about Sembene a few years ago for a retrospective in Seattle organized by the Northwest Film Forum. The essay is reprinted here.
Ousmane Sembène died in 2007 at the age of 84. In February, New Yorker released his final
film, Moolade, on a two-disc edition, filled with featurettes on Sembene and his work and a 25-minute video interview conducted with the director as Moolade was being released. My review will run in my Tuesday DVD column.
In the meantime, here is an introductory essay I wrote about Ousmane Sembène for a Seattle retrospective sponsored by Northwest Film Forum in 2001, expanded with excerpts from my coverage in the Seattle P-I and updated to include Moolaade.
Ousmane Sembène: Godfather of Black African Cinema
“In response to a student’s question about his background, Ousmane Sembène recalled that he had been expelled from primary school in Senegal for striking back at his French teacher who had slapped him. His fisherman father was not particularly perturbed by this cataclysmic event – cataclysmic because it closed the school door permanently for Sembène. In fact, he was pleased with his son’s strident defense of his invaded personhood.” – from Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers
Senegalese born Ousmane Sembène remains the elder statesman of black African cinema and one of Africa’s most important novelists. Practically self educated, Sembene took a succession of jobs, notably soldier and dock worker (where he became active in the unions and became a delegate) before he turned to writing while in his late 30s. He slipped himself into France after WWII to master the language and wrote his poems and first novels in French, spending over a decade in Europe before returning home to Senegal in 1960. Already recognized as one of the leading African novelists, he worked and lived in France, wrote in French, and was published and read primarily in Europe. The contradictions bothered him: even if he chose to write in his native Wolof he wouldn’t be read outside the universities or intellectual circles. To reach a wider audience – and, even more importantly, an African audience – he turned to filmmaking.
He trained for 2 years in a Soviet Union film school before returning again to Africa and after an unreleased documentary commissioned by the Mali government he made his first acclaimed film at the age of 40, Borom Sarret (1966), a devastating look at the poverty of Senegal’s urban slums through a day in the life of a poor cart driver in Dakar. Writing the script after spending a month learning the lives of cart drivers in Dakar, Sembène condensed an entire day’s worth of experiences into 20 minutes of deceptively simple drama, a neo-realist approach transplanted to the devastating poverty of Senegal’s urban slums. Shot on the most meager of budgets and performed by an almost completely non-professional cast, Sembène turns his technical limitations into a powerfully direct and rich style, capturing not simply the life of one man but the social culture of the newly independent Senegal and the problems still to overcome.
Penelope had been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years before it was finally released this week. I’m not sure why. It has a lighter sense of whimsy and a more suggestive way of folding fairy tale details into a modern world story than Enchanted, which went right for the bright, bubbly atmosphere and and its opposite: urban cynicism, or at least a sense of humorless practicality.
Christina Ricci plays a modern twist on the cursed princess tale, hidden away in her lavish but lonely castle (in this case, a mansion decked out with a pretty cool room and an indoor swing) where likely princes are invited to woo her, if they can pass the test. The test essentially is that they don’t rush off in terror after viewing her facial anomaly: Her porcine snout. As facial abnormalities go, it isn’t much more than a extremely flattened turned-up nose and Christina Ricci manages to make even that look kind of cute. Yet they still tend to throw themselves through a second story window in a flight of blind panic. An extreme reaction, to be sure, but it’s that kind of movie. It doesn’t explain the reaction, it lets us draw out own conclusions. Mine is pretty simple: the hereditary rich, the blue bloods, are vain, shallow creatures obsessed with appearances and either terrified or horrified by anything that does not conform. Even Mom (Catherine O’Hara) isn’t some scheming incarnation of the wicked stepmother, merely a hysterically shallow society woman so obsessed with surface trappings and social opinion that she can’t see past any of it to really see her daughter. Insensitive, maybe, but not intentionally cruel.
