Movies are Life Itself

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Throughout the touching and surprisingly heavier than expected bio-doc of Roger Ebert, the editors intersplice narrated snippets from some of his most potent reviews along with the inevitable scenes of arguments with Gene Siskel from their classic TV show I grew up watching.  One great sparring was from an episode where they reviewed Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted.  Siskel was appalled that Ebert was giving the Kubrick film a thumbs down while recommending the Benji flick.  Ebert expertly argued (and even went as far as shaming Siskel) that you can’t compare the two.  They have to be reviewed in their own context…Benji the Hunted as a kid’s film and Full Metal Jacket as a KUBRICK (for crying out loud, one that he thought wasn’t up to snuff with the master’s best output).  I remember going to see Benji the Hunted in the theaters as a kid, and you know what…Ebert was right about the context.  I liked the Benji movie back then.  And later in life when I watched Full Metal Jacket, I loved it, but I will admit…it might be a lesser Kubrick, and I respect those who may not have connected it with it as a work of art.

And that’s what was great about Ebert and Siskel – they could argue and disagree, and it was okay…in fact, it was hoped for.  The point of going to the movies was not just to be entertained, but to get a glimpse into another person’s point of view (a director’s, a character’s, a place and moment in time alien to your own) and to find those moments of empathy…and hopefully give you something to talk about with other people.  Whether through blogging or in person with the people I experience the films with in the movie theater, talking about films (and sometimes passionately disagreeing about them) is a favorite pastime.  It’s a way to connect…to get to know yourself and hopefully someone else. Continue reading

The Fearful Symmetry of Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237

Room 237

There are two things I watched as a child – that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch as child – a special shout out to my mad cool parents, yo! – that I believe will stick with me forever…and ever…and ever. One is Twin Peaks. The other is The Shining. Oh yeah, and Fright Night. And that episode of Scooby Doo with the pumpkin-headed phantom. But seriously…about The Shining.

Like Twin Peaks it’s been an object of obsession for me. In Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s obsessive new documentary where half a dozen film nuts/Kubrick scholars obsess over every bit of minutiae in The Shining (check out all the stuff in the walk-in cooler at the Overlook…every brand name has a double meaning so sayeth them!), every cross dissolve (Kubrick dissolves scenes like Kapooya!), every continuity error (de-lib-er-ate they say!), there’s not a single theory presented that I haven’t heard before.

The Shining was actually about the Holocaust (the number 42 is quite telling…as is one cross dissolve of people into stacked luggage…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no, wait…make that the American genocide of the Indians (think of the setting, and the set designs, and the back story of the hotel…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no way…it was about how Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing (duh, Danny’s wearing that Apollo 11 sweater, like, what did you think that meant?)…or…AHA! – it was about all of those things!

Continue reading

The Quick Spin on Pi, Sugar Man, America and Sleaze

Ah, to dine on filmlandia’s smorgasbord and taste the world!  Behold, the treasures and the trash recently uncovered by the Spin that took us to India, the High Seas, South Africa, Detroit, Middle America and the backwoods swamps of the Deep South.

In Theaters:

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Salty Sweet Pi: I was finally able to catch a screening of the much ballyhooed Life of Pi (in 3D no less, which no joke, is used brilliantly in this film and rises far above its typical gimmick status) which means Haneke’s sure to depress Amour is the only Best Picture Oscar nominee I have yet to see.  Adapted from an international best-seller I never bothered with, Ang Lee’s film is a sure-fire visual stunner featuring some of the best use of 3D ever (I especially loved the opening credits and the sinking of the ship sequences).  You’d have to be blind not be enthralled for two hours, but sadly the film is left adrift by surface level discussions on religion and an all too twee “parable/fable” ending.  Continue reading

A Wheel Upon the Earth

While living for six years in the New South at the turn of the millennium, I was struck by a certain I-don’t-know-what-ness.  Underneath the smothering yet genuine gentility and kindness there was still an undercurrent of “sticking to your own kind” – and it wasn’t just down lines of race, but down political, religious and social class lines.  Birds of a feather should flock together.  This certainly isn’t unique to the New South.  This undercurrent (sometimes seen as a tidal wave) has always existed to varying degrees across the world.  But what made it unique in my eyes, and positively Southern, was that it was coupled with this melancholic and melodic nostalgia for a time before that was better than now – yet it was a time that was not clearly defined, only dreamt about, perhaps having never really existed and only ever dreamt about.  It begs the questions, when exactly was it better?  What about the good ol’ days of Jim Crow?  Was it better during the Great Depression?  Was it better during the days of Slavery?  Or maybe it was better before any white or black men set foot on the land and there were only trees, beasts and Native Americans? 

