Movie Musings

by Dalton Boettcher

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

I couldn’t possibly write in defense of the abomination I witnessed last weekend, could I? Cannibal Holocaust, which drew me to its midnight showing at the Uptown theater under the pretense of being one of the earliest found-footage mockumentaries (think Blair Witch Project, only 20 years earlier), turned out to be much more explicit than I was expecting—even after reading about its controversial portrayal of graphic brutality, sexual assault, and genuine violence toward animals that led to its banishment across most of the civilized world. And in a different setting, it would have been easy to walk away from the film with no further thoughts or feelings beyond the immediate disgust it so freely produced. But at the Uptown, in the company of a boisterous and mildly-intoxicated crowd, the experience itself rose to a place of such intellectual incitation and moral contemplation that it has become hard not to label the vehicle of this reflection an unmistakable work of art.

Oh god, is this where my opinions on cinema lose all credibility?

To be fair, Cannibal Holocaust is unmistakably provocative (its title alone recalls one of the worst tragedies in human history with passing irreverence), full of so many contentious depictions of obviously real animal killings that the line between the presumably staged human atrocities becomes uncomfortably blurred. But are the deaths of the turtle, the pig, and the monkey really that inhumane? The reactions of the zoologically-sympathetic audience with which I saw the film seem to indicate they were, but how, I wonder, would they react to an accurate portrayal of the process by which their food reaches their tables? Surely there wasn’t much indulgence in the actual on-location killings beyond the efficient minimum necessary to bring an animal to its end (though the presentation of these anatomical processes in a work of fictitious entertainment is another debate). And when you consider the fact the local tribes were able to use the resulting meat as a meal themselves, exactly how deplorable was the act of killing?

Cannibal Holocaust certainly may be able to convert a few to vegetarianism, but it is capable of much more than that. Through its controvertible depictions of animal slaughter, the film incites reactions of such vitriol and violence that the audience itself becomes the focus of debatable scorn. Over the course of the film’s 98 minute runtime, I saw audience members gasp in horror, turn away in disgust, verbalize their growing anger, and applaud an imminent on-screen vengeance that suddenly felt so personal and justified. And in our libational laughter and applause directed at the sight of the violent revenge finally enacted against the film’s contemptible American subjects, I wonder if we don’t become as contemptible as the subjects themselves? Many see Cannibal Holocaust as an artistic contrast of the civilized and uncivilized, but is the line not further blurred when a 21st century audience sits on its judgmental throne, cheering on a brutal and violent vengeance as inhumane as the act that started it all?

Somewhere in this blurred line and unsettling contrast there must exist some truth about human nature—about our primal and fatally-flawed urge to react that so often overwhelms our vital need to retreat and quietly contemplate. And in light of all that I saw at the Uptown last weekend, I think I’ll defer to the latter—after, of course, saying that the ostensible abomination that is Cannibal Holocaust might be worth a little more than most give it credit for.

Boyhood and mine: remembering Grandpa

Much can be said about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Shot over the course of twelve years, the film follows a young boy (and his family) from age six to eighteen—through childhood to the first few steps of collegiate freedom and early adulthood. It is an achievement, a narrative unlike any other seen in cinema before, and it is led by remarkably careful and attentive direction and supported with wonderful performances. It’s also evocative—beautifully, painfully, and poignantly reminiscent as its scenes recall insignificant memories of our own innocence past.

I’ve been thinking about my childhood lately, possibly since before I saw Boyhood, but certainly in the weeks after. And in this quietly-sustained reminiscence, it has become difficult to separate memories of my grandfather (who passed away last weekend) from this fuzzy but formative period of my life. I suppose it’s natural (I’m 24 now) that most of my memories of Grandpa Boettcher would come from my childhood—that period of time when innocence was abundant and the constraints of busy schedules, long drives home, and Grandpa’s fading health were but a distant concern. And while it’s special to have so many rich recollections tied to my younger years, it’s sad to know that there won’t be any new memories of Grandpa during my married life or with the children I hope to father someday. (Although, he did get to spend quite a bit of time with my fiancee, Stefanie. It was always hard to catch Grandpa with a smile on his face, and in his older years, he didn’t get out of his recliner for much—but when Stefanie walked into the room, he’d perk right up and [in a sign of true adoration] even walk over to say hello. He really liked her, and that pleasant knowledge will stay with me forever.)

