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Cult of Personality- The Source Family (2012)

13 Sep

SourceFamily_2000x2841_1shtWhat started as a lucrative, hip vegetarian restaurant in late-1960’s LA, led to a religious way of life for over one hundred followers in the 70’s. The Source Family documentary tells the tale of Ya Ho Wha, or Father Yod, and his transformation from a straight-laced and allegedly violent businessman to a polygamous cult leader. A unique perspective emerges as past followers are interviewed in present-day, with many seeing no harm in the crazy life they used to lead under this cult leader. What started out with seemingly reasonable life habits- healthy and organic eating, commitment to above all else do no harm, communal living and positive thinking- devolves into power-hunger, community backlash, withdrawal from society, and as Father Yod’s ex-wife, Robin, so aptly put it, “a dirty old man on a lust trip.”

And despite the obvious manipulation at play within the Source Family, it is incredible to see how former members still speak so highly of the cult and its missions- many retaining their cult-given names (Sunflower, Isis, Electricity, all with the last name Aquarian) even more than 40 years after the Family’s dissipation.

Oh the fashion!

Oh the fashion!

The incredibly raw, archival footage maintained by photographer, official Source Family member, and appointed documentarian, Isis Aquarian, gives a first-hand look into the ceremonies, rituals, daily life, and philosophies of this group. It is quite surprising that documentation was even allowed, considering how it doesn’t always cast the group or its leader in a positive light. There is also some unique insight into why exactly someone would fall for cult mentality, as well as the societal pushes and pulls in the climate of the 1960’s and 70’s family. Most notably, during a time in which fatherly love and warmth was not the customary order of the day (think Mad Men), followers with daddy issues flocked to Father Yod’s side for love and guidance.

Plus, they formed a pretty interesting psychedelic rock band, that for some reason was allowed to play California high schools during their heyday. Nowadays, their records are a coveted find for serious collectors.

Check out this far out trailer for the doc, man:

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Stroszek (1976)

1 Mar

Stroszek coverIt is a pleasure to review one of my favorite foreign films by one of my favorite directors, Werner Herzog. Stroszek is a poetic Herzog take on the American Dream as an unattainable myth for immigrants to the US. There are many subtle laughs along the way, but overall the movie leaves you with heartache on behalf of the title character and his attempt to improve his life by starting anew in the US.

While it is not a documentary, Herzog based this story on Bruno S., the actor who plays the title character, and there are several scenes that are shot in his actual tiny apartment. Herzog has a knack for picking out interesting human subjects to showcase in his movies. And although not based on the true story of one particular German immigrant, it isn’t hard to imagine the story that unfolds as one that is based in the reality of those who immigrate to the US these days.

The film introduces us to Stroszek as he is being released from jail where he was serving a short stint for some drunken misconduct of stroszek-Brunosome sort. He is released and heads straight to the nearest bar to pick up where he left off. Stroszek is motivated to leave his native Germany when he and his lady-friend, Eva, are both tormented and abused by her pimps. The two of them set off for Wisconsin with Bruno’s elderly neighbor, Mr. Scheitz, in search of the American dream. In the states, however, they are met only with obstacles and people who either take advantage of them or simply don’t understand them.

"Can't stop the dancin' chicken."

“Can’t stop the dancin’ chicken.”

I have a penchant for melancholy movies, and Stroszek is one of the best. This is a must see in my book; it is a movie that graces my current Top 10 list.

P.S. If you listen to Ratatat, you may recognize a sample from this film in the song, Drugs. ^^^Please watch that music video, it’s hilarious. It practically had me in tears of laughter when I saw them perform at Camp Bisco 10.

Klown (2010)

15 Feb

klown coverI wasn’t a huge fan of Klown for several reasons, but I think that it’s because this is more of a dude’s movie. If you know me at all, you know I thrive on awkward, uncomfortable movies with weird sexual undertones or that break social taboos. This does all of that, but in a way that even makes me uncomfortable. I know! I thought it was impossible, too! But at least it is a comedy, and as such it comically exaggerates uncomfortable situations in a way that make me laugh half of the time, and cringe half of the time. The “pearl necklace” scene? Uncomfortably hilarious. The alleged rape references, uncomfortably upsetting.

