The eyes have it
If this year's real-life presidential election hijinx have you wanting more, you've come to the right place. Two new movies streaming this week offer satirical, sometimes suspensful, takes on the down-and-dirty world of political campaigning.
For the less cynical, there are three documentaries that do outstanding jobs of connecting us with real-life people—whether it’s a hospital staff in Oakland, CA, a mariachi who leaves San Francisco to return to Mexico, or a New York ballplayer whose pitching style makes him an outcast.
Add to that a movie that highlights the inimitable gifts of Buster Keaton, a story about a martial arts master in post-WWII Hong Kong, a film by the renowned director Terrence Malick, and two movies featuring the work of famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and you're looking at one hell of a weekend.
Great Expectations (Netflix)
The same year that Gwyneth Paltrow starred in the Oscar-winning hit Shakespeare in Love, she was also in this superior, underrated adaptation of a literary classic. Great Expectations (1998) is strange and beautiful, departing in many ways from Dickens’ novel. If you can get past its choices, it’s a tender, heartbreaking experience. The hero is Finn (not Pip, as in the novel), a youngster who is invited to the overgrown Florida mansion of Ms. Dinsmoor (not Miss Havisham) to be a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella. Finn helps an escaped convict (Robert De Niro) and grows up to become an artist (played by Ethan Hawke), and a worshipful admirer of the beautiful young woman Estella has grown into (Paltrow).
This was only the second American feature by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and an early work by the gifted three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; at the time, viewers were probably too hung up on the faithfulness of the adaptation to pay attention to the extraordinary way in which the filmmakers explored emotion and environment. It’s a very sensual movie, almost tactile, and it deserves another look. Chris Cooper plays Finn’s fisherman father, and Hank Azaria plays the nobleman who distracts Estella. Interestingly, a novelization, by Deborah Chiel, was published! (Reading the Dickens version is actually recommended.)
Another great baseball documentary to help set the mood for the current season, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s Knuckleball (2012) explores the nuances, and the players, behind that widely misunderstood pitch. Launched with the fingertips, and without spin, a knuckleball is generally a good deal slower than a fastball and is almost totally unpredictable; it can break more than once, and it can wobble according to air currents. Sometimes the pitch doesn’t work, but when it does, it works beautifully. Plus, because it requires less wear-and-tear on the arm. Knuckleballers can play longer, and they tend to get better and better.
Managers and fans generally don’t trust or respect the pitch, and it’s an uphill battle for the guys who choose it for their arsenal. During the filming of this documentary, only two fully committed knuckleball pitchers were playing in the major leagues: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox, and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. (Wakefield retired in 2012 after achieving 200 wins, placing himself in the company of Cy Young and Roger Clemens.) The movie paints Wakefield and Dickey as misunderstood outsiders, and puts them in a kind of members-only club with history’s other knuckleballers; it’s easy to get behind them as they struggle to be accepted, even by their own teammates.
Election (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
Crazier, or perhaps, today, a little less crazy, than actual elections that have been held since, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s incredible black comedy Election (1999), from Tom Perrotta’s novel, is still relevant and still bitingly funny. Reese Witherspoon has arguably her best role as the unforgettable Tracy Flick, an arrogant, brown-nosing high school junior who has already been responsible for the ruination of one teacher, and who decides to run for school president. Beloved teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) has a strong reaction to this, and encourages popular, but dim-witted football star, Paul (Chris Klein), to run against her.
Meanwhile, Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) begins running a non-conformist campaign. And the cruel manipulations, backstabbing, and sinister plotting begin. Director Payne plays this material to the hilt, never shying away or ducking anything harsh, and rarely caring about his characters being likable or being redeemed. It’s a refreshing blast of nastiness, with more than just a sliver of truth. It received a lone Oscar nomination, for Best Adapted screenplay (it lost to the considerably blander The Cider House Rules).
Best Seller (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
Larry Cohen was a legendary filmmaker back in the drive-in/grindhouse days, working quickly and guaranteeing something either crazy or gross or both. He made things like the killer-baby movie It’s Alive (and its sequels), the killer-ice cream movie The Stuff, and the flying-lizard movie Q: The Winged Serpent. Here he is providing the screenplay for a vintage slice of 1980s American cheese, Best Seller (1987). It’s slightly more mature for Cohen, but still fun. Brian Dennehy stars as Dennis Meechum, a cop who survived a murderous raid on the police evidence room and wrote a best-selling crime novel about it.
