Patrick Moote is a comedian, which probably explains why, when his then-girlfriend said no to his marriage proposal at a sporting event (and on a Jumbotron, for all to see), he was able to tackle two very different tasks at the same time: Wallow in his hurt and misery (comedy is borne of tragedy, after all, or so they say) and make a documentary… sorry, a “cockumentary”… about the aftermath. Yes, a “cockumentary.” You see, the ex declined to marry him, in part, because he was inadequately hung for her liking.
Rattled and insecure, Moote did what anyone of his generation would do: Got all confessional, and did so with a video camera trained on him. (Brian Spitz, the auteur behind “Bang Blow & Stroke” and “Tales from the Crapper,” took on directorial duties.) In the course of the resulting film, “UnHung Hero,” out now on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, Moote travels to several countries and chats with an array of specialists and quacks; he also talks about the very public rejection (which blew up on YouTube and made headlines around the world) and his feelings of inadequacy with his brother, his parents, his old friends, and… mistake!… a number of former girlfriends. Some exes give him the skinny on his member with blunt honesty (one woman ranks him a 3 out of 10; “Come on!” Moote protests), and some are just baffled at being asked to asses Moote’s manhood.
Who can blame them? It’s got to be a hard task to explain that you want to make a film about your emotional emasculation that also addresses the physiological, evolutionary, and cultural tropes that feed into the notion that masculinity and virility somehow have a direct link to penis size. Moote gets chased out of a sex shop and a Korean bath house for daring to intrude on their sacred precincts with a camera. No one wants to listen to his attempts at explanation.
But our man persists, and explores not only the roots of his anxieties but also the medical question of whether there’s anything to be done about it, be the remedy surgical, herbal, pharmaceutical, or whatever. (He even tries lifting weights with his genitals at one point.)
The movie was a favorite at film fests, and you can see why; if there’s any male universal, it’s a fascination with, and an abiding love for, our junk. But the film also feels contrived in various ways. That pretty blonde he met at the sex shop? It gives the film a nice symmetry and the promise of a happy ending (if you’ll pardon the pun) for a girl he meets on the road to sexual enlightenment to be suitable dating material. And the way Moote veers from destination to destination and loops back again, first hopefully buying into and then rejecting a series of procedures that promise to add inches to his… er… stature, and then rejecting those remedies, feels put on. (Only when faced with a long needle full of some sinister concoction does he quail at the jab-to-the-johnson approach for penile enlargement? Really? Only when he sits in on a plastic surgery the promises to add girth to his gear, and ends up rushing out of the room to vomit, does he decide scalpels and scobs don’t mix? Are you kidding? We get that he’s piqued, but is he that desperate? Indeed, has this whoel thing made him nuts?)
Even though this material feels a little inauthentic, it’s often funny. The moment when his mother insists to a dejected Moote that he not abandon the documentary because it’s triggered personal development is priceless: “Keep growing,” she counsels, and even Moote’s glum mug seems to veil a laddish smile. Moreover, the film is downright educational, and as a compendium of the various snake-oil cures for guys who agonize over their endowment, it’s like a catalogue of con-artistry. “UnHung Hero” has a familiar destination (love and be loved for who you are, not what you have —— even in the joe boxer department), but the journey, though it veers into the absurd at times, is worth taking.
The Coen Brothers are back with their signature bleak humor, the world’s odd angles and infelicities once more aligning to take the starch out of some poor schlub.
This time, rather than a Los Angeles slacker or a hapless professor of mathematics, the Coens set their sights on a singer. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, looking suitably moth-eaten and hang-dog) is the surviving half of a musical duo that had a glimmer of success with their one album. Now, in the wake of his partner’s suicide —— abandoned, rudderless, with few prospects —— Davis drifts around New York City, sleeping on couches and picking up session work. The time is the early- to mid-1960s; America is transitioning into some new mental and social place, but Davis, befuddled creature that he is, has little idea of where or how he should fit into an emerging new culture. He disdains folk music, but finds that he has to play it to get by; he insults his friends and gets pummeled in back alleys by enemies he didn’t know he had; he inadvertently becomes the caretaker for one cat or another, but even in this humble endeavor he fails (or, in one instance, simply gives up).
