Films I Neglected To Review: The Displaced Persons
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/16/20 13:46:23
Please enjoy short reviews of "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets," "Flannery," "The Painted Bird," "Showbiz Kids" and "Waiting for the Barbarians" and a look at the new Criterion Blu-Ray release of the 1953 classic "War of the Worlds."
"Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" is a film that chronicles the last night of existence of a Las Vegas-based dive bar named Roaring 20s and observes the denizens who frequent the place as they drink, talk, flirt, philosophize and ponder what they will do next now that their ersatz family unit is breaking up for good. Since the filmmakers, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, have previously made a series of documentaries, including "45365" (2009), a fascinating look at a small Ohio town, and "Contemporary Color" (2016), an exhilarating concert film featuring performances combining singers like David Byrne, Nelly Furtado and St. Vincent with color guard units, it is likely that most people who come into the film will assume that it is also a straightforward doc but that is not quite the case. The Roaring 20s is a real bar, for example, but it is actually located in New Orleans instead of Las Vegas. Similarly, the customers that we see are not actors per se but are people that were found on the street by the filmmakers who seemed to represent the various archetypes that they wanted to have portrayed. Even the idea that it all takes place over the course of a single night is not quite accurate--it was shot over the course of a few nights and the filmmakers even went to Las Vegas to shoot some exteriors. Although the filmmakers themselves do not make any claims that the film is a true documentary (though they don't exactly reveal their methods during the course of the movie itself), it has inspired some confusion and consternation, most notably at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it raised some hackles after it was entered in the Documentary Competition despite its numerous manufactured elements.
As for the film itself, it feels at times like a cross between a Robert Altman film and a Tom Waits album with its rich cast of characters--each one cast perfectly to type--and an observational approach that favors no one person and gives everyone their moments to shine. The situation may not be 100% authentic but the conversations between the characters certainly are, not to mention the convincing sense of community that they have managed to establish. Some of the narrative strands may grow murky as the film progresses and more alcohol is consumed but even that should ring true to anyone who has spent a late night or two at the local watering hole. Another aspect in the film's favor is one that is obviously more unintentional--those people out there craving the good old days when people could just go to a local bar and have a couple of drinks among other people will no doubt look at it as a piece of pure nostalgia for a seemingly long-ago time. "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" may not be quite the masterwork that some have suggested but at its best moments, there is a tangible sense of humanity to it that has been sorely lacking in most movies of late and for that reason alone, it is worth a shot (or two).
After watching "Flannery," Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco's documentary on the life and work of author Flannery O'Connor, I found myself being of two minds about it. On the one hand, it is a solid, well-made and respectful work that uses a combination of archival materials (including heretofore unseen examples of her work as a painter and cartoonist and clips from what I believe was her only television interview), interviews with family, friends and admirers (including the likes of Alice Walker, Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O'Brien), excerpts from her writings read by Mary Steenburgen, clips from Jhon Huston's celebrated 1979 screen adaptation of her novel "Wise Blood" and segments of animation to tell the story of how she came to become one of the most distinctive voices in 20th century American literature despite only publishing two novels, 32 short stories and a number of essays before dying at the age of 39. On that level, I can easily recommend it to both fans of here work and those who have never been exposed to her peculiar and still-provocative prose. In the case of most authors, a straightforward documentary like this would be perfectly acceptable but in the case of O'Connor, it just seems like an odd fit. After all, considering just how off-beat her life and work truly was--being a devoutly Catholic spinster who nevertheless wrote often-outrageous stories dealing with race, religion, sexuality, murder and the kind of people who would once have been dismissed as "freaks" with wit, irony and a certain amount of tenderness--it just feels like the film itself might have benefitted from a stranger and edgier approach to her story than the one that has been presented here. However, despite having a certain squareness that puts it slightly at odds with its subject, "Flannery" does succeed in its ultimate objective--after watching it, you will want to instantly get a hold of and read as much of Flannery O'Connor's work as you can
If I had to make a list of the bleakest and grimmest movies that I have ever seen, I am fairly certain that "The Painted Bird," writer-director Vaclav Marhoul's adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's 1965 novel, would rank near the top. This is as dark and anguished of a film as any that has come along in a long time--so much so, in fact, that I suspect that even the hardiest of moviegoers may find themselves pondering whether or not they really want to continue on with the seemingly endless parade of physical and emotional torments that it piles upon its protagonist, a young unnamed boy (Petr Kotlar) from an unspecified Eastern European country. As the film, set towards the end of World War II, begins, the child is left in the care of an aunt and forced to endure hard labor in exchange for food and shelter. When she dies, he is left on his own and sets off on a journey that finds him repeatedly being exploited and abused, physically and sexually, by a number of cruel adults (including Udo Kier and Julian Sands). As he drifts from incident to incident, never saying a word along the way, the boy's travails begin to take on the form of a seemingly never-ending and exceedingly grim fairy tale that never quite allows him to get to the happy ending. Put it this way--arguably the closest thing to a moment of tenderness that he receives over the course of the film comes when a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) presents him with one of his guns as a gift.
