Hex Story (Weekly Links)

Barbie and Ken, in a film by Harmony Korine?

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Toy Story 3. “The bittersweet secret.”

Jonah Hex. “A serious cow pie.”

Trash Humpers. “Like a ‘Blair Witch Project’ filmed by lunatics.”

Ondine. “Beautifully damp.”

Please Give. “They don’t miss an opportunity to buy cheap.”

The Oath. “An absorbing character study, if a very depressing film.”

Micmacs. “Soft caramel candy.”

City of Your Final Destination. “A sense of exhaustion.”

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Although it focuses on one personality—and what a personality—”Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is in many ways a movie about show business itself. In an early scene of this close-up documentary, we see the 75-year-old comedy trouper examining her calendar. If she doesn’t have something booked virtually every day (and usually more than one gig a day), she gets very, very uptight.

That need—the need to be needed, to be working, to be in demand—is the engine that drives Joan Rivers, and the movie. We watch as Rivers hustles from one event to the next. Here she’s performing profane stand-up comedy at a New York club, here she’s getting roasted on Comedy Central, here she’s paying tribute to George Carlin at the Kennedy Center, here she’s flying to Wisconsin for a snowbound gig at a casino.

Having already made her name and a lot of money, why does Joan run? The movie can’t really answer that, but the portrait is both impressive and sad. Her daughter Melissa, who also went into show business (with her mother’s “support, but not encouragement”), sagely notes that Joan treats “the career” as another member of the family.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who usually do serious work such as the Darfur documentary “The Devil Rides on Horseback,” followed Rivers for a year. One of the running threads is Joan’s participation in “Celebrity Apprentice” on TV, a move her managers are skeptical about but that Rivers turns into a career boost. The film does an able job of recalling its subject as a pioneering female comedian in the 1960s (a fact Rivers hates to be reminded of), success that led to her being named the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

We also hear about the disasters—the way Carson stopped speaking to her when she accepted an offer to host her own talk show, the suicide of her husband. But the filmmakers are most interested in Rivers as an object in motion today: how Joan cuts through life, in the here and now. That spectacle can be quite entertaining, perhaps more than her stand-up routines. She’s cutting, sometimes wildly funny, and desperate.

One thing the film doesn’t go deeply into: Rivers’ extensive plastic surgery. Yes, the film begins with close-ups of Rivers applying makeup to the mask that is now her face, but other than that, her weird appearance in recent years is taken for granted. But perhaps that expression of neediness speaks for itself.

And: I talk with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday” about movie ideas of heroism and the national need to see Barack Obama kick ass: show is archived here, and the “Cultural Moment” section begins 16:25 in.