The word “asshole” reverberated throughout New York’s Film Forum as the press screening of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which plays there through July 13, ended. As in, “He’s an asshole”—for the murder of Lana Clarkson, yes, but also his grandiose pronouncements during the interview segments of the documentary, and his irrational takedowns. I don’t recall Spector calling anyone an asshole, but it’s certainly implied as he settles old scores with Bob Dylan, George Martin, Paul McCartney, and a few others, some of whom may not have known that they offended the music mogul and murderer. His own asshole is clearly on his mind, too, as he jokes with filmmaker Vikram Jayanti, who met him during his first murder trial in 2007, about becoming someone’s prison bitch if convicted.
No joke now—though you’d have to be pretty desperate to hit the showers with the 70-year-old Spector, who received a 19-years-to-life sentence in his 2008 retrial, the 19 years all but ensuring life. Tom Cruise wanted to play him in a movie, and so he did. Not in a planned biopic but in Tropic Thunder, where elements of Spector’s megalomania are clearly embedded in his portrayal of tyrannical studio chief Les Grossman, with the grooming changed to protect the guilty. Phil Spector 2010: Killer, gun nut, jailbird, the smaller-than-life clown with the big-beyond-belief hair-don’ts seen in the Court TV footage shown throughout the documentary.
Phil Spector 1958-1969, the one whose best days are memorialized in the magnificent Back to Mono collection, is the one Jayanti spends time with in his famed castle, in close proximity to the piano Lennon is said to have composed “Imagine” on. There was some discussion about this following the screening—Yoko Ono is said to lay claim to one, too—but Spector isn’t shy about embellishing a story, or to hog credit. Rockologists will pick apart his boasts, as he looks back at the “Wall of Sound” years and his work salvaging (or “salvaging”) Let It Be, and recalls producing John Lennon’s caustic “God” and George Harrison’s soulful “My Sweet Lord” in the same year with the same conviction, however their messages differed. That passage sticks with me, as it’s one of the few times that Spector doesn’t lapse into paranoia when answering Jayanti’s softball questions. Pretty much everyone takes it on the chin—Tony Bennett, for example, gets a beating for successfully rehabbing his life and career, a courtesy “they,” critics, audiences, and everyone else, would never extend to him, Buddy Holly is dissed for getting a postage stamp for “being in rock ‘n’ roll for only three years,” and the acts he recorded were just puppets in the grand scheme of his production, with only Tina Turner singled out as the one artist strong enough to withstand it. His idea of humility is to mention his accomplishments in the same breath as Galileo’s and Da Vinci’s, without (altogether) equating himself to them.
But there was ecstasy. How I love those songs. How Jayanti loves them, playing 21 of them in full on the soundtrack, and testing the boundaries of fair use in the process. Ironically, one of Spector’s more benevolent claims is that he allowed Martin Scorsese (which he thought was pronounced “Skeezy”) to get away with slipping “Be My Baby” onto the soundtrack of Mean Streets and not embargoing the film. Then again irony is part the strategy of the documentary, with Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World” played over a montage of Clarkson’s hapless career, including her Little Richard imitation. This is as easy as the questions he tosses at his host, and Jayanti tried my patience further by overlaying a wall of information atop the Court TV footage, namely purple-prose quotes by Spector biographer Mick Brown about each song as it plays, as if this were one of Peter Greenaway’s collage movies. It isn’t, they’re disruptive, and Brown’s dead wrong about one thing—it’s very possible to love the “unlovable” “River Deep—Mountain High.”
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is unsatisfying, because Jayanti can’t get the two pieces to fit together. Spector may have hoped that the filmmaker would be his emissary to the world after years of silence, and Jayanti, with his predictable questions and questionable choices, failed him. Perhaps there’s no way, though, to reconcile the golden-throated teen tycoon we see in archive footage with the wan and disconnected creature rehashing the past during what is likely to be his farewell engagement.
On DVD this week is It Came from Kuchar, a loving portrait of the madcap underground filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar. Identical twins from the Bronx, their overflowing list of credits, separately and together, begins with 1954’s The Wet Destruction Of The Atlantic Empire (made when they were 12) and may never end—George, who has taught film at the San Francisco Art Institute since 1971, is shown working with students on a fresh outrage, The Fury of Frau Frankenstein, made with the same DIY dedication. Their 8mm hits, featuring friends, neighbors, and their mother in a variety of unflattering parts, include The Naked and the Nude, I Was a Teenage Rumpot, Hold Me While I’m Naked, and 1965’s Sins of the Fleshapoids, the first one to catch the eye of devoted fan Buck Henry. If Andy Warhol’s contemporaneous Factory films were all about the lack of affect (happenings where nothing happened), the Kuchar brothers’, he explains, were totally affected, bursting at the seams with their version of the Hollywood imagery they took in nightly from theaters along the Grand Concourse.
Their aesthetic transmitted directly to John Waters, whose career was inspired by theirs. Despite the titillating titles, however, their movies are comparatively innocent, with preadolescent notions of sex mixed in with the sci-fi, film noir, and women’s pictures tropes. About the only critical commentary comes from writer B. Ruby Rich; the documentary, directed by one of George’s former students, Jennifer M. Kroot, is unabashedly adulatory, focusing on the benignly kooky aspects of the work. That’s a loss, as there’s a lot simmering under the tacky surfaces of the movies, and their lives. While Mom, a staunch Catholic who died not long ago at age 94, went before the cameras, Dad, a ladies’ man who hoped for more “masculine” sons, waited for the Super 8 shoots to end so he could watch stag movies on their projector. The documentary settles on the Kuchars as being unknowably, but harmlessly, eccentric, not the most illuminating perspective but perhaps the one they’re most comfortable with. (George co-wrote and co-starred in the notorious 1975 feature Thundercrack!, which was in the news last year, suggesting a wilder side that the movie doesn’t explore except to emphasize his friendship with the film’s libidinous director, Curt McDowell.)