While he’s struggling to write his follow-up, the charismatic, yet snaky Cleve (James Woods) shows up, claiming to be a former contract killer for a huge corporation, and offering to give Dennis plenty of dirt for his book. Even though Dennis doesn’t quite trust Cleve, his life ends up turned upside-down. John Flynn directs with B-movie swiftness and economy, achieving a movie that’s diverting and entertaining but doesn’t tax the brain very much. Don’t miss the ultra-cheesy closing-credits theme song by Ben E. King, just a year after he had a resurgence with his classic “Stand by Me.”
Chinese Box (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
San Francisco-based filmmaker Wayne Wang journeyed to Hong Kong in 1997 to make a movie during the historic handover to China after a century of British rule. It’s a beautiful, introspective work, more interested in searching, trying things, and asking questions than it is in finding any kind of definitive solution or conclusion.
It follows several characters: John Spencer (Jeremy Irons) is a reporter, who, diagnosed with leukemia, decides to make a video diary about the “real” Hong Kong. He’s in love with Vivian (Gong Li, in her first English-speaking role), but she’s involved with Chang (Michael Hui), who won’t marry her because of her call-girl past. John discovers a spunky street urchin, Jean (Maggie Cheung), who becomes the subject of his videos. Jim (Ruben Blades), a musician buddy occasionally shows up at John’s place. The legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (Belle de Jour) helped shape the script, as did Wang, American screenwriter Larry Gross, and American novelist Paul Theroux. Graeme Revell provided the lovely music score.
The Ides of March (Crackle)
Though it doesn’t reach the excellence of George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, his fourth film as director, The Ides of March (2011), is a clever blending of satire and suspense and—like Election (1999)—includes some very relevant election-year hijinks. Clooney plays the most powerful, charismatic man in the room, Governor Mike Morris, who is the democratic front-runner for president and is currently hoping to win the Ohio primary. But the movie’s lead character is actually a junior campaign strategist, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). (The movie’s ill-chosen poster shows a half-Gosling, half-Clooney mashup that’s just... creepy.)
As everyone tries to land the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), Myers navigates political pitfalls, clashes with the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and meets with the opposing campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) of the rival candidate. He has an affair with a cute campaign worker (Evan Rachel Wood) and fends off an aggressive reporter (Marisa Tomei), all while learning the sinister truths of American politics. Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon adapted Willimon’s play Farragut North. Although the movie tends to get stuck in a few theatrical-type ruts in the third section, the writers received an Oscar nomination for their sharp, intelligent work. Willimon went on to create the series House of Cards.
Violet & Daisy (TubiTV)
This strange, quickly discarded little film was, weirdly, the directing debut of screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. Yet Violet & Daisy (2013) is no urban cautionary tale; rather, it’s a quirky, colorful, Tarantino-esque crime movie that seems displaced by about a decade, but is lightweight, fun, and only 88 minutes. Girly-girls Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are adorable best friends, and work together as contract killers. They are sweet, but deadly, and very good at their job. After a successful hit, they decide to take a vacation, but go back to work when they decide they need money for new dresses.
Weirdly, their sad-eyed new target (James Gandolfini) doesn’t beg for his life. Instead, he offers them fresh-baked cookies. Indeed, he seems to want to die. Most of the movie takes place in one room, with the girls trying to figure out what’s going on, fending off other assassins, and having to run out for fresh bullets. All this probably wouldn’t work if not for the feeling that Fletcher genuinely seems to like his characters, and I did too. Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Danny Trejo appear in potent, memorable supporting roles. Heartbreakingly, this movie was released in the summer of 2013, just days after the untimely death of Gandolfini.
Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) created this funny, bizarre, nightmarish, and thought-provoking 21-minute short film; it was his only cinematic work. The recently restored Film (1965)—sometimes referred to as Samuel Beckett’s Film—stars none other than the legendary silent-era comedian Buster Keaton as a man in a trenchcoat and porkpie hat who scurries home along a rubble-strewn wall. He meets a few people along the way (including actor James Karen), who stare in horror at the camera after he passes. He locks himself in a room, draws the tattered shades, and tries to keep his various pets from looking at him. Finally, he views some photos.
The camera is always lurking behind Keaton, sometimes switching from side-to-side, but avoiding getting so close as to see his profile. Presumably, it all has something to do with looking, and that there must be a looker and something that’s seen. It could be debated as a work of profound genius, or a bunch of hogwash, but at least Keaton is great. (He was busy that year, also appearing in Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.) The cinematographer was the great Boris Kaufman (L’Atalante, On the Waterfront), and theater veteran Alan Schneider handled the directing duties. A new documentary about this creation, Notfilm, is currently making the rounds.
