Lita On Film

Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Make Me Young: Youth Knows No Pain (2009)

In Film Reviews on September 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm

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To what lengths would you go to recapture youth—or, at least, the appearance of youth?  That is the question posed by Mitch McCabe’s film “Make Me Young: Youth Knows No Pain,” which was produced in collaboration with HBO and broadcast on HBO last fall.  It’s now out on DVD from Cinema Libre Studios, and provides an insider’s view of the fascinating and perverse world of plastic surgery.

McCabe’s father was a prominent plastic surgeon, who entered the profession after serving as a trauma surgeon in Vietnam.  Though he developed a reputation as an expert in reconstructive surgery, he also performed many cosmetic surgeries, some of which McCabe herself got to sit in on when she was as young as 10 years old.  Her love for her late father, who died tragically in a car accident, and her lifelong fascination with his odd profession are what propel the film.

McCabe begins by charting her own history of age obsession—she once bought $400 face cream—and then branching out into the lives of friends, acquaintances, and a couple curiosities: the daughter of another plastic surgeon who poses for Playboy, and the man who decided to turn himself into a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson.  Where McCabe herself falls on this spectrum isn’t exactly clear, and this makes the film particularly compelling.

Director Mitch McCabe

As we’re introduced to people more and more obsessed with their appearances and willing to go to absurd lengths to satisfy their vanity, the film becomes an interesting microcosm of American culture.  Several of McCabe’s subjects repeatedly emphasize that “this is America,” and therefore people should be entitled to make and remake themselves however they want, as often as they want.  It’s a weird interpretation of rugged individualism, but it’s also easy to see how the convergence of America’s pathological fear of aging and the $60 billion-a-year plastic surgery industry play into it.

McCabe, who studied at Harvard and NYU and won a Student Academy Award in 1995, manages to balance the weirdness and humor of her subject perfectly; you’ll come away horrified but bemused at the same time.  Her slightly unconventional style, which incorporates very formal shoots as well as video diaries and animation, works well—the final product is serious and professional without being condescending or critical. You’ll certainly never look at any face on TV quite the same way again.

“Make Me Young” is available on DVD from Cinema Libre Studios:


Kings of Pastry (2010)

In Film Reviews on September 21, 2010 at 6:51 pm

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Chris Hedegus and D.A. Pennebaker are documentarians most well-known for their 1993 film “The War Room,” which followed the first Clinton presidential campaign. This time, they’re tackling a subject even more important than global politics: French pastry.

Every four years, the French government gives out awards for the “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (roughly the “best craftsmen of France”), known as the “MOF.” Originally intended as a way to elevate people who worked with their hands in the eyes of a country known for idolizing intellectuals, the MOF for pastry (patisserie) has turned into a sort of culinary Olympics; it happens only every four years, takes months of grueling preparation and, as you might imagine, only the strong survive.

Hedegus and Pennebaker follow Jacquy Pfeiffer, a MOF contender and head of Chicago’s French Pastry School, on his journey to the competition in Lyon. Through his weeks of preparation we are introduced to many other chefs, some of whom have already attained their MOF, and are helping Pfeiffer perfect his obscenely complicated recipes in an old farmhouse. This is cooking like you’ve never seen before: Pfeiffer spends his days pulling ribbon candy, forming melted sugar in iron molds and blowing sugar sculptures using glassblowing techniques. It’s incredibly visually impressive, and the directors take care to give the audience enough to feast their eyes on without being overwhelming or intrusive.

After watching Pfeiffer’s preparations and being introduced to several other MOF competitors, it quickly becomes clear that this film is not the sort of food-porn you can take home with you and try out in your kitchen. Unlike “Julie and Julia” (or even “I Am Love”), the food in “Kings of Pastry” is not meant to be eaten, only ogled and admired as a work of art. Indeed, after a dry run on a complicated spherical cake, Pfeiffer takes a taste only to throw the remainder in the trash. Everyone in my theater moaned in horror.

This attitude towards food may be particular to elite chefs—or to the French—but it brings up another important facet of the film: all the chefs, both those in the competition and those judging it, are male. The food is seen as art, not as nourishment. Not once do we actually observe anyone in the competition eating anything—it’s as though their focus on superhuman cooking can only be achieved by denying themselves the carnal pleasure of actually consuming what they create. Though this attitude is a little off-putting, especially in the context of America’s current Julia Child revival, the film overall is compelling and highly enjoyable. “Kings of Pastry” doesn’t take itself too seriously, even if most of its subjects do.

“Kings of Pastry” is currently playing at Film Forum in NYC. It opens in limited release September 24th, with an expanded release in early October.

Machete (2010)

In Film Reviews on September 13, 2010 at 9:31 am

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Every now and then, you just want to watch a ridiculous movie.  Not an art-house film, not a huge blockbuster, nothing that involves too much emotion or any mind-bending plot twists.  As long as you’re not averse to lots of violence and explosions, “Machete” is just the film for you.

Directed by Robert Rodriguez, a frequent Tarantino collaborator, and newcomer Ethan Maniquis, the film follows Machete (Danny Trejo), an ex-Mexican federal agent whose family has been murdered and who has illegally crossed into the US to try and start a new life.  Once there, he meets other illegal immigrants who have formed a protective “network,” and gets suckered into a fake plot to assassinate a senator (Robert De Niro).  As the political climate becomes more and more anti-immigrant, Machete and his friends (Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Jessica Alba) eventually decide to rise up and defend themselves.  There’s more violence and firepower in this film than you can shake a stick at, and it finishes with a literal ride into the sunset.  Perfect, right?

Rodriguez’s body of work has a particular nostalgia about it—he always seems to be harkening back to the era of Sergio Leone and the “Grindhouse” flicks of the ‘70s.  Indeed, he and Tarantino are both so invested in preserving this particular aesthetic that in 2007 they released their own “Grindhouse,” which featured one film from each of them and a smattering of truly hilarious fake trailers.

Though “Machete” does attempt to advance a political position—namely, that anti-immigrant sentiment is wrong and dangerous—it doesn’t waste any time on trying to convince us.  In keeping with Rodriguez’s love of old-school shoot-em-ups, everything in “Machete” is the perfect balance of exciting and cheesy.  Big-name stars pop up everywhere if only to parody themselves (why else is Lindsay Lohan in this movie?), and everyone seems to be in on the joke.

It’s impossible not to enjoy yourself during this movie—unless you have a problem with very creative bloodletting (weed-whackers!) or general hyperbole.  There is enough acerbic dialogue and visual puns to amuse even the most staid audience member, and Trejo himself, with his flowing hair and craggy face, makes a fabulous action hero.  Grab your popcorn!