Monday, March 20, 2017

VODepths: 'Burlesque,' 'Punching Henry,' 'This Is Everything'

Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe (documentary, dir. Jon Manning) This documentary about burlesque performers in Portland is more of a commercial for local stage productions than an insightful or entertaining exploration of the art form. Manning gives no context for burlesque either as a historical practice or as a resurgent trend, instead just alternating talking-head interviews with performance footage, all of it looking like a low-budget newsmagazine. It's all resolutely superficial, with only brief digressions about some of the performers' personal lives, all of which are quickly moved past in favor of more underwhelming live performances. There's very little structure to the movie, which jumps around from subject to subject without any narrative progression, and doesn't have a clear starting or ending point. Building to a competition (many interviewees are credited as winners of past titles) or a benefit performance might have given the movie a better hook, and placing the community in the context of the city and/or the larger burlesque movement might have shown why these particular people should represent the entire current scene. As it is, this is a sizzle reel for a third-tier reality show, and barely adequate at that. Available on Amazon and iTunes.

Punching Henry (Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, J.K. Simmons, dir. Gregori Viens) Henry Phillips is the kind of comedian who garners lots of respect from other comedians but has never broken through to mainstream success, and his 2009 autobiographical feature Punching the Clown has built up a small cult following. Punching Henry is a quasi-sequel but seems to stand on its own (I never saw the previous movie), depicting the fictionalized life of Phillips (playing himself) as a struggling comedian. Phillips (who co-wrote the movie with director Gregori Viens) clearly called in a lot of favors, and famous comedians including Tig Notaro, Jim Jefferies, Sarah Silverman and Doug Stanhope show up in supporting roles. The problem is that Phillips himself has no charisma, no screen presence and almost no funny jokes. The episodic movie follows his misadventures in Hollywood, with some vaguely Curb Your Enthusiasm-style cringe humor and some really outdated, broad swipes at social media and viral marketing. Phillips' comedy is mostly in song form, and his folky compositions are at best semi-funny, and often just in a conceptual way. I'm sure he's a great guy for other comedians to pal around with, but this movie offers a good demonstration of why he's not more famous. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (documentary, dir. Barbara Kopple) Most of YouTube Red's feature films have been low-budget, low-concept cash-ins for insular YouTube celebrities, and this documentary about transgender beauty vlogger and YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous could easily have been the same thing. But Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., Shut Up & Sing) elevates the material, and what had the potential to be a crass promotional piece ends up as a slightly more sophisticated and sensitive promotional piece. As a YouTuber from her early teens, Gigi has plenty of footage to document her transition from shy gay boy to glamorous woman, and Kopple supplements it with talking-head interviews (mostly featuring Gigi's family) and plenty of intimate moments, including multiple surgeries. It's a mostly uplifting, positive story, as Gigi has a supportive family and plenty of resources to fund her transition exactly the way she wants to, and there are only a handful of slightly negative moments that pass quickly. The early steps of Gigi's journey are more compelling than her more recent celebrity adventures, since she's ultimately still a narcissistic, somewhat annoying online and reality TV star, even if she's dealt with a lot of adversity to get there. Available on YouTube Red.

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