Buddies

(USA 1985)

Initially, nothing about Buddies jumps out as remarkable. I never heard of the film, screenwriter/director Arthur J. Bressan Jr., or anyone involved. It feels like it was thrown together and pumped out in a matter of days, like a porn. At best, it’s as if Ed Wood were aiming for Jean-Luc Godard; at worst, early John Waters doing an Afterschool Special.

Technically, it’s messy. The camerawork is choppy, darting crudely from character to character. The script is amateur, preachy, and at times emotionally manipulative. Except for a few scenes, the acting is stiff and overdone, like a Fifties B-movie or a soap opera.

All that said, well … I’ll borrow a term from a different and much later movement: it gets better. This film really got to me. For all its low budget shortcomings, Buddies packs an emotional whollop. Truth and heartfelt sincerity shine through, and they go a long way in making the sum here much greater than its parts.

The film follows David Bennett (David Schachter), a Manhattan guppy in what appears to be a happy but bland and maybe safe monogamous relationship, who volunteers to be a “buddy” for another gay man, Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm). Robert is dying in an AIDS ward. As a buddy, David is there to offer a helping hand or an open ear with the hope of ensuring that Robert doesn’t feel forgotten (https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/06/18/buddies-remains-an-urgently-moving-study-of-life-and-death-in-the-aids-era/).

At first, their interactions are uncomfortable and perfunctory; this is usually how it goes when trying to connect with a total stranger. The two don’t have all that much in common: David is quiet, cautious, and reserved; Robert is out, spirited, and definitely someone who has been around the block. Tinged with an outlying jealousy and perhaps a scintilla of superiority, David finds Robert to be too much: all his talk about sex and politics (not to mention his rage) turns him off. David isn’t invested in this relationship, forced as it is.

The ice breaks when Robert tells David about the love of his life. Touched and maybe finally able to relate, David opens up and starts listening to what Robert tells him.

I didn’t quite care for where Bressan ultimately took David. Still, he (Bressan, not David) is an astute observer of human nature. He touches on attitudes that tend to prevail when one person in a relationship is, shall we say, in a better position than the other, and he demonstrates how judgment can rear its ugly head. I like that Robert is unapologetic, which redeems him in the end.

Buddies is a film that takes on significance once you consider its historical perspective. It was the first American feature film to address the burgeoning AIDS crisis, back when it was called a “gay disease” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_J._Bressan_Jr.). It deals with AIDS head on, and it did so during Reagan’s first term. If it feels slapped together, there’s a reason for it — Bressan, a fairly prominent porn director, was dying when he made it. His sense of urgency is palpable.

This screening, a brand new digital restoration, was the first one we attended at Reeling. It is a fitting choice because Buddies was the same festival’s opener the year it was released (http://reelingfilmfestival.org/2018/films/buddies/).

With Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat

Production: Film and Video Workshop

Distribution: New Line Cinema, Vinegar Syndrome

81 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) B-

Reeling International Film Festival

Ed Wood

(USA 1994)

“You’re wasting your lives making shit. Nobody cares. These movies are terrible!”

—Dolores Fuller

 

“How do you do it? How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”

—Bunny Breckinridge

 

“Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr?”

—Criswell

 

“Confidentially, I even paratrooped wearing a brassier and panties. I wasn’t afraid of being killed, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the medics discover my secret.”

—Ed Wood

Edward D. Wood, Jr., or simply Ed Wood, is widely regarded as the worst director of all time. In fact, he received posthumous recognition—the Golden Turkey Award—designating him as such (http://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/article/ed-wood-the-best-of-the-worst). His silly low-budget DIY pulp/science fiction/horror flicks from the 1950s—low on plot, technique, and talent—are beloved by many because they’re so bad. Monumentally bad. Okay, maybe ridiculous is a better word. You decide from this trailer:

Based on Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy and adapted for the screen by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Tim Burton’s labor of love, Ed Wood, is a period-piece biopic about the eccentric angora-loving filmmaker responsible for such gems as Jail Bait, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and of course Plan 9 from Outer Space—Wood’s Citizen Kane (as Burton likens it here). This film rocks; I never get sick of it. Not ever. And for a few reasons.

The characters and performances are fantastic. Leading man Ed Wood is one of Johnny Depp’s most endearing roles; he plays Wood with an affectionate and demonstrative earnestness he’s never quite duplicated. Burton has always held sympathetic misfits in high regard—Edward Scissorhands, also played by Depp, immediately comes to mind. Here, he has a field day, bringing in an entire cast of warm and colorful weirdos that flock to Wood. Consider: best bud Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a boozy grand queen with a penchant for drama and glitter. “The Amazing Criswell” (Jeffrey Jones), an androgynous self-proclaimed psychic/horse shit artist. Max (Max Casella), the president of Wood’s fan club—and his errand boy. Overzealous, chatty crew member Conrad (Brent Hinkley). Later, Vampira (Lisa Marie), a gothic midnight movie hostess with lots of bosom, and TV wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) become regulars in Wood’s films.

