IS THERE A DOC IN THE HOUSE: Reviews of It Came From Kuchar and Casino Jack and the United States of Money


It Came From Kuchar is a documentary about twin underground filmmaker brothers, George and Mike Kuchar, who began their careers in the 1950’s and are still making films today. Never heard of them? Well neither have I, which probably says more about me than it does about them. But after seeing the film, I’m not sure how to feel about the Kuchars or their prodigious output. Their movies seem to have grown out of the same aesthetic that brought the world the films of Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol and their subject matter seems to have been reactions to the soap operic melodramas and horror/sci fi films of the 1950’s. I say “seems” because, as I said, I have never seen a Kuchar film. But from what I can glean from the clips shown in this movie, they have taken a camp approach similar to such stage writers as Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch and combined them with the outrageous vulgar approach of John Waters’ earlier endeavors (and Waters is one of the many talking heads who comments on the importance of these cinematic siblings). So far, so good, these sound like just the sorts of movies I live for. And many of the reviews claim that seeing this movie would make one want to see films by the Kuchars. But I’m afraid it didn’t for me. I wanted it to, but the clips left me a bit cold and all they did was make me curious enough to add them to the bottom of my Netflix queue (which now concludes with Sins of the Fleshapoids). Their films look cheap, amateurish and the sort of things my friends made when they were in high school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can be a very, very good thing. But in the end, my reaction to their cinematic endeavors was more a jury is out sort of thing. The filmmaker here, Jennifer M. Kroot, seemed to be having as much fun in making this film as the Kuchars did in making theirs. George, especially, came across as one of those oversized personalities that would either attract people (like the Pied Piper) or send them screaming from the room (and he has become a popular teacher). At the same time, I felt like Kroot was somewhat holding back. It seems obvious from statements here and there that both brothers are gay, yet, from my memory (which isn’t always the most reliable), the documentary never comes out and says that they are. And toward the end, the filmmakers block parts of the screen that show an actress’s vagina. Why isn’t clear; it’s not as if Kroot’s target audience are going to be offended. But it just seems strange in a movie about filmmakers who never seemed to worry about what people thought about them or their films. Kroot also fails in my opinion in one of her main thesis: that these two filmmakers were important and influential in the film world. When it comes to talking heads, she has nobody who is at the forefront of what is happening in movies today. There are no Martin Scorseses, Steven Spielbergs, Quentin Tarantinos, and none of the filmmakers who are more cutting edge like Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, Hal Hartley or Todd Haynes. Instead, they have people like Wayne Wang, Atom Egoyan, Buck Henry, etc. Talented filmmakers all, but hardly the A-list.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the story of Jack Abramoff, a man who turned the job of lobbyist into a fine art of the evil kind. The documentary, by Alex Gibney, is quite fascinating in the way that Shakespeare’s Richard III is fascinating: you may hate the central character, but you do find yourself sitting in guilty awe, amazed at just how brilliant the man was at lying, cheating, scamming, conning (quick, does someone have a thesaurus) and how audacious he was at getting what he wanted. Gibney is skilled at telling his story. It’s very complicated at times and Gibney keeps it all straight and understandable. At the same time he uses those contemporary stylistic flourishes of recreating fictional scenes that I find annoying myself and he also has an odd habit of suddenly focusing the camera on various body parts of the talking heads, to no real effect. The story itself has the usual moral: Abramoff started out as a true believer in the libertarian doctrine of a hands off government, but at some point, as he gained more power, he became more corrupted and replaced his original beliefs with playing the game for the game’s sake, with winning and gaining more power becoming the ultimate goal, not creating a government that would work better than the government already in existence (you know, power corrupts, absolutely power, etc.). At the same time, as intriguing as the movie is, it also fell a bit short for me. Once it was over, I felt that in many ways I had watched Citizen Kane, a movie about a man who also fell from grace. The theme of Citizen Kane is that ultimately one can never understand what makes a human being tick. I also never felt I understood what made Abramoff tick. It was one thing to preach libertarianism, it’s another thing to become a lying, cheating, greedy bastard. The one area Gibney doesn’t grapple with is the one area I really wanted explored. While growing up (apparently while watching Fiddler on the Roof, according to Gibney), Abramoff had a crisis of faith and converted to a more orthodox Judaism. This somehow led to his libertarianism. So far, so good. If the connection between Orthodox Judaism and libertarianism is a bit vague and Gibney doesn’t really make much of a logical connection, at the same time, the two beliefs are not mutually exclusive. But what Gibney doesn’t explore or ask is how Abramoff reconciled his Orthodox beliefs with his lying, cheating and lust for money. Abramoff is the sort of person that God sent the prophets in the Old Testament to chastise, to preach against. It’s the reason why Jonah ended up in the whale, because he was too scared to preach from street corners about people like Abramoff. It’s the same for Ralph Reed, a born again Christian who joined Abramoff in his schemes to rake in money; Reed is the sort of Pharisee Jesus preached against and threw out of the temple for money changing. It’s as if Gibney not only thinks the two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive, it’s as if he believes that one logically leads to another. But they don’t. So like the reporter in Citizen Kane searching for the meaning of the word “Rosebud”, I also kept waiting for Gibney to discover Abramoff’s MacGuffin, the thing that drove him from Orthodoxy to greedy asshole. But it never appeared.

