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.

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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.

Bill Plympton’s absurd love story: Cheatin’ (my review)

A Adult animation

  • Written and directed by Bill Plympton

If Bill Plympton isn’t the strangest, most iconoclastic, bizarre, and brilliant animator of all time, we live in a very weird world. His instantly recognizable style takes caricature—the heart of all animation—to an extreme beyond anyone else working in features.

Consider Jake—the irresistible hunk in Cheatin’. He appears to have a 60-inch chest and a six-inch waist. He looks as if the upper and lower parts of his body are connected by a thick rope. The love of his life, Ella, has lips so swollen you can’t imagine how she can talk.

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Not that we ever hear either of them talk. As with Plympton’s last feature, the brilliant Idiots and Angels, this is basically a silent film, told entirely in visuals, music, and occasional sound effects and grunts.

The story is simple. Jake and Ella meet when he saves her life in a carnival bumper car ride. They fall in love, get married, and are so deeply in love that they can barely keep their clothes on. Other women throw themselves at Jake, but he’s not interested. Then one of these would-be seductresses tricks him into believing that Ella is cheating on him. He starts sleeping around, so Ella…at this point I should stop.

But with Plympton, story is secondary. The real joy is in the surreal wit of his hand-drawn animation—drawn, I might add, with Plympton’s own hands. In the Plympton universe, everyone is ugly and misshapen–even characters whom the story paints as attractive. And Plympton shows his work, with visible pencil lines everywhere.

The visuals reflect emotional states, not real ones. When Ella wonders why Jake seems angry and remote–they’re as far apart as they can be in the same bed–she reaches her hand out to him. And it keeps extending, many feet, as she tries to bridge the widening gap in the widening bed. Before the scene is over, the bed splits apart and his half floats away. It’s absurd, but it’s sad and touching.

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Often Plympton uses absurdity simply to get laughs, and he gets them. A hired assassin loads himself up with so many weapons that he can’t get through the door. A cop with both hands and both feet cuffed together, so that he can’t move any of them, still manages to chase his prey by hopping.

The music, much of it familiar classical pieces, adds to the frivolity. When the soundtrack breaks into Verdi’s Libiamo Ne’lieti Calici aria (from La Traviata), Jake and Ella dance and move their lips to the Italian lyrics.

An all-around wonderful film.

Who are they? My review of Lambert & Stamp

B+ Music documentary

  • Directed by James D. Cooper

I don’t know if I enjoyed this movie so much because it was very well made, or simply because it’s about The Who–a band that I have been a fan of for more than 40 years. I doubt if Lambert & Stamp would be of much interest to people who are not Who fans, but for someone like me, it’s catnip.

If Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t come across an obscure London rock band called The High Numbers, none of us would have ever heard of The Who. Close friends and aspiring filmmakers, Lambert and Stamp set out to make a documentary about themselves managing a rock group. They never made the movie, but they sure proved their worth as managers. They turned The High Numbers into The Who, and shepherded the group to fame and (to a lesser extent) fortune. Their influence with The Who receded after the phenomenal success of Tommy.

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Lambert’s musical background (his father was composer/conductor Constant Lambert) gave him an edge in helping develop the group’s sound. He worked closest with Pete Townsend, mentoring the young guitar player’s song-writing skills. There’s considerable controversy over to what extent he co-wrote Tommy; filmmaker Cooper shows us both sides of the argument and wisely takes no side.

Stamp and Townsend spend a lot of time talking to the camera here. Other interview subjects include Roger Daltrey and Stamp’s brother Terence (yes, that Terence Stamp). Lambert couldn’t tell his side of the story; he died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981.

I had to look up that fact on Wikipedia. Cooper seems shy about such things. Early on, Stamp mentions that Lambert isn’t around to tell his own story. But the film never discusses Lambert’s death in a meaningful way. Keith Moon’s death, three years earlier, is mentioned only in the context of legal proceedings. The only sign that John Entwistle is no longer amongst the living is his absence from the interviews. Chris Stamp, arguably the movie’s star, died as the film was being made, but there’s no mention of his passing.

Cooper’s visual flair in filming the interviews (he’s known mostly as a cinematographer), his creative use of stock footage, and Christopher Tellefsen’s frenetic editing style gives Lambert & Stamp a rough, energetic quality appropriate for the subject. Not surprisingly, songs by The Who dominate the soundtrack–although I don’t think we hear one from beginning to end.

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But this isn’t the sort of picture you go to see for the music. If you want a more musical Who documentary, see that other movie made by an American novice director, The Kids are Alright from 1979.

Comic noir down under: Kill Me Three Times (my review)

A Comic thriller

  • Written by James McFarland
  • Directed by Kriv Stenders

As Alfred Hitchcock well understood, a good thriller can carry a heavy load of dark humor. And since this particular thriller stars Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), you come in expecting more laughs than thrills.

But make no mistake, Kill Me Three Times is first and foremost a thriller, although an unusually funny one–more Coen than Hitch. This is the sort of movie where a gruesome, bloody murder is interrupted by a ringtone, and the murderer delays pulling the trigger to answer the call.

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I can’t tell you a lot about the plot without giving too much of it away. The film tells its story three times, and each time, you learn a little more about what’s going on and why. It all makes delightfully dark sense in the end, and much of the fun comes in watching the various pieces fall into place.

I can tell you that Pegg plays the only professional killer in the story. But almost everyone here is perfectly willing to rub out one of their neighbors–in most cases for money.

For the most part, they want to kill Alice (Alice Braga). Their reasons vary.

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Kill Me has one long, extended, absolutely brilliant comic sequence. A dentist and his wife (Sullivan Stapleton and Teresa Palmer) attempt a very difficult and complex murder–one that’s supposed to look like an accident. But the dentist is helplessly inept, and Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Remember this lesson: If you have an unconscious, intended murder victim in your trunk, try to avoid getting a flat tire.

All this is set, I might add, in a small coastal town in Australia, providing some beautiful scenery. That town appears to have about eight people in it. Almost all of them are evil.

The story, the graphic violence, the gruesome humor, and the downbeat view of human nature makes Kill Me feel a lot like the Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple. And like Blood Simple, by the time it’s over, no one outside of the audience knows the whole story. Even the dead people died without getting the full picture.

It’s a  totally enjoyable entertainment.

Ex Machina asks what it means to be human (my review)

A- Science fiction

  • Written and directed by Alex Garland

I’ve learned to confront new big-screen science fiction with lowered expectations–especially when it deals with man-vs.-machine conflicts. So I went in to Ex Machina expecting to be disappointed. But the disappointments (for the most part)  never came. Even the final act was intelligent and surprising–and I didn’t think that was allowed in this sort of movie.

But then, it really isn’t this sort of movie. Set almost entirely indoors with a limited set of characters, Ex Machina is long on dialog and short on action. And what do the characters talk about? Intelligence, emotions, sentience, and what it means to be human. That last question is the key one, since one of main characters isn’t actually human.

We enter this world through the eyes of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for the largest and most powerful tech company in the world–think of Apple and Google put together. When we first meet Caleb, he’s winning a company lottery. The award? He gets to spend a week with Nathan, the corporation’s reclusive founder and owner.

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One of the richest men in the world, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is clearly not running on all thrusters. He lives in a combination mansion and research facility in a remote, sub-arctic, pretty-much-deserted part of the world. Security is massive; cameras are everywhere and you need your cardkey to get into or out of any room (you can see an obvious plot point right there). His only companion is his servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who doesn’t speak or understand English. He’s brilliant and productive, but he’s also an alcoholic, drowning himself in booze on a regular basis.

Nathan has brought Caleb to his home for a purpose. He’s been working on artificial intelligence, and has now created a machine that he believes can truly think. He wants Caleb to run this machine through a Turing test.

The machine isn’t just a computer, but a robot built to resemble a young, attractive woman (Alicia Vikander). Her name is Ava. The film’s heart is built around Caleb’s extended discussions with Ava, as he tries to figure out if she’s truly sentient or just an excellent simulation. They talk, they build a rapport, and she even flirts with him. Slowly, they learn to care for each other.

Early on, I found myself ticking off the many absurdities in the story. Why not build AI in a computer before the far more difficult task of trying it on a robot? Why give it a gender and even a libido? And how can you do a Turing test if the judge can clearly see that he’s talking to a robot. (Ava’s face looks very human, but much of her body is super thin or transparent. The CGI that makes this possible is excellent.)

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But as the movie progresses, all those objections fall away. Nathan is, after all, a narcissist, and just the sort of man who would want to create a sexual, apparently female robot . And his ideas for proving that a machine is sentient don’t match entirely with Turing’s, although his arguments struck me as valid.

As Caleb talks with Ava and, separately, with Nathan, they bring up issues about what makes someone human, or not human. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? If you create a sentient machine, do you have a moral right to replace it with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here?

There is one scene that disappointed me. It’s bloody and gruesome, but that wasn’t the problem. The character’s actions didn’t seem believable, and they appeared to have no consequences–and they should have had many. I assumed at one point that it was a dream, but a line of dialog later in the film ruined that assumption.

Early on, I guessed how the movie would end. Then, to my delight, my prediction proved utterly and completely wrong. The real ending came as a surprise, and was, in retrospect, the only ending that could have made sense.

French Girls in the hood in Girlhood (my review)

B+ Coming of age drama

  • Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

When we first meet Marieme (Karidja Touré), she’s part of a school all-girl football team. Soon afterwards, an unseen counselor tells her that her grades aren’t good enough to get her into high school. (Apparently high school has requirements in France.) she’s failed the same year twice , and the counselor thinks that a vocational school would be better for her.

Marieme goes through many other joyful and wrenching experiences over the course of the film. Only 16 years old, her options in life are horrifically limited. She tests these options, and finds acceptance and community only young women who rob, steal, and fight. She lacks the maturity to see this as a dead-end lifestyle. Although Girlhood has many scenes of love, affection, and real happiness, the overall effect is deeply disturbing.

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Don’t let the title fool you. This French drama has nothing to do with last year’s indie hit, Boyhood. It’s not set in Texas and it wasn’t shot over a period of 12 years. The original title is Bande de filles. When I asked UC linguistics professor Eve E. Sweetser for a translation, she suggested "Band/troop/gang of girls," pointing out that "Bande doesn’t mean musical band (or dance troupe), but would cover, for example, robber bands?" I’m guessing that Strand Releasing renamed the film Girlhood so that people would associate it with Richard Linklater’s work.

Considering Marieme’s family situation, it’s no surprise she’s doing badly. Her mother works long hours and is rarely home. There’s no mention of a father. Her older brother, apparently a gang member, is often abusive and violent. She takes on much of the responsibility of raising her two younger sisters, whom she clearly loves.

The neighborhood she lives in–within commuting distance from Paris–looks like what we in America call the "projects." Everything is ugly, and drugs and crime are everywhere.

So Marieme joins up with three girls whose lives seem far more exciting than hers. They wear cool clothing. They strut with confidence. They rent a nice hotel room and party through the night. They fight with other girls. They take what they want, often with the threat of violence. Marieme, now calling herself Vic, starts carrying a switchblade.

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And yet, she’s still a very loving person. You see it in the way she cares for her sisters, and also with her new-found friends. They’re all cheering each other down a very bad road, but the love and concern they have for each other is deep and genuine.

Vic also finds another kind of love in her romance with Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté). He clearly adores her, and the two are very sweet together. Nothing in the film suggests that he’s anything other than a decent young man.

Writer/Director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies–another worthwhile look at adolescence) tells the story with an unblinking but sympathetic eye. She examines the various micro-communities that Marieme/Vic wanders through, finds the parts that make them attractive, and shows decent people in all of them. But she also lets us see the rot beneath both them and the overall society that makes them possible.

I would have very much liked to have seen Marieme find a happy place in the world, but Girlhood isn’t a fairy tale. It is, however, very much worth seeing.

The Wrecking Crew: The hidden heroes of rock ‘n’ roll (my review)

B Music documentary

  • Directed by Denny Tedesco

Who supplied the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible? Despite what it says on the LP sleeves, much of the inspiration came from an unsung collection of Los Angeles session musicians informally called The Wrecking Crew.

Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, introduces these successful but little-known musicians in this mostly entertaining documentary. He interviews surviving members of the group, mixes in old footage, and explains the origins of the songs that became the background track of our youth.

The Wrecking Crew.

And if you’re thinking "Maybe your youth; not mine," you’re probably right. If you’re not a musician, a musicologist, or a baby boomer, this movie isn’t for you. But for me, a boomer who became a teenager in 1967, almost every tune brought back memories, then filled in details about those memories that I had never before thought about.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Tedesco spends a good deal of the film’s time on his father, who died in 1997. Aside from being a brilliant musician, Tommy Tedesco was a funny guy. He clowned around in the studio, in seminars, and on TV on the Gong Show. He’s inherently fun to watch.

Denny and Tommy Tedesco

But my favorite of the profiled musicians was Carol Kaye, a woman working in a predominately male industry in the decade where Mad Men is set. Starting out as a jazz guitarist and turning to bass as she moved to rock, her driving riffs filled in many a great song., including "California Girls," I’m a Believer," and "These Boots are Made for Walking."

Carol Kaye

None of these musicians started out in rock. But they were young adults as the new genre materialized in the 1950s, and they found a niche where they could earn a good living while doing what they loved. They were not formally a group, but often found themselves working together from one gig to another. In huge demand, they worked round the clock from one session to another, ignoring their families but raking in cash.

Until it stopped. In the late 60s, rock got serious, and fans wanted to know that the actual band members were playing the music. The gigs didn’t disappear immediately–the Crew also worked on other genres and recorded movie and TV scores–but they gradually leveled off.

Except for Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who became stars in their own rights.

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Clearly, this is a companion piece for 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, concentrating on instrumental musicians instead of singers. But Tedesco can’t quite find the strong narrative line that made the earlier film so exciting. At times, especially in the middle, the discussions of one song after another become repetitive.

Another problem: Since the film is about session musicians, there’s no live performance footage. Studio work lacks the cinematic excitement of live rock and roll.

Aside from the Wrecking Crew veterans themselves, interview subjects include Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Albert, Lou Adler, and Brian Wilson.

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