Alice Through the Looking Glass
There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…
Odie "Odienator" Henderson has spent almost 30 years working in Information Technology. He runs the blogs Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.
A lover of film noir, musicals, Blaxploitation, bad art and good trash, Odie has been a Far Flung Correspondent since 2011. He has written for Slant Magazine's The House Next Door blog since 2006. He is the troublemaker responsible for the annual Black History Mumf series at Big Media Vandalism. His work has also appeared at MovieMezzanine, Movies Without Pity, Salon, and of course, here at RogerEbert.com.
In 2013, Odie entered the world of film festival programming, presenting 9 movies at the Off Plus Camera Film Festival in Krakow, Poland.
Based in the NYC area, Odie enjoys writing code almost as much as he enjoys writing prose. Something is wrong with that guy.
"Sexual Chronicles of a French Family" (76 minutes) is available via IFC On Demand.
Let's play a game. It's 3 AM and you can't sleep. A channel roulette session with the remote control stops your TV on a certain network synonymous with softcore erotica. Do you: a) Roll your eyes and keep flipping the dial before falling asleep to some warped infomercial?
b) Realize you need something more substantial and order "Chicks Who Dig Odienator 29" off the Adult On Demand Channel?
c) Drop the remote and make a date with Rosy Palm and her Five Sisters? If you answered a, Alex Trebek is here to say "OOH I'M SORRY!!" We've got some nice consolation prizes for you as you leave this blog. If you answered b, I thank for your $9.95, but you will also have to leave this blog. Today's entry is most definitely not your speed. But if you answered c, have I got a movie for you. It's called "Chroniques sexuelles d'une famille d'aujourd'hui" or "Sexual Chronicles of a French Family," and you can watch it in the privacy of your own home. I won't tell, and I certainly won't cast aspersions. After all, I pitched this movie to review here at The Demanders. After discovering the title, and its French origins, my exact pitch to our editor was "Mmmm! FILTH!" So this sinner casts no stones.
Unfortunately, this sinner has issues with this "Chronicles of Labia," the least of which is how to review a movie like this. I could take the high road, but if you've read this far, you are expecting me to traverse the lowest road possible. To review a comedy, one must admit if it inspired laughter. To review an erotic picture, one must more uncomfortably cop to whether it resulted in the upping of a body part that isn't a thumb. In that regard, I respectfully submit that this film didn't do it for me. I expected something a little less squeamish (read: dirtier) than what I got.
"Sexual Chronicles of A French Family" is Cinemax with subtitles, or "Le Çinemax." It has the same frustrating "hide the good stuff" camera angles as your average straight-to-cable softcore knock-off, and the same repeated positions. In its defense, the film does not contain Cinemax's ubiquitous bad boob jobs, the ones so dreadful that they turn breasts into triangles, squares and other shapes nature never intended for headlights. The boob job in this film looks fine. "Chronicles" also has a more intriguing plot than any sex film on cable at 3 AM, though this is somewhat squandered.
"Hemingway & Gellhorn (160 minutes) debuts on HBO May 28th, and will be available on HBO Go and HBO On Demand May 29th.
"If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it." -- Ernest Hemingway
by Odie Henderson Philip Kaufman's epic HBO movie "Hemingway & Gellhorn" is old-fashioned, corny as hell and not above using cliché. None of these characteristics is necessarily a bad thing, especially if the filmmakers know they are employing them. This film evokes the rainy Sunday afternoon old-movie fare I grew up watching on TV, movies with a tough, macho hero, a smart, brassy dame and the undeniable chemistry between them. Kaufman updates the formula to modern times with belts of profanity and jolts of sex, but "Hemingway and Gellhorn" maintains the feeling of an era long since passed, wherein its leads could have been played by Gable and Harlow or Bogie and Betty Bacall.
The titular characters are Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn is widely considered one of the greatest war correspondents in journalism history, covering wars well into her 80's. Yet, she was constantly overshadowed by her more famous ex-husband. Theirs was a torrid affair, started while Hemingway was married to his Catholic second wife and continuing through their coverage of several wars. "We were good at wars," Gellhorn said, "and when there was no war, we made our own." The screenplay, by Barbara Turner ("Georgia") and Jerry Stahl ("Permanent Midnight") is filled with prose like this, and I enjoyed devouring every purple morsel of it. "Hemingway and Gellhorn" even opens with the now-elderly Gellhorn telling us what a lousy lay she was.
"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story (92 minutes) is available on-demand at iTunes and Amazon starting April 26th. It will be theatrically released in Los Angeles, CA on April 25, 2012. and New York on April 27, 2012.
