Zen Bones

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Reviews

A Patriot Act
(2004)

Vital Viewing!
In recent years, I've watched numerous documentaries and read numerous books on this administration, to the point where they're all starting to blend in. This film though, knocked me off my seat. Mark Crispin Miller gives an astounding monologue about what he calls the 'Christo-fascist' movement that is sweeping the country. That phrase may sound radical, but then 'Christo-Radical' movement would suffice just as well (these aren't republicans, they're theocrats). If you think I'm exaggerating, watch even ten minutes of the 700 Club sometime (remember Falwell and Robertson saying that pagans, feminists, gays, abortionists and the ACLU were responsible for 911? That was hardly an isolated incident). This is not a club; it's a movement that is rooted in the kind of theocratic idealism of centuries ago, "when faith registered before reason" as Miller describes it. No, this is not the stuff of paranoia that we occasionally see in other documentaries. One need only keep abreast of the Tom DeLay circus, or the Frist/Schiavo scandal, or James Dobson recently describing liberal judges as black-robed KKK members, or the API's daily headlines. Today's... "Democrats Booted Out Of Church for Politics" (in Waynesville, North Carolina), and "Kansas Board Holds Evolution Hearings" (no, that's not a headline from 1925!).

Like James Mann's brilliant book "Rise of the Vulcans", Miller shows us how Bush is merely the frost on the tip of the iceberg (though he does at least a half hour of analysis on Bush's mindset, which is as funny as it is scary). Miller presents to us, 'all the president's men': those who make up the Council of National Policy (such as Falwell, DeLay, Trent Lott, Ed Meese and Oliver North to name but a few). They're not only associated with money and power, but in a Christian Reconstructionalist movement (also called Dominion Theology - do a Google on the Chalcedon Foundation) that, in John Ashcroft's words, puts "God before kings". If you thought Reagan believing in Armageddon was scary, be prepared for worse news (Bush has even been quoted as saying that God speaks through him, yet the media never even questions these things). This is scary, scary stuff, and to steal a famous quote, "if you're not worried, you're not informed". Don't believe me though; rent this for yourself and then research this stuff out. But by all means, don't just stop there. Once you get informed - act!

3 Needles
(2005)

One of the Bravest Films I've Ever Seen!
I saw this last night and just can't stop thinking about it. This film is off-the-charts audacious in its blend of tragedy and dark humor, with cinematography that ranges from powerfully beautiful (the South African sequences reminded me of John Ford movies like "The Searchers"), to a seedy quality that subtly conveys the weirdness of its humor and unethical qualities of its characters. The film also never flinches from showing us such taboos as male nudity and the indignities of a terminally ill man. Like the movie "Babel," this movie contains three stories, two of which are set in far-off lands, all dealing with complex issues and tragic ignorance.

The first story is about how practically an entire village in China acquires AIDS due to poverty-driven greed. The film's edge is in how it turns the tables on us psychologically; the people are not what they seem, and greed is not always clear-cut when it is a basic means of survival. The second story is a strange tale of a mother who handles the death of her husband and 'acceptance' of the fact that her son has AIDS in a way that leaves the viewer extremely perplexed and uncomfortable, which is actually a good thing. This film doesn't flinch from showing us AIDS stories we don't want to believe, such as those people who purposefully acquire it. It mixes dark humor with beautiful metaphors, such as the mother driving her sports car into an enormous pile of red leaves, until she's practically buried in it. The final seconds of that story leave a chilling print embedded on one's brain; what is this woman thinking?? The third story juggles a whole range of issues regarding ignorance, religion, greed, selfishness and selflessness, and balances them all on a head of a pin. One false move and the story would have come off as preachy or exploitational. Again, there is an iconic scene that stays indelibly in my mind; the beautiful and horrific sight of a woman's dead body lying under a thin blanket of mud.

The entire film does has some rough edges, which may at first put some viewers off. I found Olympia Dukakis' narration a bit difficult to accept at the beginning of the movie (during a strange and fascinating African ritual of male circumcision), but it all comes together by the very end - in fact, quite powerfully. The film also jumps back and forth in past and present, which may at times seem confusing, but the ultimate effect makes us reread our initial assumptions. And the first film in particular is quite slow, although again, I think there was a point to its languorous pace. We all know that the disease in question in this film is AIDS, but the location used in China is so rural that one feels that the time period could be any time in the past fifty years. In fact the circumcision scene at the beginning of the film makes one unaware of even what century we are witnessing! That I think, is the director Thom Fitzgerald's genius. I read a review that criticized this movie for not mentioning the word AIDS, which actually I was unaware of. But the fact is; this movie could be about any disease, as even the Chinese initial reaction to SARS was one of denial. This film does certainly illustrate the stigma associated with AIDS, but the fallout is much deeper than sexual practices in developing countries. The reason it has spread, as this film so eloquently shows, is not because of people's sex lives; it's spread because of ignorance, poverty, superstition, fear and greed. If we can just focus on fighting those battles, then maybe … maybe we can win.

