A FANTASTIC NEW DOCUMENTARY BY THE SON OF JOHNNY CASH'S MANAGER
It’s a weird miracle that Johnny Cash and his primitive twosome banged out music that still feels so full and vital today. And it’s a weird miracle that My Father and the Man in Black is itself full and vital, despite throwing off all sorts of vanity-project warning signs: It’s directed by a first-timer with a personal stake in the story. It tells much of that story through green-screen re-enactments in which actors play the father of that director and no one less a personage than Cash himself, that hopped-up oak of a man. It even opens with a reel-to-reel playing back a conversation between the director, age 7, and his father.
But, as Cash might say, it has the heart, and it has the blood, and by the time childhood chatter is played back again, feeling is soaked through it like the sweat in Cash’s guitar strap.
Here’s the deal: Writer-director Jonathan Holiff is the not-quite-estranged son of Saul Holiff , Cash’s manager during what could be called the interesting years: the pill-fueled ’60s, the triumphs at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, the wedding to June Carter, and the conversion, in the early ’70s, to the fundamentalism that wrecked Cash’s career even as it saved him.
After Holiff the elder’s suicide in 2005, Holiff the younger discovered a storage locker crammed with Cash arcana, including the gold record for "A Boy Named Sue,” revelatory recordings of 40-plus-year-old phone conversations between Cash and Saul, and Saul’s own audio diaries.
We get the highs and lows straight from Saul, with some visual aid from those re-enactments, which — shot by Rene Ohashi — turn out to be brisk and exciting.
First comes the thrill of turning Cash into a bigger and better act in the early ’60s: It’s Saul who pairs June and Johnny and urges his star to rise out of civic centers and risk Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Then comes the dark period fetishized in Walk the Line, all noshows and arrests and poor Saul hustling to make good to outraged promoters.
Once Cash kicks his addictions, and he and June catch that old-time religion, the happy ending never quite arrives. Cash goes all in for Jesus, losing his TV show and becoming alienated from fans of his best-selling prison records — and Saul, a Canadian Jew who is unwilling to say to his client, "I accept the divinity of Jesus Christ.” One long phone call concerning Cash’s ill-fated Jesus movie is almost painful.
The great man, you’ll hear, could also be pushy and insecure, and he wasn’t entirely free of the suspicions common to other white folks born in Arkansas in 1932. That’s story enough for a movie — and much more than Walk the Line bothered to deliver — but My Father and the Man in Black is as much about family as it is about showbiz craziness. The story of Saul and Cash is thrilling, and the story of Saul and the son he never really knew richens it at every turn.
MY FATHER AND THE MAN IN BLACK | Written and directed by Jonathan Holiff | Ballpark Film Distributors | Music Hall
THE NEW SALINGER DOC WOULD MAKE HOLDEN CAULFIELD PUKE
"If they made a movie, Holden wouldn’t like it,” Martin Sheen opines deep into the new documentary Salinger. He’s speaking of the possibility of a film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, but he could be describing this one.
Despite a few killer anecdotes from people who met intensely private author J. D. Salinger, and a couple new photographs, Shane Salerno’s film is two bombastic, bullshit-packed hours of proof that Salinger and Caulfield were right to hide out from Hollywood. Ever wanted to see an actor typing up "A Perfect Day for Bananafish” on the stage of some movie palace while World War II footage flickers on the screen behind him? Or thought that the ideal way to demonstrate the popularity of The Catcher in the Rye would be a montage of young folks thrusting the book at the camera? They seem to be shouting, "Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?”
I take no issue with the film’s argument: Salinger was something of a crank, a creep and a genius, wrecked by the war and disgusted by our culture. Eventually, shaken by his fame, he lit out for the hinterlands, refusing to publish aft er 1965 — and ensuring his legacy. He wrote in a bunker, seems to have been neglectful of his wife and kids, and couldn’t resist pen-palling much younger women, some of whom he hooked up with.
