Thursday, June 30, 2016

“Captain Fantastic”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Captain Fantastic”, starring Viggo Mortensen.


When a family living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest is forced to integrate into mainstream society, can they successfully adapt?


Ben (Mortensen) has taken his family of six children deep into the forest of the northwestern portion of The United States where they live off the land and off the grid.  Teaching them how to hunt for food and exist virtually without modern comforts, he homeschools them so that they are not poisoned by a corrupt society.  While they wind up getting an unusual – and in some ways better – education compared to most kids raised in a normal environment, their isolation from the outside world results in an absence of social skills, which can sometimes manifest itself as overt hostility towards outsiders whom they look down upon.

Eventually, tragedy strikes the family in a way that forever changes their world.  Ben’s wife – the mother of all these children – has been suffering from severe mental disorders for years, which resulted in her long-term hospitalization.  Ultimately, the family gets the news that while institutionalized, she has committed suicide.  As if that is not hard enough for Ben and his children to take, they are now confronted with the possibility of having to venture into society in order to attend a funeral which the woman’s Last Will clearly stated would be unwelcome.  Instead, however, Jack (Frank Langella), Ben’s wealthy Father-In-Law, is so angry over his daughter’s demise that he threatens Ben with arrest if he attends the funeral because he feels Ben’s unorthodox lifestyle brought this about. 

Defiantly, Ben packs his brood into a tricked-out school bus and and drives to New Mexico for the funeral.  Expectedly, he interrupts the church services by making a speech about his late wife and reading her true wishes from her Will; while Jack stops short of having him arrested, he does have Ben forcibly removed from the church.  Reunited with his grandchildren – some of whom he’s never met – Jack decides he now wants legal custody of them when one of the boys rebels and refuses to return to live with Ben.  In an attempt to rescue his son, Ben winds up putting one of his older daughters in physical jeopardy, resulting in her hospitalization.  With all these events occurring and his oldest son entertaining the prospect of going away to study at college, will Ben be forced to change his ways or will he remain stubborn?


It is difficult to choose what’s most objectionable about “Captain Fantastic”.  Is it the fact that protagonist leads his family in defiling a human corpse?  Or is the unreasonably demanding suspension of disbelief in multiple plot points an insult to the intelligence of the audience?  (Specific citations might include the woman’s suicide itself, or absence of allusions to suing the hospital over this.  Lets toss in the question about how the oldest son got a passport all of a sudden, which raises questions about what he used for a birth certificate.  There are really too many more to mention) 

Basically, Ben is a crackpot who comes across as barely more mentally stable than his late wife.  The question then becomes whether the audience is supposed to root for him to become a better father or if we are to root for the children to escape his clutches.  At various points, it is unclear which.  Is the father evil or merely foolish?  Either way, he seems utterly incompetent as a parent and too much of a risk taker who frequently puts his children in great danger, deserving of having them taken away for their own safety. 

The audience is given to believe that the hirsute Ben is ready, willing and able to change by virtue of his shaving his unkempt beard and mustache near the conclusion of “Captain Fantastic”.  Given how adamant (or obnoxious) he’s been regarding his own personal philosophy, it may be difficult for audiences to buy into this attempt at a character arc.  Morphing from the Grizzly Adams version of Bernie Sanders to the dad from “Leave It To Beaver” within the span of the movie’s two hours is hard to swallow, to put it mildly.

Although Frank Langella’s Jack is intended as the role of antagonist, he is a genuine breath of fresh air in this film – not to mention an all too rare oasis of sanity.  His presence is a relief for viewers given the anxiety built by witnessing the treacherous situations in which the children have been placed.  While it may be an overstretch for him to accuse Ben of his daughter’s death, he’s justified in his efforts to protect his grandchildren by all means at his disposal.  The title “Captain Fantastic” may be seen as either ironic or sarcastic, but its protagonist is definitely far from heroic. 

Captain Fantastic (2016) on IMDb


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Eat That Question”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a Village Voice screening of the new documentary “Eat That Question:  Frank Zappa in His Own Words”.


Through a series of interviews and performances, Frank Zappa either talks about or demonstrates his musical background and creative process. 


Frank Zappa characterized himself as an entertainer.  In some ways, that seems appropriate since he was, indeed, entertaining.  But it was also an accurate description because he was so much more than merely one thing:  he was a musician with a strong background in classical music who wound up expressing himself in the rock genre.  He was also a composer, who not only wrote and performed his own songs, but also worked on expansive orchestrations which he sometimes conducted.  Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic was as a gadfly. 

