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9 to 5: Days in Porn (2008)
A Surprising Sense of Objectivity
This is not the first documentary I have seen which sets out to demystify the porn business and show audiences the people and places behind the fantasy displayed by the products at the center of the bloated-cash-cow industry. However, I would say this is one of the best.
I believe the mark of quality for any portrait of the adult entertainment industry which is trying to exist outside the realm of and classification as actual pornography is how un-erotic it comes across to the viewer. As a heterosexual male who in no way feels above being stimulated by the sort of visuals common to modern pornography (and portrayed, albeit mostly with tasteful obscurity, in this film), I am happy to report that "9 to 5..." did not stir up any sort of sensuality within me as I watched it. I liked the way the director would mostly set up the shots to avoid the harder-core facets of what he was filming, but would occasionally, throughout the film, allow certain things to go more noticed, still keeping them minimized and "non-pornographic" in their framing. There are things shown in this film which would never be allowed in an R-rated film, and would probably even be denied the courtesy of an NC-17 by the MPAA if it really came down to it, but the way they are portrayed is done in just the right way to prevent ones attention from being distracted (or diverted towards watching this DVD for "other purposes"). But, do beware... this is not the type of movie you want to watch with your uptight family, your child, or mixed company -- even though the explicit footage is not tasteless, it is there, so if real sex is not something you want to see in a film, avoid this or watch it with someone who can handle the fast-forward-button censorship for you.
The directing, editing, and overall stylization of this film are very well done. I liked the "portraits" of the subjects. Otto and his wife and John Stagliano especially really had their souls (or lack thereof) shine through in these shots. I could imagine the director asking the subjects to stand there and look into the camera for an awkward minute or two, but these set-ups greatly contributed to the personalities portrayed.
This film managed to remain entertaining, while avoiding titillation, for a solid 2 hours. The key asset to that is how light-handed the tone is. Nothing is played for laughs. Nothing is played for sympathy. Conversely, nothing is played to try and make us think these people's lives are better than we give them credit for. Everything that is funny in this movie, every opinion we might have about the subjects, whether they're secretly miserable or envious or whatever we might think while watching this movie, I have to believe, was in no way manufactured by the filmmaker, and I think that is paramount to a good documentary. We see how these people live and work -- nude bodies engaged in extreme sex acts are just like computers and telephones at any other job. But throughout the duration of the movie, I never felt as if anybody's opinion was being forced on me, or any sort of advocacy for or against pornography was shining through. Things were very neatly presented as they are, and I think whatever you take away from this movie (believing the porn business ruins people's lives, or believing it is "just a business we need in society," or whatever you might think) says more about what you already thought than what you saw in this movie.
I find the behind-the-scenes reality of the porn business fascinating and watch/read just about all the material I find on the subject. The way this movie balanced rawness with tastefulness, and frankness with fantasy, really makes it stand out as an exemplary piece on the subject.
Fast Food Nation (2006)
Great cast reading dialog which plays off like a lecture
I agree with this movie's politics, but I cannot tolerate message movies. Showing and not telling is the name of the game in movies, and this movie tells just as much as, if not more than, it shows. In order for a movie to convey a message appropriately, in my opinion, it has to, like a good debater, be able to adopt both sides with equal logic and present to you the entirety of the argument so that you can make the decision for yourself. Even an obviously messed up industry like the American fast food industry is not exempt from this rule of decent movie-making, as Fast Food Nation proves. And let me again say, I personally believe Fast Food Corporations are Satanic, and some of the other targets this movie off-handedly shoots at (methamphetamines, illegal immigration, various other corporate/short-attention-span issues which seem related to American Fast Food and, thus, play into the title of "Fast Food Nation") are worthy targets to open people's eyes to and expose. But this movie is uneven to Michael Moore-esquire proportions -- even SuperSize Me was more well-rounded. And, yes, I just referred to documentary film-making, because, even though this is fiction, it is more about its message than its drama. If you care about any of these characters, you'll be disappointed. And I like neorealism, downbeat endings, and evil protagonists, too, so I don't know how Linklater managed to screw this up, but there is a sense of pessimism in this movie that just makes you NOT CARE about anybody in the film.