Certainly, I’m lucky to have so many great memories with Grandpa. I’m lucky to have spent a few days every summer—at almost the same ages portrayed in Boyhood—traveling to Starbuck, Minnesota, with my father to go fishing with Grandma and Grandpa Boettcher. As if from a montage of my own childhood, I remember snippets of scenes that blur between the years: riding in Dad’s truck and pulling into Hobo Park, rolling over the numerous speedbumps until at last, we’d reach the last stall before the fish house and find Grandma eagerly awaiting our arrival. For whatever reason, Grandpa seems to elude these memories; perhaps because he’s tending to the coals on the grill or over by the boat preparing for tomorrow’s venture with an attitude of, “right then, you made it. Let’s get on with what matters.”

And for Grandpa, the fishing always mattered.

 

Of course I remember fishing with Grandpa. I remember the dynamic in the boat, with Grandpa manning the motor, Grandma on her seat, and Dad and me up front on the bench. I remember the carefree joy with which Grandma fished, and the way it contrast Grandpa’s quiet satisfaction. Grandma might catch the biggest fish, but Grandpa would remind us that it was he who brought us to the fish in the first place.

And so it was. Grandpa taught us all how to fish. Dad says he’s forgotten more about fishing than most of us will ever learn. When it all began no one can say for sure. With Grandpa and fishing, there is no beginning, there just always was.

Like so many men of his age, Grandpa loved baseball too. He was a Minnesota Twins fan—and so is my father, and so am I. At home or away fishing, it seems like Grandpa hardly missed a game. I can recall many late nights in the camper listening to the distant signal of WCCO on his AM radio, the steady static and laid-back Herb Carneal commentary a perfect bedtime story—after a few hands of cards, of course.

I have many camper memories, but perhaps none greater than those of breakfast. Camper breakfast at Starbuck is still the greatest I’ve ever known. Fried fish, runny eggs, and toast well-done. Seems like Grandpa always took care of buttering the bread. On Sunday, Grandma read Portals of Prayer and us boys sat quietly listening.

For as long as I can remember, Grandpa was a man of few words. When he spoke, people listened, and when he didn’t, I swear there was just as much going on in his head. Perhaps the most words Grandpa ever used was when he was arguing. Grandpa liked to argue so much—even well-past the point of being wrong—that I swear he did it for sport. Of course, he liked to win; and you’d be hard pressed to ever find the satisfaction of hearing him admit that he was wrong.

Grandpa was also a man of sharp wit, one that stuck with him till the very end (my parents told me the story of a hospital visit during Grandpa’s last week where, after sitting silently through a long list of medical-history questions answered by Grandma and my dad, Grandpa jumped at the chance to answer a question about any history of physical or mental abuse: “constantly,”  he dryly joked without missing a beat). Over and again, Grandpa proved that language is a virtue. Some might laugh at the thought that Wayne Boettcher had a way with words, but I believe he did. He knew not only what to say, but how and when to say it.

In addition to all my memories of fishing with Grandpa up north, I of course remember Christmas Eves out at the farm. We’ve got a pretty large family—at the time of his death, Grandpa had five kids, twelve grandkids, and twenty great-grandkids—so most of my Christmas memories consist of grandchildren and great-grandchildren running around and filling the old house with youthful fervor. But of course, there’s also Grandpa, sitting quietly in his chair—the contented patriarch perhaps so overcome by the joy of his creation that it’s just too hard to speak.

 

In his last few days, holding Grandma’s hand as she sat next to him in the hospital, Grandpa turned to her and said, “we’ve had a good life.” Yes, by all means, you certainly have. And so have we—your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And look how much we owe to you.

For teaching us how to fish—in more ways than we will ever fully realize—and for bringing us to the fish in the first place, thank you.

With love and gratitude, from your grandson whose childhood was so blessed by your presence,

Dalton

Blazing Saddles (1974)

It would be easy to write off Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles as a farcical comedy with absurd setups and set pieces—as easy as it is to laugh at its many quotable one-liners. But as the jokes linger and new setups arrive, the film opens and becomes a deeper, more nuanced picture than seen at first glance. Indeed, from the very beginning, Blazing Saddles stands as a satirical deconstruction of the American Western, poking fun at its improbably sharp-shooting gunslingers and exposing the ugly reality of its brothel beauties. But as we laugh freely at judicious jokes and cringe around contentious racial slurs, an unexpected harmonization of these two reactions occurs.

