By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: 20th Century Women, Silence, Just a Sigh, Art Bastard, Blow-Up, MST3K and more
20th Century Women: Blu-ray
Writer-director Mike Mills has said that the protagonist of his third feature — Dorothea, played so knowingly by Oscar-nominee Annette Bening – is based on his mother, a woman who probably couldn’t exist outside of a few zip codes on the west side of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Marin County. Mills was raised in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and 20th Century Women is set in a section of Santa Barbara commonly known as “The American Riviera,” and not just for its idyllic weather, lush hillsides and million-dollar views that start at $10 million. It would be misleading to describe Dorothea as a single mother who runs a “boarding house,” with her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Set in 1979, they live in the kind of the old Santa Barbara domicile that qualifies as a fixer-upper, but most people would consider to be walk-in condition. Her boarders include a 24-year-old “free-spirited” punk photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), whose recent bout with cervical cancer has brought warnings against conceiving children; William (Billy Crudup), a post-hippie handyman, whose abilities run from fixing cars and doing carpentry, to holding up his end of the bargain in countless one-night stands; and Julie (Elle Fanning), an introspective 17-year-old flower child, who, after sneaking out of the house she shares with her shrink mom, spends her nights in Jamie’s bedroom, where they share a Platonic relationship.
exc It’s her best performance since The Kids Are All Right, which 20th Century Women kinda, sorta resembles in a SoCal sort of way. She gets terrific support from Gerwig, Fanning and Crudup, all of whom represent specific types of people who might have sought refuge in laid-back Santa Barbara. America was morphing from Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, gospels-informed approach to governing into the I’m-in-it-for-me Reagan juggernaut, so where better to lay low? Mills’ revelatory post-script rings true, as well. The Blu-ray adds revealing commentary with Mills and the featurettes “Making 20th Century Women” and “20th Century Cast.”
Even more than gangsters and pasta, the thread that runs through Martin Scorsese’s entire resume is the role played by conscience and religion in the decisions made by his diverse array of characters. Silence joins such obvious examples as Kundun, a film about the life of the Dalai Lama; The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrays Jesus Christ as a man, first, and deity second; and Mean Streets, in which an aspiring gangster (Harvey Keitel) struggles to reconcile his faith in the Church and the realities of the family business. A sharp eye will find characters dealing with issues related to faith in many other Scorsese films. Scorsese has said that he considers himself to be a lapsed Catholic – perhaps, even, excommunicated for his divorces – but not someone who’s rejected Christianity or the inevitably of sin and redemption. (He’s also publicly discussed his own practice of Transcendental Meditation.) Before Silence opened here, Scorsese screened it at the Vatican, before an audience that included 400 Jesuit clerics and their guests. The film is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1996 novel of the same title. Both are fictionalized accounts of the persecution of Christians and Jesuit missionaries in 17th Century Japan. As such, it immediately recalls James Clavell’s novel and mini-series, “Shōgun”; Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe; and Roland Joffé’s The Mission. Those Jesuits did get around. Anyone raised Roman Catholic has heard dozens of stories about Christian martyrs and the trials of missionaries as they attempted to convert people to the faith. By wearing a cross around your neck, you, too, could become a soldier for Christ and, as such, someone who would sacrifice their own lives in His name. No film that I’ve seen, outside of Sunday School indoctrination, has delivered the same message as succinctly and persuasively as Silence.
