Friday, May 26, 2017

Classic Movie Review: JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December (1994)

JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December (1994)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Whenever I watch a film from late period Godard – pretty much anything he made starting with Histoire(s) du Cinema (begun in 1989) – I am torn between two reactions. One is that Godard is still obviously a genius – his ability to create striking, memorable images – and in particular his editing and sound design is truly amazing, and several times during the runtime of one of his films, you are struck dumb by something you see or hear. But the other part of me thinks that most of what Godard has down in that period is self-involved claptrap – intellectual exercises for an increasingly small number of people, as he looks down on everyone else who isn’t a genius like Jean-Luc Godard. Is this some of this perhaps my own insecurity – worrying that I don’t understand what Godard is talking about? Undeniably – I really don’t have any clue what he’s talking about half the time in these films.
In his 1994 film, JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December is an hour long film in which Godard considers his own place in cinema history – as well as who he is as an artist at this late stage (he was in his 1960s by then). By this point, Godard had already become less and less commercial viable – something he seemed to actively court for nearly 30 years, as he more and more abandoned narrative film for avant-garde essays and montages. Godard looks morose throughout much of the film as he considers his past successes – and how out-of-sync he is now. There is also a little bit of playfulness in the film – as Godard interacts with his cleaning ladies (which you could choose to see as playful, or sexist, or perhaps both) – and then pokes at his critics who have accused him of anti-Semitism, by explaining stereo sound with a diagram, that ends up being a Star of David. And like any late Godard film, there is lot of philosophical quotes – as Godard seemingly brings up arguments, and then shoots them down in rapid succession.
There is much to admire about this film – and over the years, I have learned with late Godard to try not to parse it all too closely, to find out Godard’s precise meanings for everything – they’re going to fly over my head (and so be it, I guess) – but, as with much avant-garde cinema, to try to take it all in as a sensory experience. That’s probably why my two favorites of Godard’s late period are Notre Musique (2004), a brilliantly edited montage of the three kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and his latest film Goodbye to Language 3-D, which made brilliant use of 3-D technology, in ways I had never seen before (and my least favorite is Film Socialism – a film that seems to be deliberately visually ugly). Honestly though, I’m more than a little tired of Godard making films about Godard – and really do wish he had spent the last 30 years applying his genius to something more. But that’s a selfish complaint – just because late Godard isn’t really for me, doesn’t mean that he should listen to me. Much as I have said about the last few Terrence Malick films – when others complain that they wish he’d tell stories again, I always wonder why we want the one filmmaker doing something completely his own to be like everyone else. I didn’t much care of JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December, but if it’s your thing, enjoy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Movie Review: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper  and Jack Paglen and Michael Green based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (David / Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), Jussie Smollett (Ricks), Callie Hernandez (Upworth), Amy Seimetz (Faris), Nathaniel Dean (Hallett),  James Franco (Branson), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw).
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) remains the best film in the franchise – a pretty much perfect horror film that set an impossibly high standard for anything to compete with. When James Cameron made Aliens (1986) – he was smart to make more an action movie than a horror film out of it – it allowed him more room to make his film different than Scott’s. When Scott returned to the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus, he made a horror film to be sure – but it was one filled with ideas – some better than others – about mankind’s creation. I liked that film more than most – I dug the fact that in a film of that size, Scott was daring to try to do something other than repeat himself – address some bigger ideas. Yes, the characters do some incredibly, incredibly stupid thing – characters in this series have always been doing stupid things, but Prometheus pushed that to its breaking point – but I did like Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw as a successor for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and loved Michael Fassbender as the curious robot David. And on a technical level, the film was a big, bold, beautiful monster – sure, the “Engineers looked a little funny – but so much else was great, and the alien abortion sequence is one of the best in the franchise. In short, I’ll take some big ideas – even if they’re big, dumb ideas – along with the special effects over a film that doesn’t have any ideas at all.
It took five years to get a sequel to Prometheus – and I think Alien Covenant is an even better film than its predecessor was. There are still ideas here – but Scott tones them down a bit, plays up some of the horrific set pieces, and turns Fassbender’ s David (the only real returning character from the previous film) into the series’ best, non-Alien villain – a Frankenstein’s monster who becomes Dr. Frankenstein himself. Yes, once again, the characters do some almost inconceivably dumb things (keeping your fucking helmets on people! And do not look into the writhing, squishy egg David asks you to) – and the film introduces an interesting idea about faith, and then complete abandons it – but these are flaws the movie can deal with, because so much else works so well.
The film is about another giant spaceship – the Covenant – which has 2,000 colonists aboard, heading to a far off planet that they will eventually call their own. The only one not in hyper sleep is Walter (Michael Fassbender) – a slightly newer model than David (who we see in the films first scene, talking to his creator – so we know he’ll come back). Things go wrong, of course, the crew is woken up – the Captain is killed, etc. Drawn to a nearby planet by a rogue signal (a John Denver song) they put on hold the rest of their journey (another seven years of hyper sleep await them) – and decide to explore. It, of course, is not a good idea. The planet seems deserted – but of course it isn’t. David is there – and he’s got some friends.
Undeniably the best new character in the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson – who in the span of just a few years has become one of my favorite actresses, following Inherent Vice and Queen of Earth). She was married to the Captain who died (many of the crew are married couples – which makes sense given they aren’t on a single mission, but are out to colonize a new planet) – so she’s already dealing with her grief when they land on the planet – and things start to go wrong. Most of the other crew members are there as alien fodder – you know the drill – although I would have liked to see them do more with Billy Crudup as the second in command who becomes Captain – and says that as a man of faith, they didn’t trust him to lead the mission. Also, Danny McBride acquits himself nicely in a more dramatic role, Upstream Color’s brilliant Amy Seimetz probably made some money as his wife (and she’s pretty good) an Carmen Ejogo is mainly wasted as Crudup’s wife. The star of the movie is Fassbender however, doing a dual role as David, who barely tries to cover his ulterior motives, and Walter – who is newer model, but also less evolved (he says the robots of David’s time creeped people out because they were too real). Fassbender, playing the embodiment of evil for the second time this year (following his role as Satan in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song) is having a blast with his dual role – especially when David and Walter interact with each other, and David teaches Walter how to improve his fingering.
The film doesn’t rise to the level of perfection of the first two films in the series. Like everything that has come after that point, Alien Covenant is an imperfect monster. But this one is scary, and fun – and has a hell of an ending, even if you see it coming from a mile off. In short, it’s about as good as a movie like this, in 2017, can be expected to be.

