This is the time of the year that I receive batches of DVD’s from PR firms on behalf of major Hollywood studios and distribution companies in anticipation of the December awards meeting of NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online). No batch was awaited more eagerly (at least by this NYFCO member) than those from Magnolia Pictures, the distribution arm of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment. Cuban (and Wagner as well) is committed to boldly innovative independent fiction and documentary movies and the current batch reflects Magnolia at its best. I can recommend all of these movies, some of which are now available from Netflix and will be so indicated with an asterisk.
My preferences are in this order:
1. Let the Right One In
A beautifully written, acted, filmed and directed Swedish movie that pairs two 12 year olds: Oskar who is bullied mercilessly by schoolmates, and Eli, a girl who has just moved in next door in their Stockholm suburb and who happens to be a vampire. Consider this movie to be a much more elegant and intelligent version of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, the TV show that effectively equated adolescent turmoil with demonic afflictions.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) first encounters Eli (Lina Leandersson) late at night as he sits in the snow-covered front yard of the dreary brick tenement they live in trying unsuccessfully to solve a Rubic’s cube. Despite his initial wariness toward his new neighbor (misfortunes at school have made him understandably defensive), he is impressed both by her ability to effortlessly solve the puzzle as well as her pretty but pallid face. The only thing he doesn’t like about her is her “funny smell” that he brings to her attention. Since she has been dead for generations, it is no surprise that she has a bit of an odor.
Despite being a vampire, Eli has the same desire for friendship that any 12 year old would have. (She explains to Oskar at one point that she has been 12 years old for centuries.) When Eli learns that Oskar has been the target of bullies, she urges him to hit back hard, which he does. At an outdoor skating rink, he delivers a well-placed blow with a stick to the side of the head of his worst tormentor.
By coincidence, this is the same stick that Eli’s manservant Hakan has used to push one of his victims into an ice-covered brook. Although their relationship is not delineated (much of the movie’s power resides in its susceptibility to multiple interpretations), this much is clear: his role in life is to kill complete strangers, drain their blood, and feed his mistress. In contrast to the batty, insect-devouring Renfield of the Dracula saga, Hakan has much more of the appearance and demeanor of a depressed accountant.
Although the movie’s climax features a deeply satisfying confrontation with Oskar’s bullies, it is much more about the bonding of two lonely 12 year olds. Speaking for myself, their experience mirrors my own. It is too bad that I did not have a vampire on my side back in the 1950s.
2. Man on Wire (*)
A documentary about Philippe Petite’s tightrope crossing between the roofs of the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. As daunting as the sheer physical task is the preparation for the feat, which involved the same kind of combination of guts, guile, and technical precision as a large-scale bank robbery. By comparison, the robberies in the “Oceans 11” movies seem almost pedestrian. Petite, now 60 years old, seems to fit in nicely with the youth rebellion of the period even though I never would have considered him in that light at the time. To frame Petite’s adventure historically, the director (James Marsh) shrewdly includes footage of antiwar demonstrators and Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook” speech. Although I was not a witness to Petite’s WTC crossing, I did see him perform once on the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall, his normal gig. Arriving on a unicycle (just like Ben Linder’s, a kindred spirit), Petite juggled meat cleavers and other unlikely objects with the same kind of insouciance that is on display throughout this marvelous documentary.
3. Bigger, Stronger, Faster: the Side Effects of Being American (*)
A documentary that has the audacity to make the case for steroids in a period when its use or advocacy can only be compared to membership in the Communist Party in the 1950s. Directed by Chris Bell, a long-time user of and believer in steroids, the film owes much to the Michael Moore genre, with the short, heavily-muscled but paunchy Chris Bell taking the audience along with him on a whimsical tour of the world of steroids-one that starts with his own conventional Catholic family in upstate New York in the early 1980s. Along with his two brothers Mark and Mike, they became big fans of professional wrestling and used to spend hour after hour in their parent’s basement imitating the way that 3 to 400 pound athlete/actors body-slamming each other. Next they discovered body-building and were particularly inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger who made a speech during the height of the steroid witch-hunt defending the need for drug-free sports. It was later revealed by men who trained with him that he was on the juice the entire time he was coming up the ranks.
Unlike baseball players, the world of professional body-building and wrestling-the sports (loosely speaking) that the Bell brothers participated in-has not been subject to the same kind of close scrutiny and prosecution. The three brothers not only refused to stop using steroids, they even became advocates on its behalf. With his wry sense of humor and his sense of the hypocrisy of American double-standards with respect to chemical aids in all walks of life, Chris Bell is a very effective spokesman for a distinctly distaff viewpoint. Put succinctly, the movie demonstrates very effectively that steroids are harmless (the claims of ‘droid rage’ and steroid-induced cancer are unfounded) and that chemical aids are used in all sorts of activity, including playing the violin!