It’s no surprise when a title card explains that The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by a young man named Holden Caulfield. That’s what this movie is — a Salinger doc for people who can’t get through The Catcher in the Rye. —Alan Scherstuhl
SALINGER | Directed by Shane Salerno | The Weinstein Company | Landmark, ArcLight Hollywood
Telluride Film Festival’s 40th edition brings new films by Alfonso Cuarón, Ralph Fiennes, Steve McQueen and more
The metaphor that kept coming to mind at the 40th Telluride Film Festival in Colorado Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 was provided by Alfonso Cuarón’s fi lm Gravity. In this magically imagined, 3-D epic, astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are menaced by the Kessler effect, in which colliding satellites cause a kind of chain reaction, a cascade of shrapnel that grows bigger and bigger, out of control.
It’s a totally satisfying thrill ride — you’ve never seen a mise-en-scène like it. Like the 2011 Telluride hit Pina, about choreographer Pina Bausch , this film uses 3-D for more than just throwing objects in the viewer’s face. The actors are choreographed in space, and the IMAX-like 3-D makes you feel inside that space. Gravity’s astronaut adrift is more physically palpable than 2001’s, or that of any movie I’ve seen.
The brilliant, marvelously acted mystery The Past, Asghar Farhadi ’s successor to his Oscar winner, A Separation, also puts you inside a Kessler cascade — a series of bad moves by good people in a scary space, a Paris apartment menaced by divorce. A woman (Bérénice Bejo ) invites her estranged husband (Ali Mosaffa ) to meet her lover (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet). But the new guy can’t marry her, because his wife is in a coma, caused by semi-selfish actions by everyone, and billiard ball–like coincidences that make absolute logical and emotional sense. It’s a great story with lifelike characters and veil after veil of revelations.
Incendies director Denis Villeneuve ’s Prisoners is another unrelenting mystery driven by cascades of emotion. Hugh Jackman hunts the abductors of his daughter, and so does cop Jake Gyllenhaal. But Gyllenhaal also tries to prevent Jackman from harming highly suspicious suspect Paul Dano, or his mom, Melissa Leo — and struggles to contain his own rage. It’s about the corrosive Kessler effect of violence on everyone, victims included. Prisoners justifies its 146 minutes — it has thriller propulsion coupled with a novelistic probing of motives. Gyllenhaal’s weighted body language and tired, knowing eyes balance Jackman’s full–freak-out performance, and Leo is great in a new way. Roger Deakins crafts the most haunting, beautifully indelible cinematography seen at Telluride 2013.
The Invisible Woman, with director/star Ralph Fiennes as middle-aged Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his teenage mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a gleaming period film about a fascinating, sinister romance. Like J.D. Salinger, the subject of Telluride documentary Salinger (also reviewed in these pages), Dickens was awful to women and devoted to his work. At a Telluride dinner, Fiennes told L.A. Weekly that Dickens was in a fury to be a success, haunted by childhood poverty. "He woke up in his 40s and realized he was supremely unhappy in his marriage,” Fiennes explained. As Mrs. Dickens, Joanna Scanlan is superb in the scene where she meets Nelly, the smart, beautiful piece of space junk that collided with her life. Fiennes’ Dickens is like a showman, stagey. Which he was, but I didn’t feel like I ever got inside the romance. It’s bloodless — no passion, please, we’re British.
The characters in Palo Alto, by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter Gia Coppola, have more heart, and the 26-year-old, first-time director has a real touch with teen actors. The story, adapted from James Franco’s fiction, is overfamiliar coming-of-age stuff , but the cast sells it. So what if Gia was born on third base — she got to home plate on actual talent. Emma Roberts has coltish, skittish charm as a kid with a cold, pot-smoking stepdad (Val Kilmer). Val’s son Jack Kilmer is even better as the boy who loves Roberts’ character but is so confused he lets a sad, loose girl (Olivia Crocicchia ) blow him at a party. Crocicchia is the most affecting of the three. But it’s all schematic, and Franco is kind of a blank as the soccer coach who seriously lets the heroine down.
The most stunning world premiere at Telluride was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which makes Django Unchained look a little silly. He makes you feel the whip, and the ruthless, cruel, social constraints of slavery. McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor as a Northern free man who is kidnapped and enslaved, Lupita Nyong’o as his fellow slave and Michael Fassbender as their rapist and Bible-loving owner should all be Oscar-bound. Horribly, it is a true story.
