Summer Movie #11 – The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, 2014): As the title suggests, this is a biographical documentary about Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. It is mostly made up of current interviews with Weir made for the movie along with interviews with family members, band members, etc… It is a decent documentary – informative, but not filled with revelations or insights. It is at its best when Weir is talking about music or just telling stories. When it tries to get emotional – particularly around Jerry Garcia’s death, it can be a bit forced. If you enjoy music documentaries or are interested in the band itself, this is worth checking out. Also worth checking out for a short but prime moment of Sammy Hagar (who is interviewed in the movie for maybe five minutes total) demonstrating what an egotistical ass he can be. You have to appreciate people for their gifts, and that is his.
Summer Movie #12 – Aparajito (Satyajit Ray, 1956): This is the second film in Ray’s acclaimed “Apu Trilogy” and it is a thing of beauty. Like Pather Panchali it is composed of one perfect shot after another with the music of Ravi Shankar providing the accompaniment. The story is remarkable for its depiction of the relationship between the boy Apu and his mother as he goes from childhood to later adolescence. Rather than succumbing to genre stereotypes of cloying sweetness, we see a son who loves his mother, but also takes her for granted and feels – rightfully – a bit stifled by her possessive love. The mother is played fantastically by Karuna Banerjee as loving, but also driven by her own fears of poverty and abandonment to be less than an image of maternal perfection. I was struck by the similarity to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” in that both films were willing to depict loving but imperfect relationships between loving but imperfect people. Add to that Ray’s abilities as a filmmaker (Akira Kurosawa later acknowledged that the committee at Cannes was right to award this film over his own “Throne of Blood”) and you have a beautiful, though melancholy, masterpiece.
Summer Movie #13 – Snatch (Guy Ritchie, 2000): This is Guy Ritchie’s second film after 1998’s “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and shares many similarities with that film. It is a British crime story with a lot of comedy. The editing and pace are quick and the cinematography is stylish. It has a circular plot and convoluted lines of causality which lead to a lot of the comedy. I loved the first movie and this one is more polished. It is films like these, and his 2008 film, “Rocknrolla” that give me hope for his upcoming adaptation of “Man from UNCLE”.
Summer Movie #14 – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Drew DeNicola & Olivia Mori, 2012): This is a great documentary about one of the great “cult” bands in American music. The filmmakers use extensive interviews and the music itself to good effect – telling the story of the band and its members, but also weaving that into the larger stories of the Memphis music scene, the story of Stax Records, and the wider evolution of rock music. I immediately fired up “#1 Record” (which I’m listening to right now) just because I had to. I think that is the best result a music documentary can hope for.
Summer Movie #15 – The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977): This was Weir’s follow-up to 1975’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and shares some similarities with that movie. It is very hard to categorize, much like “Picnic” and Weir’s first film “The Cars That Ate Paris”. It looks like a thriller or a supernatural horror film, one one level, but also like a murder mystery on another (very superficial) level. I’d argue that it is really an examination of the meeting of Aboriginal and European culture (a theme from “Picnic”) wrapped around a rumination on prophecy. Richard Chamberlain does a great job portraying an attorney who finds himself cursed with apocalyptic visions. David Gulpilil is equally effective as a “Tribal” Aborigine who is accused of murder and who also tries to help Chamberlain’s character understand a reality he is totally unprepared for. The music score makes wonderful use of Aboriginal instruments throughout – but, in one of the films few missteps, occasionally switches to electronic music that just doesn’t work well at all. Like many of Weir’s films before “The Year of Living Dangerously,” this is best enjoyed if you can appreciate a movie that asks more questions than it answers. I really liked it.
Summer Movie #16 – Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998): I added this to my Netflix queue some time back after seeing it mentioned in a film documentary. I’m very glad I did. This is an acclaimed indie film and unique in that it was an entirely Native American production (producers, screenwriter, director, actors, and technicians). It uses a journey by two young men, Victor and Thomas, to claim Victor’s fathers body to tell a story of the lives of American Indians in the 20th century and the relationships between fathers and sons. All of this is done with a quirky sense of humor and some moments of real drama. If you’ve ever been a son, or know someone who has, this movie is well worth the seeing.
Summer Movie #17 – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Brannagh, 2014): This was a decently directed but thoroughly ordinary action thriller. Chris Pine is suitably charming and brave as the hero and Kenneth Brannagh is suitably threatening and ruthless as the villain. The action sequences are fine, but not really that interesting. The story suffers from too many contrivances – the worst being the rather paper-thin pretext upon which they plunge Kiera Knightly, as the future Mrs. Ryan, into the middle of Jack’s mission. Actually, for me, the worst part was the overall plot – in which the evil Russian government is using an evil Russian corporation to artificially inflate the value of the dollar so that they can then crash the dollar in the aftermath of an evil Russian 9/11 style terror attack (undertaken by evil Russian sleeper agents). This plot has the twin problems of making no sense on a level of economics while requiring that the heroics in the film are primarily about saving Wall Street from a terrorist attack. There are some good scenes in here – Pine is decent as an analyst forced to be a field agent, Knightly is good overall, and the movie is really at its best when Brannagh is being bleak and ruthless. Also, Mikhail Baryshnikov makes an uncredited appearance as an evil Russian minister. He doesn’t get to do much, but it was interesting seeing him on screen after so many years. If you like action films, there are worse out there – but there are better too.
Summer Movie #18 – The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011): This seems to be my summer for Australian films and for movies with themes concerning fathers. Willem Dafoe plays a professional hitman or hunter (his background is left vague) who is hired by a biotech firm to track down the last example of a Tasmanian Tiger, obtain samples, and then kill it to ensure no other firm gets its DNA. The movie is more complex, though. It deals with his relationships with people in the area of Tasmania where he is hunting as well as the struggles between environmentalists, corporate interests, and local people. Much of the film shows Dafoe moving and hunting alone in Tasmania (where the film was shot) affording opportunities for a lot of beautiful shots of that wilderness area. This is an action film in some ways, but it is also character-driven, and even philosophical. It has been showing up on my “recommended” list from Netflix for a long time. Good job, Netflix!
Summer Movie #19 – Robocop (Jose Padilha, 2014): So I finally watched it. This is a well paced and well made sci-fi action film that, unfortunately, suffers by comparison with the original. I think Padilha is to be commended for not trying to recapture the biting and multi-layered satire that gave the original its distinct tone, but that leaves this a good film trying to “reboot” a great one. There were decent performances all around, although even the casting of the wonderful Michael K. Williams didn’t lessen my disappointment that they changed the Lewis character from a woman to a man. I always thought one of the many virtues of the original was casting a woman in the “partner” role and then resisting any temptation to inject romance into the partnership. The action sequences are well done. The cinematography is, well, competent – nothing outstanding. Again, this is a fun and well made movie. If I had never seen the original I might have been less disappointed by it. However, the movie makers do deserve one final kudo for using the cover of “I Fought the Law” by Green Day (although the Clash would have been even better) for the closing song. Worth seeing, but not great.
Summer Movie #20 – Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (Mike Myers, 2013): This is a documentary produced and directed by Mike Myers about his agent, Shep Gordon. Gordon also played a major role in making Alice Cooper into, well, Alice Cooper. He also managed Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, Sylvester Stallone… and on… and on… He also played a major role in launching Emeril Lagasse’s career and the whole modern “celebrity chef” thing. This is a fast and entertaining documentary built from lots of interviews. Well worth seeing for the stories alone.