The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Steven Boone has written film criticism for over 20 publications in print and online, including The Village Voice, The Star-Ledger, Time Out NY and Salon.com.
Boone is a writer at large for the website Capital New York and a contributor to three popular blogs: Fandor's Keyframe, Indiewire's Press Play and Slant Magazine's The House Next Door. His experimental video essays blend film commentary, memoir and documentary in a provocative DIY style.
"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is available for streaming/download on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu and YouTube. In theaters March 2.
"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is a lot like "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!." They're both experimental video art posing as sketch comedy. In them you can see DNA from Ernie Kovacs, John Waters, the Kuchar brothers, Robert Downey, Sr., Tom Rubnitz, early Beck music videos, Damon Packard, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (and every other Adult Swim psychotic episode) and Harmony Korine, to name just a random few. But it's likely that actor-writer-directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim took inspiration from none of these freaks.
The duo's work seems to flow directly from three sources: Bad corporate promotional and instructional videos, absurd local TV programming and assaultive blockbuster films. Their collages of chopped-and-screwed sounds with spastic motion graphics and sloppy green screen don't seem much different (in effect, if not production values) from what's on cable any given Sunday. It's just that they put unattractive, demented-seeming people in front of the green screen instead of the usual telegenic emoters. They spout nonsense where platitudes and corporate messages usually go. When celebrities appear on the show, they flub and stutter like robot hologram versions of themselves. It's as if the show's editor was a spam bot.
Whether any of it is funny is almost beside the point. The creeping surrealism often takes away your ability to blink, especially, I suspect, when, like me, you have no history with the show.
"The Loving Story" premieres on Valentine's Day, February 14, at 9 p.m. on HBO (check local listings), and is available via HBO On Demand and HBO Go thereafter.
"The Loving Story" is as modest and taciturn as its subject, an interracial couple who, in 1958 rural Central Point, Virginia, just wanted to be left alone. For the most part, they were, and that was the problem as much as it was their fervent wish. When the local sheriff busted into their bedroom at 4 am and hauled them off to jail for violating the Racial Integrity Act, there was no national audience, in contrast to the fire hosings, bombings and other acts of racist terror that couldn't help but make the evening news at the time. The whole world was not watching. It's hard to fathom why after seeing the luminous 16mm footage uncovered in "The Loving Story." Documenting many pivotal moments in the case, it adds a dash of something rarely seen in the grand narrative of the American Civil Rights struggle: romance.
In the footage and iconic photographs, the Lovings appear to be deeply in love. Richard is a silent, barrel-chested Ed Harris lookalike; Mildred is shy and beautiful, the essence of poised intelligence. How could a story this simple and universal, with two photogenic romantic leads captured in a Life magazine feature, get lost in the Civil Rights shuffle?
The Loving case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court, and all along the way, the couple insisted upon discretion and privacy. Only a small documentary crew -- filmmaker Hope Ryden and cinematographer Abbot Mills -- gained access to their home, but they made the most of it. The photography is as discreet but watchful as Mildred herself. When she, well, lovingly buckles her little daughter's suede shoe as they prepare for an outing, the camera isolates the mother's slender brown arm steadying her child's pale leg. In the film's context, as assembled by producer-director Nancy Buirski, moments like this one simply cry out, "Why on earth would a decent person want to disrupt this beautiful life?"
"Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" plays Monday, January 23, at 10 pm EST/PST on PBS American Masters. It will thereafter be available via PBS On Demand, and is currently on Netflix Instant and DVD.
"Mistakes are lodged like harpoons and fish hooks in an intelligent person's soul," says one friend of political folk singer Phil Ochsof the deep depression that eventually led him to suicide in 1976. Och's friends are like that, eloquent and insightful. His mentor Pete Seeger, in particular, speaks like he sings, modulating his voice to give anecdotes a mythic luster and heartbreaking resonance. But after watching "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" take a measure of the man's adult life, it seems that some friends put too much emphasis on generic therapist's reasons for his downward spiral -- schizophrenia, alcoholism, declining popularity. It seems that Phil Ochs' fall was inevitable, given the fact that his singing career began when he was barely out of his teens, when JFK's assassination was a couple years off, and crashed after every progressive movement for which his protest songs provided spiritual fuel was crushed.
This is not a standard pop star rise-and-fall story. Ochs was physically involved in the antiwar and social justice movements he sang along with. He headlined, organized and even spontaneously showed up at a staggering number of rallies for various causes. His investment was evident in his performances, presented here with shocking audiovisual fidelity. Even though it's captured on a black-and-white kinescope, a performance of his song "When I'm Gone" feels as clear and urgent as a live event. So, too, is his strumming and crooning at the 1964 Newport Music Festival. (Simply amazing sound and image restoration here.) The sonorous voice and wide, earnest eyes could just as easily belong to a Wall Street occupier serenading Zuccoti Park.
