Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 7

Stephan Elliot’s new film of Noël Coward’s Easy Virtue gets off to a very promising start; after a brief and bewitching silent-movie style opening, we’re introduced to the Whittaker family. They’re dysfunctional in a very particular (and very funny) upper-crust British kind of way, keeping up appearances while snipping at each other at any and all opportunities. Mr. Whittaker is something of a wreck; he’s played by Colin Firth in a performance that’s just plain fun to watch, wandering around the house with a two-day beard and tossing out good lines like well-aimed tennis balls. Most of the time, his target is Mrs. Whittaker, his smug and nastily bitter wife, played by Kristen Scott Thomas in a smug and nastily bitter mood. Their daughters are basically entitled little brats. Then their son John (Ben Barnes) returns home with his new wife Larita (Jessica Biel), who they’ve already dubbed “the floozy.”

These opening scenes are beautifully done; Coward’s text and Elliot’s adaptation (with Sheridan Jobbins) are snappy and fast, full of good jokes and nice details, even if the direction and cutting isn’t always as nimble as the script (in scenes with an abundance of people, Elliot doesn’t seem quite seem sure what to do with his camera). Everything’s moving so quickly, and Firth and Thomas are so damned good, that it takes us a while to notice that Biel has been completely miscast.

Likeable and attractive as she is, Biel just doesn’t have "it," or at least doesn’t have the particular “it” required for this role. She’s just kind of present and that’s all, which is why she’s so wrong for this film. There’s a scene near the end of the picture where she makes a big appearance at a snooty party where everyone has been whispering about her, but she’s not enough of a force of nature to stop the room they way she’s supposed to, and to do what she does after that moment. This role requires an actress who projects moxie and toughness, who is ultimately fierce and headstrong and doesn’t give a damn, and the problem with Jessica Biel is that she’s still at that stage in her career where she wants the audience to like and accept her. She doesn’t seem capable of taking over that room; she looks like she’s afraid she’s being rude.

If it offered nothing else, Easy Virtue would warrant a glance for Thomas’ intelligent work and Firth’s performance of elegant, bruised grace. And it’s pretty and the costumes look great and all of that. It’s just disappointing that it takes so many wrong turns, because it starts out with such wonderful pizzaz.

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The Good Guy tries to do the damndest thing, and almost pulls it off: it starts off clumsily, and the first act has all kinds of problems, but it takes a turn that made me think that most of the things I didn’t like about its opening section were done on purpose. That’s a risky gamble; I was so thoroughly unimpressed by the junk I was watching in that first half hour that I contemplated sneaking out and trying to catch something else.

Follow me here: our hero Tommy is an investment banker (good timing, huh?) who narrates the story of his sad betrayal and heartbreak in a cliché-ridden voice-over. He’s played by an actor named Scott Porter, who comes off as the kind of vapid, dull, vaguely handsome void who frequently plays leading man in a movie like this for no good reason. His line readings are wooden, and Alexis Bledel, as his girlfriend Beth, isn’t nearly as natural with her dialogue as you’d think she’d be after seven years of Gilmore Girls. When we meet them, they’re already a few weeks into a blandly vanilla relationship; their scenes are sickeningly, cloyingly sweet.

But then the strangest thing happens. Once The Good Guy settles in, it starts to engage us—the story is compelling, the characters get some dimension, and we get interested in what’s going to happen. Much of that is thanks to Bryan Greenberg’s skillful work; he gets a firm grip on his character’s social awkwardness and plays it without overplaying it. He also plays well with Bledel, who seems much more at ease in their scenes. And writer/director Julio DePietro has a valuable gift: this is the rare male-penned screenplay where the girl-talk scenes are stronger than the guy-talk ones. Some of our best writers don’t write women well (how ya doin’, Mamet?), so this is not something to be undervalued (these scenes are also greatly enhanced by the strong casting of Beth’s friends—particularly the wonderful Anna Chlumsky, whose similarly charming performance in In The Loop has made her the comeback kid of this year’s Tribeca Fest).

But wait a minute, what about all those bad scenes in the first act? Well, DePietro’s story takes a sharp left turn; I won’t reveal it, except to note that it’s clumsily foreshadowed in an offhand comment Beth makes about a book. But it is a good twist—so good, in fact, that it calls into question many of my complaints. Suddenly, things that didn’t work make sense. Was it all part of a brilliant storytelling strategy? Maybe, maybe not. A movie has to play both as a whole and moment-to-moment; some members of the audience might not figure out what he’s up to because they won’t stick around past those inelegant opening scenes.

Still, The Good Guy is a good-looking movie (it makes fine use of its NYC locations), and I can’t deny that I admired much of it. There are real laughs and winning performances, and some scenes where there are all kinds of interesting things happening. But boy does it take some patience to get to the good stuff.

