Screen Junkies » ScreenJunkies Movie Reviews & TV Show Reviews Mon, 22 Sep 2014 21:46:07 +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: Elizabethtown Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:10:50 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Five movies after the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played eternally-fare, arrow-wielding Legolas, Orlando Bloom teamed up with Cameron Crowe to...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Five movies after the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played eternally-fare, arrow-wielding Legolas, Orlando Bloom teamed up with Cameron Crowe to make a movie steeped in sentimentality, forced “moments”, and a pretentious soundtrack. Kristen Dunst looks like she’s competing for hipster of the decade, and I am not even really sure why Paula Deen is among the cast. That said, Orlando’s American accent not withstanding, Elizabethtown is one of those movies that never got a fair chance. Yes, everything I said is true, but Elizabethtown is one of those movies I can’t shake, and ever time I bring it up to someone who has seen it, they can’t help but gush about how much they love it. How can a movie so obviously flawed be so good?

The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward. Orlando plays Drew Baylor, a business and marketing genius about to launch a shoe that will change the world of covered feet. On the release of his grand invention, he discovers the product is a dismal failure which will lose his company over 900 million dollars. Later that night, his girlfriend dumps him, and just as he’s about to commit suicide, he gets a phone call from his sister telling him his father has died. He’s then asked to take his father’s favorite blue shirt to Elizabethtown, Kentucky for the funeral.

We never meet Drew’s father. We never see them together, and when the father appears in flashbacks or family photos, he’s so unfamiliar that one doesn’t really feel anything for him. A movie maker of Cameron Crowe’s caliber knows what he’s doing, however. The emotional thread of the film is that Drew, because of the flop of his multi-million-dollar shoe, can’t process his father’s death. He’s numb and can’t cry over the fact that his father has died. In this, Drew’s numbness mirrors the viewer’s apathy toward to the father character. I’m not sure that once Drew releases his emotions during the road trip that punctuates the film’s end is enough for us to have the same reaction, but I definitely shed a tear every time I see that moment, which we’ll get to in second.

On his way to Kentucky, Drew meets Claire Colburn, played by Kristen Dunst. Her over-familiar, bubbly hipster schtick is overwrought and borders on tedious throughout the whole film. In fact, I credit her strange character, and the subsequent relationship she has with Drew, with overshadowing the rest of the film as bad. Herein is the movie’s largest flaw. It’s marketed as a romantic comedy, when really it’s about acceptance and grief. Ignoring the banal relationship these two troubled, yet beautiful, people undergo is the best way to watch Elizabethtown. The relationship aside, there are some truly poignant moments in the film.

In Elizabethtown, Drew is reunited with the Southern family he’s never known. These are the first of the more poignant moments the film offers. There’s nothing quite as special as being welcomed by a group of people who love you and are related to you for no other reason than you are family. The montage of him being introduced to his family and friends in that big southern house reminds one of being a child, surrounded by all the adults I naturally took for granted but were gone too soon. You can almost smell the food and hear the gossip and television in the background.

The other poignant moment is the one I mentioned earlier, when Drew finally succumbs to the emotions of his father’s death while on the road trip Claire has constructed for his return to the west coast. With his father’s ashes seat-belted beside him, Drew takes his father on the road trip they never had, scattering his ashes at some of the country’s most important landmarks. The moments at the landmarks are cheesy, but the solo car moments are beautiful. It’s those moments in the car, those deep revelations only found on long car trips with oneself that bring Drew, and me, to tears. You can see Drew’s mind working through the past, letting things go, and yet despite the shoe debacle, the new girl with whom he’s about to reunite, and the huge family he just rediscovered, it’s when he’s by himself that he remembers a single moment playing with his father as a child. We see a young drew pumping his hand up and down, his father doing the same, and then we cut to adult Drew in the car, finally facing responsibility, doing the same gesture, crying his heart out.

Along with a few moments of pure comedy—Susan Sarandon’s eulogy and tap dance routine, the other guests at Drew’s hotel, and Alec Baldwin’s cameo—these aforementioned poignant moments make this movie a personal favorite and an un-heralded cult film. If you’ve never taken a road trip with your dad, if you’ve never allowed yourself to be swallowed by your family, you should watch this movie. And if none of those things sound appealing to you, you should watch it merely for the fact that Orlando Bloom is so beautiful in regular, non-elf clothing, that it’s almost uncomfortable to behold. Almost.

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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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