Monthly Archives: January 2005
I find that there are generally two requirements that make a really great documentary: 1) have an interesting story, and 2) have an interesting way of telling it. I’ve seen documentaries on ripe topics squandered because of the dull and unimaginative ways they tell their tales. The skilled documentary team behind The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Party Monster has set their sights on a little smut film that changed the world in the early 1970s. Deep Throat was a “dirty movie” made for peanuts (25 grand) that ended up becoming the most profitable film of all time, eventually grossing more than $600 million. The story behind its meteoric rise, cultural acceptance, and damnation hits both requirements, thus making Inside Deep Throat a sensationally entertaining documentary.
It all started in 1971 when Gerard Damiano wanted to make an inexpensive pornographic film. Back in those days, many aspiring filmmakers actually got their start in porn (Wes Craven admits it). Damiano was in the planning process when he was visited by a man who wanted his girlfriend, Linda Lovelace, to appear in the eventual porno. He swore his girlfriend could do the most amazing trick. Lovelace demonstrated her trick, the full swallowing of an erect penis. Damiano was dumbstruck. He was determined not just to involve Lovelace but to base an entire film around her stunning ability. Deep Throat was written in three days, filmed in six days, but the furor it would bring would be irrevocably long lasting.
Deep Throat, as many of the crew will happily report, is not exactly a good movie. In fact, some call it the worst pornographic film of all time. Lovelace’s character found sex joyless, that is, until a doctor (Harry Reems) discovers that she has her clitoris all the way in the back of her throat. Thus to orgasm she has to swallow head-on (oh the double meaning). When the crew actually witnessed Lovelace’s cavernous abilities firsthand, they too were flabbergasted. But they wouldn’t be alone. Inside Deep Throat makes smart use of archival footage to prove how mainstream a small smut flick became. We see clips of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson cracking jokes about the film, and most amusingly of all are one or two interviews with little old ladies who “wanted to see a dirty picture.” Deep Throat crossed over and people went out in their Sunday finest to watch a hard-core porno.
Inside Deep Throat is rated NC-17 and with good reason. We do get to see Lovelace strut her stuff and the film almost playfully teases an audience with anticipation. We hear interviewees discuss their amazement; we see a close-up of Reems face as he gets pleasured. By the time the scene in question is shown uncut, we’re eager to witness this feat of fantastic fellatio ourselves. Let’s be honest, you can?’t have a documentary about Deep Throat‘s impact without showing the goods.
Filmmaking duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have a very visually satisfying way of telling their story. Images tear across the screen and animation pops, all set to what must amount to most of the soundtrack to Boogie Nights. The glossy visual flair reminds me of the swirling, near-pop-out book imagery of The Kid Stays in the Picture. The pacing of Inside Deep Throat is near break-neck, with the film clocking in at just over 90 minutes. I wish that the filmmakers had spent more time on their subject and gone more in depth into certain areas like Lovelace’s turnaround from girl next door goddess to anti-porn crusader back to fifty-something nude model (she was killed in a car accident in 2002).
The cultural splash Deep Throat made is interesting enough, but the meat of the story is in the battles that would ensue. Damiano openly talks about how the mob controlled the early porn industry. He admits that he refused his share in the millions out of fear that he might have had his legs broken, or worse. There’s a long tangled web of mafia influence in the proliferation of Deep Throat. It was banned in over 30 states, but everywhere it went it became a hit. A Mafioso says that they were making so much money that they had to count it by the pound. Mob hits would materialize over the film’s profits and territory.
Even more fascinating, the U.S. government, to no one’s surprise, declared the film indecent. They couldn’t prosecute the director, or the distributors (unless they liked sleeping with the fishes), or anyone really making money off of the success of Deep Throat. So what’s a stubborn government to do? They prosecuted Reems for his involvement in a pornographic film. It was the first time an actor was ever prosecuted for his participation in art after the fact. Celebs like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson came to Reems’ aid, fearful of what might happen if a government could retroactively punish artists. Sadly, Reems was found guilty and sentenced to years in prison and was really never the same afterwards.