As is de rigeur for the Coen oeuvre, commonplace episodes are taken over and transformed by strange details, as though people and objects belonging to distorted parallel universes had teleported over here by accident. Carey Mulligan, who makes an appearance as the sharp, angry girlfriend of a buddy (Justin Timberlake), complicates Davis’ couch surfing. A chance encounter with another session musician played by “Girls” co-star Adam Driver leads to a road trip to Chicago in the company of a gnomic, pathetic, and slightly menacing fellow named Roland Turner (John Goodman); it’s with giddy Beats-bashing that the Coens put Garrett Hedlund, as a young tough reminiscent of Dean Moriarty (or James Dean), behind the car’s steering wheel. (Just think of all those recent movies that have tried to capture the essence of Kerouac and his crew; the Coens, perhaps more wisely, succeed brilliantly in parodying the whole Beat mythos.)
In “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” the Coens famously shone a light on a species of American mountain / bluegrass / folk music; here, they celebrate folk music once more by way of the blues, with Davis performing a rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The Coens, ever mischievous, balance this out with a novelty song about space travel that riffs on Larry Verne’s angsty / comic “Mr. Custer.” This oddball jam provides a little more for Timberlake to do, and also reminds us of the era in which we find ourselves here: The space race is beginning, and major social upheaval is already underway.
But the psychedelic love fest is going on somewhere else; we see little in the way of the era’s tropes, because the focus is Davis’ own upheaval —— and the stardom he covets, with only a vague idea of why, is as distant and unreachable as the stars themselves. This is a semi-serious man who will never learn to laugh, nor think deeply; as a club owner (F. Murray Abraham) who hears him sing puts it, “I don’t see the money,” another way of declaring Davis to be shy of talent. The best Davis can do, like so many of the rest of us, is pick himself up after his latest failure, dust himself off as best he can, and trudge onward. (Or sail; when his guitar doesn’t provide a living for him, Davis periodically retreats to the merchant marine.) Others may sing about life as a series of stillborn dreams and roadblocked strivings; Davis, however, is doomed to live it.
Upon hearing that Thomas Harris’ indelible character Hannibal Lecter would be getting his own series on NBC, I felt a frisson of dread. Lecter started off as a secondary character in Harris’ novel “Red Dragon” (filmed as “Manhunter” by Michael Mann in 1986, before being re-made under the original book title). In that book, Lecter was the dark mirror-image of FBI agent Will Graham; the two shared similar abilities (eidetic memory, good taste in wine, high intelligence). But Lecter had something more: A stripe of monstrosity that exceeded any rationale or excuse, or even human nature in its fundamental depravity. It was no wonder that reader, and Harris, responded to the witty psychotherapist who had little compunction about cutting his, and his clients’, losses when therapy was proving futile, and doing it with a very sharp, expertly wielded blade.
"Hannibal the Cannibal” was a serial of a new kind: A gustatory villain with a love of luxury and literature, not to mention advanced cooking skills; a predator who enjoyed his victims as victuals. Like Mack the Knife, there was never a trace of red about Lecter; in his native garb, he was clade in well tailored suits made from fine material, and his emotional temperature defined the term “blue blood” —— Lecter was forever as cool and put together as his wardrobe, even when he was indulging in the occasional opportunity for some fast food. (In one episode, he devoured part of a nurse’s face, raw, in a furious attack… while his vital signs, being monitored at the time, fluctuated not at all.)
Frustratingly, enragingly, as the character gained prominence with each successive book, the quality of the works declined; at the same time, Harris made two mistakes in presenting a fuller picture of his most famous creation. He gave Hannibal a back story to explain his sociopathy and his taste for human flesh; he also gave Hannibal more and more gifts and talents, which started to seem like super-powers rather than habits of refinement, with the predictable reduction of Hannibal’s portrait from something akin of Renaissance master to four-color comic book.
The peak of Harris’ Hannibal books was “The Silence of the Lambs,” in which Lecter was a counterweight for novice FBI agent Clarice Starling. Things went South in a big way n the next volume, “Hannibal,” in which the ice-blooded gourmand, having escaped FBI custody, fetched up in Italy. Here, his tide had begun to ebb; when Harris published the prequel novel “Hannibal Rising,” in late 2006, the character had lapsed into campy bathos, and the jig was up.
The films followed a similar trajectory. “Manhunter” (and Brian Cox as Lecter) gave way to Jonathan Demme’s 1990 film version of “The Silence of the Lambs” (in which Anthony Hopkins achieved cinematic immorality as Lecter). The David Mamet-scripted “Hannibal” followed the novel beat by beat until it didn’t, departing from the original ending in which Starling and Lecter became co-habiting cannibals and lived happily ever after. The film version of “Hannibal Rising” cast a new, much younger actor in the role out of necessity, but didn’t feel revitalized so much as creatively corrupted. The fascinating paradox of a true gentleman in the old-world sense of the word —— aristocratic, intelligent, well-rounded, cultured, and cosmopolitan —— who is also a serial-killing connoisseur of human flesh (and avid hunter of the vulgar masses he regards as the “free-range rude”) had lost its delicate balance and plunged into caricature.
