Friday, July 15, 2022


In theaters this weekend, a couple of compelling documentaries:

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song--Arguably the most beautiful popular song of the 20th Century in English, both lyrically and melodically, Leonard Cohen's signature work has proven itself as a standard. It's a testament to its power that, even though we hear more than ten different artists performing it in this absorbing documentary, it doesn't get old.

Released to little initial notice on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, it gradually gained ears as it was performed by Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Myles Kennedy, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Eric Church, Alexandra Burke and others. The use of Cale's version on the soundtrack of Shrek in 2001, and the inclusion of Rufus Wainwright's exquisite cover on that movie's soundtrack was a tipping point for the song as a spiritual anthem for our time; k. d. lang magnificently eulogized Cohen with it in 2017, and at our national nadir after the election of the 45th president, Kate McKinnon, nominally in the guise of a defeated Hillary Clinton, salved us with it in 2016 on Saturday Night Live.

Perhaps wishing to avoid infecting the song with topical politics, this movie, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, excludes that wretched, moving moment. It includes biographical material on Cohen, but as it progresses it focuses increasingly on the life which the song itself took on. Aside from its endless interpreters, Cohen himself never really stopped writing it; one of the talking heads claims that he filled notebook after notebook with about 180 verses.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down--Music is also central to this documentary, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, about the former Congresswoman from Arizona's 8th District. Shot by a deranged gunman outside a supermarket in Tucson in 2011, at a massacre in which six people were killed, Giffords, the main target of the attack, received a critical brain injury resulting in aphasia, greatly inhibiting her speech.

But she could still sing, and that was one of the ways by which therapists helped her on her slow, exhausting road to reclaim her ability to communicate. Tunes from "And She Was" by Talking Heads to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" to "Que Sera, Sera" to Bowie's "Space Oddity"--in reference, of course, to her husband, former astronaut and current U.S. Senator Mark Kelly--are used on the soundtrack to move the narrative forward, both to poignant and lighthearted effect. But more importantly, there's a sense of exhilaration and liberation when Giffords, who strains to find the simplest spoken words, cuts loose freely in song.

The movie packs an infuriating punch, because it shows how much vibrancy and radiant ease Giffords lost to her injury. She's one of the countless casualties of this country's gun insanity that should each, in and of themselves, have been enough to spur reform. But it's also inspiring to see how little, in the face of what she's suffered, she seems to have lost to bitterness and rage, and how much of her spirit and fierce charisma she's won back.

On VOD this week:

Glasshouse--The world has been ravaged by a plague which leaves people without memory, even of their own names. The members of a family--severe mother (Adrienne Pearce), three beautiful daughters (Jessica Alexander, Anja Taljaard and Kitty Harris) and an afflicted son (Brent Vermuelen)--hunker down inside a huge, palatial greenhouse and practice quasi-religious rituals about memory. They venture outside in rather Victorian-looking breathing apparatus, and pick off any approaching strangers with sniper rifles. Then one day the alluring eldest daughter brings a hunky injured man (Hilton Pelser) in, finds he is not a "forgetter" and, as you can imagine, trouble ensues.

The twists get more twisty, and more unsavory, as the story progresses. Directed by Kelsey Egan in and around a South African conservatory building--the script was written, by Egan and Emma Lungiswa de Wet, with this location in mind--the film is deliberate, but it has an atmosphere of unhealthy eroticism that recalls Don Siegel's 1971 period drama The Beguiled. It's the most interesting post-apocalyptic yarn in quite a while.

At the Laemmle in L.A., and on demand:

Fair Game--The heroine of this Australian actioner of 1986 is Jessica (Cassandra Delaney), a Julie-Christie-esque beauty with big '80s hair who runs a wildlife refuge in the outback and lives on it in an isolated cabin. The villains are a trio of kangaroo poachers who terrorize and assault her and trash her home.

Most of us wouldn't need to hear more than "kangaroo poachers" to want to see these guys pulverized, but the gleeful performances of Peter Ford, David Sandford and Barry Sparks manage to elevate our bloodlust even further. Enjoying a re-release from Dark Star, this "Ozploitation" melodrama, reportedly and believably a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and an inspiration for Death Proof, is bluntly directed by Mario Andreacchio. It's shot with richness and nuance by Andrew Lesnie, and packed with that maniacal stunt work characteristic of Australian action flicks of that period. Despite what she endures, our heroine remains defiantly brave throughout, and it would be absurd to deny how satisfying it is when she turns the tables on her tormentors.

Except that for me, as usual with revenge's not quite sufficient. Death, even painful death, wasn't enough for my spiteful heart; I wanted these guys to suffer more humiliation and degradation at Jessica's hands. But Fair Game comes closer to a gratifying payback than most.