But instructional films on sexuality were still okay as far as government was concerned, and we see clips of them in all their medical film hilarity (apparently some positions are not meant for the obese we’re told). These were acceptable because they were meant to help and inform, whereas porn is meant to entertain.
The film’s interviews comprise some of its best and worst moments. Most of the Deep Throat crew is in their 60s or 70s now, and hearing them talk about porn and sexual acts does make you titter a bit. The crew provides funny anecdotes and some of the juiciest material. However, the film also curiously interviews people like Dick Cavett and Bill Maher. The expected talking heads are here like Dr. Ruth, Camille Paglia, John Waters, Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt, but they regularly don’t have anything insightful to say.
Inside Deep Throat goes back and forth with its objectivity. It’s obviously pro-freedom of speech and doesn’t mind ridiculing the government agents who tried taking Deep Throat down (oh the double meaning). Particularly telling is an FBI agent who wishes that terrorism could be tidied up so that he could finally get to the real importance, which is stopping people from seeing pornography. One of the main points of the prosecution of Deep Throat was that it “wrongly” purported the idea of a clitoral orgasm (I think many will find some error with this judgment). It’s easy in retrospect to chide government officials ruling on inaccurate information or just plain ignorance. It may be too easy for some viewers, but for me it’s fair game to lambaste any idiot trying to strip me of my Constitutional rights.
Inside Deep Throat is an engrossing if light-hearted look at a moment in time. Some of the seedier elements feel skipped over, but this is a documentary on a fascinating subject told with a pleasing visual style. Don’t be put off by the NC-17 rating or the subject matter. Inside Deep Throat is more than a behind-the-scenes featurette on a wildly successful porno. It’s a fast, funny, and greatly entertaining time capsule of an era where boundaries were still being pushed, both by artists and by censors. And in today’s FCC-fearing landscape, maybe not everything has changed since Deep Throat brought porn into the mainstream.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It seems that in American cinema, we have a long history of people being holed up in one location and fighting off outside forces. There’s instant drama in fending off forces that outnumber you, and Hollywood knows this. There are historical dramas (The Alamo), fantasy flicks (Lords of the Rings), and nearly every other horror movie (Night of the Living Dead) that have a central conceit of the good guys being outnumbered and with no place to go. Assault on Precinct 13 (a remake of the 1976 John Carpenter cult film) is the latest in this mini-genre. The film has big stars like Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Bryne and a mustachioed Brian Dennehy (there really should be no other kind) but even star power with facial hair can’t stop Assault on Precinct 13 from feeling run-of-the-mill.
On New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Hawke) is left to tidy up precinct 13, which will be shut down in days. The precinct secretary (Drea De Matteo) and seen-it-all veteran Jasper (Dennehy) will keep Roenick company. But alas, they have more company than they expected. A bus transporting prisoners makes an emergency stop at the precinct because of a blizzard. The bus has three small time criminals (John Leguizamo, Ja Rule, Aisha Hinds) and one very big fish, crime kingpin and cop killer Marion Bishop (Fishburne). Late in the night the precinct is besieged by a team of dirty cops led by Marcus Duvall (Byrne). It seems Duvall and his squad of corrupt cops have had many deals with Bishop, enough that they can’t let him live. Jake takes command of the precinct’s motley crew, prisoners included, and attempts to have everyone work together to fight off the invading forces.