Yet even I found the milieu intoxicating…the whole “Country Time Lemonade” commercial-ness of it all – lazy Sunday afternoons on the porch, Ma and Pa sipping on sweet tea, the kids running barefoot through the tall grass – the kind of laid-back twilight feeling that “once upon a time…it was always like this…it could always be like this…if only….”  And for the better part of those six years I yearned to let my North East jackass-ery and uptight-ness slip away into a world of Yes, Sir’sNo, Ma’am’s…and Thank You Kindly’s.

I think maybe writer director Robert Persons was trying to capture that I-don’t-know-what-ness of the New South in his troubling yet haunting experiment, General Orders No. 9, which exists as an amalgamation of poetic voice-over, ambient music, stunning images verging on still-life, animated maps and an overall “otherworldliness” of bygone times set to the crawling cadence of 72-minutes on film. Continue reading

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The unstoppable forward momentum of man’s imagination, art and progress.

In 1994, three French explorers uncovered a cave that had been closed off for millennia as the result of an ancient rock slide.  As if the beautiful natural wonders of calcite formations and perfectly preserved animals bones of long extinct creatures weren’t enough…this particular cavern in the limestone, Chauvet Cave, was also home to the oldest prehistoric cave paintings ever discovered.  Scientists estimate some of the paintings date back over 30,000 years to a time when most of France was covered by an ice sheet and man roamed the harsh terrain along with Neanderthals, wooly mammoths and rhinos, horses, cave bears and lions.  As unforgiving and calamitous as their environment may have been, these early humans still found time to dream and create art that would survive 30,000 years of unstoppable forward momentum.

This is the focus of Werner Herzog’s gloriously transfixing and typically odd little film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

If you are a fan of Herzog, his particularly lucid and sometimes loony narration will be an absolute delight.  Herzog has always been drawn to the misfit and extremist dreamer – people so dedicated to their vision or project that their madness can just as easily bring about their demise as it can a resounding success.  Continue reading

A Review of “Man on Wire”

CAPTION:  Yup, he actually did it…and lived to tell the tale.

The Best Laid Plans of Crazy Frenchmen…, 10 August 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

…sometimes work as director James Marsh and subject Philippe Petit prove in the sublime and inspiring documentary, Man on Wire. Here we see Petit and his cohorts recklessly plan and execute the most daring stunt in the history of the world. In August of 1974, Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in NYC.

As part of Hollywood’s increased awareness of the possibilities of counter-programming, summertime has become a haven for documentaries. Thanks to Michael Moore and Al Gore, most of the blockbuster documentaries over the past few years have been in the form of political propaganda. By simply wanting to tell the story of one man’s amazing act, Man on Wire breezes into this summer like a breath of fresh air. The act depicted is singularly focused, but the logistics behind perpetrating the act are fascinatingly complex, and the aftermath of the successful completion of the act is breathtaking.

Director Marsh wisely avoids the typical trappings of documentaries by filming the story like a fictional narrative, jumping back and forth in time, shifting points of view, and creating palpable tension leading up to the death defying act of Petit walking across the wire. The film relies heavily on reenactments, and Marsh stages them like mini expressionistic student films full of stunning cinematography and wonderfully antiquated in-camera effects. The careful juxtaposition and blending of archival footage, still photography, reenactments, and interviews is a master-class in the school of film editing. Also adding to the film is the quietly tense music score composed of pieces from Michael Nyman and Erik Satie among others.

For those who never saw the Twin Towers of the WTC in person, the film shows beautiful archival footage of their construction. For those still haunted by their fall, the film offers a bit of catharsis as we get to watch them reconstructed piece by piece on film and lifted again on high through Petit’s potently mad dream. The film is as much a love letter to New York City as it is a testament to the power of one person’s vision. The film allows us to see how Petit did it, but it also gives a glimpse of the greater “why?” For beauty, for the thrill…for the sad knowledge that no one in the history of the world will ever be able to do it again.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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A Review of Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn”

 One Flew over the Bamboo Hut, 16 July 2007
9/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

For me, Werner Herzog will always be remembered for his haunting 1979 remake of “Nosferatu.” Next to the silent-era original, it’s probably the greatest artistic statement ever put to film on the myth of the vampire. Apart from that, he’s been one of those fascinatingly enigmatic European enfant-terrible directors, brazenly going against the studio system and doing whatever he damn well pleases, be it documentaries or bizarre art films. “Rescue Dawn” comes as a huge surprise, and proving that he still does whatever he pleases, is a dramatized version of the true story of Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler that Herzog previously filmed as a documentary in 1997 entitled “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Masterfully realized, “Rescue Dawn” emerges as Herzog’s most accessible film. After over 30 years of film-making, he’s gone “Hollywood” but has done it on his own terms.