As an introduction to the Kuchars, however, the film is good fun, with appearances by Waters and filmmakers Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and Wayne Wang, all relating how their work opened creative doors for them. The DVD is a complete Kuch-fest, with their commentary (plus Kroots’s) and almost 50 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, plus the winning short in a “make a film like the Kuchars” contest, Chrisjof Whiteman’s Egg Replacer. During the documentary George talks about his interest in UFOs, though I reckon there are few things stranger or more beguiling in the cosmos than a Kuchar movie.
Films for the Fourth: How bad have the summer movies been? So bad that audiences, usually lemmings for any marketing bonanza, have been staying home, depressing the usually robust boxoffice. Leave it to Pixar to get things back on their feet without pandering to the lowest common denominator with Toy Story 3. The digit typically gives me pause but here continues a tradition that bypassed a whole decade and has come back to us none the worse for neglect (only Randy Newman had his eye off the Magic 8-Ball, with a weak theme this time, and the price-boosting 3D is unnecessary if unobtrusive). Forget the two Oscars; Woody, the eternal optimist, is truly Tom Hanks’ signature role, and Michael Keaton revives his intermittent career with his hilarious Ken, the epitome of metrosexuality. The movie that saved summer is one of the year’s best.
Set in the meth-scarred Ozark Mountains, the Sundance-winning Winter’s Bone is given a good deal of grit and texture by 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, as a rural teen determined to find her dealer father before her home is foreclosed on while family members, dad’s shady business associates, and the law close in on her. Not quite as heart-racing as that sounds Debra Granik’s film pretty much sticks to the low-key, low-light, respectful-to-outsiders format of many a Sundance-anointed American indie, which humble us with how the other half lives; still, watchable. With Deadwood alums John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt, Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee, and Dale Dickey, My Name is Earl’s hooker Patty, in another memorable portrayal from the shallow end of the luck pool.
Fourth-century Christian fundamentalism is the offbeat subject of Agora. In Alejandro Amenábar’s gorgeously produced epic the pagan educator Hypatia, ensconced in the famed library of Alexandria and her study of heliocentrism, is forced from the stacks of scrolls by warring factions, first her own slave-owning people and the newly empowered Christians, then more militant followers of Christ and the Jews. The director, who specializes in films that take unexpected POVs (ghosts, in The Others; a quadriplegic, in the Oscar-winning The Sea Inside), gives the film a delicate circular structure that was likely maimed by the removal of 14 minutes since its European run. Such an unusual film is still worth seeing, however, for its handsome period recreation, lush score (by Atonement Oscar winner Dario Marianelli), and scrupulous intelligence as it laments our endless cycle of idiocy and barbarity. Just as the Earth revolves around the sun so does Agora revolve around the luminous Rachel Weisz, in a role written expressly for her.
The superior sci-fi/horror/family nightmare film Splice and Please Give, a sharply, sympathetically observed New York story from writer-director Nicole Holofcener, are winding down their runs but are also worth seeking out. They’re definite contenders for my Top Ten list, which, as we advance further into the second half of the year, also includes Greenberg, A Prophet (un Prophète), Toy Story 3, Agora, and Shutter Island, with The Ghost Writer and Daybreakers hanging in there as well. Is there anything I absolutely need to check out?
Queue Tips: If there is, I’ll put it in my Netflix queue, which is where I unearthed Daybreakers, a nifty vampire movie that revived my interest in bloodsuckers after so many anemic ones since Let the Right One In. I tend to amass DVDs so to keep track between DVD columns I thought I’d create this little feature, where I go into the stacks and recommend one per week.
I could watch parkour, where guys leap through transoms and car windows and off high-rise buildings, one after another, all day long. 2006’s District B13 put parkour on the movie map, where it’s been co-opted by the Bond and Bourne pictures, and duly parodied, too. It’s come back home to France in District B13: Ultimatum, the latest in a string of more-or-less reliably entertaining actioners to bear the fingerprints of Gallic wunderkind Luc Besson, including From Paris with Love, Taken, and The Transporter series. These B-movies fill the niche once occupied by Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson pictures, and even the emptier ones are too focused, and too undemanding, to be tiresome.
The District B13 films do have a brain in their head, set as they are in a walled-off, immigrant-filled banlieue of the future that rival gangs fight over for control and the French government would rather eliminate, by whatever means necessary. Policing the embattled district are a vigilante, played by parkour founder David Belle, and an elite officer (Besson regular Cyril Raffaelli), this time joining forces to prevent a nuclear air strike. It’s talkier than its predecessor, and the English dubbing has that deadness to it, so switch to the French track and the subtitles, ride it out, and hang on for the fast-and-furious stuntwork, as the guys hop, skip, and jump all over town. This is the sort of movie making-of documentaries are made for, and the one here doesn’t disappoint, with plenty of footage of the performers strutting their stuff before roll ‘em. The DVD is fine but if so equipped I’d spring for this combo Blu-ray, which collects both features. I know which airbenders I’d prefer to watch this weekend.
Memo to Elena Kagan: In the vampires vs. werewolves debate that electrified the nation yesterday during your confirmation hearing, there is clear precedent for a liberal jurist to side with the lycanthropes. From 1943’s The Return of the Vampire to the Underworld movies of today werewolves are a minority constantly oppressed by aristocratic vampires. How cute the vampires are is not a matter of judicial interest. Conservative justices on Team John might disagree but when the Twilight series is hauled before the Supremes for crimes against literature and cinema there is only one way to rule in this particular debate.
“The latest Twilight film is called Eclipse because you can’t look at it directly”–Nathan Lane on Letterman.