One particular way in which Zappa was considered a nuisance was in his ongoing fights against censorship.  This battle appeared to come to a head when Zappa had to appear before The United States Senate in the late 1980’s in order to defend the lyrical content of his records.  Tipper Gore – the wife of then-Senator Al Gore – started an organization which became known as The Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC).  Basically, this was a self-proclaimed censorship group backed somewhat by the potentially-intimidating authoritative nature of the federal government.  The PMRC claimed the purpose of their existence was to help fellow parents in protecting children from popular music which contained “obscene” lyrics.  In his testimony, Zappa crushed them.

In the early 1990’s, Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Given the severely limited treatment options in those days, there wasn’t very much that could be done to help him, except attempts to impede its progress.  Over time, the illness took its toll on the great man; he became weak and tired.  Despite his lifelong reputation as a workaholic, he found that he now had to work less.  One of his final projects was an ambitious orchestral arrangement he hoped to conduct, but due to the debilitating nature of his cancer, he was forced to seek out another, younger conductor.  Zappa finally succumbed to the cancer in 1993.   


The word “genius” is frequently tossed around recklessly, but in the case of Frank Zappa was extremely  appropriate, if not a total understatement.  Zappa was not only a brilliant musician who composed songs that occasionally had intricate and complex melodies, but he was also a keen observer of culture and society at large, capable of making the most incisive (and often humorous) commentaries.  The documentary about his life, “Eat That Question”, however, is not nearly up to the level of his brilliance.  Although director Thorsten Schütte claims this was his passion project for the past eight years, it doesn’t seem that enough effort was made in compiling these clips given that amount of time.

For one thing, the documentary lacks structure.  “Eat That Question” is a bunch of interviews with Zappa done over the years; they are strung together, periodically broken up by performances on television or in concert.  The viewer doesn’t know where in Zappa’s life we are until the end where the final interview shows him gaunt, pale and drawn while he’s dying of prostate cancer.  It would have been informative if the date (or at least the year) and location of the various interviews and performance footage had been provided via superimposing it on the screen or by using title cards in between. 

That this information is absent suggests a certain degree of lackadaisical attitude or carelessness on the part of the filmmaker.  Clearly, there is some black and white television footage from the 1960’s and 1970’s, but exactly when or what the title of the show was or the name of the host doing the interview are pieces of information that are inexplicably omitted.  In addition, while we see Zappa playing with his band, The Mothers Of Invention, we learn nothing about who these people were or how Zappa formed the band.  Yes, this documentary literally is just Frank Zappa in his own words – but maybe a few more words here and there might have come in handy. 

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) on IMDb

Monday, June 13, 2016

“The Witness”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new documentary “The Witness”, about the infamous Kitty Genovese murder.


When a young woman is murdered, the media reports that 38 witnesses to the crime did nothing to help – but what happens when this all turns out to be a lie?


On a cold March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered on a street in the New York City borough of Queens.  Much was made of this because it was so widely reported in the news not only in New York City, but around the country, as well.  The nation was horrified to learn through media reports that despite this 28-year-old young woman’s cries for help in the street, no one was willing to help her.  According to newspaper articles, there were 38 witnesses to the crime and none of them either came to her aid or called the police. 

Some 40 years after the crime, The New York Times published an article that re-examined the crime; based on the reporter’s investigation, the conclusion was that the version of the story originally reported by The Times was factually incorrect, either accidentally or intentionally.  While the story suggested there were 38 eyewitnesses, they may have really been “earwitnesses” instead – that is to say, they only heard the crime rather than saw the crime.  Upon reading this, Bill Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother, decided to do some investigation of his own; still bothered by the crime that essentially ruined his family, Bill found it hard to believe that there were 38 people who refused his sister help. 

However, there were several matters that hampered Bill’s investigation.  For one thing, since so much time had elapsed since the killing, many of the supposed witnesses had died; also, again due to the passage of time, those who were still around and willing to speak had some trouble remembering many of the exact details of this night.  Perhaps the most daunting challenge Bill faced was his own physical limitation; having joined the Marines during the Vietnam war, he had both of his legs blown off and had been confined to a wheelchair for decades.  Despite all of these obstacles, can Bill get to the bottom of this incident?       


Remarkable, painful and informative – these words are perhaps the best fitting description of “The Witness”.  What little most of us know about Kitty Genovese is only regarding the last half hour of her life when she was stabbed and lay dying in a pool of her own blood.  Through this documentary, we learn what a full and happy life she was leading right up until its premature end.  Astounding revelations include her brief marriage and lesbian relationship, not to mention the fact that she had been previously arrested for her involvement in bookmaking.  Shocking to watch is Bill’s meeting with the adult son of the man who spent his life in prison for Kitty’s murder; it turns out his father filled his head with misinformation about what happened that night. 