Movie Review: Mommy Dead and Dearest

Mommy Dead and Dearest
Directed by: Erin Lee Carter.
The story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Deedee is tragic no matter how you look at it. It is a story of h
orrific child abuse that lasted well into what should have been Gypsy Rose’ adulthood – and eventually will lead to murder. From this strange, sad case director Erin Lee Carter has created one of the better true crime docs in recent years – one that isn’t all doom and gloom, but may actually have some hope for the future. In a case as messed up as this, perhaps that’s the best result imaginable.
Gypsy Rose was barely 3 months old, when her mother Deedee had her hooked up to a ventilator. From there, followed more than two decades of lies, in which Gypsy had to undergo countless medical procedures, for countless ailments and illnesses that she never really had. Her father saw her sometimes – but believed his ex-wife Deedee was doing her best to care for their sick daughter. She had such an extensive medical file, and an assortment of ailments because of the treatments, that even those doctors who expected something was off, didn’t really do much to stop anything to stop it. Deedee was estranged from most of her family – who viewed her with such skepticism and disdain that when they heard what happened, they figured it was yet another scam. Because, you see, Deedee was using all of Gypsy’s illnesses to get free stuff – from charities like the Make a Wish Foundation, and other places. Deedee did everything she could to isolate Gypsy from the outside world
Sooner or later however, you cannot control your child anymore – and that happened when Gypsy started using the internet – including a Christian dating website. She connects with Nicholas Godejohn, who has his own issues (he is on the autism spectrum, and was arrested at McDonalds once for using their free wifi to watch porn for 9 hours). The two fell in love, but of course, Deedee would never have let Gypsy go anywhere. Which is why she and Nicholas plotted and carried out her murder.
This story is tragic because as you watch it, it does become clear that none of the three main people involved – Deedee, Gypsy and Nicholas – are mentally healthy. The film diagnoses Deedee with Munchausen by Proxy – a mental disorder that has her manipulating everyone around her to get Gypsy the medical care “she needs”. Suffering for years under this abuse, never knowing what was normal, and spending all of her time with a master manipulator, Gypsy is immature and naïve, but also not above manipulation herself. Nicholas Godejohn has a strange, warped view of right and wrong – and love and sex – which allows him to do what he what he does as well. There are no winners her – Deedee is dead, Gypsy and Nicholas are in jail.
This marks Erin Lee Carr’s second film, following the interesting Thought Crimes, about a New York cop, who wrote extensively online about his desire to kill, rape and eat the various women in his life – he insisted it was all fantasy, and he would never all do it. That film had a fascinating case, but I’m not sure it ever really hit its target. Mommy Dead and Dearest does that – and it’s why it’s one of the best docs of the year so far.

Movie Review: Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
Directed by: Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie.
Written by: Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie.
Starring: Charlotte Aubin (Giutizia), Laurent Bélanger (Tumulto), Emmanuelle Lussier Martinez (Ordine Nuovo), Gabrielle Tremblay (Klas Batalo).
Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is a monster of a title, but it fits the movie itself, and it’s more than three hour runtime. This film from Quebec takes the 2012 so called Maple Uprising – where students in Quebec took to the streets to protest tuition hikes – as it’s jumping off point, and then envisions a lonely little group of four of those students, who keep right on protesting when everyone else stops. Written and directed by Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, the film sees its lonely group in a clearer way than they see themselves – the film both respects them for their idealism, but sees the various holes in their philosophy, and their basically shallow and immature behavior. Basically, it sees its four main characters as people who reject society, but don’t really know what to do next – they sit around in a dark, dank factory turned living space, and spew their ideals to each other. They make no money, other than what one of their group  Klas Batalo (Gabrielle Tremblay) – makes as a transgender prostitute (the others, apparently feeling no guilt about what she does to support the rest of them.
The obvious model for this film comes from Godard in the 1960s in films like La Chinoise with his “children of Marx and Coca Cola”. The film mixes in real footage of those 2012 protests with what happens next. The characters are energized when they are a part of the movement- even if, its clear early on that they are outside of that movement a little bit, more extreme – most of the protestors have an endpoint in mind, whereas these four want to keep going. But what do you do when you want to protest and everyone else has moved on?
The film is far from perfect. It is way too long, and repetitive throughout – although, I do think that’s part of the point of the film. I do think the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways – both admiring their youthful idealism, and poking fun of it (the best example of this is an early sex scene between two of the group – but once it starts to really get involved, one stops the other – its selfish to think of their own sexual desires, when revolution is needed. Later, various members of the group will get in trouble – and face harsh punishment, either by their own hands, or the hands of others – for “nostalgia”.
The film is largely plotless – the three hour runtime doesn’t help that – and for the most part, the characters are not particularly well defined. I do think you get to see a little bit inside of Gabrielle Tremblay’s character the most – a long scene with one of her clients in perhaps the best in the movie – but the rest kind of blend together. Again, that could easily be the point – that they have become so committed to their cause, that they’ve lost their own identities, sacrificing all to the group. It’s a fascinating film, not an altogether successful one, but one that I do find myself returning to in my mind in the week since I’ve seen it.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Brother's Keeper (1992)

Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directed by: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky.
Four year before they made the excellent Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – a documentary that spawned two sequels, and is often held up as one of the best true crime docs in history, Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky made Brother’s Keeper – a “true crime” doc in a lower key than the other film. It focused on the case of Delbert Ward – and his brothers. They lived in Munnsville, New York – a small town of only a few hundred people – one of those places where everyone knows everyone. And everyone did know the Ward boys – four brothers who didn’t bathe very often, came to town riding a couple of tractors, and basically kept to themselves on their large farm. While no one in town could rightly be called friends of the Ward boys – they weren’t enemies either – everyone basically kept to themselves. That is until the second oldest Ward boy – Bill – was found dead in his bed one morning – and Delbert was charged with his murder.
The Ward boys are not very smart – although, whether Delbert and the others actually suffered from intellectual disabilities, or whether they simply choose to remain mainly cut off from modern life, and hence no wise to its wise, is open for debate. Bill, the brother who winds up dead, had been suffering for a while – coughing and wheezing, complaining of pain in various places, etc. There is no evidence that any of them ever went to a doctor – so when Bill wound up dead, everyone assumed it was natural causes. But the cops find some evidence that confuses them – there’s debate as to whether a pillow was used to smother Bill, and some strange results on the autopsy. The police haul Delbert in for questioning – while there were four brothers, there were only two beds, and Delbert shared with Bill. They get a “confession” out of Delbert – but did they trick it out of him, coax it out of him – bully someone who wasn’t smart enough to know his rights to confess to something he didn’t do? The state at first floats the idea that it was a mercy killing – and then starts talking about something darker, and more perverted than that.
If you’re thinking this is going to be a documentary about a small town divided – you’d be wrong – while a few people do wonder if Delbert really did kill Bill as a mercy killing, no one in town wants to see him go to jail for it. They hold fundraisers for his legal defense fund – and the surviving Ward brothers become more accepted in the community than ever before. The case draws national attention – the filmmakers show the brothers watching themselves in a segment with Connie Chung for example. But what Berliner and Sinofsky capture is deeper than those segments on the show – because they stay there for so long, that everyone ends up simply accepting their presence. One of the other brothers, Lymon, is painfully shy in almost all social situations – but eventually he is able to open up to the camera – at least somewhat. The same is true for Delbert – who’s more articulate with the filmmakers than he is anywhere else.
The filmmakers also capture this small town brilliantly – and the attitudes in it, and why the police officers and the prosecutors – both from “the city” (what city? Who know, who cares) never do understand. I do worry that we’re going to spend the next four (or God forbid 8) years comparing everything to Trump, and Trump’s America – but you can certainly see the attitude many talk about contributing to the rise of Trump in this film. The locals talk about how everyone from the city thinks they’re all a bunch of idiot hicks – and they look on them, and think they can walk all over them without noticing. The prosecutor describes Delbert and the rest of the Wards as “outcasts” in their community – and he may not really be wrong – but the community would rather have their own outcasts, than someone from the city. The feeling that led to Trump’s rise didn’t spring up overnight – you can certainly see that in this film from 25 years ago. Yet, you can also see the humanity in rural people – some of whom are more open minded than you’d think (as one older man says even if there was sex going on between the brothers, who cares – it’s none of his business).
I won’t reveal the outcome of the trial – although I don’t think, the way the film is structured, that it’s ever really in doubt – especially when we get to the trial scenes themselves, which can be painful to watch. Paradise Lost and its sequels will always be the films that Berlinger and Sinofsky are remembered for – say what you want about them, but they are among the only films ever that you could argue saved someone’s life – but Brother’s Keeper is another triumph for the pair – and one of the best documentaries of the 1990s. It deserved to be more widely known.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Movie Review: Get Me Roger Stone

Get Me Roger Stone
Directed by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
Written by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
To hear Roger Stone tell it, there is hardly anything that has happened in American politics since Nixon that he isn’t at least partially responsible for. Undeniably, some of that is true – as Jeffrey Toobin calls Stone in this film, he is the “malevolent Forrest Gump of American politics” – in that everywhere you look at some major political event, Stone is there – perhaps off to the side, but he’s there. Is he responsible for all of it – or was he just there? No one seems to be quite sure what Stone did and did not do – what is fact, and what is the Roger Stone produced legend of himself. One thing is for sure though – Stone has not been a force for good in American politics.
Stone became a Conservative as a young man – Barry Goldwater was his idol at one point – and during college, he took time off to help work on Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, eventually becoming the youngest person questioned by the Watergate Grand Jury, because, of course he was. Stone makes no apologies for his love of Nixon – he even has the ex-President tattooed on his back for God’s sake. His association with Nixon, oddly, never really hurt him – and he later became head of the Young Republicans, and then worked to get Ronald Reagan elected. During the 1980s – he founded a lobbying firm alongside Paul Manafort (yes, Trump’s campaign manager) – where they specialized in dirty politics – taking money from dictators and warlords, and helping to clean-up their image. That made Stone a lot of money. It was in the 1980s when Stone met Donald Trump – and tried to convince him to run for President. When Trump eventually did run for President, Stone was there of course – a couple more decades, a sex scandal cannot slow down Stone. He was more of a fringe figure by then – going on Alex Jones, pedaling his Clinton rape book and shirts, and right there supporting Trump the whole way. He was on and off the campaign more than once.
To say that Stone is a sleaze isn’t really an insult to him – he relishes it. He wants you – the person watching the documentary filmed by what he calls “lefty filmmakers” – to hate his guts, because that means he’s effective. He knows how to appeal to dumb people, and how to get them to come out and vote. He doesn’t believe most of what he says – because he doesn’t have to. He just needs to convince others that it’s true, or muddy the water so much that they cannot tell what is true and what isn’t. In short, Roger Stone is one of the reasons we hear so much about “Fake News” – he invented it.
Or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think. He wants you to think that he’s responsible for everything – Reagan winning, the election of George W. Bush, the fall of Eliot Spitzer, the rise of Trump. When the Democrats win, it’s because he was sidelined – like during the 1996 election, when a sex scandal got Stone ousted from Bob Dole’s campaign (in the interest of being fair and balanced, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a sex scandal to me – I mean he and his wife were caught advertising for swingers to join them, so he wasn’t even cheating on his wife). He’s too much of a loose cannon, too in love with the spotlight to be a man in the shadows type like Karl Rove. If Stone’s not on TV somewhere, he’ll wither up and die from lack of attention.
The film follows Stone over a period of many months, leading up to Election night, when Donald Trump stunned the world and became President. It does provide some moments with Stone’s family – his wife, daughter and granddaughter, and Stone himself talking about the side of him we don’t see – the private side, the husband/father/grandfather. Thankfully, there’s not much of this (just the right amount) – not because I don’t want to view Stone as human, but because it really doesn’t matter what his private life is like – it matters what he does in public, which is really to debase the American political system. That’s he’s nice to his granddaughter doesn’t really matter in the face of that.
The film is an important documentary for 2017. I’m sure the filmmaker thought they were making a different film when they shot it – a look at how close America came to the brink of electing an idiot, based on the sleazy politics of Stone. That film would play as a warning, and perhaps a relief. The one they made is different – an entertaining tragedy. Because no matter what you think of Roger Stone, they man is entertaining to watch – even while doing so makes your stomach churn.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Movie Review: Risk