The most important relationship, though, is the one between Wood and has-been Dracula star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), whom he meets in a coffin store. Lugosi’s life is far from glamorous: he lives alone in obscurity in a tiny tract house in a nondescript suburban neighborhood. He’s also a junkie. Wood moves from starstruck fan to employer to custodian and confidant. Landau gives a flawless performance; he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for it. Every scene is inspired, but one of my favorites is his dramatic reading of that hackneyed “home” speech; it is, to use Wood’s word, “perfect.” Their friendship gives Ed Wood much of its warmth and humanity.

Despite the laughably amateur quality of Wood’s films—and his unorthodox way of shooting them—he gets them made. And no matter how poorly received they are, he doesn’t give up. In this sense, Ed Wood is uplifting and inspiring. He embraces his flaws, sticks to his guns, and believes in himself. Orson Welles himself (Vincent D’Onofrio) backs him up in one great scene at a bar.

Some might find the pace a bit slow. I don’t—the whole film is fun and jammed with quotable material that keeps it moving. Line after line is memorable—I could string together a bunch of quotes I know by heart and leave it at that (I’ve seen this film quite a few times). From a technical standpoint, Ed Wood is exceedingly well done. Filmed in shimmering black and white, Stefan Czapsky’s camerawork is beautiful. The cleverly composed, shadowy shots of Lugosi “fixing” in the bathroom and later tied to a bed in rehab, and Wood and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) inside the carnival ride are especially remarkable. Howard Shore’s score—a rich mix of jazz, Cuban orchestration that wouldn’t sound out of place on I Love Lucy, and monster madness—is awesome.

Burton easily could have made this a snarkfest. Instead, he shows his idol in a respectful and positive light. His spirited take makes Ed Wood exceptional.

With Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Starr, Juliet Landau, Stanley Desantis, Ned Bellamy, Norman Alden, G.D. Spradlin

Produced by Touchstone Pictures

Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

127 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A

Florence Foster Jenkins

(UK 2016)

“People can say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.”

—Florence Foster Jenkins

A lot of hype surrounded Florence Foster Jenkins before it arrived at a theater near us last fall. We wanted to catch it during its original run, but it came and went before we got around to seeing it. So, inspired by a post earlier in the day, I rented it on a Friday when we had no plans other than dinner at home. The night we watched it just happened to be Friday the 13th, which somehow seems appropriate.

Based on actual events and set during WWII, Florence (Meryl Streep) is a rich Manhattan society lady of a certain age who runs in an arty circle and knows a lot of people, some with money and others who follow it. She operates a private venue dedicated to opera, the Verdi Club, where she stars in a show and has a non-speaking role. Dying of either syphillis or the treatment for it—mercury and arsenic!—her one wish is to perform for an audience at Carnegie Hall. The problem is, she can’t sing; she’s downright awful. Her entrance here, lowered onstage from a rope and pulley while dressed as an angel with a harp, reminds me of Sarah Jessica Parker’s entrance (“I offer you mortals the bird of peace so that you may change your ways and end this destruction”) in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic about a similarly talentless film director who came along a decade or so later. The comparison is so apt that I wonder if it was intentional. Here, Florence’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), doesn’t help matters by exaggerating her talent.

Determined to make her dream come true, Florence hires a vocal trainer, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), and a pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), to put together a show. Established and well-known Carlo is content to take Florence’s money, build her ego, and let her dream on. Budding Cosmé, however, struggles with lying to her about her obvious ineptitude, not to mention her negative impact on his professional reputation. He soon sees that those around Florence stretch the truth about a lot of things when dealing with her.

Nicholas Martin’s script is kind to its characters, going for laughs in a way that doesn’t demean any of them. I never heard of her until this film, but the actual Florence Foster Jenkins was an interesting person. Her singing truly was awful:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcs9yJjVecs. As always, Streep is spot on with her portrayal. She seems to have fun in this role, and it shows. Grant, who usually bores me but doesn’t here, is well suited for St. Clair: he’s stuffy and straight, but he nicely coveys an underlying deceitfulness that doesn’t come off as sinister. I like the way director Stephen Frears plays with deceit here, ultimately using it to depict a very touching side of St. Clair—who lives with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) in Brooklyn in apartment that Florence pays for. Much to my surprise, though, Big Bang Theory‘s Helberg steals practically every scene he’s in: keeping it subtle with Cosmé’s homosexuality (as Cosmé himself no doubt would have done during his day), he plays his character as a spineless, perennially uncomfortable, asexual bundle of nerves. He peppers his performance with grimaces and nervous giggles. Later, he delivers a line to explain his tardiness to Florence (of course, it involves sailors) with perfect and priceless dryness. He outshines everyone here.

