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Review: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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The notion that genius and madness share chromosomal quarters makes for an unusually potent and persistent cultural meme. Robert Crumb is a fascinating guy, to be sure, but Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994) wouldn’t be half as memorable without Robert’s older brother Charles — arguably equally gifted, undeniably way more wack — serving as counterpoint, object lesson and cautionary tale. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary portrait of our era’s quintessential cult artist, gives us Robert-the-improbable-success and Charles-the-haunting-failure combined in a single formidable subject. At times, they could almost be two different people: The cheery, twig-thin Johnston we see in the mid-’80s, plugging his homemade lo-fi cassette (Hi How Are You?) on an Austin-based episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge bears virtually no resemblance to the obese (and no doubt heavily medicated) man who takes the stage in the film’s present-day climax, to thunderous applause.
    Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, who’s clearly a fan, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is unabashedly predicated on the belief that Johnston is a musical and artistic prodigy. And there’s no shortage of evidence to that effect, if appeals to authority do it for you: Johnston’s songs have been covered by bands ranging from fIREHOSE to Yo La Tengo; Kurt Cobain wore one of Johnston’s t-shirts in multiple photo shoots; the Whitney Biennial is feting the dude even as we speak. The movie itself, however, doesn’t make an especially compelling case for his talent. Hammering methodically at the piano like Schroeder trying to drive Lucy out of the room, singing childlike ditties about Satan and Casper the Friendly Ghost in a tuneless quaver, Johnston comes across to me here like William Hung for hipsters; his appeal seems to stem entirely from his naked sincerity and utter guilelessness — in other words, from the fact that he still behaves as if he were twelve years old. And so I saw a film about a mentally disturbed man being exploited by celebrities, and cringed when Matt Groening showed up backstage at one of Johnston’s gigs to offer wary congratulations. But that, too, was a terrific film, in its own dismaying way. Which only confirms that you can’t go wrong mixing art and the booby hatch. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!
Our Brand Is CrisisTurns out the right gimmick can take you pretty far. For a 2004 Madison Square Garden concert, the Beastie Boys handed out fifty video cameras to adoring fans, had them shoot the show from every known corner of the enormous arena, then edited the footage together into this goofy-ass lark of a concert film. Much like the Beasties’ act in general, the concept is so weirdly engaging that for a while you don’t even pay any attention to whether the music is any good.
    Could this gambit have failed? If the fans (who had no tripods or lights or any accessories like that) had merely focused on the goings onstage, it might have been unbearable. And in truth, Awesome is probably a bit more of a concert film than it should be. The amateur camerapeople seem to have had as much fun shooting themselves as shooting the band (a moment when one dude takes the camera with him to the bathroom is a jolt of cinematic genius) and one wishes director Nathaniel Hornblower (in reality, Beastie Adam “MCA” Yauch) had erred on the side of including more extemporaneous stuff that didn’t focus on the goings onstage. But it’s pointless to quibble with this thing. Awesome is enormously entertaining — a shaky, lo-fi spazz-out that the band’s fans are sure to eat up. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Drawing Restraint 9
Joyeux NoelArt-world icon Matthew Barney — let’s all stop calling him a “bad boy”, since he’s been a gallery mainstay for well over a decade — started his film career making indulgent, fascinating videos that were an extension of his sculptures. Mannered and elaborate non-sequiturs, their mixture of old world elegance, showmanship, and disturbing body imagery proved unnerving and oddly beautiful. As his ambitious Cremaster cycle advanced, Barney became a more accomplished filmmaker: Cremaster 3, the final installment in the series, was something of a masterpiece, an epic art video dosed with a surprisingly acute sense of narrative. That accomplishment may well have been the kiss of death. The equally ambitious Drawing Restraint 9, despite Barney’s characteristically portentous style, suggests that he has finally crossed over too far — it tells enough of a story to prompt our frustration. Suddenly we’re not watching an art video with narrative ambitions, but a narrative movie with art-world pretensions.
    The “story” takes place on the real-life Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru, where workers spend much of the film’s running time pouring out a vat of goo resembling whale oil, while belowdecks two Western strangers (played by Barney and his wife Björk, who also contributes the film’s music) are clothed in bizarre costumes — think Japanese wedding mixed with the Grand Central Oyster bar — and proceed to enact some kind of elaborate ritual that begins as a painfully slow-moving tea ceremony and degenerates into . . . well, something very Barney-esque. No doubt there’s a point to it all, and the auteur’s characteristic concerns are certainly still there — the obsession with ritual, body, consumption, and restraint. But the energy and inventiveness of Barney’s previous film work are nowhere to be found, replaced here with both the polish and the unwieldiness of a big-budget production. Of course, Barney has always had a thing for extravagance. Indeed, the Cremaster films were partly an interrogation of spectacle. Maybe that’s why Drawing Restraint 9, with its humorless indulgence, feels like such a step backwards. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Adam & Steve
Joyeux NoelCraig Chester, writer, director and star of this new indie romantic comedy has achieved something extraordinary: he’s addressed issues of gay identity without being preachy, he’s made a comedy that’s actually funny, and he’s made Chris Kattan seem kind of cute. The film is kind of like its main character, Adam, a former goth in recovery from crack addiction and an inherited case of bad luck: perfectly flawed and impossibly endearing. The plot: Adam and Steve meet in the ’80s but part ways in a haze of cocaine-induced complications. They are reunited years later, but are unrecognizable to each other because of changes in fashion. They fall in love, but their suppressed past encounter haunts them. Imagine Wet Hot American Summer with more heart, Anchorman but gayer. And it has what neither of those films had: Parker Posey in a fat suit. — Ali Moss
Date DVD: The Cary Grant Signature Collection
Dog Day AfternoonThis week’s big releases are all date duds: Memoirs of a Geisha is a barely sexy guided tour of Asian cliches; King Kong was a child’s fantasy, with Naomi Watts more kewpie doll than sex object. Maybe I’m wrong, but base animal lust seems appropriate when your protagonist’s species is often seen in zoos humping anything with soft edges.
    So this week, skip the new releases (especially 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying, the worst of the bunch) and check out the vintage Cary Grant Signature box set. He looks better in a stovepipe suit than Ziyi Zhang does in brocaded silks, and one silly zinger from his lips sizzles more than all of Kong’s contemplative grumbles. The Grant set collects four great date films. He’s paired with Rosalind Russell in the bonafide classic His Girl Friday and with Katharine Hepburn in the cad-makes-good romance Holiday. Cary frolicks in the mountains, piloting planes and breaking hearts in Only Angels Have Wings, and he plays a idealistic activist who convinces an incumbent Supreme Court Justice to have a heart in Talk of the Town, but the very best date DVD in the bunch is The Awful Truth. Here, Grant meets his match in Irene Dunne, who mimicks Grant’s own suave cockiness. Dueling on screen, Dunne’s and Grant’s characters are both on the edge of remarrying, and determined to torpedo each other’s pending marriage. Of course, it all ends happily — a classic romance about two lovers who couldn’t possibly love anyone but the person who drives them absolutely crazy. — Logan Hill

   

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