Friday, February 27, 2015

“The Smell Of Us”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening of “The Smell Of Us”, a French drama by Larry Clark at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series.


When a pair of teenage skateboarders take a job as escorts, what impact will this have on their personal life?


Math and JP (Lukas Ionesco and Hugo Behar-Thinières) are teenagers who live in Paris and spend much of their day skateboarding with friends; nights, however, are spent working as escorts – their customers are generally either gay men or old women. While they may find the work objectionable, it is also quite lucrative.  Escorting keeps the boys in nice clothes, an abundant supply of drugs and, of course, the latest model skateboard. The lure of money, however, is wearing a little thin; after a while of being used and abused by clients, the boys find escorting considerably less glamorous than anticipated.

Complicating matters is the fact that JP is gay while Math is not – or at least, that’s what he claims. JP is falling in love with Math; while Math considers JP to be a good friend, he doesn’t go that way and thus rebuffs his friend’s advances. This, of course, frustrates JP to no end; JP refusing to stop coming on to him is equally frustrating to Math. Due to their circumstances however, they remain close because they can relate to each other’s predicament. One thing that makes the job less repugnant to Math is that a number of clients offer him drugs or alcohol, which he uses to self-medicate to get through a “date”.

Eventually, JP’s life starts unraveling even further when his father and stepmother learn of his work. JP’s father is enraged when he discovers what his son is up to; JP, in turn, is furious at his stepmother because upon finding out about the boy’s work, she informed her husband without first consulting JP. Between his unrequited love for Math and a home situation that has become unmanageable, JP falls into a deep depression and winds up seeking revenge on his stepmother. But when JP finally confronts her, will he actually be able to carry out his plan or will a cooler mind prevail in the end?


When there is a film with such a curious title (any bets on which critic is going to call “The Smell Of Us” something like “We Stink”?), it’s basically setting itself up for some nasty jokes. However, director Larry Clark, who brought us “Kids” 20 years ago, has delivered such an unpleasant and unsavory work that’s uncomfortable to watch on multiple levels, jokes about its title may wind up being the least of its problems. Clark continues his voyeuristic, borderline pedophilic obsession with the sex lives of adolescents and has precious little of value to show for everyone’s efforts. In some ways, the story feels somewhat schizophrenic because it appears to start off in one direction, then goes another way.

Its story is about as good a place as any to start. As a movie, “The Smell Of Us” seems very episodic and feels like a film in search of a plot. Initially, we are introduced to this gang of idiots and are set up to believe we are about to follow the individual exploits of each one. Instead, two of them – the young escorts – suddenly become the focal point of the motion picture; the justification for this appears to be merely so that Clark could shoot some rather provocative (and realistic) sex scenes. “The Smell Of Us” has more the look and feel of kiddie porn that hopelessly tries to fob itself off as art.

Following the screening was an interview with Diane Rouxel, who played Marie in the movie; since her English was a little shaky, an interpreter translated on her behalf. Initially an art school student, she didn’t have acting experience prior to shooting “The Smell Of Us”. She loved the script Clark originally gave her; however, when seeing the finished product, Rouxel said she was quite upset because the film turned out to be drastically different from the screenplay. One of the things she found very disconcerting during the shoot was the fact that Clark would frequently veer off the script and improvise scenes and dialog; this was particularly awkward in some of the graphic sex scenes.  

The Smell of Us (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, February 21, 2015

“Electric Boogaloo”– Movie Review



This week, I attended opening night of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series, where we viewed the documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”. 


When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus formed Cannon Films, would they be taken seriously in Hollywood or forever be known as schlockmeisters? 


Back in the 1980’s, Israeli filmmakers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus became partners based on their mutual passion for movies; together, they created Cannon Films, which bestowed upon international audiences countless horrifyingly tasteless films – and occasionally, some decent ones.  But as quick as their rise was, their rapid decline was equally as speedy.  Depending upon whom is asked, there may be differing reasons for their ultimate failure.  But one thing is for certain:  Cannon’s output of movies during that period is difficult to beat by either a major studio or independent production company. 

Eventually known as The Go-Go Boys, the team produced low-budget movies that included many sequels to Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish”, but also introduced much of the country to break dancing and eventually aspired to more artistic goals by providing noted Italian director Franco Zefferelli an opportunity to direct his own version of Shakespeare’s “Othello”.  While many of these films weren’t worth the time it took most critics to sit through a screening, Cannon sometimes – and usually, accidentally – wound up with actual box office hits which kept the company afloat. 