Directed by: Laura Poitras.   
Written by: Laura Poitras.
During the time Laura Poitras was filming Risk, her new documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, she also shot, edited and released her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour – which of course, won her an Oscar. That film was a tightly contained, almost thriller, in which Snowden spends a few days in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and a few journalists, explaining all the data he has leaked to them, just before their stories hit the airwaves. It also helped that while there are many contradictory feelings about Snowden out there (and in my case, my own head) – he really does seem to be a fairly earnest, straight forward kind of guy. What you see is what you get, and he’s not really trying to play Poitras, or anyone else. Risk, and Assange, is a different animal as it was shot over the course of seven years, and in fact more footage has been shot and added since the film debuted at Cannes in 2016. Poitras’ feelings towards Assange – and other figures in the film – changes as well. This makes for a very messy film – but a fascinating one.
This isn’t a film to watch if you don’t know anything about Wikileaks or Assange. That would be Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which does a good job running down their history. This is a more intimate film, in which Poitras simply points her camera at Assange as he goes about his days, and films. She wonders why he’s giving her so much access – he doesn’t seem to like her very much she says – and yet, there she is when he and a colleague try and get then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the phone to warn her that all of the State Department’s communication were about to be leaked – not by them, but because they themselves have been compromised (I cannot decide if egomania, brazenness or sheer idiocy that the pair call up the State Department and ask to speak to Hilary Clinton). At first, it feels like Poitras admires Assange and WikiLeaks, as well as Jacob Appelbaum, who also works there, and who we see loudly demanding accountability from Egypt’s telecommunication companies after the Arab Spring. If Assange always seemed like an egomaniac, perhaps doing good work, Appelbaum seemed like a good guy through and through. By the end, of course, her outlook on both changes drastically.
It’s fairly early in the film when Assange gets charged with rape with Sweden – and faces an extradition warrant back to Sweden, which he appeals as high as he could go in England, and when he still loses, starts to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy where he remains today – claiming it’s all just a ruse to get him back to Sweden, where they will end up sending him to America on more serious charges (I’ve never quite understood if that was the case, why America wanted him sent back to Sweden first – why not just get the Brits to send him back – but no, matter). Assange, of course, says the whole thing is a conspiracy against him, and he’s completely innocent. He may well be (since he won’t go back and face charges, we’ll never know) – but in the film he does go on a pretty toxic rant about radical feminists, and lesbian nightclubs, that wouldn’t be out of place on a MRA Forum. That scene is fascinating to watch the women around him, and how they react (or try not to).
Risk ends up becoming a study in contradictions – something Poitras admits in the film, as she didn’t know that was the movie she was making. It is about Assange who wants to expose everyone’s secrets but his own – about Appelbaum, who Poitras admits having a brief affair with – also being accused of abuse and sexual assault, while trying to project a more wholesome image of Assange (he does okay at first – but there are a few more cringe-y moments later in the film). While Assange lets Poitras back after the Snowden affair, he never forgave her for not letting Wikileaks have any of the information – instead allowing it to go the mainstream media. As Hilary Clinton’s emails get leaked, by Wikileaks, Poitras wants to know if he got them from Russia – and he won’t say, although he clearly hates Hilary Clinton.
You can make you want of Edward Snowden and what he did – I’m still conflicted myself – but it wasn’t really about him, and he knew it. For Assange, everything is about him – he masks it behind his ideology, that again, you can agree with or not, but he’s always at the center of it.
All of this makes Risk sound probably more interesting to watch than it actually is. The film is one of those that’s more interesting in retrospect – more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. The film meanders, and doesn’t always have a clear thought process behind what we’re seeing and why (I’m not sure why Poitras felt it necessary to show the embarrassing footage of Lady Gaga, but she does). This isn’t as good as Citizenfour (and neither is as good as her underseen doc from before them, The Oath) – but it is a fascinating one.