WORLD 3-D EXPO COMES TO THE EGYPTIAN
To program a 3-D festival, you have to be one part cineaste, two parts Sherlock Holmes. In its 1950s heyday, Hollywood shot exactly 50 3-D films, a few by the greatest auteurs of the era — Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk — and the rest by schlock pioneers. Of those, the World 3-D Expo has tracked down 43.
"The goal was to run all of them,” fest founder Jeff Joseph says, "but some don’t exist anymore.”
Even films the expo has shown before, like the ferociously goofy 1953 sci-fiCat-Women of the Moon , have since turned to vinegar (the fest has been done twice before, in 2003 and 2006). Which means the nine-day event, which runs Sept. 6-15 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, cannot be missed.
The 3-D program stretches from astonishingly early 1922 documentary footage of D.C. and Manhattan to a rarer-than-you’d-think projection of 1983’s Jaws 3-D, with Lou Gossett Jr. In attendance. ("I’m not saying it’s one of the best films in the expo, but it’s a movie that audiences love,” fest co-producer Dennis Bartok chuckles.)
Other rarities include a once-lost Russian version of Robinson Crusoe on a print so fragile, even Joseph and Bartok haven’t seen it. Join them at the fest as these sleuths enjoy their detective work for the first — and possibly last — time. —Amy Nicholson
2013 WORLD 3-D FILM EXPO | Egyptian Theatre | Sept. 6-15 | 3-dfilmexpo.com
YOUR WEEKLY MOVIE TO - DOLIST
When Matthew Broderick Almost
Started World War III
Friday, Sept. 6
Today kicks off the World 3-D Film Expo at the Egyptian, showing films made mostly from 1953 to 1954. See Amy Nicholson’s preview of the event (in the Film section), which screens many rarities and oddities in its run through Sept. 15.
Meanwhile, at the IFS Screening Rooms at the BelleVarado Studios , the Independent Filmmakers Showcase will offer a weekend of screenings, starting with Horse Soldiers of 9/11 at 7:30 p.m. This documentary from war reporter Alex Quade , narrated by Gary Sinise, features the story of the Special Operations Forces servicemen who rode horseback into combat in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. A Q&A follows the screening.
Then, get another visit from UFOs in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science-fiction classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as Cinefamily screens the 1998 director’s cut. On Friday, the show starts at 9:20 p.m., with encore screenings Saturday at 10:15 p.m., Sunday at 7:15 p.m. and Tuesday at 9:50 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 Remember the time Matthew Broderick almost started World War III? In WarGames, high school teenager David Lightman (Broderick) accidentally hacks into a Pentagon supercomputer and starts a game of Global Thermonuclear War, not realizing that the simulation is causing very real consequences. Celebrates the film’s 30th anniversary at the Regent, starting at 7:30 p.m., a part of the Landmark Theatres’ Anniversary Classics Series. Director John Badham, writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes and star Dabney Coleman will be in attendance. —Sherrie Li
RICHARD NIXON’S HOME MOVIES
More an entertaining curio than a revealing document, Penny Lane’s Our Nixon repurposes footage that three White House newbies — Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman and deputy assistant Dwight Chapin — caught on Super 8 home movie cameras. Their reels were seized by the FBI as part of the Watergate investigation and then stored, forgotten for nearly 40 years.
Our Nixon collects some of the choicest bits, integrating images of long-ago White House Easter–egg hunts and lunar-landing footage with little-heard excerpts from the White House tapes, which ultimately brought down Nixon and his cronies.
Some of it is mildly historically relevant: a few shots of Haldeman wearing a furry hat and stubby suede gloves, standing in front of China’s Great Wall in 1972, turning his own camera on whatever camera is turned on him.
There’s footage of Nixon at daughter Tricia’s wedding, wearing a proud-papa tux and looking as dapper as a guy like that possibly could.
The images have the grainy, vaguely faded look you’d expect. Sometimes they seem snoozily familiar; other times, they resemble strange missives beamed from another planet, where some residents hover above all other workaday beings, puffed up by their own status.
What’s more intriguing is the way Our Nixon chronicles the president’s growing paranoia, though that’s mostly evident in voice clips from the White House tapes. We hear Nixon grousing to Haldeman and Ehrlichman about some show he watched on TV, where a nice, average, working guy is made to look ridiculous by his hippie son-in-law. (He was talking about All in the Family.) — Stephanie Zacharek