"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" asks a question about documentaries to which I admit I've not given much consideration: Can a documentary negatively affect the lives of their participants? For Booker Wright, an interviewee in Frank DeFelitta's 1966 NBC documentary, "Mississippi: A Self-Portrait," his appearance cost him a severe beating, the bombing of his business, and potentially his death 7 years later. Wright's "crime" was to speak too bluntly about life as a Black man in Greenwood, Mississippi. "Booker's Place" investigates the ramifications of DeFelitta using footage he knew was incendiary, yet invaluable to his role as one who documents the truth. Did DeFelitta also commit a "crime" in allowing the footage to be broadcast, assisting in the eventual fate of Booker Wright? Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson and Frank's son, Raymond DeFelitta, answer this and more in their must-see documentary.
The elder DeFelitta's documentary aired on NBC at the height of the civil rights movement. Hidden for decades in a vault, "Mississippi: A Self-Portrait" resurfaced as Frank DeFelitta and his son were cataloguing the numerous documentaries Frank made for NBC in the '60's. At the same time, Booker Wright's granddaughter, who had never met her grandfather, was writing a blog about her discoveries researching him. Although Johnson had heard of his NBC appearance, her searches for the footage yielded nothing but dead-ends. After the younger DeFelitta heard of Johnson's blog, he contacted her. Their meeting sent them on a journey for answers to their central questions. DeFelitta wanted to know how much, if any, effect his father's documentary had on Booker Wright; Johnson wanted to know more about her grandfather, and whether his comments were intentional or, in her words, the work of "an accidental activist."
"Sleepless Night" (103 minutes) is available on demand through various cable systems, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Instant, starting April 17th. It will be theatrically released in New York and Austin, Texas on May 11, 2012.
by Odie Henderson
A stolen bag of cocaine, a kidnapped kid, corrupt cops, a shaky camera and a dance club the size of a Super Walmart configure Frederic Jardin's "Sleepless Night," a frenetic French action film that will either get your heart or your head pounding. This is a relentless genre exercise, both exhilarating and exhausting. Its numerous showdown set pieces feature foes in gun battles, foot chases and fisticuffs. Our protagonist uses whatever's handy to subdue his opponents: People's noggins get hit with doors, bread, dishes, bullets and the cleanest part of the commode. Gendarmes go from corrupt to virtuous and vice versa, film speeds vary from slow motion to sped up, and narrow escapes coexist with near-misses. With this much activity, sensory overload is all but guaranteed.
Vincent (French comedian Tomer Sisley) is a corrupt cop who begins his day by robbing 10 kilos of cocaine from the henchmen of José Marciano (Serge Riaboukine). Marciano's godson is shot, but not before Vincent is stabbed and both he and his partner are seen by one of Marciano's men. Marciano knows who robbed him, and he also knows Vincent's son, Thomas, would make a great bargaining chip for the return of his yayo. The gangster kidnaps Vincent's son and demands the exchange be made at Marciano's restaurant-slash-dance club, Le Tarmac.
"Cab Calloway: Sketches" premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Monday, February 27 on PBS's "American Masters" (check local listings), and PBS on demand after that.
When I was 10, I snuck into my first R-rated movie and caught my first glimpse of Cab Calloway. Mind you, I'd heard him numerous times, as my folks had "Minnie the Moocher" on a 45. But much like the young audience who flocked to "The Blues Brothers" in 1980, I'd never actually seen him before. Until his musical number, Calloway looked like a nice old man. But once the strains of "Minnie the Moocher" started playing, he became something astonishing. He was hypnotic, dressed to the nines, with dreamlike movements and straight hair he shook like no Black person I knew. He was delivered to me the size Cab Calloway should always be delivered: On a big movie screen. I was in awe. 31 years later, I attended a midnight screening of "The Blues Brothers" at the IFC Center in New York City. Despite my familiarity with Calloway's appearance and his other movies, I had the same reaction to seeing him on the big screen. That film remains the only time I've seen him in those dimensions, and he'd lost none of his allure.
Calloway's appearance in "The Blues Brothers" features in the final act of "Cab Calloway: Sketches," Gail Levin's documentary for PBS's "American Masters." Director John Landis and the Memphis musicians who made up the Blues Brothers band discuss their time with the self-proclaimed "Hi-De-Ho Man." Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Lou Marini speak of Calloway's constant dapperness and the aura any living legend carries around. He told them stories, had a good time with the actors, and scared the hell out of his director during a recording session of the song Calloway pressed to vinyl in 1930. "Sketches" covers the origins of both Calloway and his leading lady, Minnie.
