Saturday, July 10, 2010

Joan Rivers' "A Piece of Work"; "Secret of Kells"--Reviews From the Past Week

While our local suburban movie screens are clogged with the likes of "Eclipse" and "Knight and Day" and "Predators", etc. etc., it was liberating to spend time in the city where there are theaters that routinely show edgier, more reflective and non-commercial fare.  The documentary "Joan Rivers; A Piece of Work" and the Oscar-nominated Irish animated film "The Secret of Kells" have absolutely nothing in common except that they were both on Chicago screens last week, and I was lucky enough to have caught them both.  Here are a couple of short reviews....

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

This is a seething portrait of a complex woman, both brilliant and pathetic, funny as hell but with pain in every laugh, a talented individual who veers from seeming in total control of her world to being out of touch with reality.

It is an always mesmerizing look at the origins of this standup comic genius who wrote her ticket with the endorsement of Johnny Carson, and who never quite recovered from her split with him to host a failed solo talk show, a move which precipitated the suicide of her manager-husband.

It's a look at a woman who is addicted to performing on-stage, who has saved drawers full of thousands of jokes she has written, all catalogued on index cards, someone who needs the approval of her audience, especially the New York audience; ironically, one who holds that audience in contempt.  It is a one-track world we see, much of it of her own making, one of constant hostility and scrutiny, a world of cruel humor and incredible sadness.

Joan Rivers addiction to performing seeks to fill a personal void of acceptance that is bottomless and unfillable; and to maintain an ornate lifestyle that is just as important to her as the satisfactions of pleasing an audience. 

Rivers has undergone plastic surgery in order to feel accepted in this competitive milieu; has degraded herself on Celebrity Roasts and on Trump's apprentice; who wants desperately to be known as an actress, but cannot move beyond the lackluster response to her own self-indulgent play about her own life; who loves her daughter and her close circle of friends and elicits real sympathy as she bares her soul about her losses; only to alienate a viewer with her single-minded pursuit of the high life, often losing her way in vicious comedy.

Does it work as a film?  Very much.  I was not a big fan of Rivers, and the film has me both liking her less, and more. Using a collage of incident with a vaguely chronological structure, the film observes all with a clear and open gaze and does not pass judgment. The pain seeps through, even as you might laugh wildly at the most politically incorrect humor you have ever heard.

For those who have followed Rivers since the '60's it is an illuminating and shocking self-portrait.  To those for whom Rivers has become just an annoying red-carpet presence, there is much to learn, and come to appreciate, about the lengths one will go to stay relevant in the unforgiving hothouse that is show business.

"The Secret of Kells"

A minor controversy ensued last February when this film was among the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature.  Not many people knew of this film, and were surprised at its inclusion in the Oscar race.

While "The Secret of Kells" lacks the sentiment and sheer joy of the Oscar-winning "Up", it does feature some of the most beautiful imagery, wedded to a haunting musical score, that I have ever seen. 

It is a story of  Brandon, a young man living with his uncle, the Abbott of a 9th-century Irish Abbey.  Brandon embarks on a spiritual journey through a magical forest to wrest the jewel of knowledge from a marauding Viking tribe. The jewel with its mysterious totems and symbols is required to complete a book of hope and inspiration to future generations.  Along on his journey is a sprightly white cat and a forest fairy who can change her identity to that of an animal.

The film is potent in its beauty, visually and aurally.  The word "overwhelming" is aptly applied to the movement of the drawings and the variety of colors, with the frames often looking like illustrations themselves in a mystical book.

"The Secret of Kells" will soon be on DVD, and I highly recommend it to those who are hungry for originality, subtlety, and delicate beauty.  This film transcends our expectations of what animated films can do.  It is funny and poetic, with interesting human characters, and animals that are fancifully realized.  Films that treat the subjects of learning and spiritual growth are as difficult to find as they are to successfully produce.  This is a real treat for the eye and ear, and mind, alike.


  1. It sounds like A piece of work is a really fascinating doc that perfectly balances the objectivity of the form whilst allowing the subject to exhibit all of themselves.

    How do you think Joan Rivers herself would react to seeing it?

  2. Thanks you for commenting, Ben...

    I believe Joan cooperated fully in the making of this film, and so there is probably nothing that she would find inaccurate or offensive. Rather, I believe she sees this as another means to mount a comeback. Still, it might be somewhat difficult for her, and if she is able to see it objectively (which is uncertain) I feel it would be just the therapy she needs.

  3. This is a very insightful, on-the-mark review of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."