So what would the latest incarnation of Hannibal Lecter be like? And how could Bryan Fuller, a producer one associates with quirky fare like “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies,” pull off anything remotely deserving of the novels’ early promise?
To his credit, Fuller has done marvelously at it, at least so far. “Hannibal” starts before “Red Dragon,” recasting the characters to an extent but carefully preserving the narrative symmetry that keeps them in careful opposition. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is more a descendant of “Monk” and the new takes on Sherlock Holmes (from the BBC’s “Sherlock” and NBC’s “Elementary”) than the man of the novels, with his simple yet sophisticated tastes. This version of Graham is jittery and socially phobic; he’s more comfortable as the leader of his pack of adopted stray dogs than he is in the classroom, teaching FBI cadets at Quantico. Nonetheless, when his boss, Jack Crawford, pulls him into the field to investigate a grisly series of murders targeting teenage girls, Graham, allows himself to become entangled in the case.
Graham is also a direct descendant of “Millennium“‘s Frank Black, the FBI profiler with a “gift” of seeing into the minds of killers. In this case, Graham’s ability is more about empathy than his skill at visualizing crime scenes and re-winding the sequence of events that must have occurred to lead up to their current conditions; once he’s puzzled out the killer’s movements, Graham clues into his or her motivations. “This is my design,” he often says, as he recounts how the crime unfolded.
Crawford enlists Hannibal Lecter, an esteemed psychotherapist, both as Graham’s personal mental health task force and a consultant on the case, an arrangement that places the two men in a close working relationship that starts to blossom into something more like friendship. Lecter, for his part, is cool and crisp, a stark contrast to the sweaty, perpetually freaked-out Will, whose mental state deteriorates over the course of the season. As played by the extraordinary Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal is everything Hopkins made him, and everything Harris insinuated: Scary-smart and just plain scary, but also a genuine intellectual.
There’s an even greater satisfaction in how Lecter is the progenitor of the contemporary anti-hero, the protagonist who goes well beyond the picaresque and into moral hazard or even crazy-land. Would we have had Dexter without Lecter? Or “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White? Tony Soprano is often cited as the spark for this trend, but Lecter was there before Tony and, indeed, would have made literal mincemeat of him.
Because this is television, there’s more time to define the characters and explore them; where the movies had to skip over some of what made Lecter tick, the 13 episodes of Season One find moments, here and there, to incorporate some of the nuances of the character as written by Harris. Thus, we see Lecter debating the nature (and justice) of God with Graham in one exchange, and serving up slices of pork with a red fruit sauce to Crawford, with an electric undercurrent of ambiguity. (By “pork,” is Lecter talking about the other white meat…??)
Less successful, alas, is the way the series attempts to replicate Lecter’s sexually charged, but ominous, bons mots, as when, dining with Crawford, the gourmet playfully tosses out the line, “You promised to deliver your wife to my table.” But at least the writers are conscious of Lecter’s devilish habitual wordplay, and they do try to work with it.
The series uses other characters from the books and films, too, including tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds (female, in this case, and played by Lara Jean Chorostecki) and the smarmy Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza). New characters complete the cast, with “Kids in the Hall“‘s Scott Thompson featured as a lab tech with a decidedly gay affect. Starting in Season Five, if there is a season five, we might hope to meet Clarice Starling; what tender but also tough beauty will land that role?
The production uses state of the art visual effects and pushes the envelope on a weekly basis. (How do you get an image of a man playing a corpse like a cello past the network censors?) It also explores radical new territory in visual style and sound design. The set’s extras delve into these aspects of the series, and offer absorbing tidbits like the script and storyboard for the pilot episode.
"Hannibal" embraces its source material with the relish we want it to, and draws out the experience in the most delicious manner, setting out each installment like a dish on a 13-course menu. (Indeed, each episode is named for a course of an extravagant French meal, with titles like "Amuse-Bouche," "Entrée," ""Buffet Froid," and so on, right up to the season-ending "Savoureux." How Fuller will follow this up come Season Two (much less how he will execute the full seven-season run he has said he intends for the series) is, at this point, hard to guess —— but then again, so was this delectable first clutch of episodes before Fuller served us the "Apéritif" of the very first groundbreaking episode.
(A shorter version of this review appeared at EDGE.)