The cast was full of stars, and by far the main positive point of the movie. Most of the actors handled the hammy dialog in stride, though some of the more broad characterizations (Ethan Hawke's character and the college activist group) could not help but be sunk by their clichés. I was actually shocked to find that Richard Linklater made this (I did not know until the end credits). I'm not a fan of his more prolific work (because I haven't seen it, not that I have a problem with it), but I do know that he is considered one of the top American filmmakers. After seeing this, his writing/directing skills have dropped to the bottom of my list. Lloyd Kaufman is a better auteur by sheer virtue of the fact that Lloyd Kaufman admittedly sets out to make trash and succeeds. This was supposed to be intelligent and eye-opening, but it ended up seeming like something a 50-year-old stoner Frisbee-golfing burnout would dream of (but not have the organizational skills to write and film).
This movie was not horrible. I'm giving it a 5 out of 10 because there were some good elements to it, and, like I said earlier, I do agree with its message. But there was no creativity to the visual side of the movie and the dialog was terrible. Some scenes had all the realism of a workplace safety training video. I was very disappointed in how the material was treated, and the movie just got worse as it rolled on.
The Bridge (2006)
I could not be roused above merely thinking this was "okay"
The reviews on this film seem to be pretty outstanding. I thought the subject matter was fascinating, but there wasn't really much to work with... it was done in the best possible way, focusing on the lives of those who jumped, trying to find motives/reasons, going over the impact of their loved ones. There was some haunting insight. But, overall, I think the movie was very simple in its execution -- lots of B-roll of the bridge and surrounding area, the main thrust being talking head interviews, and the MEAT of the film being a few roughly shot on-camera suicides... the latter is very contentious, if they shot it much better it would be verging on snuff but if they shot it any worse you would have no clue what was going on.
I think ultimately the documentary was handled as best as it could have been given the parameters of it being a full-length culled from a year of footage... however, I think this would have been better suited as a 45-60 minute PBS or premium cable documentary with way less B-roll and more concise interviews. The "menace" of the bridge was well established in the early part of the film, but by the end it was a pretty obvious device of trying to make the bridge seem like this ominous force that happens to be the single largest site of suicides in the world. I think ultimately, the material ran out of steam even though I would not say the documentary was less than "compelling." I'm torn on whether to give this a 5 or a 6, because 7 and up for me is something that thoroughly enjoyed, and I was merely impressed by this documentary's interesting subject and competent production. I think I'll give it a 6, because it was not mediocre... it just wasn't great.
Promising Big Budget Fare Devolves Into Complete Garbage
When the opening credits rolled and I noticed that this was based on a story by legendary writer Philip K. Dick, my anticipation for this film went up a bit. The previews I saw before this movie's theatrical release certainly piqued my interest... the concept was good enough, and the action looked enticing.
As the first scenes rolled, I was pleased that it wasn't a "Shaky Cam" affair like so many modern action movies... the director apparently knew how to frame a shot, put it on a tripod, and put the interest in the scene and not in the camera movement.
The set-up of the characters was interesting enough, and in the first act I found myself in the warm confines of a big budget Hollywood movie... sure you can't expect anything too soul stirring or brain building from this type of movie, but you can at least expect to be pleased. This is where everything started going sour.
Nicholas Cage gets sleeps with Jessica Biel after one day of knowing her. These are supposed to be nice characters falling in love, not raving sex maniacs, so this plot turn basically just insulted my intelligence and sensibilities and made me think these characters were full of crap. But it gets worse. The main character's gimmick is that he can see 2 minutes into the future, only if it involves him. This gimmick gets absolutely TRASHED as the movie goes on. I don't know if anybody in the screen writing or directing department could explain the elements that appear later in the movie to me and how they pertain to the 2 minute clairvoyance bit, but it seems like they just abandoned his actual power and gave him extra SUPER POWERS for the hell of it. Cage can DODGE BULLETS, and not just one bullet, but a FULL CLIP of bullets as a bad guy unloads it on him. Then, when the bad guy is out of ammo, Cage walks up to him and punches him. Is he SUPERMAN NOW? I normally don't get upset over lapses in logic if the action is good, but the action in this picture is so-so and the logic is SEVERELY LAPSED. It's PG-13 lite action with some really obvious CGI, and my disbelief was not suspended in the least. It seems like the actors knew they were doing something crappy and the performances from the pros were very spotty... not to mention the supporting cast (the black FBI agent SUCKED... it seemed like they didn't even audition the part, they just picked the first guy through the door).
