Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
Oscar-winning master documentarian Errol Morris has a singular way of making decades-old stories (such as THE FOG OF WAR, MR. DEATH, and THE THIN BLUE LINE) seem as relevant today as they were when they were fresh news. And while his latest, TABLOID, may seem to tackle a slightly lighter-weight than he usually does, the subtexts of a Mormon coverup, persecuting women who are sexually liberated, and turning possible criminal into a celebrity (hello Casey Anthony) ring as true today as they did 30-plus years ago when former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney may or may not have kidnapped her Mormon lover and had sex with him repeatedly in a hotel in Britain, where she became a celebrity for her escapades.
The way Joyce tells it today, the tryst was mutual, and she's a convincing storyteller. Although age has taken away her youth, she's still an attractive woman with a charming demeanor. She flirts relentlessly with the camera and Morris, and her story of the Mormon Church taking away her boyfriend and brainwashing him to lie about what she did to him seems like a classic smokescreen. But as Morris picks apart Joyce's life after the scandal (with the help of the tabloid journalists who covered the story all those years ago), there is a life that is a far cry from the innocence one she says she lived prior to her kidnapping charge.
Morris' approach goes beyond the titillation of the time and really digs into the mind of a woman who may be a chronic liar who believes her own fictionalized biography. I believe some people call that delusional. Joyce went into seclusion for many years, and then suddenly re-emerged recently when she engaged the help for a South Korean cloning facility for a groundbreaking procedure. You literally can't make this stuff up, although Joyce does a great job trying.
Despite its title, TABLOID is not a exposé or condemnation on newspapers that live to wreck the lives of celebrities and/or politicians with naughty photos, wiretaps, or other legally or barely legal surveillance devices. Instead, Morris paints a portrait of a woman who plays the victim of the tabloid press but courts them for fear of not being written about or photographed. I don't know if Joyce was the first of her ilk, but she certainly was one of the best at generating ink through appearances and paid-for interviews. Much like Morris' STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, TABLOID may be one of his most timely works, and it's certainly among his strongest pieces of investigative journalism. You'll dig it.
BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
As eye-opening as some of the archival material and memories are in this documentary about the influential hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest, it's the hear-and-now footage (from the group's 2008 reunion tour to more or less present day) that is the most gripping and startling as band mates Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (with members Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White sit patiently on the sidelines) battle over things that only two men who grew up together could fight about. You almost can't identify what the beefs are about, but the tension is undeniable, and actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport is there to capture every nasty word of it. In BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE, Rapaport wisely reminds us that what made ATCQ worth caring about in the first place was only partly about the ying and yang personalities of its two frontmen.
The music, trippy lyrics, and unique samples made these guys pioneers of the genre. The filmmakers have lined up an army of famous musicians, actors and others to sing the praises of the group, and that's all great but it's also expected. The film shines brightest when it sticks to telling the sometimes stranger-than-fiction stories of its members, particularly Phife Dawg, whose medical condition nearly cost him his life when the group was at its peak and then again more recently.
But for as much as we learn about Phife Dawg's life, we learn very little about the world that Q-Tip inhabits outside of the studio and the stage. He and everyone around him knows he's a perfectionist and workaholic. Some of their albums had to be forcibly removed from his hands (he was also the group's producer) by the record company or management. But there is no getting around the fact that most ATCQ's five records were highly influential and all were successful.
Music experts and group members dig deep into the creative process, making the film not only a fun trip down memory lane, but also a guide to opening up an artist's mind and seeing what makes him tick. It's the film's final act that is the most emotional, as the rift between Q-Tip and Pfife Dawg grows and Pfife's health deteriorates.
There's a final sequence that takes place in a New York rehearsal space shortly before a too-much-money-to-turn-down tour of Japan that is perhaps the greatest moment of BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE, because it gives us hope that these inventive, creative masters may rise again. Here's hoping.
As bizarre as it might sound, the voice of author and self-declared know-it-all Fran Lebowitz is one that has made me laugh and given comfort since I was a teen watching one of her dozens of appearances on David Letterman's old NBC show. I've still never read a word from one of her books--although this documentary from director Martin Scorsese (which ran on HBO earlier this year) may finally make do so, so it's purely through her thoughts and voice that I discovered her take on popular entertainment, technology, New York, the arts, gay culture, and so many other topics.
PUBLIC SPEAKING isn't so much a biographical exercise through Lebowitz's life; we get bits and pieces about her childhood, experience moving to New York, and rising through the ranks of literature to be one of the more celebrated humorist writers of our time. We see extended segments of her in conversation with Scorsese in a Greenwich Vilage, and the way her brain works fascinates me. She enjoys conversation, but not as much as she enjoys lecturing because she doesn't have to listen to anybody else but her. Her belief that her ideal job would be a Supreme Court justice because they answer to no one makes sense under those parameters.
Other segments show her in a Q&A session with friend Toni Morrison, and it's strange to see Lebowitz challenge Morrison on topics of race, literature and gender identity. The scattered archival footage is also kind of great, especially when Lebowitz talks about her time in the '80s writing for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, or taking part in a vapid interview inside Studio 54, with every answer being a dig at the glossy reporter interviewing Lebowitz. And Lebowitz's analysis of Warhol's theory of stardom is fascinating and probably 100 percent true. Scorsese also includes older clips of other noted thinkers and speakers, such as James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote makes complete sense in the context of the Lebowitz framework.
One of the more tense moments in the film comes in front of what I believe is a college crowd, when she talks about how gays fighting to get in the military and get married might be one of the most pointless endeavors she's ever seen. "Why are we fighting to get into the two most restrictive institutions on the planet?"
I lived in New York for a couple of years in the early '90s, and I ran into Lebowitz a double feature at the now defunct St. Marks Place Theater. I foolishly approached her, said I loved her appearances on Letterman, and walked away before she had a chance to say more than "That's so sweet, thank you." This film reinforces my belief that walking away was the wrong thing to do, but I didn't feel my mind was sharp enough at the time to enter into a conversation, but the story would be better if I had. To Lebowitz, the story, the anecdote, the observation is always the greater good. And PUBLIC SPEAKING is the greatest good.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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