Certainly, the greatest establishment Blazing Saddles undermines is not the Western or the government or the Hollywood movie studio; but instead, racism—alive and well during its 1974 release, and unfortunately still kicking today. In fact, in the nearly-packed screening I recently attended at the lovely Heights Theater, I couldn’t help but wonder what, exactly, we were all laughing at. With a diverse crowd (in terms of social strata; not, unfortunately, race), there was a wide range of reactions to a number of jokes, half-jokes, and probably-not-jokes. But I wonder, with such a diverse group of writers (including Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger) behind the film, if that’s not precisely the point? What better way to overcome the inhumane horror of the thing than by holding it up against the bludgeoning of sharp satire, where entire audiences—in on the joke or not—can laugh, laugh, laugh at the absurdity and ineptitude of such silly prejudice and puerile hatred.

It takes skill and deft artistry to make a line like “where the white women at?” work across all divisions of the audience—white and black, bigoted and open-minded—but that’s exactly what the writers and the essential Cleavon Little do here. And that dexterity—on display throughout Blazing Saddles—is probably the reason why the film has endured with such adoration for so long, appealing to diverse audiences in different times and in different places, laughing for their own reasons, but laughing just the same.

Obvious Child (2014)

As I sat in the dark waiting for Obvious Child to begin, I started to ponder the wonderful possibility filmmakers face when crafting an opening scene. It’s the first taste audiences get, setting the tone and providing impetus and direction for what’s to come. So what would writer-director Gillian Robespierre do with the opening scene of her first feature?

Let’s just say that if the rest of the film kept the laughs coming as hard and fast as they arrive in the opening, this would hands down be the funniest film of the year. Unfortunately (realistically), that doesn’t happen. Though maybe that’s a good thing, given the film’s taboo-busting take on abortion.

The obviously talented Jenny Slate fronts the film as Donna Stern, an openly raunchy stand-up comedian who by day works at a used bookstore (that’s about to close for good) and by night performs in a Brooklyn comedy club to a small crowd that includes regulars like her boyfriend (who’s about to dump her) and transients like a cute Christian fratboy (with whom she’s about to have rebound sex and conceive a child).

Luckily, Donna has separated but supportive parents and a rock solid friend in Nellie (an unassuming but integral Gaby Hoffmann), to whom she explains, “I remember seeing a condom, I just don’t know, like, what exactly it did…”

With frank, bawdy humor (that’s more refreshing than disrespectful) and a fast-paced heart worn openly on its sleeve, Obvious Child manages to strike some deep emotional chords after the humor tapers off. But after steamrolling the audience with rip-roaring laughter, the film ends emotionally unresolved, unfortunately leaning on typical rom-com tropes.

Still, this is a promising feature debut for Robespierre and a propulsive performance by Jenny Slate. I can’t help but recommend Obvious Child (its first half alone is worth seeing for your health), and I certainly look forward to what’s next for both of its principal ladies.

3/4

Life Itself (2014)

If I could look up at the screen and only see other people, I wouldn’t be so moved. But I can’t. I can’t go to the movies without seeing myself, my friends, my family, my future wife and the kids I hope to father someday. And so it is with Steve James’s Life Itself, a biographical documentary that plays as posthumous tribute to the late Roger Ebert.

Produced by Steve Zaillian and Martin Scorsese, the film uses Ebert’s memoir of the same name to provide some structure, while footage of Roger in the hospital in late 2012 and early 2013 and interviews with colleagues and loved ones after his death round out the poignant picture. But it’s also filled with never before seen footage and little known stories and an endless supply of heartfelt humor—much of it involving his At the Movies co-host Gene Siskel and their complex off-air relationship.

As a longtime reader and admirer of Ebert’s work, I had no problem engaging with the film; and with the talent of Steve James (whose Hoop Dreams Ebert and Siskel first championed on their show) passionately at work, I doubt many will. At my screening, the room was filled with open hearts and active minds, eager souls working to empathize and understand a little bit more about the hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears of another man, and perhaps even themselves.

3.5/4

Chef (2014)

Jon Favreau is one hell of a comedic actor, but the key ingredient in Chef—his latest film about a jaded cook who leaves a cushy restaurant gig for a cross-country food truck adventure with his young son (a charming EmJay Anthony)—is his ability to direct comedic actors. The camerawork and editing here are effortlessly unobtrusive, allowing a rich ensemble—including Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey Jr.—to mix it up with ostensible improvisation and obvious joy.

