FILM IN BRIEF: Frank Zappa, “Weiner-Dog,” and more

Documentaries about a musical icon, an elderly Korean couple, and an autistic little boy, plus the latest dark comedy from director Todd Solondz

There’s an especially long lineup of films opening in Portland’s independent theaters, so here’s a brief rundown of notable movies not covered elsewhere:

 

“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words”

Despite releasing several albums of instrumental music over his three-decade career, Frank Zappa was never at a loss for words. His songs that did have lyrics overflowed with rapid-fire verbiage, and his interviews and other public appearances were masterpieces of straightforward, uncensored truth-telling. The guy had one of the most sensitive bullshit detectors in history.

This documentary by German director Thorsten Schütte compiles archival footage into a compelling, informative, and highly entertaining portrait of a unique figure in 20th-century music. The earliest bit is a snippet from 22-year-old Zappa’s appearance on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1965, during which he played a bicycle. The latest, I think, is an interview for “The Today Show” done weeks before his premature death from prostate cancer at 53.

Frank Zappa in a scene from "Eat That Question"

Frank Zappa in a scene from “Eat That Question”

In between, “Eat That Question” shows how Zappa confounded expectations at every turn. From the beginning, he was a disheveled-looking rock-star freak AND a serious avant-garde composer. He was a staunch proponent of free speech and opponent of organized religion who considered himself a conservative. One constant was that he never suffered fools, a trait clearly evident in dialogues with obtuse journalists, appearances on bloviating talk shows, and testimony before the U.S. Senate opposing record album labelling.

For longtime fans as well as curious newcomers, “Eat That Question” is an invaluable record of an indelible persona. (90 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, July 15, at Cinema 21) GRADE: A-

“Life, Animated”

When he was three years old, Owen Suskind stopped communicating with the outside world. He was diagnosed with autism, and for the next several years his parents desperately sought a way to reach their son. The answer came, bizarrely enough, from the Disney animated movies Owen obsessively watched. Using snatches of dialogue from “Peter Pan,” “Aladdin,” and other films, the Suskinds slowly penetrated Owen’s shell and, as this moving documentary demonstrates, were able to provide him with something of a normal life.

A good portion of the movie occupies itself with the now 23-year-old Owen’s progress towards independent living. He’s about to get his own apartment, he has a girlfriend, and he leads a Disney club at the special-needs school he attends. Director Roger Ross Williams, who won a Best Documentary Short Subject Academy Award back in 2011, knows enough to step back and let this poignant story tell itself. Surprisingly, this ode to the power of Disney cartoons was neither produced nor distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, which helps it feel less like a self-promoting infomercial than a genuinely affecting true-life tale. (89 minutes, rated PG, opens Friday, July 15, at Regal Fox Tower) GRADE: B

“Wiener-Dog”

Todd Solondz, the reigning prince of cinematic pessimism, returns with a movie that may, at first blush, make it seem like he’s starting to soften up just a bit. It’s about a cute dachshund puppy that makes its way through a variety of owners (and names). It’s got fairly big-name Hollywood stars like Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn. And there’s even a catchy theme song.

But don’t be fooled! Solondz ultimately shows himself to be just as stridently misanthropic as ever—not that that’s a bad thing altogether. The titular canine starts out in the home of a wealthy but unhappy family, a gift from parents Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts to their young, cancer-surviving son. But when the dog comes down with nasty diarrhea, they take it to the vet to have it put to sleep. There, a veterinary assistant (Gerwig, playing the grown-up version of Dawn Wiener from Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough film “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) rescues him and renames him Doody.

Later, a miserable screenwriting instructor (DeVito, playing what seems like Solondz’s on-screen analogue) takes custody of the dog, and after than an old woman (Burstyn) who dubs him Cancer. (This is probably the movie’s funniest joke.) That catchy theme song (written by Oscar winner Marc Shaiman) plays over a goofy, random intermission, which turns out to be only the most blatant way that this sadistic but substantive director attempts to lure his audience into a false sense of security. (88 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, July 15, at the Living Room Theaters) GRADE: B-

“My Love, Don’t Cross That River”

Even when you can feel its manipulative hands chopping cinematic onions in from of your face, you can’t help but get a little misty-eyed during portions of this documentary portrait of an endearing Korean couple in their nineties. They’ve been married for 76 years, but still seem utterly, playfully in love, tossing leaves on each other and eating freshly fallen snow. Their lives follow simple routines, and part of the pleasure of the film is patiently settling in with their deliberate daily agendas.

But, of course, this can’t go on forever, and the husband’s inexorably failing health lends both shape and poignancy to the proceedings. Also, there are puppies. Sad but inspiring, it became the biggest independently-made box office hit in Korean history. (86 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, July 15, at the Living Room Theatres) GRADE: B+

One Response.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    have not seen this, but it appears to be about Zappa’s relationship with the media – Frank is perhaps the most cynical public figure of all time – even when interviewed by a radio host who spun his tracks often, was educated about music and informed enough about Zappa’s catalogue of classical-tradition scores to ask him to talk about them and elaborate on one of his principal inspirations, Edgard Varèse, his gratuitous insults toward the host making the taped interview were so off-putting, the interview never got aired – I know – I did that interview in 1980, following his concert at McArthur Court – I was a UO student, intent on airing it on KLCC and perhaps KWAX, where I hosted programs on contemporary music in the classical tradition, with an emphasis on cross-overs – experience didn’t influence my respect for his music, only for the man – nothing personal, just disappointing to learn that such a robust advocate for open-minded, anti-stereotypical thinking would harbor such contempt for seemingly all media persons, regardless of their perspectives – probably to Frank we’re all fools, not to be suffered

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