By the mid-1980’s, the team saw great success and Cannon Films had conquered Hollywood – or so they thought.  After setting up headquarters in Los Angeles, they quickly tried to expand their business based on the successes of their recent past.  However, this resulted in Cannon making more movies than they could support, which required extensive financing from banks.  After a few box office flops, Golan-Globus found that they would have immense difficulty in paying off their loans.  But would they be able to revive the company and continue their filmmaking?


If you are of a certain age, you have most likely seen at least one Cannon Film in your lifetime – in fact, you’ve probably seen many.  What might be more difficult to admit, however, is the fact that they hit a nerve with you – specifically, a movie such as “Breakin’”, “Delta Force” or even “Missing In Action” may be on your secret list of guilty pleasures.  With lovers of insipid films such as “Hercules” (where Lou Ferrigno, starring as the title character, flung a bear into outer space), who among us would dare to deny the thrill of sexploitation as seen in “classics” like “The Last American Virgin” or “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”?  

Precisely.  Whether they know it or not – and whether some movie fans may be willing to acknowledge it or not – Cannon Films has provided us with endless entertainment over the decades.  Oh, sure, a good deal of it was nonsense.  But seriously, what are movies if not escapist entertainment?  Yes, we may have used their product for comic fodder; that, however, doesn’t matter.  Even if much of what The Go-Go Boys produced was stupid (and yes, it was), it was nevertheless something that we were able to use for distraction and entertainment.  And for this, we should be thankful. 

If there is anything about this documentary that is worthy of criticism, it is the fact that it runs a little long.  Although it is only about two hours, it does seem to drag a bit at times; after a while, you feel, “OK, we get it – let’s get on with the rest of the story”.  Following the screening was a question and answer session with the filmmaker and some participants in the Cannon Films experience.  One thing that all of them seemed to be able to agree on was the fact that just about everyone could do an imitation of the unintentionally funny Menahem Golan. 

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“Wild Tales”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the Argentinian comedy-drama “Wild Tales”, which has an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.


“Wild Tales” is a movie comprised of six unrelated segments, the theme of which is the more negative aspects of the human condition.


Segment 1: With an airplane full of people, two strangers – a runway model and a music critic – begin chatting and soon discover that they know the same person, a young man who failed at his aspirations to start a music career. Eventually, they find out that everyone on the plane knows this man and the flight attended announces that he’s a steward who’s now locked himself into the cockpit and is piloting the airliner. Will he crash the aircraft or can one of his acquaintances talk him out of it in time?

Segment 2: A young woman who works as a waitress at a roadside restaurant is shocked when one of her customers turns out to be a gangster who ruined her family’s life years earlier. Amazingly, he does not remember her, but nevertheless treats her shabbily. When the restaurant’s cook suggests they poison him, will they put rat poison in his food or will she talk the cook out of murdering him?

Segment 3: When a wealthy man in a fancy new car insults a careless driver weaving along the road, he is suddenly forced to confront the man when his car breaks down. But when their confrontation turns increasingly violent, which one of them will emerge as the victor?

Segment 4: Once an explosives engineer has his car unnecessarily towed by the city, he decides to fight the bureaucracy which he thinks is out to get him. With his wife having left him for missing their daughter’s birthday due to the latest towing incident, he becomes completely unraveled. But will he go so far as to use his experience with bombs to exact revenge on the government that he feels ruined his life?

Segment 5: After a young man returns home to inform his wealthy father that he’s killed a couple of people as the result of a drunk driving accident, the father desperately tries to buy his son’s way out of a potential prison term. But when the lawyers collude to extort millions of dollars from him, will the father still fight for his son or allow him to do time so he can keep his money?

Segment 6: At a wedding reception, the bride learns that not only did her new husband cheat on her while they were engaged, but that the woman with whom he had the affair is also a guest at the party. Exploding with rage, she chooses to exact revenge on both the woman and her husband by turning the function into a scene of senseless violence. But will the couple divorce or figure out a way to remain married?


Given that the name of this blog has the word “nihilist” in its title, how is it possible to dislike a movie such as “Wild Tales”?  It is dark, it is bleak and its basic message is that “people are no damned good”.  What’s not to like?  This misanthropic string of fairy tales is delightful for those who truly believe deep down that no one can be trusted; if this sounds like something that would drastically shake up your entire belief system and delicate sensibilities, then avoid it at all costs.  Right-thinking members of the public, however, will gleefully rejoice at the reassurance of that which you already knew all too well. 