Movie Review: Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love
Directed by: Ben Young.
Written by: Ben Young.
Starring: Emma Booth (Evelyn White), Ashleigh Cummings (Vicki Maloney), Stephen Curry (John White), Susie Porter (Maggie), Damian de Montemas (Trevor), Harrison Gilbertson (Jason), Fletcher Humphrys (Gary), Steve Turner (Troy), Holly Jones (Miss Martin), Michael Muntz (Sergeant Mathews), Marko Jovanovic (Sergeant Henderson), Liam Graham (Pete), Lisa Bennet (Gabby Donovan).
Kudos to the people who decided to release Ben Young’s Hounds of Love on Mother’s Day weekend in North America for having the sickest sense of humor imaginable. This unrelentingly grim and bleak story of a pair of serial killers (loosely based on a real case from the 1980s) does have two mothers in it. One is the type of mother you expect to see in a movie – whose teenage daughter goes missing, and ends up doing any and everything she can to get her back. The other, is one of the sick psychopaths who kidnapped the teenage girl in the first place, and along with her husband torture and rape her – and are certainly going to kill her as well. After all, in the first sequence, we see them do the same thing to another teenage girl. I’m not quite sure I buy the final scenes of Hound of Love – the only moments where these two mothers are near each other – but up until then, Hounds of Love is certainly among the creepiest films of the year.
The film opens, and will return to throughout the film, by using a slow motion panning shot – taking in a group of teenage girls playing netball. This could be an innocent scene, of course, but it isn’t the way its shot – the slow motion heightens the sense of voyeurism, and the camera is not focusing on the teenage girls face, as them as individuals, but basically just as meat. This is how John and Evelyn (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) see them, and sure enough, it’s going to be one of these teenage girls they kidnap, rape and kill in the opening sequence. This was the 1980s after all, a slightly more innocent time – and while someone like John may not have been able to convince a teenage girl to willingly get in the car with him, he has Emma, and she seems nice. Who’s ever heard of a woman killer? This is the same routine they’ll pull on Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) a few days later. Vicki sneaks out of her mom’s house to go to a party – she’s pissed at her, for various reasons, and is walking when John and Emma pull up in their car. They offer to take her back to theirs for some pot – and then she can get to her party. She quickly finds herself bound to a bed, and fighting for her life as her day’s long ordeal is just starting. Most of the rest of the movie is set in that house – with those three people, only occasionally cutting away to Vicki’s frantic mother, trying to get people to take her daughter’s disappearance seriously (again, this was the 1980s, when cops thought every missing kid was a runaway, and didn’t take it seriously until someone turned up dead).
The film really is a psychological portrait of three people in that house together for those few days. Two of those portraits are expertly drawn, but precisely what we expect them to be. Cummings is terrific as Vicki, the survivor who does everything she can to survive – she attempts to get away, and when she can’t, she does an interesting job at trying to sow the seeds of discord between her captors – reading their needs, and responding. She bends, but doesn’t break. Curry’s John is also an excellent performance, but the kind of serial killer we’ve seen in films before as well. He really is a pathetic, weak man outside his own home, but inside, he controls everything with sadistic glee. It is Emma Booth’s performance as Evelyn – and her character – that makes Hounds of Love not only work, but do so in a way I haven’t quite seen before in a film like this. Evelyn is not a survivor girl like Vicki, nor purely sadistic like John – but a strange mix of the two in a way that is fascinating. She is certainly a victim of domestic abuse at John’s hands – both physical and psychological, and in some ways, she does what she needs to survive being with him. Yet, she is also a willing participant in every aspect of what happens to their victims – the kidnappings, the rapes, and the killings themselves. There is a part of her as sadistic as John is – her anger really flaring up when she thinks John actually thinks Vicki is attractive, and may want to cut Emma out of the loop for a moment – her whole identity is circled around being the only one John wants forever. Well that, and being a mother. We never see Evelyn’s kids in the movie, but they are brought up throughout the film. She has, unsurprisingly lost custody of them – and now dotes on her dog as she waits in vain for her kids to return (it is not a friendly dog).  
This is the directorial debut of Ben Young – who for the most part does an excellent job of not making an exploitation film out of the material. There is nothing overly graphic in the film at all (there is one moment, fairly early, right after Vicki is tied down that crosses that line, and hits a wrong note, but it’s the only one). Yet, there is no mistaking what happens, and it hits hard even if we do not see it in all its grisly details. As a filmmaker, he does a great job of showing the banality of this place, the harsh sun, the interchangeable houses, the dirt and grim of it all. He may overuse the slow motion panning shots, but there’s a reason beyond it looks cool (take that, Zack Snyder!). The film isn’t an easy sit, but it shouldn’t be. It’s also one you’re not likely to forget.