Bling: A Planet Rock
(2007)

Bling = Shame
This is a documentary about several rappers who are famous for being draped in bling, and one of the guys who designs bling for them. They're banded together to go on a fact-finding trip to Sierra Leone. It's a harrowing experience; visiting children with missing limbs, women who were raped incessantly as girls, and some of the poorest areas in the world (including a major port for slavery, where one can still see the shackles on the walls). It's a wake-up call for these rappers as well as for the audience but I'm not optimistic. Apparently, this documentary aired on VH1, but thus far, there aren't even five ratings at IMDb. And given the fact that the guys were still wearing their gold at the end of the film (apparently no one told them that gold mining countries face the same level of poverty and exploitation) I have to wonder how much these guys are going to change, let along work to educate the public about what they saw. They said they would, so I will try to have faith. The people of Africa are laying their hopes at the feet of role models like these.

Winter Soldier
(1972)

The Horror
This is virtually ninety-plus minutes of testimonials of 'war crimes' by Vietnam vets at a conference in 1971, and while all of the atrocities - there's no other word for them - were the kinds of things I'd seen before, the sheer numbers were what got to me. Not the numbers of tortured and dead; that number I don't suppose I'll ever digest. It's the numbers of decent Americans like you or me who through exaggerated training of 'manhood', became savages. One can better understand what it must have been like to come home to our normal world of shopping malls, fast food, and sitcoms, and try to stuff back the memories and repressed emotions that made one kill children for fun and hack off body parts for a reward of a six-pack. Actually, I still can't understand it. I don't suppose I'll ever know at one point one stops becoming human, but at least I did find some hope in seeing these hundreds of men who found their humanity again after the war. Don't think that this is a film that tries to make Americans look bad, for virtually every culture in the world has had its share of atrocities. The atrocities are the symptom; war is the disease. From that perspective, I wish the film had gone further in having someone articulate the ignorance that these guys had in even going into this war. They really only understood why they were sent to fight when they returned, and it's that ignorance that is the virus that our government - that all governments and extremists - like to spread. The most upsetting image I saw in this film was a snapshot of an American soldier smiling over the exposed body of one of his kill. The chill down the back of my neck hit me before my mind brought up what it reminded me of. The smile on that soldier's face was the exact same smile that one of the soldiers Abu Ghraib had as he stood over a pile of naked bodies and crooked his thumbs up in a sign of victorious glee. The horror is that it just never stops.

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse
(2000)

There will be those who will see only junk, and those who will see "a cluster of possibilities"
To glean is to see something beautiful or useful in something that is conventionally useless, pointless or ugly, and to make that thing even more beautiful or useful. One can consume the stuff they glean, or they could recycle it into an art form, creating a whole new purpose for the object(s). Gleaning also applies to our basic ability for survival. In the worst times of our lives, whether it's the death of a friend or facing poverty or illness, there is a way of seeing things positively that helps us survive. Thus, faith and hope are gleaned in the face of disparity. Scientists glean facts and turn them into theory. We glean possibilities every time we use our imaginations. We glean memories when we write (James Joyce was probably the world's greatest literary gleaner). And psychiatrists pay attention to what others don't notice by gleaning beneath the stubborn surface of our egos. This film blew me away in how it depicted how much waste our society makes, and the myriad of ways in which those who glean what we discard benefit society. But the film is even more than a fascinating documentary and social statement. As one can see from the concepts listed above, it's also a celebration of seeing our world and ourselves as a "cluster of possibilities." There are many theories that we are all in essence stardust developed from fragments of 'the big bang' and quintessentially, this film is about "gleaners of stardust." It pertains to those who metaphorically glean the hidden mysteries and possibilities of our world (i.e. the gleaners of dreams and ideas). Come to think of it, film lovers and the best filmmakers are in fact, gleaners by that very definition. Agnes Varda has proved that she is one of the greatest gleaners of all time.

God's Country
(1985)

Why Has He Forsaken Them?
Like Michael Apted's 'Up' films, this film could be used as a marker for the changes in the lives of individuals and of a community. Most of the film takes place in 1979, so the plot summary here is somewhat misleading. Only about 15 minutes of the film covers what eventually happened when Reaganomics had taken its toll on family-owned farms and businesses. The bulk of the film stands on its own as an amazing model for people who might not realize the outstanding qualities that 'everyday life' seems to offer. Somehow, Malle makes the most mundane places and 'unexceptional' people seem quite fascinating. He allows us to focus on things our eyes never notice or that we try not to see (the scene in a home for the aged is particularly powerful). Some might see the charm of this 1979 community as being antiquated even for 1979, but I can only feel great remorse for all of those families that are now working for the Wal-Marts, Costcos and corporate farms. Those quaint town squares are undoubtedly strip malls now, and companies like Monsanto probably own most of the farms. For those who want to see the beginnings of where the American dream failed; this is a good place to begin your search.