And boy, does this thing rip. Jokes stack up on top of one another with such candor and grace that the experience is akin to an ice-cold lemonade in a dry summer heat. Though plagued by plotting that occasionally boils to the surface as contrivance, Chef’s humor is a refreshing constant. Even when, perhaps, Favreau’s writing tugs at the heartstrings just a little too heavily.

The 47-year-old father of three has always made room for sentiment in his work—quite obviously in Elf and even in his 1996 writing debut Swingers, though I’d argue it’s also there in Iron Man, just below the surface of Robert Downey Jr.’s playboy irreverence. Much like the characters he so often plays, Favreau’s work embraces love and emotion through rugged tenderness, with pervasive (and in many cases, vulgar) humor often little more than an adorable attempt to mask the giant heart that’s always beating just beneath. And darn it if we don’t all love him for it. If Favreau’s brand of (here, somewhat-refined) humor is truly akin to ice-cold refreshment, I say give me another glass. (Tasting notes: pairs well with passionate food porn, of which Chef presents plenty).

3.5/4

Locke (2014)

One car, one real-time trip, one on-screen character and a number of difficult phone calls. It takes the right actor and one heck of a performance to make a concept film like this work, and Tom Hardy—ostensibly under as much pressure as his eponymous Ivan Locke—turns in what may be the best performance of his career. Yes, this is the Tom Hardy who’s probably best known for his roles in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, but he’s in completely different form here.

Ivan is a construction foreman managing the logistics of one of the largest cement pours in European history, and on the eve of the pour, he decides to take off and drive toward something he feels is more important—something, he says, that must be done. Almost immediately, it’s obvious that Ivan is pragmatic and level-headed (for me, making his character quite necessarily identifiable and investable), but these characteristics make his night drive somewhat of a puzzle. He soon calls his wife and boys to tell them he won’t make it home for the football match, but that only thickens the mystery of his motivations. Thankfully, writer/director Steven Knight doesn’t withhold the answer for some last-minute twist reveal. Instead, a forthcoming phone call soon affirms what audience members may have already begun to postulate; and like that, dramatic weight is dropped on screen, making the next 60 minutes some of the most richly character-revealing to ever unfold in such a sparse setting.

Not as much of an existential odyssey as, say, 1971’s Vanishing Point (which also features a man on a drive of unimaginable incitation), Locke’s journey is more of a self-affirming campaign that pits a man’s character and spirit against the consequence of past decisions, the ghosts of one’s past, and perhaps even fate. But does it only appeal to those of similar standing? That I can’t say for sure. I can say that a younger, not-engaged (to be wed, not with the film) version of myself probably wouldn’t have been as invested as I was at my screening. Undoubtedly, the film pivots on your ability to identify or at least empathize with Ivan. But if you can, you’re in for one of the most dramatic and revealing pieces of micro-budget filmmaking to ever grace the big screen. For in every Bluetooth-enabled phone call and in every tight and nuanced conversation, in each instruction, confession, and quavering assurance, there is every authentic ounce of human expression and coexistence. Complimenting Hardy’s paramount performance is some brilliantly understated camerawork from Knight, who shot the picture with three cameras over the course of five nights, with Hardy lugging down London freeways, of course. The result is as much of an experience of shared reality as anything, and with some skillfully taut editing from Justine Wright, Knight has no problem sustaining the enchanting spell for all of its 85 minute runtime.

4/4

Note to self (mild spoilers): When I’m inevitably pondering what to say or where to rank this at year-end, remember the moving scenes between Locke and his family; the additional empathy I felt with his wife and how she must be taking it; and his kids—oh those poor kids—not knowing what’s going on, with the joy and ecstasy of seeing their team win the big game cut by the pain and uncertainty of their mother’s tears and screams. And all this time, we’re stuck in the car with Locke, unable to do anything more. And that last conversation with his son, where Locke finally breaks down, but only visually—for the most part keeping it together with his voice while on the phone. It’s this contrast, of vocal assurance but visual despair, that almost took my breath away with some great empathetic wind. And it’s moments like this that I would call pure cinema. Not in the way of the French avant-garde movement aimed at returning the medium to its elements of vision and movement, but in a more complete and holistic sense. One where character and dialog mix with the visual and aural elements in some great and unreproducible concoction. And in that moment, you find yourself in someone else. And all at once, the greatest curse of human existence is removed as you begin see the world through new eyes.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Deep in the urban decay of Detroit, a reclusive musician lies on a musty couch. Halfway across the world in Tangier, his wife of nearly 150 years is also strung out. And a record spins in much the same way that director Jim Jarmusch’s camera tracks as extended dissolves blur the boundaries between it all. Welcome to Only Lovers Left Alive—a love story? Maybe, but one that’s certainly not short on romance.

