Around this time of year I get screeners from Hollywood film companies to view in conjunction with the New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) awards meeting in December. Generally, the most interesting are those from Magnolia Pictures, whose CEO is Mark Cuban.
Despite the last name (originally Chabenisky), Cuban is a Jew and an interesting character to say the least. He sold a website featuring live webcasts of basketball games to Yahoo in 1998 for $6 billion dollars just before the dot.com crash. He then went on to buy the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and is also involved in various online, cable TV and film businesses. Like a lot of the other nouveau riche including the character who runs Whole Foods, he is a libertarian and donated thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s election campaign. But he also has a rugged individualist streak which in his film business is manifested by the production of “Redacted”, Brian De Palma’s unwatchable movie about American soldiers raping and killing a 14 year old Iraqi girl, based on an actual incident. He also produced “The War Within”, which made an attempt to understand the motivations of a Pakistani suicide bomber, thus prompting the outrage of Frontpage magazine and other ultraright forums.
With that kind of mindset, it is not that surprising that the 8 movies I received from Magnolia were envelope-pushing attempts to one degree or another. Unfortunately, the results were mixed, to say the least. Here are brief takes on them, with links to longer reviews for those I found outstanding.
(Titles in red are available from Netflix.)
1. Two Lovers:
This was directed by James Gray, who despite his last name is a Russian Jew like Cuban. He grew up in Queens, New York and developed a fascination with the Russian-Jewish neighborhood in Brighton Beach, inspiring his first movie “Little Odessa” in 1994. I found “Little Odessa”, a tale about a hit man suffering from weltschmerz, so pretentious that I walked out after 15 minutes. Also set in Brighton Beach, “Two Lovers” is something of an improvement but not by much. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a Russian Jew, suffering an even deeper case of weltschmerz, who develops relationships with a woman from the neighborhood with his own ethnic background as well as with a gentile woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow (in Yiddish, referred to as a shiksah.) One reviewer referred to this as an “Annie Hall” without the comedy. I would only add without the intelligence as well. I was at first surprised to see Phoenix cast as a Jew, but in fact he is half-Jewish, as is Paltrow.
This is a first-rate documentary on homophobic politicians, nearly all Republicans, who are also closeted gays. A driving force behind “outing” such politicians, as well as an articulate voice for why such exposures are not invasions of privacy, is Michael Rogers who figures prominently in the film. Check his website at http://www.blogactive.com/ for the latest dirt on dirty politicians.
3. The Girlfriend Experience
A surprisingly good movie from Steven Soderbergh reviewed here.
4. Food, Inc.
A hard-hitting documentary reviewed here.
This is a mumblecore movie. For background on mumblecore, read my review of “Beeswax”, my first exposure to the genre that Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called “compulsive navel-gazing”. “Humpday” is about two heterosexual men who are old friends and who, on a dare, decide to make a gay porn movie with each other. One, who is married and seemingly conventional, decides to go through with it to show that he is still something of a bohemian. The other is an unmarried world traveler who has just returned from Chiapas where he was making “art with the natives”. When I heard these words coming out of the character’s mouth, it was all I could to turn the stupid movie off. As it turns out, there was another mumblecore movie about two such men where the sexual liaison was implicit and far better. See “Old Joy” for a much more intelligent take on men trying to navigate between marriage and freedom. Then again, if you want the most inspired take of all, read Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:
Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-
6. World’s Greatest Dad
Written and directed by erstwhile standup comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, best known for his bizarre, high-pitched onstage delivery (what else would you expect from a 1980s comic?), this is a black comedy about a dysfunctional two-member family. The dad, played decently by Robin Williams believe it or not, is a high-school literature teacher who writes novels that end up with rejection slips. His son is a totally obnoxious sixteen-year-old at the same school who accidentally asphyxiates himself while masturbating (the same fate that befell David Carradine). This leads the father to write a suicide note blaming loneliness rather than horniness on the death. The note is so well-received by the student body that regarded the boy as a creep in life that Williams decides to write a journal in his son’s name as well. When publishers approach him to turn it into a book, with attendant benefits such as being flown into appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, etc., Williams has to make a decision. The movie is essentially one joke repeated over and over again. That being said, it is better than the latest crap coming out of the Judd Apatow factory.
7. The Burning Plain
A sodden mess written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, the Mexican screenwriter responsible for “Amores perros” and “Babel”. Since this is Arriaga’s first directing job and I advise him to put the blame on his screenwriter for writing such a lead-footed melodrama. It is about a white woman named Gina (Kim Basinger) having an extramarital affair with a Mexican laborer (Joaquim de Almeida). When Gina’s daughter finds out about the affair, she burns down the trailer while the two are inside. And, of all things, her next life-altering experience is an affair with the son of the dead man’s son, which results in the birth of a daughter she abandons in Mexico. Most of the movie consists of the characters in ripped bodice poses, both men and women. “Amores perros” was an okay movie but one that charms less upon repeated viewings, as I’ve discovered. “Babel” was a sodden mess from top to bottom that the mainstream critics gushed over. No wonder Arriaga was encouraged to repeat the formulae that made that movie so unwatchable.
A major disappointment. Directed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who brought us the incomparable Pusher trilogy about the dregs of Copenhagen society, this is a character study of a British psychopath named Michael Peterson who spent 34 years in prison (he is still there), 30 of them in solitary confinement. He calls himself Charlie Bronson in homage to the American b-movie actor who practically defined what it means to be a tough buy. An attempt is made to make him interesting in a kind of Jean Genet fashion, but mostly you are left wondering why you spent $10 or so watching a violent prisoner who lives for the day when he can get naked and fight prison guards six at a time. I wasted nearly two hours trying to figure out why I wasting my time at no expense other than my customary irritation at crappy movies.