"The Innkeepers" is streaming online through Amazon Instant and Vudu. It is also offered on some cable systems' On Demand channels and opens theatrically in a limited release February 3rd. The official website is here.
by Steven Boone
The trailer for "The Inkeepers" betrays a basic insecurity common in low-budget indie films nowadays: They want you to think they're as loud and hectic as their big-budget counterparts. They're afraid you won't show up otherwise. And so this horror film which builds its scares slowly, stealthily and through the peculiar quirks of its characters is sold as just another clangy, generic mainstream fright flick. Mercifully, the actual film shows only a little of this poisonous "ambition." It's mostly just a good old-fashioned ghost story, well told.
This film's wealth of personality is apparent early on, as director Ti West takes his time recording the subtle oddball chemistry between Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the only staff on duty at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Luke is obsessed with documenting a legendary ghost at the Pedlar for his website. He is surprised to find that Claire, his secret geek-girl crush, is just as fascinated by the subject. For a healthy stretch of the film we just watch them goofing off and pranking each other when not rendering poor service to the inn's only two guests (one played by Kelly McGillis from "Top Gun," appearing about 15 years older than her actual age--the biggest jolt of the movie, for a viewer over 30).
"The First Grader" is streaming On Demand via Amazon and Vudu, and the DVD is on Netflix and on sale.
by Steven Boone
It doesn't matter that "The First Grader" is as shamelessly, sappily manipulative as that TV commercial where Sarah Mclachlan wails a tune while the camera zooms in on miserable animals peering out of their rescue shelter cages. Nope. It doesn't even matter that the musical score, which I will give the alternate title "Mother Africa Weeps," is the World Music equivalent of an Oreo McFlurry -- a real pancreas-buster. Never mind all that. The imagery in "The First Grader" places it on par with cinema's great sentimental masterpieces, "Umberto D," "Tokyo Story" and "Ikiru." From the first frame, this film warns that it is working in a universe of pure emotion.
The film's true story concerns Maruge (Oliver Litondo), a former Kenyan freedom fighter and political prisoner who has been forgotten in the post-colonial age. He walks around the countryside in rags while the new generation of power brokers benefiting from his sacrifices zip through Nairobi in Benzes. When he learns that the government is now offering free education to all, he tries to enroll in a local elementary school. He's illiterate, it turns out, and he wants to learn how to read an important old letter for himself. Of course, the 84 year-old has a tough time convincing the overcrowded one-room schoolhouse to let him in.
"Becoming Chaz" airs Sunday, November 27 6PM ET/PT on OWN before the 8 p.m. premiere of its follow-up, "Being Chaz."
Not too long ago, I was planning to marry a woman who was born a man, so Chaz Bono's story is a bit familiar. It's pretty simple, really, and you've heard it a thousand times by now: A transgender person feels trapped in the "wrong" body. Just for acting upon this lifelong impulse by changing their physical characteristics to better represent their true selves, transpeople are being assaulted and murdered in shameful numbers. The movie "Boys Don't Cry" might have softened a few bigoted hearts around this issue, but the killing continues worldwide.
Chaz, born Chastity Bono to celebrity couple Sonny and Cher, could have lived through his transition from female to male in private, but it's clear in the documentary "Becoming Chaz" that he knew the true cost of invisibility in such a transphobic world. He let the cameras roll during some unflattering, raw moments--the idea being that this story shouldn't idealize his experience any more than it should exploit it for freak show appeal. The aim is to show that Chaz, the man, is as real as you and I, not an illusion to be brought off. It's hard to imagine that the killers out there might be moved by all this candor, but those whose indifference or unawareness helps perpetuate discrimination should at least get a healthy jolt of recognition. "Becoming Chaz" is as much about the kind-faced "Dancing with the Stars" contestant's relationship as it is about his metamorphosis. That was my way into the film: I know a little bit about being "the partner."
"Bill T. Jones: A Good Man," premieres nationally Friday, November 11 at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on PBS. Check local listings.
by Steven Boone
Bill T. Jones looks like an epic hero of dance. His cheekbones are as intricately chiseled as his sable Jack Johnson physique. When working as a choreographer-director, he projects artistic heroism, naturally striking poses of sage leadership straight out of Classics Illustrated. Having created a show celebrating Africa's great musical activist, Fela Kuti ("FELA!"), to worldwide acclaim and Tony awards, he wasn't yet done with the subject of heroes when it struck him to complete a long-gestating piece about Abraham Lincoln titled "Fondly Do We Hope/Fervently Do We Pray."
"Bill T. Jones: A Good Man" is a documentary about Jones's attempt to understand his lifelong hero-worship of The Great Emancipator, using an entire dance company as his investigative tool. Many of the dancers grew up idolizing Jones the same way he has bowed to Lincoln since childhood -- an ingenious meta-reverberation of theme that's clearly intentional. Jones wants to know if Lincoln was, indeed, the "good man" official history portrays. Leadership in times of war and social upheaval entails traversing a minefield of cynical agendas. Jones wants to know if idealism can truly flower in such a toxic climate.