But if you are not sensitive to hyper-masculine conversations, and you enjoy crass, awkward humor that is much akin to British humor, this movie will be right up your alley. The story mainly revolves around friends Frank and Casper who plan a “Tour de Pussy” canoe trip with the ultimate goal of spending an evening at a famous and exclusive brothel. Right before they leave, Frank finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant, and she is having doubts about Frank’s fatherhood potential. In order to prove he can be a good father, Frank drags his nephew (Bo) along for the trip, which severely pisses off the main proponent of the Pussy part of Tour de Pussy, Casper.

So ladies, despite this pink movie poster, it’s not as much a movie for us. Let the menfolk have their private sexist male bonding. I didn’t hate it, but it just wasn’t for me. And dudes, take note: this movie contains very informative instruction regarding “man flirting.”

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

10 Feb

Welcome to the first edition of Documentary Sundays. For me, Sundays have always been good for sleeping in, eating brunch, enjoying mimosas and bloody marys (bloody maries?), and curling up on the couch to watch some of the myriad of documentaries in my netflix queue. Unfortunately, work obligations have cut into my early morning mimosas, but Sunday evening documentaries are still a time-honored tradition in my house. Won’t you join me?

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David and Jackie Siegel. And their taxidermied dog draped over the piano in the background. Yep. That classy.

This week’s DS doc is a guilty pleasure view of mine, The Queen of Versailles. It is basically one of those reality shows I always talk shit about, but as a whole movie, I somehow accept it. It’s one of those train wrecks that you can’t look away from. So please, take this recommendation with a grain of salt, and don’t expect to really learn anything from this documentary.

The Queen of Versailles has been called a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story by critics, and I can’t think of a better or more clever way to explain it in a snappy tagline, so there you have it. This movie explores the rise and fall of David Siegel, the Father of the Timeshare. And when I say “fall,” the fall itself is still a work in progress. Siegel hasn’t quite hit rock bottom, but you may surmise that he isn’t quite done falling at the end of the documentary. You will most certainly look up his status in the business and financial world after you watch the movie.

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“Help. What do I do with this?”

You may be asking yourself, “if this movie is about David Siegel, why is it called the Queen of Versailles?” I wish I could tell you that in an attempt to save his failing business, Siegel throws the biggest French-themed drag show the world has ever seen. The truth is, in a nutshell, this title refers to Siegel’s wife, Jackie, and they are building a multi-million dollar mansion that is a replica of the palace at Versailles. Jackie is smart enough to get a computer engineering degree from MIT, but ditzy enough to do, well, all of the other things she does in this documentary. She has a gigantic litter of children that she doesn’t know what to do with, and clearly she and her husband both continue to pine for the days that she was Miss America. Jackie continues to feed her shopping addiction while David’s various resorts go belly-up and their bank account runs dry.

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Virginia Nebab, the Siegels’ nanny, stands in front of her “house,” on the property. And you’ll never believe what it used to be. Actually, you probably will.

So, a little something you might not know about me, I have my Master’s in International Studies. It may be for this reason that the most poignant element of this documentary is the storyline which follows the housekeepers and nannies of the Siegel household. I thought this documentary was going to be a huge joke, but the stories of these women who have lived thousands of miles away from home for decades to raise someone else’s children was just heartbreaking. It is not the ideal job, by any stretch of the imagination, but these women don’t complain. They just tell their stories point blank. I got anxiety listening to their sad stories just thinking about how David Siegel would probably fire them once he saw the documentary for making him look bad.

And even with all of that commentary, I haven’t even scratched the surface of The Queen of Versailles. So no worries, you have a lot to get out of watching this documentary. Just be sure to stock up on plenty of champagne and orange juice, because you’re going to need them it to dull the sting that is 21st century American capitalism, incarnate.