If there is any criticism of this documentary, it would be the way in which its ending was handled.  First, the only person who actually came out to help Kitty was a woman named Sophie, who lived in the same apartment building and was her good friend.  Bill was able to meet with Sophie, but the meeting was somewhat anticlimactic.  The other scene had to do with Bill hiring an actress to recreate Kitty’s attack where she was in the street screaming for help at 3AM.  In the context of the movie, it was a little difficult to understand exactly why Bill did this; it wasn’t until afterwards in the question and answer session (below) that he explained the people in the neighborhood had been previously informed the filmmakers were going to do this so as not to alarm residents.  He further clarified that it was done so he could personally witness what his sister must have gone through in her final moments. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the director and Bill.  Bill said that although the early portions of his investigation were emotionally taxing, the longer he continued, the more he was able to accept closure on his sister’s story; he felt that in some way, this documentary keeps Kitty alive, at least in his own mind.  Director James Solomon said that while most people see this as a mystery, he sees the film as something of a sibling love story; Solomon added that he was able to commiserate with Bill’s sense of loss because during the shoot, he lost his own brother to leukemia.   

The Witness (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

“Diary Of A Chambermaid”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new French drama “Diary Of A Chambermaid”, starring Léa Seydoux and directed by Benoît Jacquot. 


When a young chambermaid seeks to escape her demanding employers, will she be willing to break the law in order to do so?


At the turn of the 20th century in France, Célestine (Léa Seydoux) is having a hard life working as a chambermaid for various wealthy families.  Poor but quite beautiful, she is pursued by her male bosses; both her male and female employers end up taking advantage of her, but in very different ways.  Having recently left a plum assignment in Paris under some mysterious circumstances, Célestine winds up taking a job in the provinces where she works at the mansion of a the Lanlaire family; sadly, her fortunes turn out to be no different there as Mrs. Lanlaire is nasty and Mr. Lanlaire is constantly trying to get her into bed (just as he has previously with other female servants). 

Trying to adapt as best she can, Célestine attempts to befriend Marianne, the family cook, and Joseph, their gardener and coach driver.  Although she seems to be hitting it off well with Marianne, Joseph is another matter; he is quite aloof and a bit spooky, staring menacingly at her while on the grounds or at church.  Nevertheless, Célestine does her level best to navigate through the treacherous waters between the lady and gentleman of the house, resenting them both.  All the while, she dreams of a better life somewhere else doing something else – the only question is where and doing what?

Eventually, Joseph warms up to her and makes an effort to engage Célestine.  Joseph admits to her that he wants to be with her; he has a bit of money saved and they could leave for a big city where the two could earn a tidy income – basically by Joseph serving as her pimp while she got paid to sleep with strange men.  Initially, Célestine is turned off to the idea, but after suffering with The Lanlaires, she gets fed up and decides to accept Joseph’s offer.  But when he reveals a scheme of how they’ll rob The Lanlaires before they quit, will Célestine go along with the plan or back-out in the end?


“Diary Of A Chambermaid” is based on a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau, which was published in 1900.  Since then, it has seen three film adaptations:  the original in 1946 (directed by Jean Renoir), then in 1964 (Luis Buñuel’s version) and again now (as interpreted by Benoît Jacquot).  In that regard, you might say that the current one is a copy of a copy; as often happens when you make a copy of a copy, its clarity and quality suffers.  Such is the case with the new version of this adaptation.  The episodic nature of the storytelling combined with an ending that screeches to a halt with many questions left unanswered causes this effort to suffer immensely. 

Why does Celestine suddenly team with Joseph after having such negative impressions of him?  The film chooses to ignore this.  Narratively, the movie abruptly switches to what turn out to be flashbacks without clearly identifying them as such, ultimately confusing the viewer.  On a technical note, the film is in French with English subtitles that are in white; as a result, they can occasionally be hard to read when superimposed over light backgrounds.  Why filmmakers don’t get the hint and start subtitling in the easier to read yellow may forever remain a mystery.  Inattention to these kinds of details speak to either the arrogance, apathy or ambivalence of the international distributors – it’s unclear which, or perhaps a combination of two or more of these. 

After the screening, director Benoît Jacquot appeared for a brief question and answer session with the audience.  Through an interpreter, Jacquot said that he came to make this movie through a recommendation from a friend; although he had never previously read the Mirbeau novel, he did admit to seeing the previous two film adaptations.  He felt that the Renoir version was very different from Buñuel’s and with that in mind, he wanted to take a stab at his own view.  Another reason why Jacquot claimed he was motivated to do this motion picture was due to the fact that some of the political issues informing France from a century ago continue to resonate today.      

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015) on IMDb