Movie Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

David Lynch: The Art Life
Directed by: Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers – his dark, twisted, surreal films haunt your memory like childhood nightmares, never quite leaving you. His short films can be even more messed up, and his art – paintings, sculptures, etc. – are demented – like something you would expect a serial killer to make. Yet, when Lynch talks, while saying he sounds normal would be pushing things, what wouldn’t be pushing things is to say that he doesn’t really give you much insight into his work. The 10 “hints” he provided as the entirety of the written materials for the original DVD release of Mulholland Dr. are as cryptic as the film itself. Once in an interview, he stated that Eraserhead was his most spiritual film, and the interviewer asked me to elaborate. “No” was the entirety of Lynch’s response. All of this is a big part of Lynch’s charm – and I think part of his brilliance as artist. It also makes him a lousy documentary subject if he’s going to be the only one talking, and the subject is going to be himself.
David Lynch: The Art Life basically has Lynch tell his life story from the time he was a kid, until sometime during the making of Eraserhead. He recounts snippets of events from his childhood that fans of Lynch will recognize in some of his later work (specifically Blue Velvet – which seems to have sprung from his suburban childhood). But Lynch’s narration is basically a fairly dry recitation of events, as well as some rather cryptic comments about art. Do you really learn anything about Lynch and his life? Not really. He brushes over his first divorce – he’s married one minute in his telling when he started making Eraserhead, divorced the next with no mention of why or how. This is Lynch’s habit throughout – he gives what happened, but doesn’t really explain anything else. As a result, it doesn’t really explain his art either.
Now, Lynch is more than welcome to keep his personal life private – he also more than welcome to not want to elaborate on his work. Frankly, it would be better if more artists let their work speak for itself. Then again, why would he want a documentary about himself, if he didn’t want to open up, and share something about his life, or his work? Last year’s DePalma didn’t tell me very much of anything about the man, but it told me a hell of a lot about his films. Not so here.
What makes this all doubly disappointing is that the film itself is wonderfully well made. Filmmakers Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm have done a fantastic job of making every shot in the film interesting. The sound design is likely to be the best in any doc you’ll see this year (it’s not at Eraserhead level, but then what is). The filmmakers clearly know and love Lynch and his work, and have done a great job of making a doc about David Lynch look and feel like a doc by David Lynch may look and sound. The problem is there is gaping hole at the center of the film – one in which Lynch himself refuses to fill. And unlike in his films, where the ambiguity work, here it’s not ambiguity at all – it’s just kind of boring.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
It’s interesting to go back and watch a Werner Herzog documentary from before the world turn him into a meme – and he so fully embraced it. Aside from his masterful Into the Abyss (and the On Death Row side project), I am always stuck wondering in all post-Grizzly Man Herzog docs just how seriously he is taking his strange narration, and how much he is simply embracing the image that many have of him. This isn’t a wholly bad thing – it’s made some of his work, like Encounters at the End of the World both insightful and hilarious, but at other times it’s a distraction. Watching his 54 minute documentary Lessons of Darkness from 1992 – from before Herzog was a celebrity – is eye-opening in many ways. First, it is one of Herzog’s best, most visually striking documentaries – a brilliant look at the Kuwaiti oil fields in flames – presented with little voiceover narration or context. But it’s also interesting to look at the filmmaker Herzog was at the time – his voice is over much of the first half, and then almost none in the second – as if even Herzog has been struck dumb by the devastation he sees. It’s a choice that I doubt he would make today.
Herzog doesn’t really provide context for his documentary – instead, approaching it in terms of his voiceover as if he were an alien visitor, unsure of what he is seeing playing out on this strange planet. Split into 13 chapters, Herzog starts with shots of Kuwait’s capital before the war – a beautiful, old city. We then flash to the familiar CNN footage – night vision green – of bombs going off all throughout the city. From there, spends much of the rest of the time surveying the damage. Most of the shot in the movie are taken from helicopter flying above the massive wreckage – and Herzog’s typical voiceover only interrupts in order to provide necessary information – like the massive lakes and rivers we are seeing, although they appear to be water, are actually oil. He speaks to only two people – a Kuwaiti woman who says she witnessed her two adult sons tortured to death in front on her, and since then she hasn’t been able to speak (she does speak in the film, but in a barely audible whisper – that Herzog doesn’t subtitle) – and another woman, shown with her young son, who talks about soldiers bursting into her home, and throwing her son to the ground and stepping on his head – and how he has not spoken since either. These are powerful anti-war statements – made perhaps more powerful by the fact Herzog provides zero context for them – the woman talk of “soldiers” – but nothing else (like, where those soldiers were from). Herzog will follow the lead of the woman and the young boy for the second half of the film – not speaking for long stretches of time – as if he too can longer speak having witnessed the horror of war that he has seen.
The last third of the film is the most visually striking, as Herzog and his crew go to the oilfields themselves as they are burning – massive columns of fire shooting up from the desert – and the various firefighters and oil workers on hand to try and put out the flames, and cap the wells. Then, oddly, we see them setting more fires – and Herzog’s voiceover returns – confused about what we are seeing, and why? Didn’t they just put out the fires? Why are they setting more (the film never answers).
Lessons of Darkness ranks as one of Herzog’s finest documentarians for several reasons. One is, like much of his work, he is more than willing to go where many others would refuse to. This isn’t safe areas in which is he filming, but Herzog is one of those madmen who will not be stopped, and somehow always ends up unscathed. Second, because I do think it represents Herzog’s worldview – as seen in other films – in a more simple, straight-forward way. Had Herzog made an overtly political film – critical of this specific war, the film would instantly be dated. But he didn’t do that – and as a result, the film becomes some deeper, more universal – a treatise on wars and the illogical nature of them in general – much like he would do years later when examining the death penalty – where it wasn’t so much this one case, but the idea of the state putting someone to death – or more accurately, the state asking people to put others to death.
Herzog is such a prolific director, it’s impossible to keep up with everything he’s done – I’ve seen 20 of his films – which according to IMDB, only leaves 49 (and growing) to go. As anyone who makes that many films is, Herzog is inconsistent – but when he’s at his best, he can be terrific. He’s at his best with Lessons of Darkness.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Directed by: James Gunn.
Written by: James Gunn based on the Marvel comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and characters created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan and Jim Starlin and Stan Lee & Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Baby Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Sylvester Stallone (Stakar Ogord), Kurt Russell (Ego), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Chris Sullivan (Taserface), Sean Gunn (Kraglin / On-Set Rocket). 
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 delivers precisely what you expect it will deliver, and nothing else. This isn’t wholly a bad thing – you cannot complain that the film doesn’t deliver what its predecessor did – because it does. What it lacks this time is anything the least bit surprising. The film leans so heavily on what worked last time, that there really isn’t time for anything all that different. The good news is that because the first film was so wildly entertaining, that the second film is also an entertaining thrill ride. But the first film was a genuine surprise – a film that came out of the Marvel machine, with a least an inkling of something new and different. This one doesn’t have that.
The film once again follows the title group of space misfits – led Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), their goofy, 1980s music loving orphan and misfit, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a kick-ass, no nonsense green alien, who is also his love interest, Drax (Dave Bautista), a giant, muscle bound green and red alien out of revenge and comic relief, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon who is also a giant asshole, and Groot – the lovable tree who was all but destroyed last movie, and is no replaced by Baby Groot – the same thing but smaller and WAY cuter. This adventure finds them outrunning a planet of aliens they’ve pissed off and the Ravagers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) Quill used to belong to, who have been hired by those same aliens. Meanwhile, Quill meets his long lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) who tells him the secrets of his past, and Gamora is still battling her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The other major new character is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who works for Ego.
The film knows why it exists – and that is to please the millions of fans who made the first film one of Marvel’s more surprising hits – considering that this was a little known comic property when compared to the rest of their movies. Perhaps because it was lesser known, and had an August release date, Marvel let writer/director James Gunn off the hook a little bit, and allowed him to indulge himself a little more than most directors who work for them get to do. No such lucky this time around, as it basically seems like the instructions here were “Do it exactly the same as last time”. Luckily, that does involve a lot of Gunn himself, whose warped sense of humor comes out in the film. He also seems more comfortable with the special effects this time around, and the action sequences are smoother and better executed.
Having said all that, the best sequence in the entire film is the first one – a massive space battle that instead of following the action, follows Baby Groot who is at ground level as the action plays out behind him. There is more visual imagination and ingenuity in that sequence than the rest of the film combined.
Still, I feel like I’m being overly hard on a film that I generally had a good time with. This is a film that holds your attention from beginning to end, is funny and clever, well-acted and entertaining. For pure escapist fun, the film does its job. It just doesn’t do anything more than that – which I was kind of hoping it would. But hey, we’re about to enter a three month period of non-stop blockbuster – and if they’re all as fun as this, we won’t be complaining.