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Pulling John (2009)

8 Dec

Ok, quit your giggling, despite its humorously euphemistic title, Pulling Johnis actually a great documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is still pretty entertaining on a subject that I never thought I would even be remotely interested in before: arm wrestling. Seriously. In addition to the fact that my scrawny stick arms would never get me through one round of arm wrestling, I am turned off in general by physical challenges of strength, even if I am not the one participating. Nonetheless, I found myself sitting rather enthralled through this documentary on an aging arm wrestling great, John Brzenk, and two up-and-coming competitors: Russian human steam-engine Alexey Voevoda, and Travis Bagent of West Virginia.

Alexey Voevoda

This documentary was very reminiscent of King of Kong in that it took its cast of quirky characters and really got us to…pull for them. Heh. With four years of footage and coverage under their belts, filmmakers Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Matossian make surprisingly in-depth profiles on Brzenk, Voevoda and Bagent. As most sports films go, the film builds up to a huge competition at the end, where the stories of these three titans of arm wrestling meet up to compete for an international title. Pulling John compels the viewer to watch until the nail-biting conclusion of who will emerge victorious. Did I mention we’re talking about arm wrestling here?

Travis Bagent

See Pulling John, you will be happy you spent an hour and a half learning about the unfamiliar world of arm wrestling (unless you are an enthusiast of Over the Top, starring Sly Stallone, in which case you will probably love this documentary even more). I give it an A.

I leave you with the clip that I found the funniest in the movie. I am sorry for the poor/choppy quality, but it is the only public domain footage I could find with this scene. Perhaps funnier in context, also check out the trailer here.

Shutter Island vs. Inception

15 May

This entry is only intended to be read by those of you who have seen both Shutter Island (2010) and Inception (2010). I wouldn’t want to spoil one or the other for you, but if you have read this far then I have probably already ruined it for you since I am comparing the two because they are so freaking similar.

DiCaprio as Cobb in Shutter Island

Ok, so maybe I am overreacting a bit. Shutter Island is about Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall investigating the disappearance of

...as "Teddy Daniels" in Shutter Island

a patient from a high security mental hospital for the criminally insane; Inception is about collaborative dreaming within dreams. And while I haven’t yet looked up on the interwebs anyone else’s opinion about the matter, does it not strike anyone else as odd how much Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in both of these movies resemble one another? And unlike some movies that are similar yet span time and even genre, these two movies have the same main character and came out in the same year.

with Mal

So let’s get down to brass tacks, ladies and gentlemen…DiCaprio’s character in both movies is a mentally and emotionally unstable man. He is intelligent, but troubled because of the loss of the love of his life (Michelle Williams as Dolores [1. meaning pains in Spanish by the way] in Shutter Island and Marion Cotillard as Mal [2. meaning bad in Spanish, evil in French, fyi]  in Inception).  And these aren’t lost loves simply because they left him and broke his heart, but they both died in unconventional and haunting ways, leaving DiCaprio’s character(s) to lament and mourn through unhealthy and other-dimensional ways. Hallucinatory dream-like states reunite DiCaprio with his dead wives, and you feel sad along with him.

with Dolores

In the films you get little hints that he should not be visiting these women in the depths of his mind, but you initially don’t see what the harm is, he is just grieving as would be expected. Towards the end of the films, however, it is revealed that these women were crazy, and in one way or another (whether directly or indirectly) had a hand in their own demise. What is more, DiCaprio’s characters themselves also play a role in the death of these women, thus twisting the knife in the broken-hearted torment of his loss.

I have to say that I prefer Inception to Shutter Island, and despite my annoyance with the similarity of these main characters, I still rather like both movies for what they are. I can’t quite put my finger on what draws me to Inception more other than a.) I saw it first, b.) I love dream-things, c.) I saw it at a time that really gave the movie special meaning to me based on life events and d.) (I know this is a cinephile sin) but I am not exactly in love with Scorcese’s work. I know I shouldn’t generalize what makes a movie “masculine” or “feminine,”- and in general I don’t believe I prefer one “gender-genre” to the other- but I think Scorcese’s is just too masculine, rough and grizzled. Inception seems to me more artistic, delicate and lyrical. It doesn’t set out to scare the viewer as Shutter Island does.

