Chicken People. Directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes. Notes from September 26: This delightful and informative documentary about the world of Americans who raise “show chickens” for competitions is sure to captivate you. Even if you don’t know anything about the animals in question, you will immediately love the birds which come in so many breeds and varieties. It is obvious that the human protagonists – the film focuses on three in particular, Brian Caraker (who is also a talented jazz/show tunes singer), Brian Knox and Shari McCollough – have lasting bonds with the feathered friends who give unconditional, nonjudgmental love to their somewhat eccentric caretakers. Director Nicole Lucas Haimes, cinematographer Martina Radwan, editors Sara Booth and Kevin Klauber and composer Michael Hearst have created a warm, sympathetic portrait of their unusual but lovable subjects, making Chicken People my favorite film of the year so far.
Ghostbusters. Directed by Paul Feig. Notes from September 13: OK, so I finally saw the Ghostbusters reboot, two months after everyone else did. I probably made a critical error by not seeing it in 3D, but what’s done is done and all I can do is review the 2D version. Simply put: it’s boring. There was so much potential for fun and most of it went down the drain, which is a shame because I root so hard for Leslie Jones to succeed, Kate McKinnon is currently the funniest cast member on SNL, Melissa McCarthy was great in Paul Feig’s last film (Spy, which is hilarious all the way through) and Kristen Wiig is growing on me (I usually hated her over-the-top stuff on SNL, but she’s a good actress when she’s not doing a zany comic character). It’s sad for me to say, though, that the funniest person in Ghostbusters was probably Chris Hemsworth, who plays the bimbo secretary, Kevin, almost faultlessly. (My only real criticism is that his Australian accent occasionally made the dialogue difficult to understand.) I wish that the script, written by Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, had been stronger and a lot funnier; the four stars deserve so much better. I’m sure the 3D effects would have made certain scenes a lot more enjoyable, but I can’t do more than lament my having missed out. We also don’t really know anything about the film’s villain, played by Neil Casey. At least I experienced one true morsel of joy: the opening scenes with my favorite weird-funny-guy, Zach Woods, as the museum tour guide who has a spectral encounter. Sure, he’s no Alice Drummond (she played the NYPL librarian back in ‘84), but then again, who is?
One More Time with Feeling. Directed by Andrew Dominik. Notes from September 9: This one-of-a-kind, mostly black-and-white (except for one color sequence) documentary accompanying the release of the new Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree (available as of midnight on Friday, September 9), was an absorbing experience for everyone who sat in the theater at the IFC Center at the 9:00 pm screening on September 8. I assume that everyone in the audience was a devoted fan of Nick Cave – given that it was a show that sold out months ago, I have to assume that everyone was there because they really wanted to be – and so we all knew that the key influence on the look and feel of the film, including the music, was the death of Cave’s teenage son, Arthur, last summer. (Arthur’s twin brother, Earl, and Cave’s wife, Susie, appear in the film.) It feels a bit mean-spirited to criticize the film too much – it all comes from a real place, observing the introspective nature of Cave, his family and his music while also capturing occasional glimpses of warmth. So while I consider 20,000 Days on Earth more successful for a filmmaking standpoint, particularly in its use of a somewhat scripted narrative to depict Nick Cave’s “reality,” the improvisational quality of One More Time is much more intimate, ultimately leading to a heartbreaking gut-punch of a finale as the album’s final track, “Skeleton Tree,” segues into one last choice of song for the soundtrack (which I won’t give away here). I haven’t yet had time to sit down and listen to the Skeleton Tree album through headphones, but because of how memorable the film experience was, some of those featured songs are still resonating through my head even after the first listen. If you love Nick Cave and you have a chance to go to an encore screening of One More Time with Feeling that is planned for select theaters worldwide on December 1.
P.S. About twenty minutes before the end, the film stopped and we had to wait a few minutes before it could resume. I think we missed a music scene, but I can’t totally remember. Oh well, maybe when the film is available on DVD…
P.P.S. Interestingly, the friend who went to the movie with me chose to take her 3D glasses off early on; she found the use of that technology distracting. Personally I liked the 3D, which is incorporated less for a “popping out of the screen” effect than for a sense of depth and dimension within the shots, usually to sharpen the focus on Nick Cave while many other elements in the frame are blurred.