Ricci plays her part with a resigned acceptance of her fate – after seven years of dramatic rejection, she’s learned to speed up the interview process and send them scurrying without wasting time on preamble – but with a pluck and a spunk that has survived the ordeal. She defies the storybook expectations when she runs away to hide out in the city behind a scarf. And when she’s revealed, she’s embraced by the public. More as a curiosity than a person, to be sure, but at least she’s not shunned. She’s sort of like the Elephant Man, after his embrace by enough opinon-makers – it’s trendy to like her, and this is a place of affectations over sincerity. Continue reading “New review: ‘Penelope’”
Superhero movies have been a big-screen staple ever since Superman flew through his first animated adventure in 1940. But for all the glory of Richard Donner’s majestic Superman and the kooky, dark weirdness of Tim Burton’s Batman films, it took comic-book-fan-turned-fanboy-director Sam Raimi to capture the graphic thrills and eye-popping spectacle of a true comic book superhero. The film was Spider-Man, and superhero movies have never been the same.
Tobey Maguire is the shy science geek Peter Parker, buffed up from everyman to superman when the bite of a radioactive spider transforms the high school nerd into a mutant wall-crawling muscleman. The adrenaline charge of unbelievable abilities comes at a price, however, and he learns the hard way that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Suited up in a bright, web-laced body stocking, he battles muggers, thieves and his inevitable supervillain nemesis, the cackling, rocket-powered, Jekyll-and-Hyde gremlin Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). But out of costume he’s just as nerdy and nervous as ever as he struggles with his unrequited love of girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst under flaming red tresses). It takes a web-slinging rescue to get her attention and you can almost see the sparks when she plants a soft, slow kiss on her knight in red-and-blue skivvies.
Spider-Man is more than simply a faithful cinematic update of an iconic 40-year-old comic book character. With contemporary flair, Raimi translates the teenage melodrama of alienation and tortured secrets that redefined comic book heroes in the 1960s. He embraces the zip and zoom of modern moviemaking magic with a vengeance to send Spidey whipping through the steel canyons of New York like a spider monkey out of hell.
Raimi captures the ineffable quality that makes this misfit with muscles New York’s own blue-collar, working-man’s hero. He delivers high-flying whoosh, gymnastic spectacle and graphic comic book punch without losing the tragic weight of guilt and responsibility that gives Spider-Man his calling and his credo.
There have been slicker superhero films, but none with as much heart, unabashed charm and sheer kinetic thrill of whipping through the world in a state of high-flying gymnastic bliss.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor has been out on DVD before, in both the original 165-minute theatrical version that won nine Academy Awards and the longer 218-minute TV version, the latter having been stamped with the label “Director’s Cut.” That’s an incorrect label, says Bernardo Bertolucci, who should know. On the Criterion blog “On Five,” DVD producer Kim Hendrickson writes about working with Bertolucci on preparing their lavish four-disc edition and Bertolucci’s remark that the longer TV version “in my opinion is not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring…” According to the commentary track on the disc, the TV version was actually completed first and then Bertolucci continued to pare down and shape the film to his ultimate version.
The Criterion set features both versions, and the theatrical cut features commentary by Bertolucci (who launches in to the film before he remembers to introduce himself), screenwriter Mark Peploe (who calls it “the biggest screenwriting experience of my life”), producer Jeremy Thomas, and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, all recorded separately and edited together in a dense, meaty that builds on the accumulation of observations and insights. The final two discs of the set are filled with marvelous archival documentaries and TV programs and new interviews. “The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci,” a 53-minute documentary directed by Bertolucci’s old assistant director Fernand Mozskowicz, is a meandering tour with the director as he reflects on past films while visiting the locations of 1900 and Last Tango in Paris and others, and ends with his trip to China to make The Last Emperor. Bertolucci narrates the whole way, and leaves with a thank you to China for giving him yet more places and experiences and people to draw from. There is no narration in Paolo Brunatto’s observational “Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure,” a behind-the-scenes look at the process of filmmaking, from on-set preparations and direction to editing to Ryuchi Sakamoto recording the score. And that’s just a start.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent epic tells the dramatic story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last Chinese emperor. Crowned at age three, he’s a prisoner of his own palace, a puppet ruler manipulated by both the Western powers and the occupying Chinese, and finally a project for re-education by the Communist Regime, Pu Yi is a man buffeted by history, a figurehead whose power ends at the walls of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci’s production is sweeping and lavish – this was the first foreign production granted access to film within the walls of the Forbidden City – and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro uses color like a painter on an epic canvas. At the center of the spectacle, however, is the story of a boy raised to believe in his own divinity and a man who learns to become a simple human being against the backdrop of China’s volatile history. Winner of nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Oscars for director Bernardo Bertolucci, the screenplay adaptation, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography).