Where to invade next

C- Comedy, documentary, mockumentary

Written and directed by Michael Moore

The press material for Where to Invade Next insists on calling Michael Moore’s latest agitprop movie a comedy, and not a documentary. This is odd because, although it’s for the most part non-fiction, it’s not all that funny.

It has its comic moments. A few bits, including the quick shot of a cellphone-tossing contest, pulled a belly laugh out of me. But it’s nowhere near as funny as Moore’s better documentaries.

The opening certainly counts as fiction. The Joint Chiefs of Staff call Moore to Washington for his advice. The USA hasn’t won a war since World War II, and they want to know why. To put it another way, they want a country to invade.

That setup suggests a movie about the military-industrial complex, but that’s not what’s on Moore’s mind this time around (although it’s a worthy subject for his talent). The places he visits are, with one exception, the sort of countries we don’t go to war with–wealthy democracies populated primarily by white people. Moore wants to “invade” them to bring home their good ideas, such as free education, jailing bankers, decriminalizing drugs, and giving workers long vacations.

In other words, it’s about how backward the USA is compared to other wealthy democracies

Let me be clear: I am in complete agreement with Moore on these issues. And so will be 99.9 percent of the people who will see Where to Invade Next. But that’s always been the major problem with Moore’s movies–they’re seen almost entirely by people who already agree with him.

So what’s this movie’s function? Can it provide statistics you can use to argue with your Tea Party cousin? Maybe, but an Internet search will get those stats faster, and in a form that you can copy and paste.

Or is it there to entertain the faithful and rouse them to fix our country. That’s worthwhile, but as I said, the movie is not all that entertaining. Moore’s shtick feels tired 27 years after Roger and Me, and the nearly two-hour runtime (which felt padded) didn’t help.

As much as I agree with Moore’s arguments, I couldn’t help but be bothered by their one-sidedness. The fact that he has to go to Italy to find long vacations, France to find public schools that feed healthy, gourmet food, and Norway to find humane prisons suggests that no one country has all the answers. And Moore doesn’t even consider these countries’ problems. I’ve read about severe racism and xenophobia in western Europe. And when I saw those French children all being served the same gourmet meal, I didn’t see any exceptions for those who keep halal, kosher, or vegan–or simply those who have allergies.

Yes, I found the film sporadically entertaining, and it’s always pleasing to have your own controversial opinions validated. But even for his fans (and I used to be one), Michael Moore has become tiring.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: From film to book to film

B+ Documentary

Directed by Kent Jones

We start with narrative, fiction film–not one film, but the body of work from one of cinema’s great masters. Then a brilliant young filmmaker, influenced by the master, turns that body of work into a book–a study of filmmaking. It becomes a classic. Decades later, long after both filmmakers have died, another filmmaker turns that book into another film.

It all comes full circle.

I enjoyed Kent Jones’ documentary very much, but I came in with a bias. I’m a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan (despite my dislike of Vertigo), and I’m a considerable admirer of François Truffaut. Keep that in mind as I praise this movie.

Jones rightly focuses on cinematic technique, but also provides some important and interesting historical background. When they sat down for the interviews, Hitchcock and Truffaut seemed as different as respected directors could be. Hitchcock had been directing for more than 35 years. He planned his films meticulously and expected actors to do what they were told. He was a highly successful commercial entertainer but not a respected artist.

Truffaut , on the other hand, was a young genius with only three features to his name. He was leading a vanguard of rebellious filmmakers who were changing cinema. He was a darling of the intelligentsia. People were surprised when he named Hitchcock as his favorite director.

Jones brings up an interesting biographical connection between the two. Hitchcock often talked about a frightening childhood incident that probably never happened. He claimed that his father punished him for some infraction by sending him to the local police station and having him locked into a cell for a few minutes. But something very much like that really happened to Truffaut when he was a juvenile delinquent.

Once these details are out of the way, Hitchcock/Truffaut becomes a film about filmmaking–specifically Hitchcock’s approach to keeping his audience alert and frightened. Several top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese talk about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art to create his desired effect. Scorsese in particular describes some brilliant touches in The Wrong Man¸ noting how camera placement adds to the tension when Henry Fonda is first placed in a jail cell, and the dissolve when the faces of the guilty and the innocent seem to merge.

Faces play an important part in these discussions. Is the camera line above the eye? Below it? All an important part of the Hitchcock style.

Jones illustrates the discussions with film clips covering Hitchcock’s long career. Clips from Truffaut’s work–mostly The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim–turn up as well.

The original interviews were recorded, and Jones provides choice excerpts. And yes, Hitchcock actually says “all actors are cattle.” (So much for his tongue-in-cheek denial: “I never said actors are cattle. I said they should be treated like cattle.”)

