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.

SFIFF: Paul Schrader to be honored in this year’s Kanbar Award

The San Francisco International Film Festival just announced that writer and sometimes director Paul Schrader will receive this year’s Kanbar Award for life achievement in storytelling (previously, it was life achievement in screenwriting).

I guess he’s a good choice. He’s written at least two great films: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Both were directed by Martin Scorsese. Since Scorsese has made more great films without Schrader than Schrader has made without Scorsese, one has to assume the director played the more important role in their brilliance.

Other films he’s written include American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ, Blue Collar, and Obsession. Schrader also directed The Canyons, which–from I’ve heard–was one of the major embarrassments of 2013 (I didn’t see it). But he didn’t write that one, and this isn’t an award for directing, so that’s okay.

He’ll be honored at the Kabuki on Tuesday, April 28, at 6:30. I do not know who’s going to interview him.

After the interview, the festival will screen Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a film that he wrote and directed in 1985. I saw it at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008. My reaction: It’s not so much a great film as several great short films that kind of hang together.

What’s Screening: April 10 – 16

Both the Tiburon International Film Festival and the Buddhist Film Festival play through this week.

A Kill Me Three Times, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday. Simon Pegg stars as a professional killer surrounded by amateurs in this very funny thriller from Australia. imageThis 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. I can’t tell you a lot about the plot without giving too much of it away, but I can tell you that it reminded me of the Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple. With Alice Braga as the very nice person that everyone wants to kill. Read my full review.

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers double bill: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) & Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Roxie, Friday. The best alien imageinvasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not damning with faint praise), is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory. Whether it’s an anti-Communist parable or an anti-McCarthy one depends on your point of view. The 1978 remake, made in San Francisco, isn’t quite as good as the original, but it’s still an enjoyable thriller. Each film earns a B+. Phil Kaufman, who directed the 1978 version, will be there in person.

B+ Unforgiven, Castro, Sunday, 6:25. For most of the film’s runtime, Unforgiven brilliantly critiques and deconstructs the western genre. Violence is ugly, painful, and unforgiven_2cruel. What’s more, it never solves anything. "It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man," says Eastwood’s character, "You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have." But it all falls apart in the last act, when it becomes worse than unbelievable. It destroys everything that the film said up until that point, and turning a great film into a disappointment. You can read my longer essay, but be warned; it has spoilers. On a double bill with American Sniper.

A Bonnie and Clyde, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. This low-budget gangster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty , hit imagea nerve with young audiences in 1967 and became a big surprise hit. Shocking in its time for both the violence and sexual frankness (matching a horny Bonnie with an impotent Clyde), it still hits below the belt today. The title characters become alienated youth, glamorous celebrities, good kids who made a bad decision, selfish jerks, and tragic heroes with a sealed fate.

A+ Brazil, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. One of the best black comedies ever  filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anallybrazil bureaucratic, and thoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second and best of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980’s, and the only one clearly intended for adults. Read my Blu-ray review.

A The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, image_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumbthe Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. While the Civil War rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. They’re all killers, but morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Read my longer report.

A Sunset Boulevard, Castro, Wednesday. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s  imageseedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.

A The Big Lebowski, Castro, Thursday. I revisited this cult favorite last year, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.) On a double bill with Cutter’s Way.

A- The Princess Bride, New Parkway, opens Friday. William Goldman’s enchantingimage and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright , back when they were young and gorgeous, make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers. And Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos can grate on your nerves.

B+ Under African Skies, Lark, Saturday, 8:00. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which covers the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. Despite a few brief scenes of jam sessions, it left me wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end. Also on the bill: The  Vukani Mawethu Choir.

B+ British Genius Double Bill: The Imitation Game & The Theory of Everything, Castro, Monday. Two very good showcases for English acting., Theimage Imitation Game takes considerable liberties with the life of Alan Turing, but successfully provides an entertaining story. See my longer article. Since Stephen Hawking is still alive, we can safely assume that The Theory of Everything is the authorized version. But it still works as a drama covering many decades in the man’s life. Read my full comments. Each film earns an B+ on its own merits.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Balboa, Lark, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: A documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show,Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

Hoop Dreams (my Blu-ray review)

I’d be hard put to name another documentary that feels so much like a narrative feature. Not that Steve James’ Hoop Dreams looks like a fiction film; it most certainly does not. The hand-held cameras, extreme lenses, and low video resolution makes it look like the cinéma vérité documentary that it is. But James and his team edited the film so as to bring the audience through a fiction-like journey, with charismatic protagonists, interesting and likeable supporting players, plot twists, joy, disappointment, and suspense.

The protagonists: William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teenage boys from bad Chicago neighborhoods. They have all the disadvantages you’d expect from that environment–poverty-stricken mothers, absentee fathers, filthy streets, and violence all around them. But they have an advantage. They’re both basketballs prodigies, discovered early on by talent scouts. If they can make an impression on their high school teams, and get good enough grades academically, they just might be able to get into a good college on a scholarship. And from there, if they’re really lucky, they might eventually go professional in the NBA.

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James and his crew followed both boys (who are rarely shown together) through all four years of high school. Scouts get them into St. Joseph’s, a Catholic school with a strong basketball team. But there are setbacks. Agee loses his scholarship, and is forced to drop out mid-semester and return to public school. Gates manages to stay in St. Joseph’s, in part because of a rich sponsor, but he injures his knee, loses time in recovery, and has a difficult time regaining his previous abilities.

The picture is really about the American dream, and the people whom society all but disqualifies from attaining it. Gates and Agee get a rare chance only because of exceptional talent. (One college mentioned had only seven black students; six of them on the basketball team.) But it’s a chance that involves absurdly hard work and damaging physical punishment. And after all that, maybe, a very slight possibility of a lucrative but short career. The film doesn’t touch much on how colleges exploit their players, but John Oliver laid it out pretty well recently.

As you get to know Gates, Agee, and their families over the nearly three-hour running time (and the five years of shooting), you become completely invested in their story. You want these two kids to succeed, even as you realize that the kids they’re competing against are just as desperate and just as worthy.

Hoop Dreams becomes exceptionally exciting and suspenseful in the game scenes . With details of the play intercut with reaction shots of parents and coaches, James and his collaborators bring you to the edge of your seat over and over again. More than once, either Gates or Agee finds himself in a place where only he can win the big game and bring on the happy ending.

But sometimes, he fumbles. That’s when you remember that what you’re watching isn’t fiction.

First Impression

imageLike most Criterion discs, Hoop Dreams comes in a clear plastic case. The cover photo shows a red basketball jersey with the film’s title. Open the box and you get–aside from the disc–a fold-out with two articles: "Serious Game" by John Edgar Wideman, and "The Real Thing," by Robert Greene. Turn it over, and you’ll find credits for both the movie and the disc, along with a collage of photos and news clips.

When you insert the disc into your player, you’ll see the standard Criterion menu on the left side of the screen. As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, there’s a timeline and the ability to create bookmarks. When you insert the disc into a player in which you’ve inserted it before, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Criterion did as good a job as is reasonably possible making Hoop Dreams look good on Blu-ray, but there’s only so much that can be done. This film was shot on standard-definition analogue videotape in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Blu-ray presents the picture in a 1080i transfer. But when you convert 340 lines to 1080, you still have only 340 lines worth of information. The picture is soft, and shows a great deal of video artifacts.

That’s the way the film always looked, so I can’t complain. But it doesn’t really need to be seen on Blu-ray. I suspect that the DVD–$8 to $10 cheaper–looks just as good or at least very, very close.

How It Sounds

The movie was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of Dolby Stereo. Criterion provides a four-track, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack decoded from the original two-track, four-channel mix.

The filmmakers made almost no use of three of those channels, and you could easily listen to the film through an excellent sound system and assume it’s in mono. In other words, the sound isn’t impressive, but it was never meant to impress in that way.

And the Extras

  • Filmmaker Commentary: Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. Recorded in 2005. I haven’t yet listened to it.
  • Subjects Commentary: Agee and Gates, also recorded in 2005. I’m really looking forward to listening to this one.
  • Life After Hoop Dreams: 1080i, 40 minutes. Made in 2014. Covers a lot of ground about Agee, Gates, and their families, with James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert as on-screen narrators. The most interesting realization is that Hoops Dreams itself changed their lives and opened doors for them, even though neither of them got into the NBA.
  • Siskel & Ebert: 1080i, 15 minutes. The famous critics had a lot to do with this film’s success. This selection of clips from their show gets a bit repetitive, but it’s fun seeing the two of them again.
  • Additional scenes: 1080i, 21 minutes. Deleted scenes and earlier versions of scenes that made the final cut. Occasionally interesting, but nothing really exceptional.
  • Music video: 1080i, 3 minutes. Of the film’s theme song. Directed by cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Not to my taste.
  • Trailers: The disc has two of them. It’s painfully obvious which one was made for white people.

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.

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