The film just absolutely DEFLATED as it went on, and by the time the climax came it was just too ridiculous to care about. And then they committed the ultimate final insult... "It was all but a dream." That's right, folks. The entire second half of the movie was hypothetical, and Mr. Next (who sees TWO MINUTES into the future, but somehow, for the purposes of this plot, was able to see several DAYS into the future, with 2 minute glimpses across the entire vision???) gets to start over and make a different choice, saving the girl he hopped into bed with after one day because he thinks she's the love of his life, and heading towards another scenario where the world ends, only to probably start it all over again. I guess in Next world, nothing bad can ever happen because Mr. Cage can go back in time and simply change things around! What a crock! I'm vacillating between giving this 3 or 4 out of ten. Thinking about 4 because there were competent elements of production, but ultimately settling on 3 because by the time the movie was over I felt insulted.
French Cancan (1955)
I am not a fan of musicals, but I am a huge fan of Jean Renoir and Jean Gabin. I rented this movie on a whim and was pleasantly surprised even expecting greatness from the classic director. This movie is BEAUTIFUL. The shots are like oil paintings with motion, something a lot of directors strive for but Renoir MASTERS. I cannot express how much this movie transcends itself... it's not really a musical, it just has a couple of well-placed musical numbers and a grand dancing finale. But there is something about this movie in particular which makes you feel absolute JOY when watching it.
I am a fan of foreign art films, but I'm also a meathead who loves things like Die Hard and Schwarzenegger movies. I get very easily turned off by things that are overly happy or in "la la land," but this movie has an overwhelming positive energy that is just irresistible -- not to mention every frame is gorgeous and the plot is good. 10 out of 10.
La piel vendida (2004)
Interesting but Uneven
Skin For Sale is a documentary about the European pornography industry. Since it was produced in Spain, it mainly focuses on Spanish actors and production people, but touches on other European Union countries as well.
From the box cover, I thought this was going to be a very explicit film with plenty of clips from featured hardcore films. However, there is actually very little nudity in the film (there is some, including some genital stuff that would never make an American R rating, but it is quick), and no graphic hardcore sex. This does serve to make the subject matter more engrossing instead of diverting your attention with pornographic imagery. The main thrust (no pun intended) of the film is the behind the scenes aspect of the business. The filmmakers intentionally deglamorize and de-sexualize porn. Crew members are shown with their "it's nothing special" attitude while there is acrobatic sex going on in the background (One particularly creative framing places an umbrella pole right over the naughty zone as two stars go at it in the background). Actors speak of the disparity between their on screen personas and their real lives. And everybody talks about how unnatural the on-camera sex is, and how its purpose is not to reflect real lovemaking but to provide a release or an outlet for its audience.
There is some interesting insight into the players' personal lives, including meeting the family (who have an unexpectedly laid back attitude toward their porn star daughter/sister) of one star, and hearing anecdotes from others. The material is engrossing, but ultimately a bit middle-of-the-road. The film runs a feature length, but in the end you feel like they should have gone deeper.
I would consider this a good piece of work for a first-time documentary, though I'm not sure if this is the filmmakers' first or not. It is compelling in parts and the material is well manipulated at times. And then sometimes you get the feeling that they are coasting along aimlessly through the material and have lost a bit of their focus. The overall effect of the movie is "middle-of-the-road." It's not boring, at times it is quite engaging. It's not poorly constructed, but at times there are flaws detracting from this being an important or "must-see" work. I would recommend it to people interested in the porn industry, but not to general documentary fans. Do make note, though, that if you're sqeamish towards pornography that this film is OKAY to watch. There is one scene where a married acting couple are engaged in coitus, but it is slightly distant and not graphic. Aside from that, most of the nudity is blase and nothing you wouldn't see in a regular French movie, so this can be watched as "general fare" though, as a byproduct of being about the pornographic industry, I wouldn't watch this with conservative parents or children.
I was on the fence going in to see this. I was a big fan of the HBO shows and the songs from that, but didn't so much like much of the material (the album and TV appearances) that came after that. Perhaps my expectations were low going into this -- perhaps I doubted whether or not I was still even a Tenacious D fan. But this movie was hilarious, I don't even know why. I often found myself laughing uncontrollably, scene to scene, for most of the movie, and when the film ended, I truly wished that there was more material. To me, that's one mark of a good comedy, or a good film, period, for that matter -- if you feel like you could watch an extra hour of film and still be entertained. I'm already seeing some negative reviews, so I feel it my duty to report that I think this was definitely the funniest movie I've seen this year.