Bubble
(2005)

Could Have Been A Masterpiece
In one of my favorite movies, "My Dinner With Andre", Andre says, "if people could see what life was like it in the cigar store next door, it would blow their mind". I've always thought that that was the impetus for Wayne Wang's, "Smoke; a fantastic movie featuring some of Hollywood's greatest talent. This movie also grabs that theme - real people living realistic, working class lives - and takes it all the way to 'Anywhere USA'. Soderbergh found real working class people in a real small town and put them in a doll factory: a place that indeed did blow my mind. The theme of people living lives of quiet desperation has never been more palpable in any movie that I've ever seen. At least until about 50 minutes or so into the movie.

Spoilers ----- to defend Soderbergh a little, he stated in the commentary that his intention was to make a little film about a triangle of real people and toss a murder plot in. Indeed, around fifty minutes into the film, the person who was quietly living the most desperately upsetting life unravels the Hollywood way and the 'if it bleeds it leads" network news way: she commits murder. Certainly, real people do occasionally unravel in such ways but seriously, Hollywood has already made what, about 50,000 such movies? The overwhelming majority of people like this character Martha do not commit murder, they simply survive in a fog of mental anguish saved by meal breaks and dreams of summering on the shores of Aruba. They are not exceptional people, even exceptional enough to commit murder. They are working class heroes (heroes because they accept the limitations that their lives offer rather than succumbing to acts of crime or violence). Unfortunately, their truth is betrayed by the strings of a Hollywood that is not brave enough to just allow us to witness the drab reality of many small town, working class lives. This betrayal is exceptionally bitter since the film was just beginning to show us how most 'unexceptional' people constantly swallow the onslaught of a life filled with nothing but disappointment. This was illustrated most deftly when we saw Martha sitting alone in a diner at midnight, getting what comfort she could from food after having been viciously berated by the 'friend' she'd just babysat for. That's what 99% of most women like Martha would do; they wouldn't strangle the woman who'd berated them any more than you or I would! But this film sold the very tangible reality of these people out for cheap, unoriginal sensationalism. Think about it: how many movies have you seen about unexceptional working class people? Now… how many of those movies starred real people instead of movie stars who - because of their incredible looks and/or amazing talent - landed into the most glamorous career in the world?

I'm still highly recommending the film because the cast - particularly the two leads - are so refreshingly 'normal' and engaging (all of their inarticulate banter throughout the movie is their own) that I feel it's worth following them anywhere. Even through Soderbergh's and Hollywood's somewhat limited imaginations.

WTC the First 24 Hours
(2002)

An Inhuman Event from an Non-Human Perspective
One can say that this is an impressionist view of the 24-hour period after the towers fell. There is no human expression in this documentary, either from a narrative perspective or from people expressing their feelings. In a way it's good that the filmmakers decided to let the images speak for themselves because often times, narration over-exaggerates and music exploits the situation even more. But there is something sorely missing from the impressionist viewpoint that this film offers… any glimpse of any kind of human expression at all. It's as if the casualties of 9/11 were nothing more than the buildings and cars that we see smoldering in ashes for 48 minutes. There are plenty of shots of firemen and other emergency teams, but we are never close enough to see the expressions on their faces or even hear anything of their conversations (other than the occasional barking of orders). Yes, we can use our imaginations to try to make sense of the loss of life in those ruins, but the most profound moments of that day were the moments of human contact when we reached out to one another for strength. Nobody witnessed this event alone. People raged and cried with others and hugged total strangers. I feel miserable that the generations to come will miss the reality of human suffering that day by seeing this ''document' that omits humans from human tragedy. Hopefully, they'll have the opportunity to see many other much better documentaries.

America: Freedom to Fascism
(2006)

Think It Through
It's always good to ask those who are sending messages in documentaries "what's in it for you?". As we left the theater there was someone handing out brochures for an organization called 'World Freedom Ventures'. Part of their package that you buy when you join will "help you obtain a Limited Liability Corporation which will manage a bank account that holds all savings and earnings... You will also be given the opportunity to be trained and developed as a World Freedom Ventures Associate, enabling you to create your own Sovereignty business". Yes folks; it's a business. If you get fired up enough by watching this film and check out the website (and the film does a good job of prodding you to do so if you're a 'real' patriot), you'll get the whole picture. Prosperity is the name of the game, not patriotism. Why pay your hard-earned money to a corporate government when you can be your own corporation sticking it to the little guy? That's the rub of course; working class and poor people have no "assets, valuables and property" to invest; somebody's gotta get screwed! "As long as it's not me!" is maybe 'The American Way' to some people but I grew up in the incandescence of the JFK administration that said, "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country".