With “Gravity,” director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) has a chance to unmoor his camera from the most fundamental force on Earth, freeing himself up to swoop, dive, careen, and pirouette without constraint. The first 18 minutes or so are presented in a single continuous shot, as a crew of astronauts on a shuttle mission go about repairs to the Hubble telescope; intricate choreography, dazzling CGI effects, and effective use of top-notch 3D make this an eye-popping, and eye-filling, experience. (Catch the film on IMAX if you can!)
But the filmmaker’s boon is, for the characters, a maddening problem: From the outset, when we meet Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), she’s having a hard time with free-fall; weightlessness has her in a constant state of motion sickness. Things are about to get exponentially more difficult, however, since a miscalculation by the Russians (who have just destroyed a spy satellite) sparks a cascade of catastrophes, resulting in an orbiting cloud of debris whizzing around the Earth faster than a bullet. Stone and her colleague, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), soon find themselves stranded in Earth orbit, having barely survived a maelstrom that’s shredded their shuttle, their crew, and the Hubble; with only 90 minutes before the debris field sweeps around the planet to pummel them again, the two astronauts have to make their way to the International Space Station, hurriedly abandoned by its occupants. There, they hope to secure a ride home in a life boat.
But it’s not as easy as pointing themselves at the ISS and hitting the button on their jet-packs… Actually, it is that easy. The hard part is making a soft landing, assuming they don’t overshoot their goal entirely. If the ISS doesn’t hold the solution to their problem, there’s always the Chinese station, even further away — but that means braving the storm of debris not once, but twice more.
As he did with “Children of Men,” Cuaron has chosen to title this film for the one thing that his heroes don’t have and wish they did. In the previous film —— also characterized visually with intricate long takes, astonishing moments of violence, and carefully chosen moments of meditative stillness —— humanity’s birth rate has plunged to zero, and there’s no one left on Earth younger than 18; the entire race is facing extinction in, literally, a single generation, a cruel prospect that drives people to terrorism and suicide.
Here, at every step, the lack of gravity and the almost sinister complexities of zero-g physics (not to mention the technical difficulties occasioned by speeding bits of metal ripping delicate equipment into Swiss cheese) stymie and frustrate our heroes at every turn. Cuaron cheats on the physics a little here and there, and on the film’s more or less real-time pacing (a three hour tour of terror and desperation fills a running time only half that long), but it’s in the cause of art —— and suspense: There are stretches when your knuckles will be white for minutes on end.
Bullock and Clooney absolutely command this film, especially Bullock. This being essentially a two-person drama, one might fear that things would devolve into endless, overwrought dialogue. That doesn’t happen (though there is a brief moment when it seems about to) —— there are too many perils and too many skin-of-their-teeth escapes. (A little too many for the sake of realism, but then again, this is a movie.) When this film is a bottle show, taking place in cramped environs, Cuaron’s camera knows just how to navigate; when the action happens in the vacuum of space, the visual field is constantly filled with an array of wonders: Stars, spacecraft, gorgeous shots of the planet Earth itself, with its gigantic storm systems, its glittering oceans, and its contoured land masses.
This is the most visually and dramatically thrilling movie of the summer — the sad thing is that it had to wait for a fall release, when the similarly chaotic cloud of shrapnel that comprised this year’s summer blcokbusters had safely passed. It’s safe to go back into the theaters once more: “Gravity” is the place to start loving, once again, both the spectacle and the chance for intelligent filmmaking.
What if the global scientific community got its act together and sent a manned mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, looking for evidence of life in the ocean beneath its icy crust? What if PBS put together a really first rate episode of “Nova” to detail the journey and its extraordinary findings?
You’d probably get something like “Europa Report,” a sci-fi film that delivers suspense and hard, authentic science in equal measure. NASA consulted with screenwriter Philip Gelatt to help create a solid, mostly plausible script that might still rely on standard tropes (a solar flare disrupts communications as the ship approaches its destination; a strange electromagnetic interference seems to herald every new disaster that the crew face once they’ve touched down), but which also fleshes out its story with an intriguing combination of mortal terror and intellectual curiosity.
Central to the film’s success is the format, which is part found footage (video feed from the space ship) and part documentary (candid interviews with the head of the civilian, corporate project behind the mission, played by Embeth Davidtz).
Director Sebastian Cordero knows how to work with his cast, and he knows how to work in the confined spaces of the ship’s set. The film manages, from time to time, to capture the majesty and vastness of spaceflight and of alien vistas, but the greater accomplishment is that it never feel claustrophobic.
For such a small production, this movie grasps, and holds, big ideas.