All of the miseries that the boy endures are presented in such unsparing detail and at such extended length (did I mention that the film is 169 minutes long?) that it is unlikely that many of you would even consider subjecting yourself to such a sad and painful moviegoing experience in the first place. I know that there were a couple of instances in which I seriously contemplated bolting myself because it was threatening to become simply too overwhelming to bear. Nevertheless, I found myself sticking with it to the end and this is in large part thanks to Marhoul's surprisingly graceful and formally fascinating approach to the material. Visually, the film is stunning throughout with the cinematography from Vladimir Smutny, shooting on 35mm film in black & white, lending a strange and haunting beauty to even the most ghastly of sights. The narrative approach is also intriguing in the way that Marhoul has essentially stripped the original Kosinski novel of its details (possibly in response to the controversy that has dogged the book, which was originally presented as autobiographical only to be discredited as such with speculation arising that Kosinski was inspired by the experience of friend Roman Polanski) in order to underscore the feeling of a world pushed so far by the madness of war that all traces of individuality and humanity have been erased and replaced with a sort of anonymous amorality. The performance by Kotlar is quite strong as well, conveying an enormous range of emotions throughout his journey without ever getting a chance to verbalize them. "The Painted Bird" is a dark and unsparing film that is essentially a guided tour through Hell on Earth but it is one that has been made with undeniable skill and care and anyone who watches it will be hard-pressed to forget it, no matter how much they may want to do so.
When we think of child stars, we have a tendency to put them into one of two groups--the ones like Ron Howard or Jodie Foster who manages to parlay their childhood successes into equal distinguished adult careers with nary a public hiccup and the ones whose difficulties in making those adjustments have led to occasionally sad and occasionally tragic crackups that inevitably get splashed all over the tabloid headlines and, more recently, the internet. In his fascinating HBO documentary "Showbiz Kids," Alex Winter, a former child actor himself, has eschewed those two extremes to focus on a third group--those who managed to more or less make it through the pressures of stardom at a young age but who nevertheless still feel the hurts, physical and emotional, that came along with the fame. There is Diana Serra Cherry, who became one of the very first child stars in Hollywood by making over 150 shorts and 9 features starting at the age of three in 1920--by the time she was seven, her career was over and the money she made (reportedly over $2 million) was squandered by her parents, leaving her in poverty. On the other end of the age scale, Cameron Boyce (who passed away last year from complications related to epilepsy) talks about trying to make the adjustment from being a Disney star and all that represents (at one point, he even asks permission to swear on camera). Henry Thomas talks about the freakish level of celebrity that he encountered after starring in "E.T." and how his career stalled a few years later when producers were unable to see him as anything other than that little kid. Milla Jovovich admits that she was not a very good actress until "The Fifth Element" came along and discusses her discomfort over highly sexualized modeling shoots that made her look much older than she actually was at the time. Wil Wheaton recounts abusive behavior that he experienced at the hands of a commercial director. Many of them (the interviewees also include Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mara Wilson) talk about how they were pushed into the business by ambitious parents and they all speak of how early fame robbed them of any real sense of identity or self-worth--it became impossible to know if people liked them for who they were or because of their fame. In contrast to these stories, Winter also observes two kids who are pursuing stardom with varying degrees of enthusiasm--Demi Singleton is already a Broadway veteran who is determined to make it and is perfectly content to make all the necessary sacrifices while Marc Slater seems marked less interested in achieving stardom than his parents appear to be. (At one point, an acting coach flat-out asks him with genuine concern if he actually wants to be an actor at all.) The stories contained in "Showbiz Kids" are sometimes funny, sometimes frightening and they all will leave you thinking about the enormous pressures and dangers that are put on child actors and perhaps make you feel a little more sympathy the next time a former or cutest child star has a public meltdown.