Have you seen both? Let me know what you think.


The Elephant Man

3 May

A recent trip allowed me to spend some quality time with a caring community that restored my faith in humanity. I had just experienced a week full of love, sharing and kindness that left me with the feeling that people aren’t just not-all-that-bad, but that we are all connected through love and all of our actions affect one another and we are capable of making great things happen, of changing the world, through this love. Why am I sharing this with you? Because then I saw David Lynch’s The Elephant Man for the first time, and it led me to think, “man…people are shit.”

Luckily, I have since shaken off the feeling of disappointment in humanity. However, the feelings of sadness associated with this movie will be with me for a while. This film is based upon the story of Joseph Merrick (John in the film), known as the Elephant Man, whose deformed appearance led him to be a freakshow attraction in England in the mid- to late-1800’s.

In the film, Merrick begins as the main attraction in a little sideshow with an abusive alcoholic “owner.” Due to repeated abuse, he is hospitalized, and Dr. Frederick Treves takes a particular interest not only in Merrick’s physical deformities, but his mental capabilities as well. While at first Merrick appears to be mute, it turns out that he is actually eloquent and intelligent. He becomes more of a revered celebrity than a sideshow attraction as high society takes an interest in this brilliant man who is at the same time so physically abnormal.

The true sadness in this film lies in the fact that Merrick comes to feel truly accepted and loved, only to be cast back down again into a pit of misery. Although a sad film, it is beautiful in a way that only David Lynch could have been responsible for. The themes are both timeless, yet modern, and the fact that it takes place in the 1800s and is shot in a way to make it look older really adds to the bizarre feeling that the movie gives you.

I believe that I am behind the times in getting to this movie, but better late than never. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s your turn now.

The Cruise

10 Sep

Although my time in Manhattan proper was limited during my trip to Electric Zoo in NYC last weekend, I think that my recent exposure to the city has inspired me to further explore it through the documentary/character study of Tim “Speed” Levitch in The Cruise (1998). It was on my Netflix Instant Queue for a while after seeing Edward Norton say it was his favorite movie of all time.

Tim “Speed” Levitch Cruises Manhattan

In the first minute of the film, I thought I might have trouble watching over an hour of this guy’s somewhat grating voice, but by the end I grew to find it endearing. At any given time I was thinking that Speed was either mentally unstable, hilarious, wise, innocent or a poet. Or perhaps a combination of many of those. The main subject of the film is Speed’s obsession with “The Cruise,” the term he uses to describe his routes as a tour guide for the Gray Line double decker bus. Speed is a truly fascinating character who describes his love affair with The Cruise, the city and its geographical features in a way that is both blatantly sexual, but somehow naive or innocent in its delivery. While he speaks of wild sexual exploits frequently, he often seems too juvenile to have ever experienced a sexual encounter. He is particularly enamored by the architecture, whether it is the terra cotta buildings or the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond. He speaks of his relationship with the city and these buildings as if they were people, while he also rages about his disgust for human civilization. At times it is hard to remember that he is talking to a double-decker busload of tourists, most of whom are probably a little put-off by their intensely poetic and dramatic tour guide.

And in addition to presenting an interesting individual with captivating critiques and comments about the Big Apple, its people, and its nature, Speed crams a lot of actual information about NYC in his tours. Some of his information may seem eclectic, and uninteresting to the fanny-packing crowd, he is full of knowledge about the city. His description of Central Park alone is worth watching the film. In the film, you don’t often see the reactions of the tourists to his words, but I often laughed just thinking about how they must have been reacting to his running commentary.

I’m going to go ahead and urge you to see this movie, because it is entertaining and oddly inspiring among a slew of flowery adjectives that I could throw in, but I’ll leave that to Speed. Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 86%, and I would say that I might give it a little higher. Maybe a high B+.