The Actor’s Voice: My review of Listen to Me Marlon

A documentary

  • Directed by directed by Stevan Riley

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this Marlon Brando biography. By using Brando’s own audio recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration, it takes us into his head. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

To anyone who loves motion pictures, Marlon Brando is both a giant of the art and a disappointing enigma. His method-based, down-to-earth, realistic acting style made him one of the most, if not the most, influential actor in the history of the medium. Only Lillian Gish comes close in the way she changed acting. He was, in the 1950s, huge. His films made big box office. His talent was universally praised. Women swooned over him.

But then, in the sixties, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker on the set. He had a comeback in the early 70s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. But he soon gave up on being a great actor. He only took parts that paid huge amounts of money but required very little effort. He became a joke.

Some people write diaries. Brando spoke his. He recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life. When he died in 2004, he left behind hundreds of hours of these tapes. Director Stevan Riley used these recordings as the backbone to Listen to Me Marlon. We hear him talking about his alcoholic and abusive parents, the characters he played, the tragedies that ruined his children’s lives, and his sexual promiscuity. He gives his side of the story about the famously troubled productions of Mutiny on the Bounty and Apocalypse Now. He explains the difficulties he had finding his character for The Godfather, and how he realized the Don Corleone sees himself not as a monster, but as a loving, gentle patriarch.

Riley supplements the talking with music–much of it haunting–interviews, and scenes from his movies. We have a huge photographic record of Marlon Brando’s life and an even larger one of his work. Riley uses both to illustrate what’s being said on the soundtrack.

Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t show us all that much about what Marlon Brando did. It us tells what he thought. And when you come right down to it, that’s the more fascinating story.

Subject to Debate: My review of Best of Enemies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Today’s so-called culture wars burst into existence in 1968, with clashes over Vietnam, racism, and a new sexual freedom. By concentrating on a series of television debates between erudite, east-coast intellectuals, this breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible explanation of how our current world came to be.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were intelligent, influential, and successful, and both were exceptionally skilled debaters. And their world views were as different as they could get. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, was an extreme right-wing reactionary Christian, as determined to stop sexual promiscuity as he was to destroy the safety net for the poor. Vidal, a very successful novelist, was politically progressive, a defender of both the downtrodden and the new "free love." He was gay, and barely inside the closet.

They hated each other.


In that tumultuous year, the ABC television network–desperate for better news ratings–decided on something outrageous. They hired Buckley and Vidal to debate ten times over the course of the Republican and Democratic conventions. It was an interesting year to use that approach; riots broke out in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Best of Enemies argues–and many historians agree–that Buckley played a major role in setting America on its current course. He helped turn Ronald Reagan into a popular national figure, and created an intellectual foundation for today’s anti-government, pro-war, elitist, and repressively Christian Republican party.

Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon make another assertion which I hadn’t heard before: That these debates changed television news, taking it from a fact-reporting medium to an opinion-based one, built around argument. Within a decade, televised commentator debates were so common that Saturday Night Live regularly satirized the formula ("Jane, you ignorant slut").

And as you watch the debates (which take up well under half of the film’s 87-minute runtime), you can see the political atmosphere devolving. Here are two brilliant men taking quotes out of context and throwing insults at each other. Being who I am, I was rooting for Vidal. But even though he tended to win the debates, he disappointed me by attacking Buckley’s character, not his views.

Most of the film puts the debates into a historical context, with biographical sketches, news footage of the times, funny stories about ABC’s amateurish convention coverage (their lighting structure literally collapsed), and interviews with people involved.

Oddly for a documentary covering the uprisings of 1968, Best of Enemies avoids the popular songs of the era. That was the right decision, and not only because it avoided a cliché. We generally think of the clashes of ’68 as a generational divide, but Buckley and Vidal were of the same age (both born in the fall of 1925), and way too old for the rock and roll generation.

If you’re at all interested in recent American history, you should see this film.

The version I screened back in April was described as a "working copy." What you see may be slightly different.

Manos Sucias: Not-to-be-missed thriller coming to the Roxie

A Political and social thriller

Written by Alan Blanco    & Josef Kubota Wladyka
Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka

I loved Manos Sucias when I saw it at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. But it had no American distributor, and I assumed that neither I nor anyone else in the Bay Area would ever see it again.

So I was delighted to discover that it’s getting a two-day run August 7 and 8 at the Roxie. The following comes from my first write-up of Manos Sucias, just after I had seen it:

First-time director Josef Kubota Wladyka uses the thriller formula to examine the society of rural Colombia, where paramilitary forces and ruthless drug cartels control everything. And yet, somehow, people carry on, loving their families and trying to make the best of things.

