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Weekly Mishmash: November 30 – December 6

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005). Exceptional documentary on the cult musician Daniel Johnston. Johnston’s art is a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but the beauty of this film is that it’s still compelling despite the divisive nature of its subject. The film doesn’t shy away from Johnston’s mental illness and the fact that people might be exploiting him. The way it slickly weaves interviews with audio tapes and home movies from its obsessively self-chronicling subject reminds me a lot of the great 2003 doc Capturing the Friedmans. The Johnston who emerges here comes across like a complex man, equally childlike and playful, ambitious, self-centered and intensely creepy. But, in the end, you end up loving the guy.
Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978). Another enthralling documentary, although Criterion’s DVD leaves a lot to be desired. It’s funny that we saw this in the same week as the Johnston doc, since there are a lot of similar things going on here. I remember reading about Koko back in the ’70s. Her interactions with scientist Penny Patterson are a wonder to behold, but under the surface one has to wonder how much of the sign language is truly learned as opposed to being merely trained by repetition. There’s a slight subplot here about the San Francisco zookeepers who want to return the borrowed Koko to her less intelligent gorilla habitat mates, but most of the film is made up of surprisingly non-boring footage of Koko and Patterson “talking.”
Lace (1984). “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” Yep, I actually sat through all four hours of this once-steamy miniseries when it popped up recently on the Lifetime Movie Network (they really need to play more of this cheesy older crap — one can only take so much Jennie Garth in trouble, after all). This plays a bit like an ultra-luxe, ultra-long episode of Dynasty. Phoebe Cates is spectacularly awful as a famous actress trying to figure out which of three women birthed her years earlier. I think she’s supposed to be French, but her accent is so weird she might as well be a Martian! I could blame this on Miss Cates’ youth and inexperience, but lo and behold Angela Lansbury appears speaking in another unplaceable tongue. The three lead actresses (Brooke Adams, Arielle Dombasle, Bess Armstrong) are competent enough, but mostly I watched to gawk at their impeccable Euro-chic wardrobes. Oh, and the identity of said bitch mother was of no surprise at all to this discerning viewer.
Possessed (1947). a.k.a. The one where Joan Crawford goes crazy. This was a good palate cleanser after the dreadful Daisy Kenyon from last week. It’s been a few years since I last saw this pulpy, guilty pleasure. Joan is still good, delivering an Oscar nom-worthy performance even if the viewer is left wondering why her character went gaga over the charmless and average looking Van Heflin. This movie is held hostage by an absolutely soapy and unbelievable at times plotline — but the movie is so seamlessly made, with an expert cast giving 100%, that you can’t help but get sucked in by it. C. and myself both noticed how much the young actress (Geraldine Brooks) who played Crawford’s stepdaughter resembles Natalie Portman.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Vengeance Is Mine (1979). I actually first saw Reservoir Dogs shortly after it came out, and a recent re-viewing tells me how time changes one’s perceptions. Back then it was an amazingly visceral and different experience. Now the violence and language seems a bit softer, but you can’t argue with that dynamite cast and Quentin Tarantino’s still dazzling direction (his f-bomb laden script, not so much anymore). Previously, for instance, the cop torture scene was an agonizingly long (but weirdly enjoyable) segment. Now, it’s not so bad — have I become numbed to violent movies? Speaking of which, the equally barbaric Japanese flick Vengeance Is Mine must have been a huge influence on Tarantino. Director Shohei Imamura’s chronicle of a notorious serial killer (coolly played by Ken Ogata) boasts a lot of bracing scenes that are uncompromising in their ugliness. One segment in particular, in which Ogata attempts to knock off a truck driver, reminds me of similar scenes in Torn Curtain and Heavenly Creatures that memorably demonstrate how difficult and messy committing murder can be. Especially when the victim will. Not. Die. Besides that and a few other good scenes, however, this film gets bogged down into an overlong talkfest.
Storyline by Lenore CoffeeStoryline: Recollections of a Hollywood Screenwriter by Lenore Coffee. A breezy yet frustrating read, I borrowed this out of print 1973 bio from Christopher. The prolific Ms. Coffee counts as one of Classic Hollywood’s more overlooked screenwriters, and this bio offers scant bits of insight into her working methods — in between breathless accounts of the many self-absorbed personalities she encountered while the film industry was in its infancy, that is. Coffee was in her early seventies when she wrote this, but the book’s many aimless passages and Pollyanna-ish recollections make it read more like a schoolgirl’s diary. Overall it serves as a solid document of the silent era, becoming sketchy for the early sound era and winding up with no coverage at all for the latter half of her career (maybe she was aiming for a sequel?). Hollywood history buffs should seek this out.

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