As horrifying and disturbing as it is funny, “Wild Tales” is the blackest of all comedies and quite deserving of its nomination.  In one way or another, each story in this movie seems to focus on the thought of revenge taken by individuals who are genuinely frustrated and find themselves at the end of their respective rope.  With people so far out of control and with such violent tendencies, this is a recipe for some truly extraordinarily bad behavior – which makes for an insanely entertaining (not to mention therapeutic)film.    

If there is anything to criticize about “Wild Tales”, it would be how each vignette is separated – or perhaps more to the point, not separated.  One can never be exactly sure when each sketch has actually ended, so it’ll take you a minute or so in order to figure out that a new and completely different story is being told when the new segment begins.  This is particularly true of the first story, which is told before the opening credits roll; once the credits have finished, the second tale begins – but at first, you’re not quite sure if it’s a new segment or a continuation of what was going on prior to the credits.  What might have been useful here is the use of title cards in between each scene so the audience would unambiguously know when a new scene is beginning and the previous one concluded. 


Wild Tales (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, February 14, 2015

“Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” directed by Spike Lee. 


When a man discovers he’s just been turned into a vampire, his newfound bloodlust becomes an obsession – but will his conscience allow him to continue living this way?


As a scholar of African history and art, Dr. Hess Greene is nothing short of thrilled when he comes into possession of a dagger from an ancient African civilization.  The dagger, legend has it, has quite a notorious background:   possessed with magical powers, it was used in various religious ceremonies and medical procedures.  Mystified by its reputation, Dr. Greene brings the item back to his home in Martha’s Vineyard where he proudly displays it as his newest objet d'art – unfortunately for him, he has to deal with his unruly houseguest,  Lafayette Hightower, an emotionally disturbed man whom Greene finds difficult to control.

Overnight, Hightower sneaks into Greene’s room with the magical dagger and stabs him through the heart, leaving Dr. Greene for dead.  The next morning, however, Greene awakens following a convulsive episode and pulls the dagger from his chest.  Proceeding to Hightower’s room, he’s shocked to find the man dead, apparently from a successful suicide attempt.  With Hightower bleeding out on the floor, Greene begins to slurp up the man’s blood.  Shocked by his new behavior, Greene nevertheless adapts to it quickly, doing whatever he must in order to satisfy his appetite for the sanguine bodily fluid. 

Soon, Ganja, Hightower’s estranged wife, becomes suspicious about her husband’s sudden and unexpected disappearance.  Suspecting an attempt to deceive her, she unexpectedly shows up at Greene’s house where she demands to see Lafayette – but her efforts are derailed when Dr. Greene unabashedly flirts with his former-friend’s wife.  Horrified when she eventually learns of her husband’s demise, Greene attacks her, turning Ganja into an undead creature with a thirst for blood very similar to his own.  Now that they are bonded in their common quest for the ruddy liquid, will it destroy their relationship or only serve to bring the two closer?  


In what appears to be director Spike Lee’s foray into Grand Guignol, “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” defies logic or, for that matter, any logical explanation.  No sense can be made from this convoluted confusion of poor choices, which may be why studio funding became impossible, inevitably causing the filmmaker to go the Kickstarter route for crowdsourcing.  Whatever Lee was going for here, it didn’t work and it didn’t work in a really big way.  With a screenplay overwhelmed with unnecessary lines of dialog used as filler – some of which delivered by actors who seemed as though they had just been given the script moments before “Action” was shouted – and the result is a finished product that can only leave viewers scratching their head. 

Admittedly, Lee is not one of my favorite filmmakers; he tries too hard to evoke a style that just isn’t believable, much less artful.  The story behind this film is perhaps more interesting than the movie itself.  “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” is something of a reimagining of an older motion picture on which it is based, “Ganja And Hess”; in fact, the original film’s screenwriter, Bill Gunn, co-wrote the screenplay for the updated version with Lee.  “Ganja And Hess” had a favorable reaction from some critics when it first appeared, so watching that one might be a better option. 

Particularly painful to watch are Lee’s attempts at commenting on drug addiction and the pretentious, unctuous behavior of the intellectual community; Lee only succeeds in hitting all of the wrong notes and being none too subtle about the points he’s struggling to make. While the film lacks any redeemable features worthy of recommendation, it should be noted that the one thing Lee got right was casting some beautiful women; with as many nude scenes that they have – not to mention one particularly hot lesbian scene – Mr. Skin should have plenty of content to fill his Web Site for some time to come.   

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) on IMDb