At one point, Truffaut asks Hitchcock if he sees himself as a Catholic director. Hitchcock asks that his answer be off the record, and we never hear what it was.

Since neither director was sufficiently fluent in the other’s native tongue, a translator sat through all of the interviews. The soundtrack often has Hitchcock and the translator talking at the same time, which I found distracting and annoying. Truffaut’s talk is accompanied by subtitles, and it’s sometimes interesting to compare them to the off-the-cuff spoken translations.

The book Hitchcock/Truffaut turned Hitchcock’s reputation into that of a great artist, and helped many young directors learn their craft. I doubt this film will do the same. But it provides an enjoyable look at one great filmmaker and his work, indirectly through the eyes of another.

And it may encourage another generation of filmmakers to read the original book.

New Janis Joplin doc captures a little piece of her heart

Music documentary

Written and Directed by Amy Berg

I’m giving Janis: Little Girl Blue an A, but I’m not sure if I’m praising filmmaker Amy Berg or the subject of her documentary, Janis Joplin. I think it’s a little of both. If nothing else, Berg should be praised for concentrating on a great artistic and cultural figure, and then doing her more than justice.

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. And she did, dying of a heroin overdose in 1970, at the age of 27.

Janis (I feel odd calling her Joplin) left behind a handful of albums and recorded concerts (some filmed) that electrify the soul. Her voice was a cry for help, a carnal wail, and a call for revolution. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, this film will help you understand her, and introduce you to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music.

As you would expect from a documentary about a performer who died in living memory, Berg’s film contains plenty of concert footage, letters home, and interviews with people who knew and loved her. But the filmmaker understands that we love Janis primarily for her music, and therefore keeps the songs front and center. The music constantly plays as a background to the movie, and it almost always seems to be just the right song.

The interviewed subjects include Clive Davis, Bob Weir, Country Joe Macdonald, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, Kris Kristofferson, and Janis’ two siblings. There’s some archival interview footage with Janis herself –including one very funny moment with Don Adams of Get Smart–but she really only reveals her heart in the letters she writes to her family. And, of course, in the songs. Even the ones she didn’t write tell her story. She owned every song she recorded.

Much of the old footage here has been seen before, especially in Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary, Janis. Berg has a better sense of character and story telling–as well as four decades of historical perspective. And she includes a disheartening clip of Janis’ messed-up performance at Woodstock that I’m pretty sure I never saw before.

I said earlier that we love Janis primarily for her music, but we also love her for what she represented. Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943, her plain looks and progressive views made her an outcast. So she came to San Francisco, embraced free love and a free life, and became a star just as the Summer of Love began. As much as anyone, she represented the sexually-charged, essentially humane, ecstatic joy of the hippie movement.

But in the end, she represented the negative side of that movement as well, dying alone in a motel room from one too many hits of smack.

What would have happened had she cleaned up and lived a long life? Would her voice have blown out before she was 35? Would she have matured as an artist and found new ways to use that voice? One interview near the end suggests that she might have done just that.

Those were the questions I asked myself as the movie came to its end. Janis Joplin was a bright comet that streaked across the sky. Amy Berg has captured the best record yet of that ball of fire.

After its theatrical release, Janis: Little Girl Blue will screen on the PBS series American Masters. I suspect it will be heavily censored.

Dont Look Back Blu-ray Review

You have to be a very hardcore Bob Dylan fan to really enjoy D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary, Dont Look Back (yes, that’s the correct spelling). Not only would you have to know and love his songs, but you would have to know something about Dylan as a person and a phenomenon, and about what was going on around him and within him as he toured England in the spring of 1965.

Fortunately, I qualify. As the biggest Dylan fan I personally know, I find it riveting. It doesn’t really show or explain the many changes he was going through at that time. But in its fly-on-the-wall directness, it captures the insular world he had built for himself, and gives you a glimpse of the extremely conflicted and complex genius he was like just before turning 24.

At this time, Dylan was transitioning from folk music–all acoustic and no other musicians–to full-throttle rock and roll. His first album to include rock songs, Bringing It All Back Home, had just been released. And yet this was a folk tour–with no instruments beyond Dylan’s acoustic guitar, his harmonicas, and his voice. He sings many of the “protest” songs that had launched his career: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and, of course, “Blowing in the Wind.” And yet, in the movie, we’re told that “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–the rocker that opens the then-new album–is climbing up the British charts.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” also opens the movie in one of the most famous precursors of the rock video: As that influential song plays on the soundtrack, Dylan stands shyly and somewhat embarrassed in an alley holding up cue cards with bits of the lyrics–and some puns built around the lyrics .

That is, as near as I can tell, the only staged scene in the film. For the rest of its 96 minutes, Pennebaker’s camera and microphone follow Dylan and his entourage as they hang out in hotel rooms, ride in chauffeured cars, and play music for their own enjoyment. Occasionally, we see a bit of a concert.