I know our tax system is screwed up and our current administration is the most vile and corrupt for some 74 years. This film has some important and excellent points on the corruption of our government and the incompetence of our legal system (well, we all knew about that!). The atrocious militarism of our police force is a reality here and now, and many of the waves of the future they are foretelling are not science fiction. But... when it comes to taking in information that is as radical as we see in this film, one must consider all the sources. In this film, they've got everyone from left-wing muckrakers like Mike Ruppert to right-wing muckrakers like Dave Champion. Many of the folks in this film are from waaaaay-out there movements or at least dumb enough to hang out with those folks. Katherine Albrecht for instance recently gave a talk for the Berean Chronicle; a group so radical that they believe that Billy Graham is Satan and that the moon landing was a fake. (Check: retakingamerica.com/past_guest for verification).

I sort of recommend this film as a springboard for asking questions, not as a cause that may have you unknowingly supporting some other political agenda that you have strong disagreements with. Do your homework, and then ask the same hard questions of any organization you might join as you would your government (by all means, question them too!!!). A true patriot would do no less.

The Burial Society
(2002)

Life Lessons from the Land of the Dead
I guess this film is not well known because it isn't easy to categorize and it defies the conventions of any genre. If you don't consider that a bad thing - which is to say, if you actually like movies that challenge convention and make one uncomfortable, this is A material. The film is a VERY dark comedy, very clever, very squeamish (unless you enjoy hanging out in mortuaries), and quite frankly, different from most everything else out there in movie rental land. I also found it refreshing to see elderly people who were not dotty, and morality tales intertwined within thriller twists. The film does share some qualities of the good films that the Coen Brothers used to make, but it seems to be less interested in playing into genre expectations. Rob LaBelle does a fine job of letting us inside his head, and the supporting cast are all glorious. The movie is only slow if you crave the MTV-Hollywood glossy glucose fix of adrenaline. Slow movies often provide a rich, rewarding experience, and this movie is no exception to that rule. A definite gem!

Purple Hearts
(2005)

Recruiters Should Show This One
I've seen several documentaries about our soldiers in Iraq, including a couple of brief ones that showed what life is like for some of those who are now back home. Most of the documentaries were very good but none had the impact that this one had. This one focuses on five soldiers who have come home with wounds that stagger the imagination, including a couple of GIs who were shot in the head, and a young soldier who spent three months having surgery on his intestines in order to clean out all the sand that had originally gathered in his open wound. Each soldier is emotionally dealing with his injury and his feelings about the war on different levels, which is important to see because people on both ends of the political spectrum tend to want to lump all the soldiers in one category. I happened upon this masterpiece on the Sundance channel, but it really deserves to be seen on a much wider level, especially for those who are considering on joining the army. It seems only fair that if they are effected so strongly from video games, commercials and recruiters, they should also consider the price they may have to pay if they join. Most of the soldiers in this film say that they would still have joined had they known what they know now, so it wouldn't necessarily stop young men and women from joining the armed services. But it sure would make them think more clearly about the realities of war, and hopefully question whether or not the war they may be asked to fight is legitimate enough for them to risk spending the rest of their lives severely disabled and in emotional and physical pain.

Bedwin Hacker
(2003)

"Shake off the Shackles of Sanity and You Can Live Free"
This is a most refreshing film in terms of the originality of its plot and the originality of its characters. A female hacker from Tunisia occasionally jams French satellites to bring a comic but inspiring message to the people via a cartoon camel. The message is not really political, and the act is neither one of terrorism or of great harm to the population as a whole. The point of the act is to reveal the vulnerabilities of the government and the power of the people. It's of no great significance really, but I completely got caught up in this mini-rebellious sabotage partly because of my attraction to the underdog and well... my attraction to the cast. If everyone in Tunisia is as attractive as the cast in this film I may just take my next vacation there! Seriously, it's been a long time since I've seen a film that was cast with so many amiable, beautiful, intelligent and interesting people. The Tunisian locales are gorgeous, the music is terrific, and the pacing is relaxed yet never dull. It's not a "great" film, but it's an original and engaging one.

Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge
(2005)

Prescription for Hope
This is a first-rate documentary series that manages to be simultaneously frightening, amazing, depressing AND optimistic. While watching this I kept feeling angry that we don't see stories on the nightly news about what people in developing countries have to endure in terms of illness. With the myriad of diseases that surround them, their lives seem like a game of Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber. But what reeeeally gets me angry is the fact that the heroes depicted in this series - men and women who have dedicated their lives to helping and healing these people - are not getting THEIR stories told in the nightly news. They are an incredible inspiration! We're always complaining about how depressing the news is and how hopeless everything is. If people could see material like what is shown in this series daily, they would feel great hope because all of these problems are easily solvable with financial support from individuals and governments. It would cost only a fraction of our budget- less than 2% - to eradicate most of these illnesses, and as this documentary clearly shows, these viruses are now spreading to every country in the world including the USA. We can feel great hope that there are so many good people who are doing good things in the world. It's not all serial killers and rapists and terrorists and gangs and corrupt politicians out there. Introduce yourself to the REAL world! Rent all three discs and then buy copies of the DVD for your friends. And read Jeffrey Sachs' book "The End of Poverty". It CAN be a reality!

Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135
(2000)

One Step Beyond
Compared to these amazing athletes who run a 135-mile course from 283 feet below sea level to 8,300 feet above sea level, bearing 120 degree-plus heat, with no sleep and little or no solid food, every other athlete in sports seem to be wimps. For the first half of this film I was thinking these athletes are beyond crazy but then I began to understand. As one who loves running myself, I know the Zen of endurance and the bliss of reaching out beyond pain, so I can slightly imagine what the equivalent of over five marathons (!) must feel like. There's that incredible sense of 'being there' in that journey, where you're really on your own (despite the incredible support from crewmembers who help with rehydration, bandages, new shoes, and endless words of encouragement). The bliss isn't so much in crossing the finish line, but in completing each and every step (especially in the last twelve miles, which is straight up the summit).

This event also has something special that no other sports event of this caliber has; a total absence of TV cameras, throngs of crowds waving flags and balloons, and the usual billboards and signs advertising everything from shoes to beverages. The course is mostly barren road and desert, and the finish line looks like a trail of toilet paper with a couple dozen people standing around clapping. The prize is a belt buckle for everyone who can complete the course within 60 hours (the record at date is around 27 1/2 hours). I can think of no other setting that would make me so proud to run such a race. The documentary manages to keep our interest peaked throughout by focusing on several of the runners, not the least of whom is a British bloke named Chris Moon who as far as I'm concerned, won the race. His time was twice that of the 'winner', but he was running a one-legged, one-armed race (he'd lost his leg and arm while clearing land mines in war-torn countries). The next time you hear someone refer to pro-sports players as 'heroes', tell them the real definition by referring them to this film.

Barberland
(2002)

Shave and A Haircut - Hold the Leeches
I expected this to be a mildly interesting human-interest piece but I found it more than mildly interesting, and in the span of less than an hour (not counting the terrific extras), I felt a real closeness to each of the barbers interviewed. The film covers lots of cool history of barbering that goes back to the days of (purposeful) blood-letting and the removal of teeth and stitches, and it also includes some humorous and eeeky stories of shaving mishaps and high-stress barber-school exams. Most enjoyable though, is the atmosphere and kibitzing that goes on in barbershops. If nothing else, this is a film about the lost art of conversation. There are lots of documentaries out there in recent years about the different parts of America's personal history that are being lost to gentrification and corporate monopolies. This is among the best of them. See this movie and them go out and support your local barber.

The White Diamond
(2004)

Ecstasy
Herzog's films are often about rulebreakers, visionaries and daredevils, something which he has always been himself. Being a daredevil flirting with death makes one feel alive, which is no small thing, but being a daredevil flirting with something even larger than death, is ecstasy. In this film, Herzog, his film crew and a small band of scientists headed by aeronautical engineer Graham Dorrington, head off to a remote area of Guyana to fly a newfangled zeppelin just a toe's length above the treetops of the jungle. Dorrington has his legitimate reasons for the usefulness of his invention, as does Herzog in documenting what may be an important new discovery in science and technology. But both of these men, as well as us in the audience, see these men's laughably primitive jabs at besting nature shrunken by the grandeur of the nature surrounding them. From the fierce power of the waterfall where they are camped out, to the unfathomable grace and sheer numbers of the birds who dwell behind it, the plight of two little men in a motorized air balloon is almost comical. I say almost because a man died in such an attempt ten years earlier - a scene that is described in chillingly vivid detail by Dorrington. Also, there is a kind of nobility in man's stubborn desire to defy his relatively scrawny limitations against nature. Whether it's Fitzcarraldo dragging a steamship over a mountain, Herzog himself trying to make the steamship climb the mountain for his film, or Dr. Dorrington sailing the skies in a contraption that seems as fragile as a butterfly, the dream is everything. The dreams of Herzog's characters - be they real or fictional - are usually short-lived, but at least the dreams do come alive briefly. If I could sum up everything that is great in Herzog's films, it would be in one awesome scene in this film where Herzog shoots the upside-down reflection of the mighty waterfall in a falling drop of rain. This moment, this reflection, this drop of rain is as temporary as life, but in it is the entire universe in all of its beauty, majesty and fragility. If that's not ecstasy, I don't know what is!