Florence Foster Jenkins has some funny moments and some very touching ones. I found it enjoyable enough, but certainly not a knockout. It could have benefitted from a little more quirk and edge, especially considering its title character who showed no shortage of either.

Also starring Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, John Sessions, John Kavanagh, David Menkin, and Sid Phoenix

Produced by Qwerty Films, Pathé Pictures International, and BBC Films

Distributed by Paramount Pictures (USA)

111 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C

http://www.florencefosterjenkinsmovie.com

Bullets Over Broadway

(USA 1994)

“The world will open to you like an oyster. No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina.”

—Helen Sinclair

Apparently, I’m not the only one who holds 1994 in very high regard as a landmark year for film: http://wtop.com/movies/2016/01/best-years-ever-movies/;
http://www.killcure.com/2009/12/05/the-5-best-years-for-movies/;
http://ew.com/article/2009/08/05/which-was-the-best-year-for-movies-1977-1994-or-1999/; http://www.maxim.com/entertainment/10-movies-prove-1994-was-best-year-film-history; http://twoguysonemovie.com/editorial-1994-the-best-year-for-movies-ever/; https://www.quora.com/Was-1994-the-best-year-in-the-history-of-film-making-in-Hollywood; http://luminarydaily.com/no-huffington-post-1993-wasnt-the-best-year-for-movies-1994-was/. Seriously, here’s what I saw that year: Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, Shawshank Redemption, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Killing Zöe, and of couse Bullets Over Broadway. I think I saw Schindler’s List that year, too—at least, by the time it opened where I lived. Fuck yeah, what a year! If this were a report card, I’d have straight A’s.

Now for Bullets Over Broadway: I suspect that once we as a culture got to the ’80s, complete artistic control became a pipe dream. This is because by that point, entertainment already was a bona fide industry with backers, lawyers, trademarks, and a human resources department—a mix of commerce that sometimes can but most of the time just doesn’t mix with art. Let’s be honest: how could it?

This is what makes Bullets Over Broadway so much fun! Set in 1920s Manhattan, Woody Allen—himself an artist by this point in his career—is making fun of, well, artists. And commerce. And you know what? The whole thing is fucking brilliant! I mean, if anyone knows how that works…

John Cusack is David Shayne, the Broadway playwright du jour. His agent (Jack Warden) gets his play produced—but it requires a series of concessions, some of which literally are do or die. You see, a mafia kingpin (Joe Viterelli) agrees to finance the play as long as his girlfriend, Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), is cast as the lead. OK, but…Olive has no talent. And remember: this is Prohibition. Who’s going to say anything—especially when Olive arrives to rehearsals with a bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri)? Bueller?

You’d be surprised—like an asshole, everyone has an opinion. Some, particularly those with artistic credibility (but not necessarily looking out for the best interests of the play), get David’s attention more than others—lead actress Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), for one. Never mind that she pretends she wants to sleep with David—she’s got his ear. Too bad David writes off the ones with the best ideas—and the best intentions. Who’s the artist now?

With excellent appearances by Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, and Tracey Ullman, Bullets Over Broadway is one of Allen’s best films. For some strange reason, it’s damned near impossible to find on home video—DVD maybe, if you get lucky; but definitely not a download. I don’t understand why.

98 minutes
Rated R

(Home via DVD) A-

http://www.woodyallen.com/filmography/directed-by/

Multiple Maniacs

(USA 1970)

“I can only take so much of this kind of talk, especially from common lesbians.”

—Bonnie

‘Cheap,’ ‘campy,’ and ‘scandalous’ are all words that accurately describe the work of John Waters—his early stuff, anyway. No one makes depravity as fun or funny as he does. Multiple Maniacs, his second feature-length film, is unmistakable Waters: it’s a twisted and revolting mess of antipathy, vitriol, sacrilege, and sleaze. Holy shit, Sugar Scrub—and I mean that literally!

Multiple Maniacs depicts the mental breakdown of Lady Divine (Divine), the proprietor and star of a traveling freak show called “The Cavalcade of Perversion.” The show’s “performers” literally drag people off the streets and under a tent, where they eat puke, take drugs, lick armpits, and perform other acts of deviance in front of them. For the grand finale, Lady Divine robs everyone in the audience at gunpoint. One day, she decides out of sheer boredom to murder them instead—much to the dismay of her lover, Mr. David (David Lochary). Lady Divine flees the scene of the crimes to hide out at the home of her hooker daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), whose horny new boyfriend, Steve (Paul Swift), is crashing there. Mr. David takes off with his lover, Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), who wants nothing more than to “perform acts” with him. A phone call from a bar owner (Edith Massey) takes Lady Divine down a debaucherous path of rape, lesbianism, blasphemy, betrayal, and more murder.