Movie Review: I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake
Directed by: Ken Loach.
Written by: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Dave Johns (Daniel), Hayley Squires (Katie), Briana Shann (Daisy), Dylan McKiernan (Dylan), Kate Rutter (Ann), Sharon Percy (Sheila), Kema Sikazwe (China), Steven Richens (Piper), Dan Li (Stan Li), John Sumner (CV Instructor), Dave Turner (Harry Edwards), Micky McGregor (Ivan).
From the beginning of I, Daniel Blake, there is no doubt who the director is. This is Ken Loach’s second film to win the Palme D’or – after 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley – and it falls neatly in line with the other films the 80 year old Loach has made over his 50 year career. The Leftist directors career has always been as messaged based as anything else, which has resulted in a career that has produced some truly great films, and others than feel like halfhearted sermons standing up for the little guy. When Loach marries his style with the right story, the results can be great – although too often over the past 20 years or, the message gets in the way. Luckily, for the most part I Daniel Blake is one of the Loach films that doesn’t overwhelm its narrative with its messaged, even if the message is front and center from beginning to end. The film goes overboard in the final act (no more so than in the final scene), but by then, Loach has earned his sermonizing I guess, by delivering a thoughtful, emotionally wrenching film.
The story follows the title character, played by Dave Johns, who is a 59 year old construction worker and widower, recovering from a heart attack. His doctor has told him he isn’t well enough to return to work yet, and to do his exercises, but to basically rest up and get well – he’ll get back soon enough. But Blake has trouble navigating the byzantine, Kafka-esque government bureaucracy to get his benefits. He’s supposed to be on disability, but someone known as the “Decider” has decided he doesn’t qualify anymore. He can appeal, but that takes time – and until then he has no benefits. He can apply for regular unemployment – but in order to qualify for that, he has to be actively looking for a job, and be able to prove it. Adding insult to injury, he’s supposed to do all of this online, but he doesn’t own a computer, and has no idea how to use one. One day at the government office, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mom new in town. She was “relocated” when her landlord threw her out for complaining about a leak that made her son ill. Now, she’s in an area where she knows no one, has no support, no job – and two kids to feed. She was late for her appointment because she just arrived in town, and got lost. Both Daniel and Katie end up getting thrown out of the office that day, but have to keep coming back to try and survive.
The first hour or so of I, Daniel Blake has a neo-realist feel to, and Loach follows Blake and/or Katie through their increasingly desperate day-to-day lives, as they become frustrated, or try and do what they are told to keep receiving their benefits. Even when Daniel does find a helpful work at the assistance office, he ends up getting her in trouble as she helps him fill out his forms, which she isn’t supposed to do. Meanwhile, he has to apply for jobs he doesn’t want, and cannot accept, because he needs to show he’s trying. And Katie is becoming increasingly desperate and poor. There is no romantic relationship between them – Loach isn’t that hackneyed – but a genuine friendship where they help each other other. The performances by Johns, and especially newcomer Squires, really are quite extraordinary in the way they inhabit these normal people, without ever condensing to them or the audience.
The movie does lose its way in the third act a little bit, as it starts to lay everything on very thick during the last 40 minutes or so., I’m a little tired of every attractive, younger woman with money problems becoming a prostitute right out of the gate at this point, and the finale – including a speech by Squires that she saves from being embarrassing – is way too on-the-nose to be effective.
Yet, the message of I, Daniel Blake is an important one, and for the most part, it is delivered in an effective way by Loach and company. The movie could have – and should have – trusted the audience a little bit more to get the message of the movie (even in the first act, it’s not very subtle – we certainly didn’t need to get beat over the head with it). Still, flaws and all, I, Daniel Blake is a fine film – Loach’s best in a decade – and a story that really does hit hard.
Note: There was quite a bit of controversy at Cannes a year ago when the film won the Palme D’or, despite generally mixed critical reviews, while a film as praised as Toni Erdman went home empty handed. Like Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan – which won a couple of years ago, I do think that giving I, Daniel Blake the Palme considering the competition (not just Toni Erdman but Paterson, Personal Shopper, American Honey, The Handmaiden and Elle – and those are just the ones I’ve seen and loved) is silly, but hardly reflects on the film itself – which is strong, just not a masterpiece. I fear that, like what happens at the Oscars when a good film beats a great film for Best Picture, all of a sudden the good film seems worse than it actually is.

Movie Review: The Lure

The Lure
Directed by: Agnieszka Smoczynska.
Written by: Robert Bolesto.
Starring: Marta Mazurek (Silver), Michalina Olszanska (Golden), Jakub Gierszal (Mietek), Kinga Preis (The Nightclub Singer), Andrzej Konopka (Drummer), Zygmunt Malanowicz (The House Manager), Magdalena Cielecka (Boskie Futro), Katarzyna Herman (Milicjantka), Marcin Kowalczyk (Tryton / Dedal).
If there was an award for weirdest film of the year, than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature The Lure would be a shoo-in for the win. This is a horror/musical/comedy about two mermaids in Communist era Poland, who come ashore to join a nightclub act. One of them falls in love with a man she shouldn’t – dooming her to a tragic end – and the other is more likely to rip out someone’s throat than to do anything else. The film takes weird narratives twists and turns – most of them completely out of left field, with little holding reasoning behind it. Does the film work? Not really – at least not in a traditional sense. The musical numbers are better as set pieces than they are as songs, and it’s impossible to find your footing in the movie, because as soon as you do, the film flies off in a different direction. Then again, that’s part of the movies charm. This is a film that feels more like a dream than anything – a fever dream at that, and the result is at least always interesting.
The two mermaids are named Silver and Golden and are played by Marta Marurek and Michalina Olsazanka. They are drawn out of the water by Mietek as he sings on the water’s edge, and they follow him back to the dingy club he works in as a bassist. If the pair are dry, then they look like any other human women – except they lack certain holes below the waste. Splash some water on them, and they’ll grow enormously long fish tales. In either form, they’re as likely to be naked as not – and the crash club owner decides to put them in the show, because, of course, everyone like duos. They can sing too - and when in fish form, communicate with each other in some strange fish language.
The one narrative thread the movie follows from beginning to end is the relationship between Silver and Mietek. She falls for him, hard, and even though he tells her that “You’ll always be a fish to me” – she willing sacrifices everything for him. Golden isn’t so subservient – and is the one responsible for all the blood in the film.
The film plays with ideas of the male gaze, misogyny and female sexuality in strange ways – sometimes in way that seem almost literal (a man complaining of a “fish smell” in a slit in the tail of one of the mermaids, the blood involved in a key sexual encounter between Mietek and Silver), and sometimes in obscure ways. All the characters in the movie function more like metaphors and symbols than actual people. There are levels on top of levels here, than you could spend a long time trying to piece it all together – the films constantly shifting narrative, and bizarre visuals and musical numbers keep you guessing to the end.
On its most basic level though, The Lure is more conventional than it first seems, as it about a girl, who throws everything away for an unworthy man – who changes who she is to be accepted by him, and still gets tossed aside. At least Golden’s there too though to set things right.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie & Tupac (2002)