The movie shows Dylan as a smart, funny, charismatic, and basically decent person interested in everyone he meets. But not always. Sometimes he’s a first-class jerk. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Here’s a very young man who has become accustomed to being called a genius. Not just a singer/songwriter, but cast uneasily as a poet and a prophet. He can be cruel so casually that one wonders if he knows how he’s behaving. There’s one scene with a Time Magazine reporter that makes your skin crawl.

The film shows us quite a bit of Joan Baez, who came with him on the tour but was never invited onstage. This tour marked the end of their professional and romantic relationship. They don’t seem to like each other much here. We see the moment when she walks out of his life, ending a long professional and romantic relationship. Oddly, she shows up in two scenes right after her walkout.

But his entourage included more than Baez. We see a lot of manager Albert Grossman, close friend and tour manager Bob Neuwirth, and British musician and former Animal Alan Price. Donovan pops up, as well.

This isn’t really a concert movie. It shows him performing occasionally, but never for one complete song. His greatest musical moment is a performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” played privately in a hotel room.

Nor is it a conventional, information-filled documentary. There’s no narration, and if you don’t recognize the people on screen, you probably won’t figure out who they are.

Pennebaker captured a brief moment when the ’60s were about to become the 60’s, and the crazy world one of the most influential figures of that transition. Dylan would tour England again in 1966. But then he’d play electric guitar and front a rock quintet that would eventually become The Band. He was booed in those concerts, but he changed music.

First Impression

Rather than the usual Criterion plastic, Dont Look Back comes packaged in a cardboard slip cover containing a cardboard disc holder. Inside that you’ll find the disc (of course) and a fairly substantial booklet.

The bulk of the booklet is taken up by an excellent essay by Robert Polito, along with various images–photos, tickets, headlines, and so on–from the tour. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, and Criterion’s traditional About the Transfer.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, the home screen has menus on the left. When you remove the disc, your Blu-ray player will save a bookmark, and give you an option to return to where it left off the next time you insert the disc.

How It Looks

I’m all for 4K scans of original negatives, carefully transferred to a 1040p Blu-ray. But Dont Look Back was shot on fast, very grainy 16mm film, so this particular 4K/1080p transfer doesn’t show you a lot of details or textures because they simply weren’t there on the negative. What it does show you is a lot of grain.

On the other hand, all that grain makes the image authentic. You can’t mistake it for anything but a cinema verite documentary from the 1960s.

The image is pillarboxed to 1.371, approximately right for the 16mm frame.

How It Sounds

The LPCM 1.0 24-bit soundtrack is very good. Although it’s mono, the single track captures and reproduces the music beautifully. And since the music is seldom more than one person singing and playing guitar, you don’t really need moretracks.

And the Extras

This disc comes with a lot of extras–by my reckoning, more than five hours worth. You’ll learn more about D.A. Pennebaker here than you’ll learn about Bob Dylan.

  • Commentary: Recorded in 1999 by Pennebaker and Neuwirth. This provides the narration that the movie lacks.
  • Dylan on Dont Look Back: four minutes, 1080i. Clips and outtakes, with Dylan narrating, talking mostly about how he got used to the camera and soon didn’t think about it.
  • 65 Revisted: 65 minutes, 1080p. Another movie edited in 2006 from footage not used in the original movie. It has some dull moments, but is generally very good–and it has full songs. It closes with an alternate take of the Subterranean cue card bit, this on a rooftop instead of an alley.
  • Greig Marcus and D. A. Pennebaker: 18 minutes, 1080i. A conversation with journalist and cultural critic Marcus. Interesting, but much of it you will get from other extras.
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues” (alternate take): two minutes, 1080p. Yet another version of the cue card bit, this one shot in a garden. By the way, all of the versions have Allen Ginsberg in the background, on the left, talking to someone.
  • Additional Audio Performances: Five songs recorded during the tour, with nothing on screen except a photo of Dylan singing. The songs are “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “the Lonesome Deagth of Hattie Carroll, and “To Ramona. “
  • D. A. Pennebaker: A Look Back: Four separate short films:
    • It Starts with Music: 29 minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker and some of his collaborators/assistants talk about how he developed his technique. Very interesting. “Narration to me is the enemy of theater.”
    • Daybreak Express: Five minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker’s first film, shot in 1953 but not completed until ’57. A visual love letter to NYC, set appropriately to Duke Ellington music. Also provided: a 3-minute introduction.
    • Baby: Six minutes; 1080p. Another early film, of Pennebaker’s young daughter at the zoo, filmed in 1954. Pennebaker considers this a breakthrough in what type of filmmaker he would become, but on its own, it’s just a home movie set to some nice music.
    • Lambert & Company: 14 minutes; 1080p. A Pennebaker film showing jazz vocalist Dave Lambert auditioning a new group for a record that was never recorded. Nice music, and it’s interesting to see how it’s created in the studio.
  • D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth: 34 minutes; 1080p. The two of them talking about their work together, which started but didn’t stop with Dont Look Back. They talk, with some clips from the films they worked on together. The film ends with a clip from a 1971 Neuwirth concert which proves that Neuwirth’s talent was really in helping other musicians.
  • Snapshots from the Tour: 26 minutes; 1080p. More outtakes. It’s uneven, but with a lot of music played in hotel rooms.
  • Patti Smith: 14 minutes; 1080p. Recorded just this summer. Smith talks about Dylan as an idol and eventually a friend.
  • Trailer: You guessed it, they advertised the film with The Subterranean Homesick Blues cue card bit.