Mana: Beyond Belief
(2004)

Mondo Mana!
If I could choose to send one movie into orbit in the hopes of introducing any alien species out there to our species, this movie would get my vote. This is similar in some ways to Ron Fricke's "Baraka" and Chris Marker's "San Soleil", in that it is an omnibus of our spiritual life and its relation to things, people and ideas. That's a pretty big canvas and viewers might find the whole thing disjointed, but I love this movie for its audacity and for the very fact that it is fragmented. We are a fragmented species that in this modern age, often has to settle for a reflection of reality instead of the real thing (the Elvis impersonators and the Shroud of Turin being the most obvious examples). Why people will embrace fake Elvises while turning their back on fake Rembrants is beyond me, but such are the ways of human folly. Part of the film's audacity is that it often doesn't explain what we are looking at, and sometimes it seems almost confused about what it is looking at itself. A ceremony in Benin, complete with dancing spirits, whirling dervishes and a man with an enormous fake penis seems particularly chaotic, but I think that just helps the viewer feel as if they are really there. The film throws us off balance so we can almost feel like aliens from another world who have plunged to Earth and are trying to get our bearings amidst so much weirdness. The pacing of the film is slow but never dull, and unlike the 'mondo' movies, there is thankfully no exploitation here. The cinematography in this documentary is stunning; every frame could be placed in an art book, in fact I've heard that there is going to be a book of the film soon. If I had to complain about anything, it would be that I would have loved the film to be even longer and that the DVD has no extras, but the film as a whole is a terrific experience!

Vincent
(1987)

The Definitive Van Gogh
I can only imagine how pleased Van Gogh would be at seeing his work articulated through Paul Cox's lens. Interspersed with countless images of Van Gogh's original work, are cinematic images of the landscapes, the still-lifes, the town, and the people that Van Gogh knew so well. Cox unassumingly uses real people and costumes in an almost dream-like fashion; they exist along the edges of the film, in a sort of blur; as if we were living directly in Van Gogh's dreams and memories. What's most astounding though, is that I never knew what an incredibly gifted writer Van Gogh was. The entire film is narration of Van Gogh's words, in letters written to his brother. His passion, idealism, and frustration are articulated in ways that are so tangible … it makes all other works about frustrated idealists seem downright silly. It took me a while to warm up to John Hurt's narration because I kept envisioning him instead of Van Gogh, but after a little while I got lost in the words just and concentrated on the feeling that Hurt was evoking. By the end I was in tears. It's the best film about an artist that I've ever seen.

Wendigo
(2001)

Instant Karma's Gonna Get You
Important to know straight off -- this isn't a horror film or a creature feature. This is a film about that two-headed coin: fear and faith. It's about what our minds conjure up when we let our fears get the better of us, and it's about what our minds conjure up when we hope or pray. As many people have said, this film takes its time in bringing on 'the monster'. Seemingly, that is so, but if you put away the usual limited way of looking at horror movies, you will realize that the 'monster' appears fairly early on in the film. You can't see it; you only feel its presence. If you were paying attention, you'll know that the Wendigo isn't a monster, it's a spirit, and it can change its size and shape at will. The catch is……. the will does not belong to the Wendigo, it belongs to those who conjure the Wendigo. If the imagination holds on to fear, the Wendigo will take the shape of that fear, like a chimera. It may appear as drops of blood, or as a sudden gust of snow, or as a giant deer with dragon breath (notice that the reason the 'monster' image of the Wendigo looks rather cheesy is because that is all a very young boy can muster in his mind. Chances are, the little boy's parents haven't let him watch "Alien" yet!). If it is hope you need to conjure, the Wendigo will go where you want it to go and be what you want it to be (the father's description of how "easily" he got to the house after he'd been shot sounds like he had a little help there!). The Wendigo will also create havoc for those who deserve a nasty fate. It cannot kill, but it can create enough fear in a person to drive himself (in one case, literally) to his own demise. In other words, what devours us isn't a boogie man with sharp teeth, it is our fear that devours us.

There is a reason that this film spends most of its first hour in the presence of the family as it goes through everyday rituals and discussions. There is a tension that is penetrating that normalcy. We - and the characters at different times - are aware of the bullet holes in the walls, of the menacing presence of the creepy neighbor, and of the resonating grisly demise of that deer on the road. The father's feeling of helplessness gets triggered against his wife and son. The Wendigo takes the form of that aggression too. Before the father goes on the sled we see him playacting murdering his son. It is a game, and his son is never realistically threatened, but the father needed to do this in order to vent out his aggression (subconsciously of course). The film smartly tells its story from the viewpoint of the young boy. Smartly for one reason because it is the core of fear that really scares us, and that core began at a very young age. Remember the shadows in the corner of your room that seemed to swallow up the furniture with their darkness? Remember the overcoat that limply hung on the closet door looking like a hanging dead man? Or how about the breeze outside your house that whistled through the branches as they clawed at your window? They're all innocent and harmless things, yet we practically scared ourselves to death as kids by letting our imaginations (our little Wendigos) run wild. The film also is smart to tell its story through the little boy because he is going to learn something that he will take with him into adulthood. He will face death and embrace it and let it go (the scene in the hospital where his father is in surgery, and then after the father dies). It is a rite of passage. The little boy will now be able to fill his father's shoes (metaphorically, despite the literal image!).