Unless, of course, a hipster-kitsch aesthetic doesn’t fit your definition of the word. And perhaps this is where audiences will be divided. Certainly, there isn’t much going in the way of plot. The midpoint arrival of Mia Wasikowska’s character and her subsequent indulgence that kicks the film into its final act is the greatest bit of narrative advancement we get, but is it enough? One could argue that the outer thirds sag like some stale portrait in a museum, but then again, maybe that’s the conceit. Blow the dust off the typewriter and revel in the vintage guitars and the luscious vinyl and ahh! isn’t it romantic?

There are overtones of drug use and some mythological evocations of religion—our leading lovers (played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are named Adam and Eve, after all, but I’m also thinking of the film’s first blood-meal (dare I say communion) sequence—however, it’s the often-alluded-to clash of the aristocracy versus the masses (or vampires vs. zombies, if you will) that makes the film most alluring.

Confined in his self-restricted space, Adam is but a beat poet of the night, overwhelmed by the feedback loops of old creativity that keep repeating until it all just sounds the same. And while he’d like to believe that his beatnik past is far superior to the zombie hipsters of today, perhaps he’s not as removed as he imagines. Still, he possesses qualities that separate, like time, years of experience, and a basic respect for all that came before. Few youth have it today. Few could care less. But that all-important creativity that Adam so prides himself in? It hardly separates at all.

Near the end of the film, Adam witnesses a music performance in Tangier, and damn if he’s not inspired or at least reassured by the ability of standard mankind. It’s not all popcrap puppets with 40-word vocabularies; there’s depth and flair and real talent out there too.

Certainly, Jarmusch is a testament to that. Living on his own fringe of independent cinema, far from the bowels of Zombie Central—as his muse so affectionately refers to Los Angeles—the 61-year-old writer/director (whose work I cannot feign acquaintance with) seems right at home with Adam, perhaps even hanging his own idols’ portraits on the wall. And if the world truly isn’t all zombies, perhaps his mid-American mug will find itself on a dusty wall of fame someday, hanging in hip veneration for the beatnik lovers that once danced in the night.

3/4

Witching and Bitching (2013)

…and inducing uproarious laughter and delivering in the horror/creep-out department and not quite pulling it all together with a wholly satisfying conclusion, Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia’s horror-comedy is certainly worthy of a late night pairing with popcorn, beer and amenable friends. After a knockout first act in which our messianic protagonist (Hugo Silva) haplessly robs a jewelry store and makes a dubious escape with his daft accomplice and fighting-for-joint-custodied son, the film carries its momentum through the second act, where it introduces a not-quite-flawlessly-disguised group of cannibalistic witches, including (wouldn’t you know) a potential love interest. While not abandoning its absurd sense of humor as things take an inevitable turn south, Witching and Bitching nevertheless bogs down as it trudges through its CGI-intensive finale with irresolute ambition and direction. Still, the addition of such thematic ingredients as witching mythology, the clash of the sexes, and gender roles in modern society make this cinematic cauldron boil with fresh toad’s blood and the tears of innocent laughter.

3/4

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Ostensibly uninhibited by technological constraints, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are uses costumed performers, animatronics, puppeteers, and a dash of CGI to seamlessly bring us inside the mind of its nine-year-old protagonist (wonderfully portrayed by Max Records). And while the film seems to exist as the product of pure imagination, the resulting narrative—loose and unrefined—reflects that of a child’s to a fault. Still, a small price to pay for a visionary ride from a director who clearly hasn’t lost his Rosebud (note a tender and evocative framing of Max’s mother, shot from Max’s fortified position under a table. Because who can’t recall lying under the loving presence of their mother?) Based on the Maurice Sendak picture book of the same name, featuring a lovely soundtrack from Karen O, and with Wild Things voiced by Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, and (most notably) James Gandolfini, Where the Wild Things Are is a film full of internal discoveries for both adults and children alike.

3/4