The story follows two 17th Century Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel from the Portuguese colony of Macau to Japan to locate their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). We’ve already been introduced to Ferreira as he’s being forced to watch the torture and slow deaths, through crucifixion, of newly converted Japanese. They arrive on islands in the Nagasaki prefecture during the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), which followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion of Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate. They receive a warm welcome from the peasants desperate to receive the sacraments and be guided in the faith. At the same time, the priests must avoid contact with a samurai weeding out suspected Christians. The Inquisitor senses the arrival of the priests and hopes to draw them out by torturing villagers who reveal their beliefs by refusing to step on a fumi-e (a carved image of Christ). Even after Rodrigues advises them to do so, some peasants still can’t bring themselves to blaspheme the image. They are crucified on the beach, against the rising tide, and refused a Christian burial. The priests will go their separate ways, leaving Silence to focus – temporarily, at least – on Rodriguez’ continuing mission, arrest and the mental torture of watching peasants suffer for his refusal to renounce the Church. It would be easy for the shogun to kill Rodrigues, but not advance the greater glory of causing another priest to commit apostasy, like Ferreira, who’s bound to turn up sooner or later. Silence is an exquisitely made film, which benefits from being shot in a spectacular area of Taiwan and world-class acting. At 161 minutes, though, it’s probably too long slog for viewers who don’t care much for Roman Catholic history. (Opening with something from the Shimabara Rebellion, instead of the crucifixions, might have captured their attention.) It did very poorly at the box office and Scorsese was further rebuffed by nearly being shut out of the Oscars. (Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto received the only nomination.) The featurette, “Martin Scorsese’s Journey Into Silence” squeezes a lot of information into 25 minutes.
Just a Sigh
After spending the last few years languishing on a shelf, Jérôme Bonnell’s newly released romantic drama Just a Sigh should give fans of Gabriel Byrne a reason to smile, anyway. A bit too tentative for viewers expecting a large dollop of comedy with their love stories, its stillness and time-release intimacy reminded me of Before Sunrise. Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) and Doug (Gabriel Byrne) are traveling from Calais to Paris, in the same train car, a few rows separated from each other. They exchange furtive glances, but are blocked from an impromptu meeting when another traveler provides him with the directions he was hoping to get from her. Doug is an Irish professor in Paris to attend the funeral of a friend, while Alix is in the city to audition for a movie and, as fate would have it, attend the same funeral. After the service, mourners gather at a local café, where they share even more glances. This time, however, it’s possible to feel the heat being exchanged between them. After being cock-blocked by another well-meaning fellow, the two will-be lovers devise a way to get away from the crowd and meet in Doug’s hotel room. For a couple in their mid- to late-40s, Alix and Doug do a pretty good impression of love-struck teenagers. Possessed with an allusive beauty, Devos may not be a known quantity on this side of the Atlantic, but she’s a five-time César Awards nominee, winning twice for performances in In the Beginning (2009) and Read My Lips (2001). Byrne, of course, is a legitimate leading man of the old school. Even at the ripe old ages of 66 and 52, they make a fit pair and the love scenes are hot. The drama comes from Alix having used up the batteries in her cell phone, being overdrawn at the ATM and being unable to hook up with someone we assume is an old boyfriend. Still in mourning, Doug simply is trying to extend the moments of blissful intimacy, while she tries to decide whether she’ll make the last train back to Calais or wait to re-connect with her boyfriend. It’s possible that they’ll get together, again, but, as was the case in Before Sunrise, we’re left with no assurances.
It’s been a long time between documentaries for journeyman editor Victor Kanefsky (Bloodsucking Freaks). His directorial credits are limited to Art Bastard and 1978’s Just Crazy About Horses, whose lasting memory is a graphic depiction of the mating habits of champion Thoroughbreds. Here, Art Bastard once again takes on the rituals of the rich and famous, this time through the eyes of a bitingly satirical artist whose unwillingness to compromise with the hidebound gallery and museum establishment has cost him dearly. Now 76, Robert Cenedella has challenged the system with his scabrously funny and fantastical paintings of life in New York City, especially within the realms of celebrity, politics and commerce. A student, protégé and friend of German artist George Grosz, Cenedella expresses his personal visions of contemporary American life in paintings that recall Pieter Brueghel, George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Honore Daumier and William Hogarth. I might throw into that mix Hieronymus Bosch and Mad magazine. About his work and unwillingness to go along with the commercial flow, he’s said, “You can bastardize everything else in your life, but if you compromise your art, why be an artist?”