Hollywood upped the budget for this remake but they also upped the plot holes to match the firepower. How are the bad cops going to explain all those dead police officers in commando outfits? There’s likely enough forensic evidence everywhere to point a finger at the long arm of the law’s involvement. I suppose they could have burned the whole place down when they were done, but to paraphrase that great philosopher Ricky Ricardo, “Luuuuuucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
The acting is a non-issue. Hawke and Fishburne get to trade cool glances, Matteo gets to shake her Sopranos Joisey accent, and Dennehy gets to eat any scenery that isn’t bolted to the ground. I have no idea what Leguizamo was going for. His disturbed junkie performance reminded me of Mr. Ed, because whenever he spoke it looked like Leguizamo’s lip was being pulled up by an invisible string. Some may call this acting; I call it fun to watch.
Assault on Precinct 13 is constructed from so many familiar action elements you may think you’ve seen this movie before. Hawke plays a cop haunted by a bust gone wrong that, surprise, killed his partners. When the siege does go down, of course everyone can pick up a weapon (even a 1920s Tommy gun) and instantly become a trained marksman. There’s the whole “who can we trust” plot element that spurs Mexican standoffs between the cops and the crooks. All the characters are stock types, from Hawke’s reluctant hero, to Matteo’s saucy secretary, to Dennehy’s single-minded hothead to Fishburne’s calm and collected criminal mastermind badass. When a character opines a theory that someone on the inside is really working for the dirty cops, you should be able to immediately follow the falling anvils.
Even when it comes to the action, Assault on Precinct 13 is too familiar. Because nothing interesting is going on inside the precinct, the audience relies on the spurts of action for their money’s worth. It all gets a little bland after awhile. Cops try breaking in. They get shot. They try breaking in with more cops. They get shot. Granted, replace “cops” with “monsters” and you have 30% of horror movies. There needs to be escalating action and some overall cause and effect with the plot, especially with action movies set in one isolated locale. In Assault in Precinct 13, rarely does the previous moment matter because both sides seem to shrug and move on. The only notoriety director Jean-Francois Richet brings to the action is a peculiar fetish for long takes of fresh head shots. He does enjoy the slow trickle of blood out of a bullet to the cranium (I counted 5 times; turn it into a drinking game at your own danger).
Assault on Precinct 13 is indistinguishable from what Hollywood pumps out every day. The characters are stock, the dialogue is short but stale, the plot holes seem to swallow the film whole, and, most tragically, the action seems meaningless except when paring down the cast (there’s a ten-minute whirlwind that cuts the good guys in half). People hungry for action might find something worthwhile but most will probably walk out of the theater with the same shrug the actors seem to exhibit. Assault on Precinct 13 is a routine action flick that replaces escalation with excess.
Nate’s Grade: C
Hotel Rwanda almost didn’t get off the ground. You see, veteran supporting actor Don Cheadle is a favorite actor for directors but he’s not exactly box-office gold. Initial producers of Hotel Rwanda wanted none other than Will Smith to star. I don’t know about you good people but a sobering, challenging movie shedding light on the Rwandan genocide would lose some credibility if Smith was the above-the-title star. Producers also wanted Denzel Washington as a candidate; a better choice but still not right. The true-life portrayal of Paul Ruseabagina needed to be done by an actor that didn’t look like he could kick your ass. Paul was an ordinary man that didn’t ask to be a hero, not a hero looking for a fight. Cheadle was the perfect man for Hotel Rwanda. It just took a while for it to happen.
Back in 1994, Rwanda underwent a tumultuous civil war. In Rwanda, there are two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the minority Tutsis. Though the two look indistinguishable, there is an underlying tension because way back when Rwanda was under Belgian colonial control, the Belgians separated the Rwandan people by arbitrary rules like nose size, skin tone, etc. There is a rising tide of Tutsi resentment (radio propaganda refers to them as “cockroaches” needing to be exterminated). The Rwandan president has been assassinated and Hutu radio broadcasts are already pointing the finger at Tutsis.