“Rescue Dawn” features classical and feverishly transcendent direction from Herzog, breathtaking cinematography of Laos and Vietnam from Peter Zeitlinger, a triumphant and evocative music score from Klaus Bedelt, and Oscar-worthy performances from an amazing cast. In the lead role of Dieter, Christian Bale once again puts his whole body into the character (as he did in “The Machinist”). Bale has become one of those rare actors whose every role seems to be the performance of his career. Also noteworthy are Jeremy Davies (“Saving Private Ryan,” and “Ravenous”) as Eugene from Eugene, Oregon, who seems to always get cast as the most emotionally unstable soldier, and a shockingly good and sympathetic Steve Zahn as Duane. Herzog puts the cast through the ringer in artistically rendered depictions of torture, horror, and survival in the harshest of conditions. Even in some of the most cringe-worthy scenes, Herzog turns what could’ve been wallowing on its head–witness the fantastic transition from Bale eating live worms and one crawling in his beard to a beautiful caterpillar leisurely making its way across a leaf in the peaceful jungle.

Essentially what we have here is the war-movie version of Milos Foreman’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as Herzog depicts a group of average men who were slightly crazy already becoming increasingly more mad through involuntary imprisonment. While Bale’s character refuses to be held down and is constantly trying to keep his brain and skills sharp through plotting an escape, some of his fellow prisoners are rendered hopeless as they have turned their own minds into the most impenetrable walls. Herzog does a great job of depicting tiny bits of humanity and dignity shining through in the most inhumane conditions, and how the will to survive can triumph over death. He’s somehow crafted a movie that is both boldly anti-establishment and unapologetically pro-soldier and patriotism. Being based on a true story where the ending is known to the viewer doesn’t take away from the white-knuckle suspense and human drama. Unlike Foreman’s classic from the 1970’s, where Jack Nicholson (mirrored here by Bale) flew over the cuckoo’s nest and disappeared into his own insanity, Herzog gives up hope. One flew over the bamboo hut…and he made it.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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A Review of Michael Moore’s “Sicko”

Shining Light on America’s Health Care Crisis, 8 July 2007
9/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In many ways, “Sicko” is Michael Moore’s most tightly focused film since “Roger & Me.” Recently he’s dealt with heady philosophical issues involving America’s obsession with guns and violence in “Bowling for Columbine” and then displayed the follies of the Bush Administration and the quagmire that is current geopolitics in “Farhenheit 9/11.” Here he turns his gaze to a single, tangible thing: America’s health care crisis.

Moore is up to his usual bag of tricks with his goofy pop-culture inspired propaganda, expertly combining heartfelt sentiment with big laughs in his anecdotal pieces, and essentially preaching to the choir. Informing us that insurance and pharmaceutical companies are vile profit driven machines who lobby hard in Washington and buyout politicians left and right isn’t exactly telling us something we didn’t already know.  Scary still are the review board doctors working for the insurance companies who get paid big bonuses for denying the most claims, and saddest of all, the people who actually die from not getting their treatment.  Moore, never shying from his political leanings, firmly points his finger at Nixon (whose policies paved the way for HMO’s), Reagan (who propagated the idea of socialized medicine as the first sign of Communist invasion), and Bush (who signed into law prescription drug bills that have crippled our senior citizens). He also suggests that Hillary Clinton, whose own health care plan was shot down by special interests back in the early 1990’s, is now on the same payroll after losing the good fight.

Moore really scores, though, when he starts globe hopping and shows us just how well socialized medicine works in countries like Canada, Great Britian, and France, and how much all of the people involved (doctors and patients) think it’s wonderful and that our system is absurd. The most telling anecdote is when he’s able to get a group of 9/11 heroes suffering from the debilitating effects of having worked at Ground Zero some much needed treatment in Cuba (of all places!) after they have been repeatedly denied by their insurance companies here in the States.

Other than marrying a Canadian or moving to one of these countries where health care is free to all, he offers no solid suggestions for how people who want to stay in America can fix the system other than to give this vague sense that “socialized medicine works.” He’s shed some light on the topic, and points us in the right direction, but isn’t willing to lead the way with any practical solutions.

Some of the most interesting points are made while in France, where the citizens enjoy free higher education, free health care, 35-hour work weeks, and government issued nannies. One of the Americans living now in France points out, “the people in France get all this because here the government is afraid of the people while in the States the people are afraid of the government.” Marie Antoinette, it seems, lost her head so the French could get free health care.

Funny, sobering, and frustrating, “Sicko” is a wake-up call for America to start their own revolution.

Message to Washington: Off with their heads!

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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