This movie is the stuff of myths. It is what horror originally was in the movies. Today with terrorists and serial killers, it's easy to get lost in horror as 'reality'. Slasher movies have championed the literal with realistic special effects, offering little to feed our need for fantasy. If you look back into your childhood, you will find what you yourself planted there long ago. Your imagination. Your appreciation for this movie will depend on how much of that you have retained.

Break of Dawn
(1988)

Subject: Great ... Film: Not
I'm glad I saw this because I'd never heard of Pedro Gonzales or the travesty of justice he endured. In the late 1920s and early 30s, Gonzales hosted the first Mexican-American radio show in Los Angeles (and most likely, in the country) and spoke out for the people who were victims of racism, exploitation and deportation. Of course, that made him 'public enemy #1' to those in power in LA, most noticeably the D.A., who is depicted as a sort of John Birch-type, super-slimy, corrupt politician. The DA did all the lowliest things that one who is corrupt can do, such as bribery, coercing a young woman to cry rape, hiring thugs to attack workers who are trying to unionize, and even planting a car bomb. Gonzales is tried for rape of a minor and given a fifty-year (!) sentence. I won't give the ending away, but I will warn viewers that most of the acting in this movie runs the gamut from amateurish to just plain awful (Oscar Chavez as Gonzales is quite good though). No one hates corrupt, political scum more than I do, but the bad guys in the movie do everything but mustache-twirling (perhaps they would have had they been wearing mustaches). I also found a lot of the details hard to believe, such as the D.A. and the police Captain sitting in their car just ten yards or so from the place where the thugs are beating up the workers. They seem to do this whenever some evildoing of theirs is going on, giving smirks to each other and inaudible moo-ha-ha's. If one watches this with the acceptance that some of the melodrama is like what one sees on Mexican soap operas, they'll get through it okay. It's a cultural thing and Gonzales after all, is a folk legend (he was sort of a Mexican Woody Guthrie). I still think he deserved a better biopic, but this film, along with 1981's "Zoot Suit" serve as important documents of both a time and a culture that every American should know about.

All the Presidents' Movies
(2003)

The Movies Tell Us About The Men
This fascinating made-for-cable documentary looks at what movies were screened at the White House over the past century, what each president's favorite movies and genres were, how often they watched, and who they watched with. The official White House projectionist from 1953-1986, Paul Fischer, kept complete logs of every film screened not only at the White House but also Camp David. We learn what movie JFK saw the night before he died (From Russia With Love), and what movie Richard Nixon censored and why (it was a number from the musical 1776 that basically satires conservatism: ("We have land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned, fortune flies, society survives in neatly ordered lives"). We also learn what the first movie screened in the White House was ("Birth of a Nation" – not a good start!), and who watched the most movies in his term (Jimmy Carter with 580; an average of one movie every three days!). What's most interesting is how much the movies these men liked said so much about each of them. What did Ike like? Westerns. Who was Johnson's favorite movie star? Himself. What was Nixon's favorite movie? Patton. What was Bill Clinton's favorite movie? American Beauty (hearing Clinton talking about how much that movie blew him away as the camera slowly pans up the infamous poster of Mena Suvari's half-nude body covered in rose petals is priceless!). A Kennedy aide tells of how a screening of "Last Year at Marienbad" ended up with only himself and Jackie left in the screening room, and how JFK actually snuck into a cinema one night (with his secret servicemen) so he could see "Sparticus" (the White House at that time was not equipped with 70mm projection equipment.) There are loads of great stories like these by White House staff, a few of the presidents themselves, and some of those who had the honor of having their films screened there. This is a great documentary for those who love movies and political history, but I don't know if will ever be distributed on DVD (I saw it aired on Bravo a couple of years ago). For those who are interested, below is a list of the top ten most popular movies that have been screened at the White House in the past ninety years.

10) Field of Dreams 9) The Bridge on the River Kwai 8) The Longest Day 7) A Man For All Seasons 6) Sabrina 5) Patton 4) Roman Holiday 3) Casablanca 2) Bad Day at Black Rock 1) High Noon

The Devil's Rain
(1975)

Delicious Melted Cheese
You gotta love a movie with a credit for technical adviser as "The High Priest of the Church of Satan" (he also has an effective small part in the film). This is no "Exorcist", but it is excellent cheese. Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner act their roles to pieces, which is exactly what they should do (this is camp schmaltz, folks!). I thought veteran actress Ida Lupino actually managed to lay an air of dignity throughout her role; eyeless or not. The special effects are well… lots of eyeless faces (the eyes after all are the windows to the soul, and most of the cast ain't got their souls anymore), and a stunning ten-minute finale of melting, oozing faces and bodies, moaning and writhing in an acid rain. Great stuff! This would make a hearty double feature with director Robert Fuest's other masterpiece of camp macabre, "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". This isn't as good, but it does have great production design, and a wonderful twisted score highlighted with the groaning voices of the damned. Wonderful effective opening credits courtesy of Heironymous Bosch too! Is this movie scary? No, unless you're under fourteen. It may scare the bejesus out of you in that case, which after all, would be apt! Is this movie fun? Absolutely! An excellent rental to cuddle up with on a stormy night or Halloween.