Additional Notes from Later on September 9: One thing I didn’t discuss in my review of One More Time with Feeling – this is a subjective element which isn’t physically a part of the film itself, so I wasn’t sure that it was completely germane to my cinematic analysis – was that while I was watching the film, I kept thinking about the Sick Bag Song reading I went to at the Alliance Française’s Florence Gould Hall in April 2015. (The friend who accompanied me to One More Time last night was also with me for this earlier event.) Seeing Nick Cave live for the first time, despite being in a non-musical setting, was such an extraordinary thing. But what was even more significant, in retrospect, was that both Arthur and Earl Cave were in attendance.
There was a moment, either during the moderated discussion with Nick or at some point during the Q&A portion, when Nick pointed out that his two young sons were in the audience. Naturally we all turned around to see them, but given how big/dim-lit the auditorium was, the fact that the boys were standing in the back (I think) and that I was sitting pretty close to the front of the theater, all meant that I couldn’t actually see them. And yet, they were there. I wondered if they had ever been to New York before or if this was their first trip, and how exciting that must be.
So as I was watching One More Time with Feeling, I thought about how you can feel a person’s presence in a space. Even when you can’t see the person, somehow you know they are there, either because you have heard so (like at Florence Gould Hall) or because, in the case of this film, the person’s spirit and memory are very much a part of what is happening in the here and now.
Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone. Notes from October 1: I don’t feel the least bit guilty about using a coupon to get an almost free ticket (there was a $1.50 fee) to watch Snowden at the Regal multiplex in Union Square; many filmmakers deserve my support, but Oliver Stone is not one of them. Given that I have not yet seen Laura Poitras‘s Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour (2014), I could not compare her work with Oliver Stone’s; perhaps that allowed me to like Snowden better than I otherwise would have. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a solid, committed portrayal of Edward Snowden, even with his distractingly mannered way of speaking, so that made the film very easy to get into and enjoy. The problem, though, is Stone’s dated approach to storytelling, making the narrative more concerned with Snowden’s relationship woes (Shailene Woodley does the best she can as Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay) than with the issue of the intel being shared. Stone never bothers to explain why Snowden chose Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson) as the journalists he decided to trust with his information; at least we are told that Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) is a filmmaker admired by Snowden. Most of the supporting performances are merely adequate, although the Regal theater audience certainly got a kick out of seeing Nicolas Cage as one of Snowden’s CIA mentors. I don’t know what to make of Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s first teacher at the CIA, though; the work is equal parts unsettling and weirdly hammy, including a scene where he spends the entire time mugging for the camera in a bizarre close-up during a video conference call with Snowden. (View at your own discretion.) The most bizarre part is that when the film closes with a scene showing the real Edward Snowden in his Moscow exile, that appearance by a non-actor is so compelling that you’ll wish you had watched the man himself in Citizenfour instead.
P.S. During the packed screening I went to, the couple sitting to my left never stopped talking (including talking on a cell phone during the end credits), the elderly couple in front of me also gabbed quite a bit and a guy sitting somewhere on the right side of the theater let out the loudest burp I have ever heard in my life (something he seemed to be inordinately proud of).
P.P.S. This IMDb user’s observation on a message board sums up the strangeness of Nicolas Cage in Snowden: “Nicholas [sic] Cage’s role seemed to resemble his career: the once A-lister, critically acclaimed actor/leading man, now playing a guy who was a star of innovation, relegated to an obscure museum of sorts at a training academy. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.“
Triple 9. Directed by John Hillcoat. Notes from September 17: The intersecting dramas of several corrupt Atlanta policemen and a vicious Russian-Jewish mob boss are brought to confusing life in this disappointing spectacle from the director of such recent films as The Proposition, The Road and Lawless. There is never sufficient time spent with the huge number of actors in the cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet (as the ruthless, Star of David-wearing mafia queenpin), Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael Kenneth Williams, Clifton Collins Jr. (probably my favorite performer in the film, quietly committed to an underwritten role that he breathes life into), Michelle Ang, Terri Abney, Luis Da Silva Jr. There is some occasionally excellent cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (especially in indoor club or restaurant scenes) and some typically good editing by Dylan Tichenor, but the crime/heist content is never satisfyingly exciting (it’s certainly nothing new) and you get the feeling that all of these worthy performers are being sadly wasted. It is also exceedingly frustrating that our “hero,” Casey Affleck, has no personality, seems to be chewing gum annoyingly in every scene and he gives the viewer an impression of being particularly dumb for a cop. Aaron Paul deserves some points, though, for having a hair/eyeliner situation that makes him look and sound like a hillbilly goth.