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Films I Neglected To Review: Does An Unnecessary Sequel S#%@ In The Woods?
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Author: The JT Leroy Story," "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years," "Blair Witch" and "Max Rose."

For those with short memories, JT Leroy was an author who burst onto the literary scene a little over a decade ago with a grim backstory that infused his stories about drugs, childhood sexual abuse, a truck-stop prostitute mother and other horrors that read like the unholy combination of Jean Genet and Truman Capote. He became a cult sensation and soon found himself palling around with such arbiters of hipness as Gus van Sant, Winona Ryder, Asia Argento and Billy Corgan. As it turned out, there was only one slight hitch to the entire JT Leroy narrative and that was the minor fact that Leroy did not actually exist—his words were actually the creation of New York author Laura Albert and when he made public appearances, he was portrayed by Albert’s sister-in-law. As absurd as this all sounds, the ruse worked for a few years before it finally fell apart and the entire bizarre and sordid story has now be recounted in the strange and ultimately unsatisfying new documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story.

On the surface, Jeff Feurzeig’s film appears to be a nuts-and-bolts look at the whole crazy saga but as it goes on (and on, clocking in at nearly two hours), it begins to reveal far less about the story than it promises. Feurzeig’s primary source for his narrative is Albert herself and between interviews with her and an extensive collection of audio recordings that help chronicle the story in depth (and which include one moment that will probably have Courtney Love on the phone with her lawyers), the film almost feels like a one-woman show for Albert to present her story without fear of retribution or refutation. Some of it is interesting, I suppose, but after a while, Albert and her increasingly tortured justifications begin to grow a little tiresome and Feurzeig’s refusal to challenge her on anything gets very frustrating. I would have like to have heard from some of the famous people who befriended Leroy at the height of his popularity to get their thoughts on how the revelations informed their thoughts on his work—why the fiction of the authorship of the books would have any bearing on the work itself, which Albert was always careful to label as fiction? For anyone looking for a basic, if one-sided, overview of the most bizarre literary scam of recent years, “Author” will sort of hold your interest (though it will probably play better on television) but anyone looking for more detailed answers about the case and what it means from a literary and/or sociological standpoints is advised to look elsewhere.

Between 1963, when they were just beginning their ascendancy to pop superstardom, and 1966, when they decided to give up on live appearances entirely in order to focus entirely on working in the studio, the Beatles performed approximately 250 concerts throughout the world. The new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years focuses on this particular aspect of the career of the legendary group utilizing new interviews with surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, additional testimonials of varying degrees of usefulness from others who were there to witness the phenomena first-hand (while it is amusing to see footage of a young Sigourney Weaver in the crowd for the group’s famous concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the reminisces of the likes of Whoopi Goldberg seem a little superfluous) and, of course, plenty of archival footage of the group in performance in locations ranging from the dingy clubs in Liverpool and Germany where they honed their craft to Candlestick Park, where they performed their last official concert. Directed in the most anonymous manner imaginable by Ron Howard, the film is a fairly antiseptic work that pretty much toes the official line and which doesn’t include anything that might potentially ruffle any Beatle-related feathers. Of course, the real draw of the film is the performance footage of the group and what we see does bolster the argument that they were somewhat underrated as a live band—despite playing under the most challenging and arduous circumstances imaginable, they still managed to play with a fire and energy that most groups then and now would envy and it is only in the footage of shows captured just before their retirement from the stage that there is any hint of disenchantment on their part. Music scholars may come away from the film wishing that Howard had dug a little deeper and dealt with the internal tensions that must have developed between the members of the group during this time but as the latest dose of Fab Four-related nostalgia designated for mass consumption by people without the time to delve into the epic “The Beatles Anthology” documentary series, this should satisfy most viewers.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years” is getting a dual release—it will be appearing in a handful of theaters throughout the country beginning today and will also be available on the Hulu video service beginning September 17. In order to attract more viewers to the theatrical engagements, audiences seeing the film that way will also, immediately following the feature, see a cleaned-up and restored version of the Beatles entire famed Shea Stadium concert from August 15, 1965. Although the entire performance clocks in at around 30 minutes, this footage is worth the price of admission all by itself—while it isn’t much from a cinematic standpoint, watching the group tear through classics like “Twist & Shout,” “Help,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Act Naturally” and “A Hard Day’s Night” is an absolute thrill and watching the hysterical reaction of the crowd (not to mention the band’s on-stage reactions to the chaos) is alternately fascinating and terrifying to behold.

