Summer of Movies: Art House Edition

Put down that Pabst Blue Ribbon and pick up that Heineken, it’s time for some upper-end, high-falutin’ fancy-schmanzty movies… oh, excuse me – FILMS to discuss in an intelligent and sophisticated manner.

In other words, films where nuthin blow’d up.

I’ve also given up on attending this echelon of moviegoing in person. While attending the supposed cinema-for-smart-people oozes the cultural vibe of avoiding the great unwashed talking on their cellphones throughout the entirety of the latest CGI-loaded comic book-based piece of assembly line formula crap from three different studios pooling their money to make it all back in China, audiences in the art house cinemas have often annoyed me for different reasons.

A lot of the time, it’s the virtue-signalling or hipness-signalling that goes on – to this day, I remember a couple of annoying dudes affecting intellectual edginess going out of their fucking way to laugh, and laugh LOUD – Robert DeNiro laughing at Problem Child in Cape Fear style loud – at the OBVIOUS and overdone supposed shock humor of Man Bites Dog, a French mockumentary about a serial killer that uses up its premise in its first few minutes and totally blows for the following 90. Yeah guys, I get it – you’re supposed to show people you think it’s funny because nothing shocks you, you oh-so-cool cultural trail blazers! Well, except for the endless list of harmless bullshit that you need trigger warnings for.

Save your energy, boys! There’s a repertory cinema up the street showing old romantic comedies and crime movies from the 1930s and 40s that you can hiss sexist-in-2018 dialogue at to demonstrate to everyone around you what an enlightened and superior person you are! I guess culturally we’ve graduated from that particular style of douchebaggery to organizing screenings of stuff like Animal House or Blazing Saddles for the sole purpose of pointing out why we shouldn’t be allowed to laugh at them anymore.

Yes. I hate everyone.

But usually at the cinema I’d most often wind up in, a branch of the Laemmle art house chain in Encino, the audience were mostly locals, which meant a small army of doddering alte kakers understandingly looking for better fare than what’s on the cable, but most often forgetting their hearing aids and repeating “What’d he say? What’d he say?” over and over again, EVEN IN SUBTITLED FILMS.

I used to tell my regular movie freak cohort it felt more like going to temple.

It was more eye-roll inducing than the anger-inducing hipster behavior, but it still interfered with my cinematic experience.

The amazing Cuban restaurant just up the street usually made up for it, tho – even if the movie turned out to be disappointing.

So, it’s been watching the same sort of thing at home, now – lumped in with the modern Hollywood fare I can stand, and with the old movies that escaped my radar that I never get tired of discovering. I guess if I learned to make garlic roast chicken the way they do at Versailles, it’d complete the circle.

Let’s start with a couple of them there foreign French films. Well, the first one might be in French, but it’s all about a bunch of Russian musicians. Le Concert (2009) tells the story of a bunch of former Russian classical musicians who had been shut down and banned by Brezhnev back during a 1980 Soviet crackdown who disguise themselves as the actual orchestra booked to play Paris. This one begins as a silly con-job comedy, with the former conductor-now-disgrace-janitor leading the effort to get the ol’ band back together and pull off the trick of playing Paris – but once it gets going and we see exactly why he insists on playing a particular piece with a particular star violinist, the backstory develops far beyond the silliness of the opening half of the film and gets very very real and <gasp!> poignant. The way the various plot strands beautifully tie together at the end reminded me a lot of Atom Egoyan’s style of storytelling, only that this one is more whimsical in its first half getting there. I don’t want to give anything away – just see it. The music is wonderful, and the overall theme of the movie – about how important and integrated into life music is and what it means to people – resonates deeply. Just a flat out wonderful film.

Ernest & Celestine (2012) lost to Frozen for Best Animated Feature that year and I don’t remember it playing cinemas at all. Ah well – thankfully it’s out there on video, both in its original French language version with subtitles (which I saw) and in a Hollywood-stars-dub-the-voices version as well. Not sure how much got lost in translation there, but since the big attraction here is the absolutely beautiful art style in this hand-drawn gem, I doubt you’d miss anything with the American version. It’s the story of two societies – an underground mouse civilization and an overground bear one, both fearful and hateful of one another. But, a little orphan girl artist mouse winds up becoming friends with a ne’er do well musician bear and they must hide from both sets of authorities as outlaws. The Gabrielle Vincent books it’s based on don’t develop the competing societies angle as much, but the nature of the friendship comes through. It’s a wonderful and charming story about friendship, loyalty and overcoming bigotry all done without heavy handedness or pretension. The characters are wonderfully drawn, with emotion and character present in minimal lines a la the best comic strips. The comedy works, the workings of both societies are interesting to look at, and again, I don’t want to give away too much – just see it, it’s great for kids and adults.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016) comes from New Zealand and director Taika Waititi. An annoying rebellious kid is fostered by Sam Neill and his wife, but then the kid tries running away into the jungle, Sam Neill follows, and then due to a misunderstanding that Neill has kidnapped the little bastard, a national manhunt ensues. It’s all very funny. Neill always makes a good curmudgeon, the kid is depicted very realistically, there are surprises at every turn, and it never stops being enjoyable. Big thumbs up!