REFLECTIONS ON MOVIES: Viagra Needed


One sign that you are watching a foreign film is that during a sex scene, you will see an erect penis. I saw two foreign films this last week, The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina) and Alle Anderen (Everybody Else, Germany), both of which had no issue with showing a male member in all it’s glory, so to speak. In the U.S., prudity still rules. The same week I saw Happiness Runs, which was about the children of hippies. For a movie that was suppose to be about a group of people who preach free love, the sex and nudity was very circumspect. And when frontal male nudity does make it into American films, the media makes such a big deal out of it like it’s the second coming (the ridiculous stories on Jason Segal baring all for Forgetting Sarah Marshall immediately leap to mind). What is it about foreign cultures that allows their artists to look at sex from a more casual perspective while in America we still come across as terrified of it?

HANDSOME IS AS HANDSOME DOES: Reviews of Handsome Harry and City Island


Handsome Harry is the story of five sailors who beat up a sixth thirty years before the move starts, a somewhat ambiguous time line which only makes sense if the present day story takes place in the 1990’s. Why the five sailors beat up the sixth is not revealed for about a third of the way through, but if you don’t know right off, you really need to get out more. There are two additional secrets, one about the title character’s relationship with the sixth sailor, as well as who was the one responsible for dropping a weight on the sailor’s hand thereby stopping him from pursuing a promising career as a pianist. But again, if you can’t figure these out as well, you really, really, really need to get out more. This is often the problem with a movie whose emotional impact depends on unrevealed twists: the surprises are usually so obvious there’s often little else to do but wait around to see if you were right. It’s not just the plot turns that are obvious here; everything about it, the dialog, the acting, the directing (the screenplay is by Nicholas T. Proferes and the direction by Bette Gordon) all has that on the nose feel about it as if the film were made by a telegraph company. Proferes’ script is very since and his heart is in the right place, but neither he nor Gordon seem to demonstrate much skill, subtlety or deftness of touch in getting across their vision in a satisfactory way. The plot also lacks forward momentum. The story begins when Harry (played by Jamey Sheridan) gets a call from one of the other sailors, Thomas (played by the always reliable Steve Buscemi). Thomas is dying from cancer and is afraid of going to hell if he doesn’t get forgiveness from Kagan, the sixth sailor. Thomas asks Harry to bring Kagan to his deathbed, but instead Harry goes himself and Thomas dies without the peace he needs. Harry then takes it upon himself to search out the other three sailors as well as Kagan. Why? Well, now that Thomas’s dead, Harry doesn’t really have a very compelling reason. Proferes comes up with the idea that Harry now wants to find out who dropped the weight on Kagan’s hand, not a particularly convincing motivation, especially since the easiest way to find this out is to go directly to the horse’s mouth and ask Kagan. And with this, the forward momentum of the plot really comes to a halt as Harry pinballs from one of his old shipmates to another (and again, since the audience should already know the answer to Harry’s question, it feels more like waiting around just to see if we guessed right). The ex-shipmates are played by John Savage, Aidan Quinn and Titus Welliver, all of whom play people who have grown up well to do, but extremely unhappy and not because of what they did to Kagan, but just because that’s what happens to the bourgeoisie in movies. The real problem here, though, is that none of these characters are particularly interesting or tell us anything about anything. Because of this, it seems to take forever for Harry to get to Kagan. Kagan is played by Campbell Scott who gives the most compelling performance in the movie. He strides forth with an unnerving quiet that pulls one in. It would be nice if one could say these last few minutes could make up for the rest of the movie, but as good as Scott is, they really don’t.