"Sketches" begins B.M., that is, before "Minnie the Moocher," with Cab Calloway at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Savoy was where people went stompin'--it was the biggest Black dance club in town. They called it "The Land of Happy Feet." If you played there, you'd arrived (at least to Black folks you had). Calloway appears with his band, the Alabamians, who, according to historian Gary Giddins, "had nothing to do with Alabama. " Upon arrival, Cab and company got into a "Battle of the Bands" with Savoy favorites, The Missourians. "They got their asses beat, " says Giddens, and Calloway, here in clips from an interview he conducted in his later years, seconds that notion. "But when the Missourians were looking for a new leader, they remembered me, " says Calloway. His career immediately got a boost.
"Raccoon Nation" premieres on PBS's Nature series Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m., 7 p.m. Central. Coming on DVD/Blu-ray March 13.
Let's be frank: People watch nature documentaries because they want to see wild animals doing the Wild Thing. This can be shown on regular TV because, as Bea Arthur's Maude famously said, "animals making love is rated G. People making love like animals--that's R " An animal documentary serves to showcase how its subjects survive, hunt, eat, play, and yes, get their freak on. There's a reason the sexiest piece of music Elmer Bernstein ever wrote used to play over footage of animals gettin' bizzy on "National Geographic." A Barry White soundtrack would have been way too hot for TV.
Alas, "Raccoon Nation" is a relatively chaste animal documentary, which is unusual but no less interesting. Its focus is on another popular topic of nature non-fiction: man's effect on the animal kingdom. Our species is usually depicted as destructive, and rightfully so. Forests and wooded areas are disappearing, leaving animals homeless and upsetting the natural balance by misplacing both predator and prey. "Raccoon Nation" takes a different approach, however, suggesting that humans may be responsible for the continued survival of the misplaced animal. The more we try to get rid of raccoons, the smarter they get. It's side hustle disguised as adaptation.
As more and more development occurs, the animals start living closer to us. The urban jungle is now literally a jungle. Deer have been spotted in my hometown, and 10 miles away, Irvington, New Jersey saw an episode of "Bearz N The Hood" when a city block's trashcans were set upon by ursine visitors. My current neighborhood is overrun with rabbits, foxes, possums, squirrels and birds who are decidedly NOT pigeons. I walked out of my house this summer, and there were so many animals in my yard I thought I was in "Song of the South."
"The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975" plays on PBS's "Independent Lens" Thursday, February 9, 2012. Check local listings. It is also available on DVD, Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant.
After viewing "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975," I stumbled out of the theater and into a blinding, mid-afternoon New York City sun, every nerve in my body ablaze. All my neurons seemed to be firing at once, and my brain was so full of thought I sought some way to collect myself. I started to walk, focusing more on reconciling my thoughts than a navigational direction. With no destination in mind, I walked for what seemed an eternity, trying to put my emotional responses together. I was jolted from my mental process by an old woman standing next to me on a Manhattan street corner. I must have looked shell-shocked, because she touched my arm as we waited for a Lower East Side traffic light to change. "Honey, are you alright?" she asked, genuine concern on her face.
Fully back in reality, I said "I'm fine, ma'am. Thank you for asking."
My reaction requires an explanation. Swedish journalist and filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson's documentary took me back to the days when I came to a mature understanding of the implications of being Black, male, and broke. My adolescence was full of reading the speeches and works of Black leaders besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose to do this after my uncle took me to a Black-owned bookstore and suggested several books I should read. He avoided MLK not out of some form of militant stance, but because footage and information about King were everywhere. He was the star of every Black History Month on TV, and those who rejected the message of non-violence were either marginalized, demonized or ignored. I devoured works by people whose messages were downright terrifying to mainstream America: Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton.
"Woody Allen: A Documentary" airs on PBS stations in two parts, at 9 p. m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 20 and 21. Check local listings for airtimes. Also available via PBS On Demand.
by Odie Henderson
I took this gig as a challenge. It's not that I hate Woody Allen; I just don't adore him as much as you would like. Plus, I live in the Bizarro World when it comes to his films, enjoying the ones most people hate and vice-versa. For example, I hated "Match Point," disliked "Annie Hall," and could never commit to "Manhattan" despite its astonishing, heartbreaking cinematography. Conversely, I loved "Deconstructing Harry," found "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" amusing, and I may be the only sane person who liked "Hollywood Ending." These confessions may disturb die-hard fans, but before you vow never to read anything of mine again, you should watch American Masters' "Woody Allen: A Documentary." There you'll discover that Woody Allen dislikes most of his movies, even going so far as to offer to make a different movie for free if United Artists used "Manhattan" for kindling. Compared to that, my "meh" reaction to the gorgeous-looking film is a ringing endorsement. We now know who should be getting your hate mail, don't we?