And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) – a documentary by Steven Soderbergh on the life of Spalding Gray. Soderbergh had filmed some of Gray’s monologues, and after Gray’s suicide, he put together this collection of clips, interviews & performances, organized into chronological order, that become a very interesting biography of the noted monologist and actor. It’s ultimately a very sad story when we get to the events immediately leading up to Gray’s demise, especially after witnessing the unrelenting self-exposure he does in his art. His monologues like Swimming To Cambodia or The Terrors of Pleasure are enormously entertaining and interesting. Gray was a wonderful storyteller, managing to maintain a narrative while going off on interwoven tangents and self-examination constantly. Soderbergh’s documentary lives up to that very well and reminds us of the sadness of Gray’s final tailspin into depression.

And in my best or worst Bob Hope impression, hey, how ‘BOUT that mental illness? It’s at the center of The Voices (2014) a movie billed as a “black comedy horror film” with Ryan Reynolds as a factory worker who believes his cat & dog are talking to him. Naturally, the cat eggs him on to become a serial killer, while the dog feels guilty about it. Now, with this premise and with the movie directed by Marjane Satrapi, the woman who wrote the wonderful Persepolis, I looked forward to seeing this one. But it has a central problem in its tone – since it depicts the nature of Reynolds’ mental illness FAR too realistically and tragically, going from those scenes to gory scenes attempting to evoke the comedy of a Reanimator-type vibe just don’t work at all. One of the major rules of a successful black comedy is that it allows the audience to feel detachment from the characters, and usually combines that with making the villains/killers/psychos more likable than their victims, as in any Vincent Price movie, for example. In this one, the victims are just victims, and when we delve inside the character and bio of Reynolds, he’s the biggest victim of all and it’s just cringe-worthy tragic. If it had been in a drama, it would have worked fine. If the gore had been within the context of something sillier, the black comedy would have worked fine. But this schizophrenic movie wants to have it both ways, as if the depressing aspects of the mental illness needed some quick sick jokes to hold the audience, and it just falls apart. And Reynolds, who has had an up and down career – currently way up with the Deadpool franchise, formerly way down with stuff like Green Lantern and RIPD – is excellent here. It’s a great performance, he really shows off some acting chops – but even despite the presence of a talking cat urging serial murder, I was disappointed by this one.

Well,except for his disowned Fear & Desire, now that I finally got around to watching Eyes Wide Shut (1999), I’ve seen every Kubrick movie. I’d avoided this one figuring it would fall short of any hype, of comparisons to Kubrick’s other films, and so forth. But I gotta admit – I thought it was okay while watching it, but the more I thought about it after it ended, the better it got in my mind. And when I started looking up all the weird conspiracy-theory laden mischigoss about all the Illuminati/Satanic sex cult/secret society type stuff related to the movie, it got even better! This guy, the Vigilant Citizen, writes up an excellent look at the film that stems from a factual premise: Kubrick was a detail-obsessed control freak with his films. He’d research enough to fill half a library for films he never got around to making. I went to the Kubrick exhibit at the LA County Museum some years ago, and they had the gigantic card catalog of material he’d researched for his unmade film about Napoleon. It filled an entire room. The guy was NUTS. Wonder why it took him a decade to make a fucking movie? But therefore, every prop, every name, every key piece of dialogue, every actor used, every item in the background of a particular shot…. it’s all there for a reason. Go read the link – essentially, it argues (pretty well) that while Kubrick successfully updates a 19th century novel about martial infidelity into modern times, he’s also presenting it within a world blatantly filled with an underground power structure operating in plain sight… if our eyes weren’t wide shut. OPEN YOUR EYES AND LISTEN TO THE CATS TELLING YOU TO KILL, I SAY…. Okay, maybe not that far.  Even without all that deeper-meaning type crap, it’s still a pretty good film. Cruise does a decent job, although I can see why he said in interviews that he didn’t like his character. Cruise hates playing anyone passive/weak, and Dr. Bill’s flaws certainly go in that direction. The most striking performance in the movie to me came from Sydney Pollack, who seems to turn in impressive acting obs whenever a fellow director friend gives him the chance. Pollack is wonderful at being quietly, unemotionally and deceptively evil here.

Up next, more youtube B-movie noir discoveries, mostly. Am I going to wind up seeing every movie ever shot by John Alton? We’ll see.



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