A couple of months ago, horror film fans were given a legitimate surprise when they learned that rising filmmaker Adam Wingard (whose previous credits included such recent fan favorites as “You’re Next” and “The Guest”) had, under the guise of a project known as “The Woods,” secretly made a sequel to the hugely popular and influential 1999 hit “The Blair Witch Project.” In an era when virtually every film project is subject to intense Internet scrutiny, the fact that he was able to pull off such a feat is impressive but unfortunately, that proves to be the only thing about the final film, known as “Blair Witch,” that could legitimately be called that. Essentially a bigger and louder retread of the original—one which, like everyone else, pretends that the ill-fated “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” never existed—this one finds the younger brother of Heather, the documentary filmmaker behind the first film’s ill-fated expedition, venturing out into the woods where she disappeared along with his documentary filmmaker girlfriend, a couple of friends and a couple of self-styled experts on the mysteries of the area. Despite carrying any number of up-to-date gadgetry with them—ear-mounted cameras with GPS, walkie-talkies and even a drone—they still find themselves lost, frazzled and at the mercy of some mysterious force out there that appears to be out there picking them off one by one.

Say what you will about the much-maligned “Book of Shadows”—for all of its failings (and they were legion), it at least attempted to do something radically different from its predecessor rather than simply giving viewers a rehash of the first film. “Blair Witch,” on the other hand, finds Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett doing little more than giving viewers a beat-by-beat remake of the first film, only bigger, louder and with more people on hand to die in horrible ways. The genuine sense of menacing atmosphere and mystery that the original was able to generate is nowhere to be found this time around—all we get are a bunch of increasingly unsympathetic dummies stumbling through the woods and while we may learn a little more about the particulars of the Blair Witch (such as an explanation as to the whole standing-in-the-corner thing), this information doesn’t really add anything to the experience. The original “Blair Witch Project” still holds up today as an ingenious work of contemporary horror cinema that conclusively proved that a great idea could be more effective in the long run than tons of gore or slick special effects. By comparison, all that “Blair Witch” does is prove the law of diminishing returns and that camping is for idiots.

Considering the fact that he is now 90 years old, there is an fairly good chance that Max Rose will prove to be the final lead performance in a feature film by the legendary Jerry Lewis. Unfortunately, the mere fact that he is in a movie at his advanced age winds up being far more interesting than the film itself. In this somber drama (which was apparently filmed in 2013), Lewis plays a recently widowed jazz pianist who, just before the death of his wife of 65 years (Claire Bloom) discovered evidence suggesting that she had another love and that their entire marriage was a lie. Now put in an old age home by his estranged son (Kevin Pollack) and beloved granddaughter (Kerry Bishe), he begins reexamining all aspects of his life and becomes determined to track down the man he believes to have been his wife’s true love and get to the bottom of what really happened all those years ago. Having long ago proved his bona fides as a serious actor with his astounding turn in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (and the fact that he did not even receive an Oscar nomination for that performance is one of the greatest arguments for the utter uselessness for those awards imaginable), it comes as no surprise to discover that Lewis’s performance is the best thing about the film—he throws himself into the part completely and offers up a turn that is focused, committed and completely free of any hammy melodramatics. The problem is that the rest of the film never quite lives up to his example—writer-director Daniel Noah has presented us with a slight and sometimes sloppy narrative that never really goes anywhere or develops much in the way of the point. There is one strong scene towards the end between Lewis and Dean Stockwell, playing the man who may have been the lover in question, but other than that, the film is a well-meaning but ultimately meandering work that will be of interest to hard-core Lewis scholars and precious few others.

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originally posted: 09/16/16 22:57:34
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