Screen Junkies » Documentaries Movie Reviews & TV Show Reviews Wed, 26 Nov 2014 19:27:26 +0000 en hourly 1 The Film Cult Presents: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work Fri, 05 Sep 2014 16:22:35 +0000 Philip Harris On August 15th, I wrote about my favorite Robin Williams film, Hook, in tribute to his untimely and heartbreaking death. If you had told me then that less than a...

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On August 15th, I wrote about my favorite Robin Williams film, Hook, in tribute to his untimely and heartbreaking death. If you had told me then that less than a month later I’d be reviewing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work because Joan Rivers—THE Joan Rivers—would also be dead, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would’ve told have told you to go fuck yourself because Joan Rivers was going to live forever.  And yet, here I sit. It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours that she’s left us.

I knew a lot about Joan Rivers before the documentary came out. I grew up with her daytime talk show. I watched her E! fashion recaps before they became what we all now know as Fashion Police. I’m a gay man; what can I say?  Loving Joan Rivers is kinda in the description. I knew that she was funny, that she had a daughter named Melissa, and that she had been around forever. But, when my best friend and I sat down one Saturday afternoon in the Laemlle theater in Pasadena to watch A Piece of Work, I realized I knew nothing of Joan Rivers.

A Piece of Work pulls no punches. Joan commented that there’d be no reason to allow a documentary to be made if she didn’t give full access to an outside production company. An in-house made documentary would wreak of bias, invalidity, and vanity. To let an independent, no-agenda crew come into your life is a brave concession. Thank god she did it. The Joan Rivers revealed in that hour and a half is a strong, complicated, workaholic with the eye of a tiger.

Following one year in her life, the documentary captures the end of a career slump for Joan. She had no heat in the industry. Fashion Police wasn’t back. Her reality show with Melissa wasn’t on, and everyone really only saw her as a plastic surgery freak who used to be on the red carpet. Starting at the end of that slump, during which she performed in the Bronx at four-thirty in the afternoon, A Piece of Work follows her into the beginning of what would be her third act. We’re right there with her as she struggles to get an autobiographical play off the ground and fails. We feel as tired as she does at three thirty in the morning when she hobbles into a Minneapolis hotel room and tells the man at the front desk, “I don’t care if it’s god himself. No one is to call my room until 6:30.” And when she books the Comedy Central Roast and wins Celebrity Apprentice  we cheer for her just as much as her staff does.

Celebrities are not squeaky clean. This has always been true. Everyone has a different side to them. Anyone who was as successful as Joan had to work doubly, triply, hard behind the scenes to make it look effortless. But not until A Piece of Work had there been a celebrity truly brave enough to allow the public so far behind the curtain. You know it’s going to be an honest portrayal of celebrity life when the opening montage is of Joan herself getting her make up done, foundation coating the plastic mask that show business made her get to stay relevant, her eyes peering through, ready to attack.

Other celebrities have been pouring their hearts out all afternoon, with Lena Dunham winning the award for greatest commemoration. Upon news of Joan’s death, she tweeted: “That being said, Joan is gone but a piece of her lives on: her nose, because it’s made of polyurethane.” That’s Joan’s legacy. She never apologized for a joke and knew that the only way to get through something, the only way to deal with pain was to laugh about it. Once you can laugh about something–death, homophobia, racism, national tragedy, body image–you can deal with it. A Piece of Work takes this head on when she’s heckled at a rural casino gig (“Where are we? I was in the casino earlier, put money into a slot machine and fish came out.”) by a man who has taken offense by a joke she’s made about Helen Keller. After he storms out, she says, “If we didn’t laugh, where the hell would we all be?”

Well, Joan, right now I feel a little lost. In moments when I didn’t think I could get my work done, when I felt my schedule was too crazy, or when I knew I should say yes to an opportunity when I wanted so badly to say no, I just thought about you walking through airports at four thirty in the morning all to make us laugh. Knowing you’re not out there right now telling off a heckler or quietly delivering meals to an AIDS patient kinda freaks me out. Without you fighting for the truth, without you hilariously using the very stereotypes that so many others use for hate, the world feels a little scarier and a whole lot less funny.

And finally, thank you for making me laugh. When you looked and smiled at that cheap wine bottle in A Piece of Work and giggled, “May.” Or when the thought of doing the Comedy Central Roast was so awful and you said to your driver, “Mohammad, can you stop the car so I can get out in front it?” Or on your reality show when you were showing your grandson the thirteen colonies and said, “See there used to be Indians all up and down here. Now they all have casinos, and thank god, cause if they didn’t Grandma wouldn’t have a job. [beat] We wouldn’t be able to buy you two different color grapes.”