A day after bitching at many of his collaborators well into rehearsals, Jones gathers the company to apologize, but also to confess: He needs their help. Wearing dancer's tights and no shirt rather than his usual sweats and t-shirt, he appears as vulnerable as his performers. He's one of them for a moment, and he admits to having been puzzled about where he was steering this artistic ship. Now he realizes that the show isn't about Lincoln but about Bill T. Jones and his unfashionable beliefs.
Marshall Curry's "If a Tree Falls" premieres on PBS's "POV" series Tuesday, September 13, 2011.
by Steven Boone
Terrorism is plain stupid. I reaffirmed this belief halfway into "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front", a documentary chronicling the titular organization's rise and fall. It's one thing to protest in the streets, sit down in front of bulldozers and stage direct "actions" to draw media attention to a particular issue; it's another thing entirely to commit violent crimes with the same ends in mind. But did the Earth Liberation Front actually perpetrate any terrorism? Their 1200 or so "incidents," as a lawyer representing some members calls them, resulted in zero deaths or injuries (other than maybe a booboo sustained while vaulting a fence before the cops came). The violence was restricted to private property.
But the crimes covered in this film were prosecuted in the wake of 9/11, when its principal subject, radical environmental activist-arsonist Daniel McGowan, found himself branded a terrorist in the media and on trial. "I think people look at my case and think, 'What if that motherf**ker burned down my house?'" he says in the film. "They think it's just a bunch of young crazies walking around with gas cans, lighting shit on fire and that pisses them off."
"These facilities" were the offices of park rangers, loggers, an SUV dealership and a horse slaughterhouse. In the '90s and '00s, the E.L.F. targeted a range of businesses and organizations it saw as powerful agents of environmental destruction. The members were mostly very young protestors radicalized by brutal police response. Footage of cops beating and pepper-spraying non-violent activists who refuse to disperse does resemble classic civil rights/counterculture tumult. (Scenes of confrontation with loggers, from an E. L.F.-made documentary ostensibly shot in the mid-90s, look as if they could have been shot in the late '60s.) This was a classic, bright-eyed, idealistic strain of the environmental movement, led by resourceful twenty-somethings.
Playing in theaters nationwide Thursday, August 4, 2011. Details here.
by Steven Boone
"The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience" captures a dance music scene I tend to find noisy and vapid. But that's me. If you're a big fan of DJ-based acts like 12th Planet, Major Lazer, Moby and will.i.am, or just a true devotee of the rave scene, this film is immersive, passionate about its subject and visually striking. Director Kevin Kerslake seems to have as many cameras on hand as the Beastie Boys handed out to concertgoers in their gonzo 2006 music doc "Awesome; I F----n Shot That!"
It helps that Kerslake is a veteran music video director (R.E.M., Nirvana) whose career is probably older than most of the screaming kids in the crowd. He shows no restraint in dropping the camera deep into the mob like a performer into a mosh pit but doesn't let the chaos take over. It also helps that, right up front, like Michael Bay showing us a Victoria's Secret derriere in 3-D at the start of his last Transformers movie, Kerslake crams as many shots of unbelievably gorgeous girls doing cartwheels in clown makeup and lingerie as mathematically possible.
● Jackboots on Whitehall (DVD/VOD/Digital cable July 26) ● American Grindhouse (DVD/Hulu July 26)
by Steven Boone
The animated comedy "Jackboots on Whitehall" does its best to tweak every British stiff-upper-lip stereotype ever perpetuated in film and popular culture since World War II. This satire employs puppet animation techniques familiar from "Team America: World Police" and classic George Pal puppetoons, but with exquisite production design more akin to Wes Anderson's stop-motion "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Instead of marionettes or stop-motion, however, filmmakers Edward and Rory McHenry employ animatronic dolls enhanced with CGI.
The period detail in this account of Hitler's alt-reality occupation of London is stunning: a convincing re-creation of Whitehall, the road whose major landmarks comprise the seat of British government; the airship Hindenburg, which, in this reality, never blew up and now serves as a Nazi attack vehicle; Hadrian's Wall and the hills of Scotland; vintage fighter planes, palaces, tanks, luxury cars... Equally meticulous is the costuming, from Winston Churchill's pinstriped suit to the Raj soldiers' blue turbans.
While the McHenry brothers' puppets aren't articulated beyond some binary limb and neck movements, they are sculpted with such expressive character it's easy to suspend disbelief. Exuberant character voices help. Timothy Spall as a gruff Churchill, Alan Cumming as a fey Hitler and Tom Wilkinson as a simpering Goebbels play it lip-smackingly broad. Richard E. Grant portrays a tightly wound priest so perpetually furious that its possible he gave his entire performance through clenched teeth. Ewan McGregor lends the unlikely farm boy hero some warmth. Along the way, some downright filthy jokes fly by almost subliminally, under kids' radar (including a visual joke last seen in "Boogie Nights"). In fact, so much of the humor is adult, whether in raunchiness or complexity, that Jackboots on Whitehall is less a family film than one for liberal parents and their precocious teens. The DVD includes a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary that details just how much love went into this handcrafted epic.