Paul Ruseabagina (Cheadle) is a Rwandan hotel manager that stocks up favors by scratching the backs of the right people. The wheels of Rwandan authority need to be constantly greased, and Paul knows when to deploy a well-timed gift, joke, or bribe. Paul?s wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi as well as their children, is concerned when she starts seeing neighbors taken away at night. Paul assures her that their Tutsi relatives will be safe. Hutu rebels begin to start corralling neighborhoods to root out any Tutsis. Paul and his family retreat back to the hotel. As the violence increases more refugees arrive at the hotel for sanctuary, but Paul must keep the illusion that the hotel is still operational to ward off violence.
The United Nations promises to do something, but they remain only peacekeepers and not peace enforcers. The commanding officer (Nick Nolte) laments that he has only a handful of U.N. peacekeepers in charge of the whole nation. The United Nations and the West does do something: they evacuate all the white people. Citizens of Western nations are escorted out of the conflict, while they leave the rest of Rwanda to its own devices. Paul?s clinging hopes for Western involvement get bleak, and he assumes the responsibility for saving as many lives as he can, Hutu or Tutsi.
Cheadle gives one of the best performances of the year and he’s been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. The strength of his character’s power lies in Paul’s ordinariness. He’s not a figure of intimidation, nor is he some kind of altruistic saint. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List. Like Schindler, Paul is a man reluctantly pulled into risking his life for others and by the end he becomes consumed with saving as many lives as he can. Cheadle is so commanding that he can make you wince just by watching the weariness in his eyes.
There’s a moment late in Hotel Rwanda, where Paul is stalking the hallways trying to find his wife and children. And in an instant he suddenly remembers careful instructions he gave to his wife. Paul nearly bowls over with the sudden pang of terror but keeps his stride. It’s a sharp and powerful moment where the audience thinks alongside Paul and experiences the same awful gasp. In that moment, as well as countless others, Cheadle has worked his way so deep into his character that the two are one in the same. Cheadle has long been one of the most underrated actors, and now with Hotel Rwanda there is no doubt that Cheadle is one of the greatest living actors we have.
But Hotel Rwanda is not just a one-man show. Sophie Okonedo also garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Okonedo is no pushover and she does more than needle Paul when it comes to the well being of their family. She’s a strong, caring, thoughtful woman. What makes her even more impressive is that, as a Tutsi, she could be murdered at any time. She gives an equally powerful performance of a woman finding strength amongst her own fear.
Writer/director Terry George keeps the emotion high by smartly relying on restraint when telling his portrait of horror. The events of the Rwandan genocide are so appalling, that it would have been so easy, and even understandable, had George loaded his film with scene after scene of graphic violence to jar the viewer. However, George refrains from numbing an audience with violent depictions, and instead chooses quieter, more somber moments that turn out to be far more terrifying than just seeing blunt violence. Hearing an aid worker recount witnessing a massacre of children to wipe out the next generation of Tutsis will chill you to the bone. There are some disturbing moments, like when Paul takes a very bumpy ride in the mists, but George refuses to numb an audience and works our emotions to a breaking point.
Hotel Rwanda is sobering and very emotional, but you will also leave the theater with an overwhelming feeling of shame. It’s easy to watch films about dated atrocities like depictions of the Holocaust. You can say, “Well, I wasn’t alive. If I was, and people like me, surely we would not sit back and let such actions take place under our watch.” Not this time. Not with Hotel Rwanda. Everyone seeing Hotel Rwanda more than likely was alive in 1994, and we did exactly as a character warned: we watched what was happening on TV and went back to eating our dinners. Nolte’s U.N. rep tells Paul that the West refuses to see him and Rwandans as valuable (“You’re worse than a n****r [to them]; you’re an Af-ri-can.”). You?ll feel many emotions while viewing Hotel Rwanda and the deepest and longest lasting may be shame.
The film is clearly in the genre of “outrage cinema,” normally a genre that overpowers a viewer’s emotions. In lesser hands Hotel Rwanda would have been unrelenting to maintain a level of shock. George allows an audience to feel for the story’s characters before he lets the horrors loose. The result is that an audience attaches itself to characters because of who they are, not just because of the anguish they endure. As the intensity of the situation mounts we feel stronger ties to the people of Hotel Rwanda. That is good cinema.