In the last few months, Elaine Stritch, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and Joan Rivers have died. It’s almost too much for a gay man to deal with. But, I will deal with it because Joan wouldn’t want me to stop because she’s gone. She’d want us all to keep working, keep loving, and most definitely to keep laughing. The world is less funny without you, but I know you and Robin are making the angels piss themselves at this very moment.

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The Film Cult Presents: Indie Game: The Movie Fri, 23 May 2014 16:12:44 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! This week, I’m going to review another recent film just as I did last week. It’s an underrated documentary well known in only a few circles, which...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

This week, I’m going to review another recent film just as I did last week. It’s an underrated documentary well known in only a few circles, which is a real shame because if you look past the specific subject matter of the film’s focus, Indie Game: The Movie is not so much about video games as it is about the sacrifices one makes for their art and the commitment needed to fulfill one’s vision. The film revolves around the development and impact of three independently made and released video games: Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid, which has become one of the most acclaimed indie video games of all time. It’s my belief that true art emerges of certain criteria which are often painful and misunderstood by many. For this review, I’d like to examine several of these concepts as they relate to this film: sacrifice, isolation, and obsession.

Indie Game: The Movie focuses primarily on four men and their lives developing the aforementioned video games. These men are Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who are the creators of Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish, the developer of Fez, and Jonathan Blow, the man who created Braid and the much-hyped, but as yet unreleased, The Witness.

Each of these men, in their own way, embody sacrifice. Edmund McMillen’s wife discusses how she only ever sees her husband’s back. Tommy Refenes, sitting alone at a dinner, tells the camera about how he can’t date because he could only afford one meal and how he never goes out. Phil Fish describes his business partnership dissolving, as well as his romantic relationship. Jonathan Blow is the exception, for he doesn’t blatantly discuss having to sacrifice for his games, seemingly being fine with the fact that he lives a solitary life.  That said, I’d put money that he’s had to sacrifice plenty, including romantic relationships. For, as Tommy says, “You kinda have to give up something to get something great.”

One of the products of the social sacrifices these men, and many other artists, make is the fact that their day-to-day lives are solo. While business and development partners, Edmund and Tommy work on opposite sides of the continent, Edmund in Santa Cruz and Refenes in North Carolina. Phil Fish and his assistant coder sit in a practically unfurnished office, tapping away at their computers, trying to finish production of Fez. Adding to the point of their isolation, the filmmakers use many wide shots of vast cityscapes that then cut to the developers sitting by themselves. There are other crowd shots where the developers are looking at their phone or staring off into the distance, separate to the blur of humanity around them.  The developers are not unlike writers or painters, or any other artists who take devotion to their craft to the  Nth degree. They work alone, the computer and them, creating something that will hopefully be played by millions of avid gamers the world over. Their isolation is in direct conversation with the invisible thousands and millions they will touch. The promise of that, that faith in that future interaction, is what drives all art.

And one cannot maintain that level of sacrifice or isolation without obsession. Like the melodramatic stories one tries to ignore every day, each of these men have had difficulties in their lives. It’s no surprise listening to Edmund talk about how awful his step father was that he now uses video games to express himself. All of us artists do that. We can create here in bedrooms, touch you all out there, and never have to actually meet you. That is the true blessing of art—distance.

Obsession, for these men and countless other people, means devotion. The line is not blurred; it doesn’t exist. They literally are giving their lives to these games. This is apparent no greater than in the scene where the filmmakers ask Phil Fish what he would do if he didn’t get a chance to finish Fez. He says that he would kill himself. In fact, he says that finishing the game is the only thing that was keeping him alive. He had to stay alive to finish creating a video game. That is devotion.

The stories of these games is still unfolding, and everyone portrayed within the film is still alive, still figuring out how to devote their lives to their art without losing their lives. It’s a struggle all of us have to deal with. We all hope that a million people will buy our art, or at least some of them will understand it. I’m glad the filmmakers decided to pursue this subject matter, for we viewers often become numb to the kooky sculptors and musicians that fleck our lives, but to see grown men give their lives to video game development—well, that’s worth all the money it took on Kickstarter to get this movie made.

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The Film Cult Presents: Crumb Fri, 14 Mar 2014 16:58:12 +0000 Philip Harris WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! When I was a teenager, my neighbors let my parents borrow a bootleg VHS tape of Crumb, the documentary of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The cassette was...

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When I was a teenager, my neighbors let my parents borrow a bootleg VHS tape of Crumb, the documentary of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The cassette was kept on the top shelf of the tallest bookshelf in our den because they thought it was far too adult for me or my younger brother. Maybe they’d forgotten I was over six feet tall. One afternoon, home alone from school, I popped the tape in our old VCR and was overwhelmed with sex: narrated sexual acts, graphic sexual drawings, and even a woman pornographer discussing the sexual appetite of the documentary’s subject. Thereafter, every afternoon I would fast-forward through the “boring” parts in order to get to the sex. I was in teenage boy heaven.