This outstanding documentary by Mark Becker was somehow almost totally ignored, and it deserves more love, especially today. Romantico (2005) tells the story of Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, a tubby, ailing mariachi who serenades diners in the delicious taquerias of San Francisco’s Mission District. He makes about $100 a night, and sends money home, to Mexico, to his wife and two daughters. He realizes he misses them too much and returns home, only to find that jobs and money are scarce. Worse, he fears he would never survive another trip to the United States. His first journey required a three-day walk across the desert, and he barely made it.
In Mexico, he handles little dramas with an unquenchable spirit, looking hopefully towards the future. Becker’s movie tells this heartbreaking story with an easy flow, rarely resorting to traditional documentary techniques; even when he does, they seem to fit into the movie well. Sanchez is the film’s anchor; he’s a genial man with sad eyes, and it’s difficult not to like him. More importantly, the movie has an uncommon empathy and understanding for the human condition; this is a great time to watch it. And the music is good too!
Ip Man 2 (Hoopla)
The recently released Ip Man 3 completed one of the best and most consistently solid action trilogies ever made, but I confess that my favorite of the trio is Ip Man 2 (2010). In the first film, the hero fought the Japanese and went into exile during WWII, but in this one the war is over and he returns to Hong Kong to open a Wing Chun martial arts school. (The real-life Ip Man would go on to train a young Bruce Lee.) Played by martial arts star Donnie Yen, Ip Man—also known as Yip Man—is a calm, thoughtful man, often stoic, but sometimes allowing tiny flickers of feeling. He’s, of course, frequently challenged, and his most dangerous rival is Master Hong Zhen Nan (Sammo Hung).
Hung is a legend of Hong Kong cinema, having trained alongside Jackie Chan, and enjoying a long career as an actor and a director both at home and in America, though his tubby stature often placed him in the role of the buffoon or clown. In this movie, aside from directing the film’s exemplary fight scenes, he has his greatest role—dignified, confident, and ultimately, heartbreaking. He won a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor award for his work. This movie is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
To the Wonder (Hoopla)
A current trend among film critics is to suddenly turn viciously and malevolently on Terrence Malick, who was once considered among the greatest filmmakers of a generation, and is now considered something like a nuisance. In 2011, Malick’s The Tree of Life was probably the most acclaimed film of its year, and less than two years later, To the Wonder (2013) was roundly panned. It’s a mystery: Both films are beautiful, and both tackle similar themes. To the Wonder is perhaps a little less ambitious, but that’s certainly not a sign of ineptitude. You could also say that it’s more intimate.
In France, Neil (Ben Affleck) falls in love with the beautiful Marina (Olga Kurylenko). It’s decided they will return to America, to Oklahoma, to live. Marina doesn’t quite fit in, and their relationship starts to deteriorate, not helped by the presence of a lovely woman (Rachel McAdams) from Neil’s past. Meanwhile, a priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his own faith. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki traces the relationships between the characters and their environments, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. Malick relies on tumbling, poetic narration, tracking his characters like Robert Bresson or Michelangelo Antonioni once might have done. It’s not a traditional story, with traditional characters, but the feelings are deep and profound.
The Waiting Room (iTunes)
One way in which Americans can keep from feeling powerless is to make documentaries about the things that need to be fixed. Peter Nicks’ The Waiting Room (2012) is one of the more essential ones, profound, timely, and—most importantly—moving and highly watchable. I went to it reluctantly, fearing a depressing experience, but found myself an enthusiastic champion. Taking a cue from Frederick Wiseman’s “fly-on-the-way” cinéma vérité technique, Nicks captures that panic that comes in the waiting room of an Oakland, California, hospital, where patients are in pain, have no idea how much longer—how many hours—they may have to wait, and how much it will cost for those with no insurance.
A nurse assistant named Cynthia Y. Johnson is the film’s hero, and through her we learn that the hospital does care, and that ordinary everyday things happen that cause delays. Nicks conducts no interviews, and simply observes, as if unseen, by patients, nurses, and doctors alike. (It’s sometimes amazing that they are able to go about their business while completely ignoring the camera.) Nicks actually edited several weeks’ worth of filming to make it appear as if it were all on one day, but the effect of this choice is all the more powerful.
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