American Fabulous
(1991)

Keep America Fabulous!
This movie is strictly a monologue told on the road by Jeffrey Strouth, mostly from the back seat of an old Cadillac. Who is Jeffrey Strouth, you ask? No one of consequence outside his large circle of friends and anyone who loves to listen to good dishing. I do love listening to good dishing, and I found many of Jeffrey's stories humorous and poignant. After a while I have to admit, the movie did run out of steam for me. Maybe I've just heard one too many stories of burned out people in the east village, I don't know. Still… I do recommend this because it IS an important installment of gay history, and because some self-loathing bigot here found Jeffrey's fey nature "disgusting" and felt that the movie should be burned (and he claims only to have seen two minutes of it!). Who knew the gay community had a faction of neo-Nazis? Go see this movie for Jeffrey, for all those who fought the good fight against AIDS (they didn't lose that fight, the world lost), and for a free and fabulously diverse America.

Death of a Prophet
(1981)

Unnecessarily Trippy
This film is NOT about the last 24 hours of Malcolm X's life. It is a 'what if' fantasy that shows Malcolm walking around New York in the years following his death, relating to the black movements in America and abroad. One can tell this isn't about the actual last 24 hours of his life from countless details, such as hippies (that movement wouldn't start for well over a year after Malcolm's death) a bookseller (in a dashiki!) talking about the death of the Kennedy children and Martin, footage of black people in afros on a TV discussion program (with no white host - remember, Malcolm died in February of 1965!), black FBI agents... the list goes on and on. The film takes liberties with history to make points about the impact Malcolm had, but such a form of storytelling can be dangerous, since obviously the one other reviewer here thought this film was an actual documentation of the last day of Malcolm's life. Who knows how many others think the same thing? I don't mind filmmakers taking such liberties, after all, one has a right to speak metaphorically about the 'prophet' Malcolm. But it's done in such a slipshod way. Morgan Freeman is one of my favorite actors but he portrays Malcolm as if he was made of stone: a dangerous thing when portraying a martyr. It's vital that people know that Malcolm was a flesh and blood human being. Everyone in this film though, is acting as if they were under extreme hypnosis. The whole film is lethargic, and will surely be confusing to those who don't know very much about the civil rights movement, or the independence movements throughout Africa. I guess for 1981, this film was better than nothing since Malcolm still hadn't been acknowledged by the film world (other than a documentary in 1972). But as long as one is going to watch a docudrama on Malcolm, skip this junk and watch Spike Lee's magnificent "Malcolm X". You'll get a much more focused, passionate, and correctly detailed account of the man and what it was that he stood for.

Incident at Loch Ness
(2004)

Incident At Loch Jaws
I think this is a film that will have very limited appeal. Much of one's enjoyment will come from how familiar one is with Werner Herzog's career (I suggest seeing Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" to get a good range of this man's incredible persona, then listen to his commentary on each of his movies. He's amazing). But that in itself is not enough. One also has to be a fan of mockumentaries, which apparently many people don't 'get" (I love that one of the posts in the message board is "IS THIS REAL?"). And finally, one has to have an inexorable ability to put up with the kind of caustic sense of humor that wears on one's nerves like the coarsest sandpaper (think "My Breakfast With Blassie" meets "Jaws"). Zak Penn is Andy Kaufman incarnate. He's brilliant, yet just even saying that makes me want to -like Werner Herzog says in this film- track him down and strangle him. He's brilliant because Hollywood is full of guys like these. BTW, If you really appreciate sweet torture, listen to Zak's commentary on the DVD!

Anyway, as well as being a great mockumentary, with its layers of movies within movies within movies, it also has some terrific moments of great film-making within one of its stories. I of course new it was all fake, but it was so well done, I found myself humming the theme to "Jaws" at the film's climax. I even wanted to shout out at Werner Herzog when he tried to shoot Nessie with his flair gun, "Are you crazy?? You want to kill this legend that's been hanging around for millions of years?? You're going to die someday anyway….. leave it alone!". But I held my tongue. Besides, Nessie is a vegetarian, isn't she?

Truth… Fiction… Whatever… this film illustrates Herzog's philosophy of "ecstatic truth". No one really knows what is true. But the emotions we feel are very, very palpable. That's really why we go to the cinema, isn't it?

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