As is mentioned in other areas of this blog, I make a living reading scripts for a production company and a few contests. I am always on the lookout for that oddly compelling script that is quirky and different, that is its own thing. These sorts of screenplays quickly stand out, mainly because the characters are so interesting and compelling, but a bit off, and the situations they find themselves in are also interesting and compelling, but a bit off. Let’s hear it for movies that are a bit off. City Island, written by the director Raymond De Felitta, is just that sort of screenplay, the one that often makes it worthwhile wading through the tons of other screenplays that barely rise above being mediocre. The basic set up is winning in itself. Andy Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a prison guard (excuse me, corrections officer) who is taking an acting class, but is so embarrassed about it that he tells his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies, looking like she’s having the time of her life playing someone straight out of Goodfellas) that he’s at a poker game. Vince is given an exercise where he must reveal his most embarrassing secret to an acting partner, here Molly (played luminously by the always superb and eponymous Emily Morton, who if she wasn’t in it, Emily Watson, Kelly McDonald or Samantha Morton would have been, thank god for actresses who have humility and don’t feel they need to be the lead in everything they do). His secret is that the newest prisoner at his job is actually his son, though his son doesn’t know it because Vince left his mother before he was even born. Vince then takes the son Tony (played with great pecs and arms by Steven Straight) into his home without telling him or Joyce what is really going on. Add to this a daughter Tanya, who is secretly stripping in order to earn enough money to go back to college because she lost her scholarship when pot was found in her dorm room, and a son Vince, Jr., an adolescent just discovering that he is really, really, really, I mean, really turned on by hefty women (a situation that is dealt with refreshingly because De Felitta doesn’t exploit it for fat jokes, but mines humor from the situation without passing judgment), and you have the makings of a fun farce and, indeed, this a plot in which every time the story takes a turn you find yourself going “oh, this can’t be good”, or “Uh oh”, or “that can’t turn out well”. Once Tony moves into the house, the movie becomes basically a variation on the classic film Boudu Saved From Drowning in which a homeless person is saved and taken in by the head of a middle class family (you may remember it as the enjoyable remake Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Boudu thereupon upends the bourgeois pretensions of the household. This perhaps betrays the main weakness of City Island. Tony is never a threat to the pretensions of the Rizzo family; he is in fact, their savior (you know De Felitta is going to play it safe when he doesn’t have Joyce and Tony have sex and doesn’t even entertain the notion of Tony and Tanya getting it on). So though the script is quirky, fun and a rollicking good time, it’s also a bit safe, a bit sitcomy. It flirts with really saying something dangerous, but in the end settles for the old saw, honesty is the best policy. But don’t let that stop you from seeing it. Maybe the movie does pull its punches, but it’s still having a quirky, odd good time.

REFLECTIONS ON MOVIES: Getting to Know You


I only recently finished reading the great book Oblomov, by the Russian writer Ivan Goncharov, a sprawling novel about a particularly type of Russian character. It was one of those books that when I laid it down I was extremely sad that I would never be visiting with these people again. I felt sort of like I was saying goodbye to someone I had really come to know and become emotionally involved with. It’s the same sort of feeling I have when I read novels by Dickens (and other Victorians), Proust, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, etc., stories that are large in concept. It struck me after thinking about this, that this is one of the main differences between movies and novels. I love movies and they can have a great emotional impact on me, but I almost never, if ever, come away feeling like I’m saying goodbye to a good friend, to someone I have really come to know and become deeply and emotionally involved with. This is not the fault of movies. Every art form has its advantages and disadvantages and this perhaps is just one of the inherent limitations in film. It’s the same for plays as well; there just isn’t enough time to really get to know the people a writer presents to you in the same way one comes to know them in novels. In fact, about the only other art form where this happens for me is in TV where one can get to know characters over a longer period of time, even a number of years, characters like Mary Richards, Archie Bunker, the servants of Upstairs, Downstairs, or even in mini-series like Bridesheard Revisited or Queer as Folk, so that one feels a great loss in leaving them (or more accurately, in their leaving you). It’s one of the reasons why I read novels and watch TV, to get that feeling that is almost impossible to get in movies. In fact, the only exception one might find in films is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which takes place over almost nine hours (like a TV mini-series) or something like watching all the Thin Man movies in one sitting.

REFLECTIONS ON MOVIES: Being Cool


Last week I caught the Thomas Crown Affair on TCM on demand. The Thomas Crown Affair is that chic movie about a bored businessman who in an existential crisis decides to rob a bank because nothing else amuses him. Hey, it could be worse. He could have done what Goldman Sachs did. At any rate, though I don’t think the film really holds up that well, mainly because the characters played by McQueen and Dunaway aren’t that vibrant or interesting (Jack Weston makes the most memorable appearance in the movie), I did enjoy the split screen techniques (cinematography by Haskell Wexler, one of the greats, and editing by, among others, Hal Ashby) and hearing Windmills of Your Mind again (a sort of Jacques Brel like song of despair that was very popular at the time). But after seeing the movie, I was talking about it with my friend Beriau. I remarked that at this time, the Hollywood Production Code was pretty much gone and people were getting away with crime now in movies like Oceans 11 (they didn’t get the money, but didn’t get caught) , The Sting and the Hot Rock. Beriau said it best when he said that that was because they were cool. It was the period in movies when being cool was all. It didn’t matter what you did, as long as you looked good while doing it, you could get away with anything. It was the period when appearance trumped morality.