Kurt & Courtney (1998)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
Biggie & Tupac (2002)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
Nick Broomfield is a talented documentary filmmaker – but a large part of him is also just a muckraking tabloid journalist who seems to enjoy taking on documentaries about famous people who don’t want to talk to him, and trying to figure out how to go about getting access. It’s a system that perhaps only Broomfield could pull off – since his films are always as much about their own making as they are their subjects, so even if he never gets anywhere, he still has a film to show. In 1998’s Kurt & Courtney and 2002’s Biggie & Tupac, Broomfield sets out to make two documentaries about the deaths of famous musicians – and whether there was a conspiracy involved in their deaths that implicate other famous people close to them. In Kurt & Courtney, he tries to unravel the truth behind Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and whether it was really murder – and whether his wife, Courtney Love, was involved in the plot to kill him. In Biggie & Tupac, he tries to figure out if Tupac’s murder was really an elaborate ruse perpetrated by Suge Knight – the head of Death Row Records, Tupac’s label, in an effort to avoid paying him millions in royalties, and then – 6 months later – killing Biggie Smalls to help build the narrative of East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars that would account for both murders. In both movies, Broomfield tries very hard to get to the truth – and ends up talking mainly to a bunch of people on the periphery of the lives of the dead superstars, all of whom have a lot to say – but not a whole lot of evidence to back any of it up. Yet even if, like me, you accept the standard explanations for these deaths – that Cobain killed himself (something, ultimately even Broomfield says he believes), and that a rival gang member that Tupac and Suge Knight beat up earlier in the same night Tupac was killed came back for retaliation (and was later, himself murdered in an unrelated gang fight) there is still value here (for the record, I don’t think anyone really knows what happened with Biggie Smalls’ murder) – there is value in Broomfield’s films – not least of which is entertainment value.
As a documentary filmmaker, Broomfield seemingly has no fear. He walks into any place, and will talk to anyone. In Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, he walks in unannounced with his camera person and a boom mic into a sketchy looking biker bar, and walks out just fine. In Kurt & Courtney, he talks to various addicts and hangers-on – including a scary looking man named El Duce, who claims Courtney offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt. In Biggie & Tupac, he somehow convinces the prison where Suge Knight was serving time to let him in – even though Suge had no agreed to an interview – and then, amazingly, gets the interview anyway. He has less lucky with Courtney Love – although he does get a few words from her near the end of the film at an ACLU event (she clearly knows who he is – addressing him by his first name) – an event that Broomfield will eventually be thrown out of as he commandeers the mic, and openly questions why the ACLU invited Love as their speaker, considering how many times she has openly threatened reporters (allegations that are irrefutable). In Kurt & Courtney, he teams up with two people who call themselves members of the “stalkerazzi” – who say they know how to get questions to famous people – but the two are complete, bumbling idiots – and amateurs compared to Broomfield.
There is a pattern established in both of these films in which Broomfield finds someone who is on the fringes of the case, and goes to interview them. They always claim they have explosive information that is going to blow things wide open – they just cannot share it at this time. In Kurt & Courtney, they all seem to think Kurt was some sort of saint, and Courtney the bitch harpie who ruined his life – even Love’s own father. What’s fascinating in that film is that to a person, they all claim Courtney Love is some sort of greedy bitch after Kurt’s money – and then half of them try to hawk their own book on the subject. Oddly, Broomfield rarely calls any of them out on that – he certainly did in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer -  although he does confront Love’s father, and asks him what kind of father would do what he’s doing to his daughter. It’s similar in Biggie & Tupac – he meets with various people who try to hawk their book or their music – everyone trying to cash in basically by their proximity to a famous person.
Yet both films have one sympathetic character in them as well. In Kurt & Courtney, that’s Kurt’s Aunt Mary – who doesn’t have an unkind word for anyone, and who will go on about Kurt lovingly for long periods of time – and started using Kurt’s life and death as an example to schoolkids. In Biggie & Tupac, it’s Biggie’s mother – who simply wants answers (out of the three famous musicians depicted, only Biggie’s music is in the films – the estates of Cobain and Tupac wouldn’t give up the rights). 
Ultimately, I think the value of both films is more in their depictions of those who surround rich an
d famous people than for any real insight into the deaths of the musicians involved. There is a lot of talk about conspiracies, but nothing that really, truly convinces of anything. No, the portrait painted of Courtney Love is far from flattering in Kurt & Courtney – but at worst, she’s portrayed as a gold digger who liked being famous, and took to it well (it should be noted that the film was made around the time of 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt – in which Love delivered an amazing performance, and seemingly had her life together – it didn’t last). And the portrait of Suge Knight isn’t nice either – but you don’t have to work too hard to make Suge Knight look violent, do you?
The two films are Broomfield’s best – they don’t rise to the level of either of his Aileen Wuornos docs or Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (I think, it’s been years since I saw that one, but it was my favorite at the time – and in need or a re-visit) or Tales of the Grim Sleeper. But both are fascinating portraits of fame – and those who are attracted to it. I’m not sure they were quite the films Broomfield set out to make – but they’re good just the same.