Hotel Rwanda is an emotionally gripping portrait of the dignity found during our darkest days. George has skillfully created a sobering movie. Cheadle and Okonedo deliver wrenching performances as the faces of good amongst ongoing genocide. This isn’t like Black Hawk Down where the faces of screaming, angry black people merge into one black form the audience uneasily grows to hate. In Hotel Rwanda, the heroes are everyday Africans, the bad guys are everyday Africans, and the West is the apathetic referee unwilling to act. Hopefully after George’s film, it’ll be hard to hear about a million massacred and go back to eating your dinner.
Nate’s Grade: A
I was intrigued about Primer because I had been told it was classy, smart sci-fi that’s so often missing in today’s entertainment line-up (see: Sci-Fi channel’s Mansquito). It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and the critical reviews had been generally very positive. So my expectations were high for a well wrought, high brow film analyzing time travel. What I got was one long, pretentious, incomprehensible, poorly paced and shot techno lecture. Oh it got bad. Oh did it get bad.
Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) run a team of inventors out of their garage. Their newest invention seems promising but they’re still confused about what it does. Aaron and Abe’s more commercially minded partners want to patent it and sell it. Aaron and Abe inspect their invention further and discover it has the ability to distort time. They invent larger versions and time travel themselves and thus create all kinds of paradoxes and loops and confusion for themselves and a viewing audience.
Watching Primer is like reading an instruction manual. The movie is practically crushed to death by techno terminology and all kinds of geek speak. The only people that will be able to follow along are those well-versed in quantum physics and engineering. Indeed, Primer has been called an attempt to make a “realistic time-travel movie,” which means no cars that can go 88 miles per hour. That’s fine and dandy but it makes for one awfully boring movie.
Primer would rather confound an audience than entertain them. There is a distinct difference between being complicated and being hard to follow. You’d need a couple volumes of Cliff Notes just to follow along Primer‘s talky and convoluted plot. I was so monumentally bored by Primer that I had to eject the DVD after 30 minutes. I have never in my life started a film at home and then turned it off, especially one I paid good money to rent, but after so many minutes of watching people talk above my head in a different language (techno jargon) I had reached my breaking point. Primer will frustrate most viewers because most will not be able to follow what is going on, and a normal human being can reasonably only sit for so long in the dark.
I did restart Primer and watched it to its completion, a scant 75 minutes long. The last 20 minutes is easier to grasp because it does finally deal with time travel and re-staging events. It’s a very long time to get to anything comprehensible. I probably should watch Primer again in all fairness but I have the suspicion that if I did my body would completely shut down on me in defense. Some people will love this and call it visionary, but those will be a very select group. It’s not just that Primer is incomprehensible but the film is also horrifically paced. When you don’t know what’s being said and what’s going on then scenes tend to drag because there is no connection. This movie is soooooo slow and it’s made all the worse by characters that are merely figureheads, dialogue that’s confusing and wooden, and a story that would rather spew ideas than a plot.
Writer/director/star Shane Carruth seems to have high ambitions but he has no empathy for an audience. Films can be dense and thought-provoking but they need to be accessible. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is a sci-fi mind bender but it’s also an accessible, relatable, enjoyable movie that’s become a cult favorite. Carruth also seems to think that shooting half the movie out of focus is a good idea.
I’m not against a smart movie, nor am I against science fiction that attempts to explore profound concepts and ideals. What I am against, however, is wasting my time with a tech lecture disguised as quality entertainment. Primer is obtuse, slow, convoluted, frustrating and pretentiously impenetrable. After finally finishing Primer I scanned the DVD spine and noticed it said, “Thriller.” I laughed so hard I almost fell over. The only way Primer could be a thriller is because you’ll be racing the clock for it to finish.
Nate’s Grade: C-