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I was grinning from ear to ear as Soul Power began, throwing us right in to a thrilling rendition of the title song by James Brown with the able support of his backing band, the JBs. The performance is from the Zaire ’74 music festival, a three-day event intended to lead up to the “Rumble In The Jungle,” the Don King-promoted title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The cameras catch the promoters in Zaire, constructing the stage and trying their best to get the elaborate show mounted with the help of their crew back in New York. Director Levy-Hinte spends too much time (over a third of the running time) on the run-up to the show, but we do see some terrific verité footage.

Then, finally, the music starts, and it’s all you can hope for: it’s joyous, exuberant, and passionate—there’s great songs by the Spinners and the Crusaders and B.B. King, and the James Brown footage is simply extraordinary. At their best, Brown and his band put on the tightest, most thrilling live show in the business, and their driving, dynamic performances of hits like “The Payback” and (especially) “Cold Sweat” are sensational. The photography and cutting of them is fairly standard and straight-forward (especially considering when they were shot), but they do find some interesting shots, and what you’re hearing is more important than what you’re seeing anyway. Soul Power is fueled by the tremendous energy of the performances—these sequences are frenetic and alive.

The trouble is, there aren’t enough of them. Once the show starts, Levy-Hinte keeps cutting backstage, and while there are some good bits back there (the Spinners practicing their French greetings, B.B. King working out his set list), we’d rather see more of these folks on stage. The amount of actual performance footage in Soul Power is disappointing—we only get one song each from every performer but Brown, who does two in the film and one each during the opening and closing credits. That’s not enough of any of these acts. I’m not sure why the film went so much heavier on the documentary than on the music, but it’s a lean mixture.

So that’s my complaint, and who knows, maybe there will be a wonderful cache of deleted scenes waiting for me on the DVD. As it is, Soul Power will make an excellent second half of a double bill with When We Were Kings, and the performances that did make the cut are worth the trouble of seeking it out. At the end of its closing credits, an “in memory of” list scrolls by, and it’s a long one; as we reflect on how many of these great talents we’ve lost, I’m thankful for this piece (tantalizingly brief though it may be) of what they left behind.

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It’s not often that I complain about a film being too short, but that’s the case with Burning Down The House: The Story of CBGB, Mandy Stein’s documentary about the legendary East Village club that many feel was the birthplace of New York punk. It’s full of great footage and interesting people and wonderful stories, but it skimps where you’d least expect it.

Stein intercuts CBGB’s history with the fascinating tale of the frequently frantic fight to save the club from destruction, starting with their attempted eviction by their landlords in August of 2005. The battle between the club and those landlords, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, became a cause célèbre among New Yorkers, particularly those who had gone to the club in its heyday and saw it as just one more example of the upscaling and Disneyizing of the city (a shift that is quickly but efficiently seen in file footage and TV news clips).

The film zips all over the place—it moves at a lightning pace, skipping from topic to topic, from timeframe to timeframe. Her cameras are there throughout the battle, at strategy meetings and benefit events and protests; all of that stuff is good, and her access is impressive. The trouble is, it feels like they’re just skimming the history. The film runs a scant 76 minutes, and frankly, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more performance footage and reflection on the glory days of the 70s and 80s. What’s there is very good—the films and videotapes of the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and others on the CBGB stage are priceless, and the interviews (particularly those of Jim Jarmusch, Clem Burke, Luc Sante, and Legs McNeil, whose oral history Please Kill Me is an indispensable punk tome) are insightful and often very funny. But it’s much more about what happened between 2005 and 2007.

“In New York,” Jarmusch notes, “history and culture always take a back seat to profit.” He’s right, unfortunately. But Burning Down The House is a valuable contribution to the preservation of that history and culture, and a moving tribute to Hilly Kristal’s legacy. I just wish there was more to it.

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I also saw the experimental FILM IST. a girl and a gun today, which I won’t say much about because a) I didn’t see the whole thing due to time restraints, and b) because it’s the kind of movie I don’t really get or respond to anyway. It is “a film drama, in 5 acts,” transposing strange images from all kinds of films (regular narrative to early erotica to experimental landscapes and animations), interspersed with bits of text that I’m sure have some over-arching meaning, some commentary of some kind, but somebody smarter than me will have to explain what that is.

The montage is often ingenious, and the juxtapositions that occur once it gets out of its insufferable first section are intriguing, but this is the type of thing that never does much for me as a filmgoer—I just kind of sit dumbly staring at the screen, like it’s an abstract painting that I can’t wrap my head around. I’ll take responsibility for this. It’s my defect. But I like narrative, and I need a film to tell a story of some kind and put me into the middle of it. With something like FILM IST, I’m on the outside looking in.

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Tomorrow morning I see the Soderbergh movie. And some other things, also.

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