Eventually, my parents returned the tape, and I didn’t see Crumb again until last June when Turner Classic Movies showed it at eleven PM on a Saturday night. Jumping at the chance to revisit some of my old provocations, I decided to watch the film from beginning to end for the first time. I was astonished.  As a kid I’d relegated Crumb to the same category as the Hustler magazines I’d found in my uncles’ bathrooms. Childhood treasures rarely hold up once the veil of innocence is destroyed by forms, taxes, and Trader Joe’s, but this was not the case with Crumb. It didn’t take long to realize that Crumb wasn’t porn. It was an honest portrait of an artist and his dysfunctional family.

Robert Crumb is most famous for his 1968, one-page comic “Keep on Truckin’” which became a counterculture slogan in the late sixties and early seventies. He’s also famous for illustrating the cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s album Cheap Thrills. After the fame of those two projects, he collaborated with such luminaries as writers Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar, illustrating many of Pekar’s American Splendor comics. Recently, Robert Crumb drew an unabridged depiction of the book of Genesis. He’s become so important to the world of comic illustration that for a cool thousand bucks you can purchase a six-volume, hardcover boxed set of his sketchbooks. By the time director Terry Swigoff convinced him to make the biographical documentary in the mid-nineties, Robert Crumb had already spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the tormented issues of his life through his art, providing Swigoff with an evocative wealth of material to (unapologetic pun incoming) draw upon. Crumb is relentless in its honesty, and it’s that honesty that both repels and endears us by the end of the film.

Early in the documentary, Robert Crumb admits to having been sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny. He obsessively draws women from his youth with whom he was infatuated. His depictions of sexual acts are uber-misogynist, turning women into sexual non-entities their pimply, deranged male counterparts use to act out various perversions. And yet, as evidenced in the film, women loved him. Throughout the movie, female fans are describing his large penis, offering to model for him, and defending his sexual fantasies. The conundrum is real for the viewer. Here is a strange man who uses his genius level talent to depict headless women in disgusting, racist, and nightmarish situations. Crumb pulls no punches in depicting the physiological foundation for his obsession with hardcore variances. The documentary’s message is clear: to understand what perverted the artist’s mind, one need look no further than his family.

Robert was one of five children: two brothers, who are featured in the film, and two sisters who decided not to participate. The familial portrait that emerges is one of parents constantly fighting, an abusive father who broke Robert’s collarbone as a child, and an amphetamine addicted mother. Charles, the oldest of the Crumb children, was also an artist, often taking after his tyrannical father by commanding Robert to draw for and with him. This fraternal overbearing affected Robert his whole life. In Crumb, now famous and wealthy, Robert confesses that he still thinks of Charles’ approval when he draws. Charles, who fought a physiological urge towards pedophelia his whole life, was also beaten regularly by their father, leaving such an indelible mark that in his adult life he never left his mother’s house, reread the stacks of novels in his room, and obsessively drew line designs in his notebooks. His depression is given the same raw treatment as Robert’s sexuality because the only way to portray Robert Crumb’s life is to go all the way in, to show Charles’ matted hair, his messy room, and the hatred in his face when he’s yelling at their mother. He’s the twisted, deranged heart of the documentary, and in tragic concordance, Charles committed suicide shortly after the documentary was released.

While Robert turned to sexual perversions and writing to save himself from insanity, his younger brother Max turned to painting and asceticism. Crumb shows him living in bleak circumstance, meditating on a bed of nails, eating near nothing, and devoting his life to sexual chastity after having molested female strangers on the subway in his youth. Due to his portrayal in the documentary, his paintings have taken on a life of their own, and he now supports himself through their sales. One of the film’s most harrowing moments is when Max demonstrates his ritual of swallowing and passing a 30-foot cloth ribbon through his body while seated atop his bed of nails. He is still alive and still lives in San Francisco.

Crumb‘s critical backbone is honesty. It’s a documentary that benefits from the participation of its still-living subject. By the end, we know who Robert Crumb is and the familial hell from which he came. That said, it’s easy to recognize his genius, to acknowledge the contribution he’s made to the world of comics, but it’s not as easy to forgive and accept his misogynist art. I would be remiss not to take I’m to task for it, to accept it as even remotely okay in terms of current gender-role representation. The questions I would ask are, why is the work famous? Why is it popular? Perhaps Robert Crumb has been one of the few talented and brave (re: crazy) enough artists to be honest about what’s on his mind, what haunts the recesses of his perversions. For an outcast kid from a family of depressed tyrants, maybe its all he had. Maybe, when he was being bullied and felt suicidal, his talent, dreams, and horny thoughts were all he had. At seventeen, Robert Crumb decided that becoming a great artist would be his greatest revenge, deciding to reject conforming when life rejected him. His art is complicated, but his story is crystal clear to anyone who’s ever hoped their art would save them.

Here’s the original extended trailer:

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