His commissions include works for the Bacardi Corp., Absolut Vodka, a theater piece for Tony Randall and two paintings for the Le Cirque 2000 Restaurant in New York and Mexico City. He may be best known, however, for the controversy surrounding a 1988 one-man show at Saatchi & Saatchi’s New York headquarters, in which a painting of a crucified Santa Claus was removed before the show opened. In December, 1997, “Santa on the Cross” was displayed for the second time in public in a front window of the Art Students League of New York. It is the institution from which Cenedella was educated – after being expelled from the city’s High School for the Arts – and still teaches. Among those interviewed in this lively, 82-minute film are Cenedella’s wife, Liz; his sister Joan; TV critic Marvin Kitman, evidently a friend of his; Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum; art appraiser Paul Zirler; and Ed McCormack, managing editor of Gallery & Studio Magazine. In an unusual gesture, the end credits include a slide show of every painting used in the film – even those by other artists — complete with full identifications. Since the completion of Art Bastard, Cenedella was commissioned to create “Fín del Mundo,” a triptych that “captures the chaos surrounding Donald Trump’s march to the White House.” It’s worth looking up on the Internet, even if it didn’t prevent the clownish mogul from being elected.
Blow-Up: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was already famous around the world for creating films about the alienation, neuroses and the “existential ennui” affecting Italians, who, while enjoying the fruits of the country’s transformation from a poor, mainly rural nation into a global industrial power, also sacrificed traditional values and historical identity. In his series on “modernity and its discontents” — L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1964) — the characters represent an urban bourgeoisie unable to cope intellectually with its own good fortune. Although two of the three chapters of I Vinti (1953) were shot outside Italy — in Paris and London — Blow-Up was Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film and the first completely shot outside Italy. The interviews included in Criterion’s splendid supplemental package describe the director’s obsession with nailing the details of what a single day in the life of his successful London photojournalist and fashion photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), might be like. He picked the brains of London’s most prominent shooters, models, architects, designers, artists and scene makers, even going so far as to cast several of them — Reg Wilkins, Veruschka, Jill Kennington, the Yardbirds (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf), Janet Street-Porter, among others – and incorporate their art into the overall design. To create a feeling of hyperrealism, Antonioni spray-painted streets, trees, grass and houses to the shades and textures he desired. And, for all that, Blow-Up’s box-office success could be credited in large part to Thomas’ steamy session with Veruschka and the playful romp with aspiring teen models (Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills) in the rolls of background paper in his studio, which actually belonged to photographer John Cowan. Today, of course, that oh-so-controversial glimpse of pubic hair is ridiculously brief and about as sensual as the propeller Thomas purchases from an antique shop.
Antonioni uses Thomas to show us how “the experience of the protagonist is not a sentimental nor an amorous one, but rather, one regarding his relationship with the world, with the things he finds in front of him.” After spending the night inside a flophouse, where he has taken pictures for a book of editorial-art photos, Thomas fills the next 24 hours transitioning from Victorian London to Swinging London. Between fashion shoots, he chances upon a couple embracing on a grassy plateau in Maryon Park. It isn’t until he’s confronted by the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), who demands the roll of film, that he begins to think that his photos might contain something more than a cheap voyeuristic thrill. Indeed, when they are developed, enlarged, hung from a beam in his studio and enlarged again, Thomas senses that he might have captured a murder in progress. Jane’s willingness to trade something of herself for the negatives convinces him of that. When he returns to the park, however, nothing is there, except some crushed grass. The idea here is that, “By developing with enlargers … things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye. (Thomas), who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears.” Just when we think we have a grasp on what we’ve been shown, it disappears, as well. The same thing happens after Thomas wins the fight for the neck of Jeff Beck’s demolished guitar, only to realize when he leaves the nightclub that it’s a worthless piece of junk.