And none of these extras answers the big question: Who stole the apostrophe in the title?

Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

The Sociopath in the Machine: My review of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary

Biographical documentary

Directed by Alex Gibney

There’s no doubt about it. Steve Jobs changed the world. Even if you don’t own a single Apple product, your computer, tablet, and smartphone were influenced by Job’s work and inspiration.

But Jobs the man was a first-class jerk. At the start of his career, he cheated his friend and partner, Steve Wozniak, out of nearly $3,000. As his personal worth jumped from $10 million to $200 million, he lied and fought in court to not pay childcare for his daughter (the mother, his former girlfriend, was on welfare at the time). Able-bodied, he liked to park his silver sports car in handicap parking spaces.

He could get away with it. He was Steve Jobs.

Director Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts this multifaceted documentary with a question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died?

He was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He could rethink the human-machine interface, hire the best designers and engineers and push them to create his vision, then step out on stage and make everyone in the audience desperately want to buy his latest toy. He built a cult around Apple and around himself.

Many of those designers and engineers learned to hate him. He worked them relentlessly and drove them with anger and insults. Few stayed with him long. One member of the original Macintosh team, interviewed for the film, tells us that he lost his wife and his children in the years he worked for Jobs.

Gibney can’t cover Jobs’ entire life in two hours, but he covers quite a bit. We learn about his interest in Zen–which seemed to be very shallow, and discover he was, like me, a vegetarian and a Bob Dylan fan (Dylan’s songs dominate the soundtrack). We discover how he bullied reporters and editors to control his and his company’s public image.

We also learn how he did everything he could to keep his immense fortune to himself. Unlike Bill Gates (only mentioned once in the film), he didn’t believe in helping others. When he returned to Apple in the late 90s, he killed policies that encouraged employee philanthropy.

The last section of the film, of course, deals with his long and largely secret struggle with cancer.

Whether you worship Jobs, despise him, or couldn’t care less, he changed the world that you live in. And Gibney–one of the best documentarians working today–has created an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a brilliant man utterly lacking in empathy.

Oh, and about that original question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died? My answer: Because they never met him.

September Preview

A few things to look forward to next month:

  • After a summer recess, the Alameda relaunches its Classic Movie Series on the 15th with the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii, which I vaguely remember seeing as a kid. My memories of the other two films–Three Days of the Condor and The Seven Year Itch–are also vague.
  • The Balboa‘s Thursday classic series will cover Hollywood in the 60s with four well-chosen films: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Midnight Cowboy. They’re
    also screening heist films every Tuesday throughout the month.
  • The Castro has a lot of good stuff, of course, including Nashville (9/17), Lawrence of Arabia (9/18-20), Midnight Cowboy (9/24), and a double bill of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sorcerer (9/27).
  • The Castro will also do an all-day Vittorio De Sica series on 9/26. Oddly, it’s skipping his Neorealism masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief.
  • After a summer hiatus, the Cerrito restarts its Classics series with Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
  • The I Wake Up Dreaming series of very dark noirs will play in Berkeley’s California Theater Wednesdays throughout the month. I’ll be able to see noir on the big screen without crossing the bay!

Finally, I want to clear up some confusion concerning two documentaries on the same subject. This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a doc called The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It focused on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who built a successful Israeli movie studio, moved to Los Angeles, churned out low-budget action flicks at record speed, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse.

I screened that documentary before the Festival, enjoyed it moderately well, and gave it a B.

So I was surprised a few weeks ago to discover that a documentary about Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films would be coming out in September. Had a new distributor changed the name?

No. It’s actually another documentary. According to this blog post by George Rother, “Neither Golan nor Globus participated in Electric Boogaloo. True to old form, they immediately set about making their own documentary, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It beat Electric Boogaloo
into theaters by three months. I can’t think of a more appropriate swan song for Golan, ” who died earlier this month.


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