In an interview on a website that sells steroids and other chemical aids (where else), Chris Bell is asked what inspired him to make this movie. He answered:
I always had the idea to do a film on steroids. But I was searching for the core thought of the movie. What is this movie really about? Well, it’s about steroids. But you can’t just say ‘it’s about steroids,’ you have to come up with some clever hook to make the film work. So I’m thinking what is it really about? Then I saw Senator Joseph Biden speaking about steroids. He was pounding his fist on the table at a Congressional hearing saying that there’s something simply un-American about steroids! And I thought about it. I’m thinking about my brothers. I’m thinking that I used steroids; I’ve tried them before. Are we un-American? Are my brothers and I un-American? Or is there nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to be number one in our country? And that’s the core thought of the film.
Considering Biden’s place in the body politic today, I am not only inclined to applaud Chris Bell’s but ready to order some steroids myself. I could certainly use some bulking up.
4. Surfwise (*)
Another documentary with an offbeat take on sports and family life. It chronicles the life and times of Dorian Paskowitz, an 85 year old surfing enthusiast who began life as a Stanford-trained physicians but who gave it all up to live out of a tiny trailer with his wife and nine children (8 sons and one daughter) who traveled the world looking for the perfect wave.
Besides his love of surfing, he believed deeply in a vegetarian diet and uninhibited sex. He and his wife had intercourse in their tiny trailer while their children did everything they could to block out the moaning and the grunts. As the movie progresses, we learn that Dorian Paskowitz never had any doubts about whether this kind of family life was beneficial for his children. So sure he was of his mission in life for himself and his children that when one or another son decided that he was not cut out for surfing, they would get a beating for their insolence.
Despite the superficial resemblance to the hippies of the 1960s, Paskowitz was inspired more by biblical patriarchs than by Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey. He gave his sons names like Isaac and Moses rather than Moonbeam or Cougar. He also decided to have a large family because in his eyes the world needed more Jews after 6 million were killed during WWII.
By the time the children had reached their early 20s, they discovered that a vagabond life of surfing ill prepared them for life in corporate America. One by one they broke free of their tyrannical father and struggled to find themselves either through music, cooking, or painting. Some stayed with the world of professional surfing but still decided that they had no use for their controlling, self-righteous father. We learn that all the children eventually found a place for themselves in the world, largely as a result of lessons they learned on their own.
While watching this film, it occurred to me that I did not have it so bad after all with my own father who hardly ever spoke to me, a behavior typical of men whose sons were born when they were off fighting in Europe. He left me to my own devices rather than forcing me to live by his own values. Thank god.
5. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (*)
For those who read my blog article on Thompson shortly after his suicide, it should be clear that I was not one of his fans. That being said, I found myself riveted by this very well-done documentary directed by left-leaning Alex Gibney, who has “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” to his credit.
I was not persuaded of Thompson’s genius despite the movie’s assiduous attempt to make the case for him, largely through the narration of Tulane professor Douglas Brinkley, a friend of Thompson and his biographer. The movie also relies heavily on Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Apparently, according to Brinkley, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, and assorted figures in the Democratic Party, Thompson’s main contribution to American journalism was excoriating Richard Nixon as a villain and praising George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. If you get beneath Thompson’s rowdy exterior, you will find nothing more than what people like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin have been doing for years but with less pizzazz.
The most interesting part of the movie for me was the final fifteen minutes or so that dealt with Hunter Thompson’s long slow decline into booze and drugs that coincided with and grew out of an inability to write anything of substance. We learn that as he became more and more of a celebrity, he was incapable of adopting the fly-on-the-wall perspective that serves many of the best journalists. Instead of the politician being the topic of interest when Thompson was on the beat, the story became Thompson himself. Apparently he was incapable of returning to a more authentic existence and spent 20 years or so basically wasting his time in his Aspen, Colorado retreat. The only mystery is why he didn’t blow his brains out earlier.
A Spanish movie that tells the story of a man who is accidentally sent back into the past through a time machine and is forced to relive some painful experiences during a 24 hour period. The subject matter is related to “Groundhog Day” but the style is much more akin to Luis Buñuel. The movie suffers from underdeveloped characters but the intricate plot has the same appeal as an Escher painting. Definitely worth a viewing. Apparently David Cronenberg is working on his own version of “Timecrimes” and this too will be worth looking for.