Like many members of my generation, demographic, and cultural persuasion, I discovered John Waters when I was a teenager. Everything wrong with his films—silly plots, over-the-top trashy cartoonish characters, amateur “acting,” low-rent production, and his general misanthropic outlook and total irreverence—is precisely what drew me to him. He was punk before punk rock. It’s all so wonderfully awful, like Ed Wood with an intentionally nasty, edgy bite—not an unsophisticated innocence that happened by accident.

Multiple Maniacs is typical John Waters, but it’s noteworthy for two reasons. One, it’s loaded with ideas that show up in later films—as far down the line as Serial Mom and Peckerhead. This definitely will appeal to fans, especially when it becomes apparent that Multiple Maniacs is a rough (if you can imagine) blueprint for Pink Flamingos. If nothing else, this film is interesting from a developmental perspective. Two, the shock value is extreme even considering the source. Eating dog shit is tame compared to shooting up in church, cannibalism, a rosary up Divine’s ass (as she recites the Stations of the Cross), and a rape scene involving a giant lobster straight from a Godzilla flick. Jammed with references to Catholicism—including Jesus (George Figgs), Mary (Massey), and the Infant of Prague (Michael Renner, Jr.)—and Charles Manson, Waters creates a number of shall we say “colorful” moments you won’t see anywhere else, ever again.

Oh, Sugar Scrub, can we watch a Disney movie now?

Side note: I started to write this entry as a letter to my friend John (a.k.a. Sugar Scrub), who saw Multiple Maniacs with us. The idea didn’t work. Sorry, John!

91 fucked up minutes
Rated X (NC-17 today)

(Music Box) B

http://www.janusfilms.com/films/1817

The Danish Girl

(USA/UK 2015)

On paper, The Danish Girl has everything going for it: a sensationalist plot with real-life characters, weighty and timely subject matter, pretty scenery, nifty period clothes, a love story, and a nice dose of tragedy. Visually, it’s a beautiful film: cinematographer Danny Cohen gives it the soft, muted look of an impressionist painting; the interiors are as alluring as the exterior shots. The setting—the early 20th Century art scene in Copenhagen and Paris—evokes a sense of glamor and romance. The acting is okay for the most part, but Alicia Vikander is outstanding. Still, the sum here is no greater than its parts.

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel based on the life of Dutch artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb (Vikander), The Danish Girl is a good story even if it isn’t historically accurate. One day, Gottlieb asks Wegener to stand in for her model so she can finish a painting; she gives him a pair of panty hose, and he is immediately cozy in them. Thus begins Wegener’s road to becoming “Lili,” as christened by the couple’s friend, Ulla (Amber Heard). Lili becomes Gottlieb’s muse, showing up in her paintings. They sell. Lili accompanies Gottlieb to a ball as Wegener’s “cousin,” and everyone is fooled. Wasn’t that easy, isn’t she pretty in pink?

The Danish Girl is fictionalized, and as a result liberties are taken for time constraints, continuity, and drama. I get that. Nonetheless, this film doesn’t come off as genuine because it oversimplifies and sanitizes the issues it seems to want to bring to light and then gives them superficial treatment. Lili’s transition is too quick, and her adjustment—touched on but not explored—is seamless for today let alone 1926. Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili is silly: he bats his eyelashes and caresses his frocks with all the campy drama Johnny Depp mustered up wearing an angora sweater in Ed Wood. Lili looks like Molly Ringwald, right down to her stylish scarves—the real Lili looked like Oscar Wilde in a dress. Wegener and Gottlieb were more complicated and had a more complex and unconventional relationship. The truth here is so condensed and whitewashed that this might as well be a fairy tale.

The Danish Girl might make you cry, but it’s just not convincing even within the confines of a two-hour film. Too bad, because it could’ve been much more.

(ArcLight) C-

http://www.focusfeatures.com/the_danish_girl

Big Eyes

(USA/Canada 2014)

A desperate housewife’s foray into 1960s San Francisco art scene becomes a surprising if dubious success. An “agreement” with her wannabe artiste husband, however, silences her claim to fame.

Something of a morality play, Tim Burton’s stamp is all over Big Eyes. But that doesn’t mean it’s great—it certainly is no Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. The problem here is that it lacks the heart of Burton’s earlier work. Too bad. Despite a rushed wrap-up, though, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz turn in highly enjoyable performances that save Big Eyes from complete inanity.

With Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur , James Saito, Farryn VanHumbeck, Guido Furlani

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) B-

http://bigeyesfilm.com