"Waiting for the Barbarians" is a film that pretty much screams "Prestige Project" with every frame--it is based on the 1980 allegorical novel by celebrated author J.M. Coetzee, who also penned the screenplay, it marks the English-language debut of Colombian director Ciro Guerra, who has received widespread international acclaim for his previous efforts "Embrace of the Serpent" and the extraordinary "Birds of Passage," and it features a cast headed by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance and includes supporting turns from the likes of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson. Rylance plays the unnamed Magistrate in charge of a remote outpost representing an unnamed empire's interests in some unknown land. As occupations go, this seems to be a fairly benign one--the local jail is barely used and the Magistrate spends much of his time observing the local archaeological digs and making at least a token effort to deal with the locals in a fair and equitable manner. Then comes Colonel Joli (Depp), who arrives with news that there are rumors that the local nomads ("barbarians," he calls them) are planning an uprising that he plans to investigate. His form of investigation inevitably takes the form of brutal and grisly torture of the locals that yields highly dubious "confessions." When Joli leaves to make his report, the Magistrate struggles to make things right again, focusing on caring for one particular victim, an unnamed Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), and returning her to her people. This inevitably puts him in the crosshairs of Joli and his equally sadistic right-hand man (Pattinson) and forces him to come to terms with the fact that the entire imperial presence--even his benign version of it--is inherently cruel and sadistic and will inevitably lead to the creation of the very enemies that it has been created to defeat in the first place.
At first glance, "Waiting for the Barbarians" would seem to have everything going for it but it only takes a few minutes of watching it to realize that something about it is quite off and it never manages to right itself over the next two hours. One major problem is that while allegory is a perfectly legitimate literary tool, it doesn’t quite jibe well with the far more literal nature of film and the gambits that work well enough on the page--such as the deliberate vagueness of the characters, nationalities and locations (so that they can represent all people, places and conflicts instead of specific examples)--tend to come across as distractingly gimmicky on the screen, as is the case here. I suppose the right filmmaker with just the right touch might have pulled it off (as was the case with Vaclav Marhoul's handling of "The Painted Bird") but Guerra, for all of his undeniable gifts as a filmmaker, proves to be a bizarre incorrect choice--considering the fact that one of the things that made "Birds of Passage" so memorable was the fascinating levels of specific anthropological detail that he brought to the potentially standard tale of an indigenous family caught up in the early days of drug trafficking in Colombia, why hire him to do a movie in which everything is deliberately fuzzy and opaque? As the Magistrate, Rylance is good--at least as good as any actor can be when playing a role that is closer to being a symbol than a recognizable person--but this will not go down as one of his more memorable performances. As for his famed supporting cast, Depp looks and acts like a refugee from a steampunk anime while Pattinson, who has been one of the most dependably interesting actors of recent years, is uncharacteristically hammy and unimpressive. When all is said and done, "Waiting for the Barbarians" is pretty much like a book report in that it more or less represents the characters and situations from the book and highlights the themes so that no one could possibly overlook or misunderstand them. However, when it comes to conveying the power of Coetzee's words and themes into cinematic terms, it falls woefully short.
When "War of the Worlds," the first film version of the H.G. Wells story about a Martian invasion of Earth, updated to embrace the concerns of the Cold War era, hit movie screens in 1953, it proved to be a groundbreaking moment for cinematic special effects at the time and many of the images conjured by director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal would become among the most iconic in the history of the sci-fi genre. Of course, both the genre and the visual effects technology have made quantum leaps since then but after revisiting the film for the first time in a while via the new special edition Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection, I have to say that not only does it hold up as well as any other genre film from that era, it continues to beat most of today's would-be blockbusters like a gong. Yes, some of the performances are a little wooden (especially Gene Barry as heroic scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester) and yes, the quasi-religious tone to the ending is both a little heavy-handed and antithetical to most of what the avowed atheist Wells actually stood for. However, as alien invasion sagas go, this is as good as they get--fast-paced, filled with still-impressive visual effects presented in all their Technicolor glory and including a number of genuinely suspenseful moments that continue to pack a punch (especially in the unforgettable scene in which we first get a hint of the deadly power of the invaders). On the disc, the film has been presented in an incredible new 4K restoration and with a new 5.1 surround stereo soundtrack prepared by award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt--one of the features deals with the process of finding the right technological balance to give it the best presentation imaginable while remaining true to how it originally looked and sounded. Among the other bonus features, there is an audio commentary from 2005 featuring three of the film's biggest fans--filmmaker Joe Dante and historians Bob Burns and the late Bill Warren--telling you everything you could possibly want to know about it and then some. Also from 2005 is “The Sky is Falling,” a documentary about the film's making that is informative, though perhaps a tad superfluous in the wake of the commentary. There is also a trove of archival material as well, including a 1970 audio interview with Pal, a presentation of Orson Welles' infamous 1938 radio adaptation of the story and a recording of a 1940 radio broadcast featuring a conversation between Welles and Wells. For sci-fi fanatics, this edition of "War of the Worlds" is a must-own but even more casual fans of the genre will find it worth checking out as well. (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)