The more we learn about Blow-Up, however, the better it gets. The Criterion addition is enhanced by the restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new piece about Antonioni’s artistic approach, featuring photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner, and art historian David Alan Mellor; “Blow-up of Blow-Up,” a fresh 52-minute documentary on the making of the film; a 2016 conversation between Garner and Redgrave; archival interviews with Antonioni and actors Hemmings and Birkin; and a book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs. It must be said that Antonioni’s next English-language film, the widely reviled Zabriskie Point (1970), lost the handle on the American counterculture and 1960s radicalism almost from the first student demonstration. It did a nice job capturing the enigmatic beauty of Death Valley, though. Also in English, The Passenger was hailed as a masterpiece by many of the same critics who hated Zabriskie Point.
The best and, perhaps, only reason to check out Steven C. Miller’s almost comically violent Arsenal is the over-the-top performance by Nicolas Cage, who appears to be channeling Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci and Moe Howard simultaneously. Mumbling and wearing a wig even John Travolta might have considered to be too bizarre and obvious, Cage plays a Mississippi Gulf Coast gangster who spends most of the movie in a ramshackle titty bar snorting coke and barking instructions to his dreadlocked and musclebound associates. The target of Eddie King’s wrath is Mikey (Johnathon Schaech), a ne’er-do-well who looks as if he just was released from prison, where he spent the last 10 years pumping iron and getting tattooed. Mikey not only owes Eddie a pile of money, but he’s also lost the $10,000 given to him by his brother, J.P. (Adrian Grenier), to help him get back on his feet. Instead, he invests the bread in a bag of cocaine, which is promptly stolen by some other thugs. J.P. is a clean-cut god-fearing Biloxi developer, who, apparently, also serves the city as an auxiliary cop. Don’t ask. His contact on the force is Sal (John Cusack), whose undercover disguise wouldn’t fool anyone who isn’t a Hollywood costume designer. Mikey is such a world-class dirtball that he colludes with Eddie to extort $350,000 from J.P., by posing as a kidnap victim. J.P. doesn’t have that kind of money just lying around, so he enlists Sal in his mission to rescue his brother and do away, once and for all, with Eddie. Left unsaid in that summary – if not the movie’s title – is the amount of firepower Miller has invested in his story. The violence is frequent, aggressively loud, extremely bloody and largely gratuitous. This isn’t to say that fans of such excess won’t enjoy Arsenal, because the explosive action sequences are well-choreographed and as over-the-top as these things get. Anyone looking for the Nic Cage of Leaving Las Vegas, National Treasure and Snowden may want to take a pass, however. The Blu-ray adds Miller’s commentary; the “Building an Arsenal” featurette; and extended cast and crew interviews.
Zachary Shedd’s first feature as writer/director is adapted from a short film he made eight years earlier. Both share the title, Americana, which is the name of the movie within Shedd’s uneven, if somewhat promising debut. I’m not sure why either of these movies is called “Americana,” but that’s only one of the confounding things about a picture that essentially merges neo-noir mystery with atmospheric drama and forces viewers to contend with switchbacks, flashbacks, flash-forwards, withheld information, rampant paranoia and undernourished characterizations. It’s set in San Francisco, which is nicely photographed and adds all sorts of character to the story. It is not, however, a place where movies about people making movies within movies makes a lot of sense. The putative protagonist is Avery Wells (David Call), an accomplished film editor, who, after a shocking on-set incident two years earlier, moved into a remote mountain cabin to drown himself in booze and self-pity. Almost out of the blue, a producer shows up there to talk him into editing the film Avery’s vivacious blond sister, Kate (Kelli Garner), was starring in when she was killed. The person who murders her, we’ll learn, is linked to the victim of a fatal automobile accident, she may or may not have caused. The producer, Calib (Jack Davenport), we’ll also learn, has several ulterior motives for calling on Avery to work on his sister’s last film. For Avery to get back on track, personally and professionally, however, he’ll first be required to figure out the mystery behind Calib’s request and his feelings of guilt over his sister’s fate. That, my friends, is a lot of weight for a first-time writer/director to carry, while also trying to make a movie that looks great while straddling genre borders. (Somehow, in its second stop on the festival circuit, Americana was featured at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, even though it wouldn’t appear to fit its defined parameters.) Still, an A for effort.
Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek
In the American South, historical sites are almost as common as the kudzu that took root in the 1930s and now blankets the hillsides and forests, from Louisiana to Georgia. They’re so prevalent that some politicians think nothing of selling the sites off to developers or removing the people who’ve lived there since the Civil War. And, yes, white politicians find it far easier to uproot African-Americans who stand in the way of “progress” than anyone else. Leah Mahan’s inspirational documentary, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, describes how a transplanted Boston teacher worked tirelessly, over the course of a decade, to prevent corporate interests from bulldozing his ancestral home and the graves of his ancestors. It was being done simply to accommodate the sprawling city of Gulfport, Mississippi, and its casino-, military- and tourism-based economy. In 1866, a group of emancipated slaves settled along about 320 acres formerly owned by Arkansas Lumber Company. Thomas and Melinda Benton acquired enough land to bring their holdings to 50 percent of the community. It straddled the 13-mile-long Turkey Creek, a freshwater marsh and coastal hardwood forest. It continues to be a haven for wildlife and migrating birds. Although the community predated the founding of the City of Gulfport, it was annexed in 1994 to allow for commercial development and expansion of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, city planners used the disaster as an excuse to begin uprooting vegetation that helped preserve the watershed. In 2001, Derrick Evans left his teaching positions in Boston and moved back home to Turkey Creek. The documentary follows his efforts to rally support for the once-voiceless community, through the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. After Katrina, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and received assistance from the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain and Audubon Mississippi. The film has inspired other such community preservation projects and was featured on “The Daily Show.”
Before watching Kerstin Karlhuber and co-writer Jack Bryant’s quietly effective drama, Fair Haven, I was under the impression that conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy – was acknowledged to be a cruelly ineffective way to “cure” LGBT youths of what their parents and church perceive to be a disease. Apparently, not. Here, Michael Grant (Where Hope Grows) is well cast as James, a young piano prodigy, who returns home, to his family’s apple farm, after a long stay at a Christian conversion-therapy retreat. His hard-ass father, Richard (Tom Wopat), not only has forced James to endure such torture, but he also insists that he give up the piano and work toward saving the farm. The 19-year-old might have been more inclined toward accommodating his dad if he hadn’t already blown James’ college nest egg to pay for his therapy and mother’s funeral. He becomes even more upset when Richard tells him that he’s turned down generous offers to sell the property and wouldn’t think of giving up the family homestead, even if it means James has to give up his dreams. He believes that the conversion worked and gets angry with his former boyfriend (Josh Green) when they bump into each other in town. He even agrees to date the pastor’s daughter (Lily Anne Harrison), who couldn’t be more pleased that James is available to her. We’re not convinced of his conversion, however. Even if we know how Fair Haven is likely to end, Karlhuber doesn’t insult our intelligence by creating shortcuts or employing clichés to help her get there. In fact, the flashbacks to therapy sessions leave room for debate – however futile – among the participants and their soft-spoken instructor (Gregory Harrison). Karlhuber makes good use of the lovely rural setting and veteran cast. Special features include behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes and cast interviews.