Two brothers, barely on speaking terms at first, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine. The coke is contained within a large, old torpedo, and they must tow it, via a small motorboat, down river, into the ocean, and up to Panama. The container looks absurd, but it stays underwater and is rarely visible.

Older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is stable, but hurting. The warlords killed his wife and son. Younger brother Delio (Cristian Advincula) is full of enthusiasm and hope. He’s only 19, a new father enthusiastically in love with his girlfriend and baby. He’s also an aspiring rapper.

It’s the end of them if they’re caught by the police. But things will be far worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. In that case, Delio’s family will be killed, as well. The suspense is built into the story, and the last half hour is as harrowing as these things go. The ending is not comforting.

But Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders. We see how people live, earn money, and survive. And even how they find happiness while living in conditions that seem horrifying to those of us in more wealthy and comfortable places.

Manos Sucias was one of my top movie-going experiences of 2014. Try to make it one of your best for 2015.

Genius in decline: My review of Mr. Holmes

B+ Drama

  • Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Directed by Bill Condon

Anyone who loves fiction’s most famous detective knows that Sherlock Holmes eventually retired from detective work and moved to Sussex, where he took up beekeeping. And that’s where this story, set in 1947, mostly takes place. Set long after Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his last story, the movie deals with a Holmes whose famous mental facilities are sliding into senility.

In other words, this film shows us a Sherlock Holmes we haven’t seen before—aged, walking with a cane, and more interested in bees than crime. For anyone who loves the original stories and the many adaptations, it’s movie not to be missed. For everyone else, it’s merely a very enjoyable movie that entertains not through action, comedy, or special effects, but by providing us with interesting characters slightly larger than life.


Ian McKellen plays this Holmes as a very old man. In flashbacks, he plays a younger Holmes, but still older than we’re used to seeing him. In the film’s main story, he’s in a race against time. He always objected to the way Watson had romanticized their cases, turning them into adventure stories. The stories made him a celebrity, which he finds annoying and occasionally comical. Now Holmes wants to write the true story of his last case, correcting the record in at least this one situation. But he’s worried that his mind will fade before he’s finished.

He doesn’t live by himself. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and she has a young son (Milo Parker). Remember that this is 1947; World War II left a lot of widows and fatherless children. Of course the boy clings to the one man in the house, even if it’s the cold and remote Sherlock. But the boy wants to learn beekeeping, and Holmes can’t help but react positively to that. They bond, of course.

But there are other things going on in Holmes’ life. He travels to Japan hoping to find an herb that will preserve his mental powers for a little longer. The bees are strangely dying off. And the housekeeper wants to take her son and move on to a hotel job where she isn’t dependent on one eccentric client. And yes, Holmes gets a moment to do "that think you do" where he looks at a person and deduces what only he can fathom.

This is one of those well-acted, well-directed, well-photographed films that come out of England on a regular basis. Every actor is spot on. McKellen’s makeup is a wonder, and not only in the aging. Even in the flashbacks, his nose and cheekbones offer a vague suggestion of the original Sidney Paget drawings, while allowing McKellen’s own wonderful face to shine through. But the makeup had one strange effect on me. Every so often, he look like John Gielgud.

For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.

Tangerine: A Christmas in July cinematic gift

A Drama

Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch

Directed by Sean Baker

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be, and delights and excites you with the ever-growing possibilities of cinema. New attitudes, new concepts, and new technologies combine with a visionary filmmaker, and the result is a rare form of magic.

Sean Baker’s Tangerine has just that sort of magic, making it easily the most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. It doesn’t look like any other movie. It doesn’t sound like any other movie. And yet it’s alive with an electric charge of urban humanity and desperate sexuality.

The world of Tangerine is the outskirts of Hollywood on Christmas Eve–a Christmas without carols, Dickens, ornaments, or snow. It could be any time of year, and aside from the strange, wide, ugly streets of LA, it could be any city.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day stretch in prison. We’re never told what for, but as she’s a streetwalker, we can guess. Her close friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), like Sin-Dee a transgender prostitute, tells her what’s up. Sin-Dee’s boyfriend Chester (who also pimps both of them) may have cheated on her while she was locked up. It’s only a rumor, but it turns Sin-Dee into a single-minded, wrathful avenger out to find the woman who stole her man.

All Alexandra can do is run after Sin-Dee, try to calm her down, and walk away to prepare herself for her singing debut later that night.

But there’s a subplot. Taxi-driver Ramzik (Karren Karagulian) drives people through Los Angeles, talks to his riders, and has to deal with the vomit in his backseat. He’s a husband and father, but he indulges in trans prostitutes like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. He’s the sort of john prostitutes like; he’s gentle, polite, and treats them as friends.

The Ramzik subplot provides us with one of the best sex scenes in cinema, and it’s in no way, shape, or form explicit. Shot from the cab’s back seat, it allows us to imagine what’s going on in the front seat as we watch the through-the-windshield spectacle of a drive-through carwash.

Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, largely I suspect because it was shot entirely on iPhone 5s, using an experimental anamorphic lens to give it a 2.35×1 scope aspect ratio. The colors are intense and super-saturated. And while it lacks the resolution of today’s best digital cameras (not to mention 35mm film), it captures the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood in a way that a more conventional (and expensive) approach couldn’t approach.

The film often feels speeded up, just a little too fast, with occasional, tiny jump cuts that suggest lost frames. Since these effects happened only in a few scenes (mostly near the beginning), I’m going to guess that this was intentional.

Maybe it was done to match the music. Music Supervisor Matthew Smith lays down some exciting rap beats to move Sin-Dee’s quest forward. He also lays down some equally exciting Beethoven.

Tangerine is not to be missed. It’s an exceptional and extraordinary work. It’s also an exciting and very entertaining.

And no, I have no idea why it’s called Tangerine. The film opens Friday.

In Stereo looks at modern romance–but not too deeply

C+ Relationship drama

Written and Directed by Mel Rodriguez III

My press materials from Circus Road Films describes In Stereo as an “un-romantic comedy.” That’s not only a lie–it’s two lies. The movie succeeds best when it allows itself to be romantic. And it is in no way, shape, or form a comedy. Only one scene, where an actress auditions for a herpes public service announcement, brought me even close to a glimmer of anything that might be called laughter.

That’s not a criticism of In Stereo. A lot of great films are devoid of laughs. It’s just a case of false advertising.

But this story of former lovers who may or may not get back together has its own rewards, but also some very serious flaws. It glides along on the charisma of the two leads, but never really brings us into their characters’ souls.

The problems start in the very first scene, when we meet David (Micah Hauptman) and Brenda (Beau Garrett), very much a couple in love. But this one short scene doesn’t give us a good reason to care about their relationship, and it’s the last of that relationship we’re going to see for a long time.

The narrative then skips ahead 18 months and concentrates on David. He’s got a successful career as a photographer, but his love life is in shambles. His current girlfriend (Maggie Geha) is spending quality time with David’s best friend. He doesn’t confront them, but keeps it inside.

Then the focus switches to Brenda, now a reasonably successful actress whose career is already on the way down. Her complete lack of social skills, and her habit of bluntly telling off powerful people, has made her unemployable. She’s also about to lose her apartment.

Halfway through the film, David and Brenda run into each other, and the rest of the film has them dancing around the possibility of getting back together. This is when In Stereo comes most alive. Hauptman and Garrett have a nice chemistry together, and it’s easy to root for them refalling in love.

Ultimately, that chemistry makes In Stereo work–to the degree that it works at all. For the most part, it’s just too shallow for the relationship drama that Rodriguez presumably wanted to make.

For what it’s worth, there’s a lot of sex in the movie (if it was rated, it would probably get an R), but nothing truly erotic. It’s set in that version of New York City where everyone is hip and reasonably well-off.

Geriatric Starlet: my review of Iris

A- documentary

  • Directed by Albert Maysles

You know you’ve seen a really good documentary if it’s about something you couldn’t care less about, but you still enjoyed it. Few things in life bore me like fashion, but there’s nothing boring about Albert Maysles’ last complete film, Iris.

Iris Apfel, a fixture and a maverick in the New York fashion scene, is in her 90s. She dresses herself in loud, bright, and often absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great.

Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in Harlem specialty stores, shows off the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday. She’s almost always smiling.


I hate to use the expression "free spirit;" it’s such a cliché. But it’s an appropriate cliché here. Apfel talks as she dresses—blunt and funny. She points out that it’s “better to be happy than to be well-dressed.” She dismisses the expensive but conformist clothes found among lower Manhattan executives with “That’s not fashion. It’s a uniform.”

But for all its joy, this is a film about mortality. Apfel now walks with a cane, and sometimes is pushed in a wheelchair. She complains about pains, and a loss of energy. When asked what keeps her up at night, she answers that she worries about her health.

I strongly suspect that Maysles identified with Apfel as a kindred spirit. He was approaching 90 himself as he followed his subject around New York, carrying his own camera as he recorded what Apfel was up to. He too must have been feeling the aches and pains of growing old, ignoring them as much as possible so he could keep on working and having fun.

Iris Apfel is still working, but Albert Maysles never made it to 90. I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for capping a long career.


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