Not that Allen would care. Robert B. Weide's exceptional documentary makes clear that critical opinion is the farthest thing from its subject's mind. The prolific writer-director has been too busy cranking out a film a year for the past four decades to worry about what anyone thinks of them. You'd have to go back to the studio system's heyday for that kind of output, work that produced eleven solo and three collaborative Oscar nominations for writing. That's two more than my beloved Billy Wilder, who coincidentally never got a solo writing nomination. Add to those fourteen writing nods his six directing nominations, sole acting nod and the resulting three wins, and you have one of the most honored filmmakers in Hollywood history. He can expect a 22nd nomination for "Midnight In Paris," which I cop to liking but not with the slobbering praise afforded it by most critics. (It's like a cross between Cliffs Notes, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and a Tea Party rally, with all that "it's so much better in the past" nonsense.) The fact that awards mortify Allen makes these numerous acknowledgements the kind of ironic, funny joke one would find in, well, a Woody Allen movie.
"The Bengali Detective" plays HBO On Demand, beginning November 16th.
The first thing you need to know about "The Bengali Detective is that Fox Searchlight purchased the remake rights ten months before the general public laid eyes on it. Director Philip Cox's documentary features a charming leading man, adultery, triple homicide, mystery and suspense, a cute little kid, a dying spouse, corrupt officials and unbridled dancing. What studio could resist any of that, let alone be faithful to the darker, sadder grace notes that underscore the source material? The fiction version, due in 2014, will probably replace the casual matter-of-factness of "The Bengali Detective" with overdone "Slumdog Millionaire"-style schadenfreude. Unlike Danny Boyle's popular Oscar winner, this film reminds the viewer that those who cannot afford much should still be afforded dignity without the gaze of pity. Save yourself the three-year wait and watch "The Bengali Detective" now.
According to the film, 70 percent of the crimes in the East Indian city of Kolkata are unsolved. The authorities are either incompetent, corrupt or both. So the citizens turn to one of their own, the local detective who takes their cases. The titular Bengali detective is Rajesh Ji, head of the Always Detective Agency. He takes numerous cases, sometimes more than he can comfortably handle, and his motley crew of assistant detectives conduct surveillance, interview suspects, and shoulder their share of the legwork. During "The Bengali Detective, " Ji investigates three cases: One has a predictable outcome, one is a deceptively trivial crime, and the last is the harrowing triple murder of three best friends. The film gives each case a title so we know which one we're following with the detectives.
"Deepti" follows a middle-aged woman who comes to Ji with the suspicion that her husband of 24 years is cheating on her. Cox interviews her, and she talks of arranged marriage and her spouse's incredible cruelty toward her over the course of their relationship. "Just because he's a man doesn't make him lord and master," Deepti tells the camera. Later, after two of Ji's assistants tail the husband to the expected results, Deepti issues a statement to Ji that is devastating in its descriptive simplicity. "My heart is blank," she tells him, "but at least I know the truth." Cox leaves her story with a quiet long shot of the saddened wife staring at the bright green folder containing Ji's case documentation.
"Killing Bono" available On Demand (through various cable outlets -- check your listings) October 5. In theaters November 4.
by Odie Henderson
"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." -- Gore Vidal
I was the only patron at my screening of "U2: Rattle and Hum" back in 1988. Sitting in the cavernous darkness of my old 'hood theater, with its still-unmatched speakers and the ghosts of my childhood movies, I fell in love with the band U2. Beforehand, I had a casual familiarity with their music, and while I liked some of the songs, I wouldn't have considered myself a fan. I went because the black and white cinematography looked gorgeous in the clips I'd seen on TV. I wasn't disappointed. Phil Joanou's documentary is achingly beautiful. That, along with Bono and the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir's performance of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," cemented my diehard fandom. Once, in a Dublin pub, armed with numerous imbibed pints of Guinness and a dare from the guitar-playing busker who'd been entertaining the crowd, I sang "All I Want Is You" to a crowd of swooning lasses standing in front of me. That evening ended well.
Neil McCormick, the protagonist of "Killing Bono" would hate that I started this piece fawning over the murder victim of the film's title. After all, he feels trapped in Bono's shadow and decides he has to kill him. "Killing Bono" opens in 1987, with a stalkerish Neil (Ben Barnes) driving his car to Bono's latest Dublin appearance. Rambling to the camera that he was originally entitled to everything Bono has, Neil crashes his car before exiting with his gun drawn and pointed at his prey. "I always knew I'd be famous," he tells us.
Cue the flashback machine! Suddenly, it's 1976, and McCormick stands in a high school hallway reading a billboard notice. His classmate, Paul Hewson (Martin McCann), is holding auditions for his new band, The Hype. Despite being in Neil's band, The Undertakers, Neil's brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) tries out for second guitar. Much to Neil's chagrin, Hewson loves Ivan's work and wants him for his band. Neil objects--Ivan's really good and essential to Neil's success--so he tells Paul no deal.