When it came to making horror films, writer/director Kevin Tenney could be considered a natural. He shot his first Super 8 film in the 6th grade and left USC early to make Witchboard, a silly, if highly profitable thriller notable for the presence of former child star Rose Marie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and former O.J. lover Tawny Kitaen (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak). In it, a female college student is harassed and later possessed by an evil spirit summoned through a Ouija-board experiment. Tenney’s third film, Witchtrap, doesn’t have anything to do with witches or Witchboard, and it was released straight-to-video. By 1989, video originals had come of age, so there wasn’t any real stigma attached to it. For years, it seems, the once elegant Lauter House has been plagued by strange and violent occurrences. Unexplained deaths and seemingly supernatural activities have scared away all perspective tenants and buyers. Its new owners are toying with the idea of turning the old mansion into a bed-and-breakfast, targeted at tourists who claim not to be afraid of evil spirits. First, however, a team of paranormal experts are brought in to identify the demonic forces and trap them in a gizmo especially designed for such purposes. Sure enough, the big, bad ghost takes the bait, but not before Linnea Quigley is killed in the shower by a malevolent nozzle. It’s a classic scene in a movie mostly devoid of real shockers. Vinegar Syndrome has restored Witchtrap in 2k from the 35mm Interpositive, totally uncut, with its long-censored gore fully intact. It adds lively group commentary with Tenney, producer Dan Duncan, cinematographer Tom Jewett and actor Hal Havins; video interviews with Tenney, Quigley, Jewett and SFX supervisor Tassilo Baur; audio interviews with SFX makeup artist Judy Yonemoto and composer Dennis Michael Tenney; “Book of Joe” a short film directed by Tenney, with an alternate ending; a production/promotional still gallery; and original cover artwork by Corey Wolfe.
TV to DVD
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXVIII
Frontline: President Trump
Most longtime fans of MST3K probably have already heard the good news that the Satellite of Love will return to Earth orbit on April 14, with 14 new episodes of the series set to stream on Netflix. A record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, initiated by Joel Hodgson, raised $5.8 million from 48,270 backers, with an additional $600,000 in backer add-ons that allowed for two more episodes and a Christmas special. Comedian Jonah Ray will play Jonah Heston, the new host aboard the SoL, with the voices of Crow and Tom provided by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn. YouTube heartthrob Felicia Day (“The Guild”) will play Kinga Forrester, Clayton Forrester’s daughter and one of the new Mads in charge of the experiments, alongside comedian Patton Oswalt, as Kinga’s henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Rebecca Hanson, a Second City alum, assumes the role of Gypsy, as well as another of Kinga’s henchmen. Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy will cameo on the revival, reprising their roles as Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy (a.k.a., Observer) and Professor Bobo. The list of movies to be scorched has yet to be revealed, except to say that most of the selections will be of a more recent vintage than those in the original shows. If that doesn’t give fans something to live for this spring, nothing will. Meanwhile, the latest compilation of evergreen episodes arrives this week from Shout!Factory, presenting “the worst” in the subgenres: Cold War drama, Sword and Sandals, Juvenile Delinquents and Monsters. They include the irredeemably bad Invasion, U.S.A. (1952), Colossus and the Headhunters (1963), High School Big Shot (1959) and Track of the Moon Beast (1976), plus several featurettes.
PBS debuted its “Frontline” presentation, “President Trump,” on January 3, while the president-elect was picking his Cabinet and futilely attempting to coax celebrities to perform at his Inauguration. Trump was still basking in the glow of his historic victory, convinced that everyone in Washington was practicing their bows and curtsies in anticipation of the First Family’s coronation. If President Obama had warned him against expecting too much from Congress in the first few weeks and months of his administration, he’d ignored the advice. In three weeks, Trump would learn just how complicated things can get when an outsider promises to drain the swamp, without consulting the alligators and copperheads first. Those blissful days in January must feel like a distant memory right now. In fact, the information imparted in the six-part “Frontline” documentary series feels very much like ancient history. No candidate has been subjected to as much media scrutiny – or ridicule, for that matter — as Donald Trump and they still got the results wrong. “President Trump” does a good job backtracking on the events in the man’s life that endeared him to America’s great unwashed. It does so through interviews with advisors, business associates and biographers, who describe how Trump transformed himself from real estate developer, to entertainer, to president. It also explores the roots of the division and polarization in Washington that frustrated the Obama presidency and laid the groundwork for the election of a defiant outsider.