Saturday, May 2, 2009
Spike Lee’s new documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, is a great movie for sports fans and a passable one for the rest of us; when it was over, I was still ready for a new Spike Lee joint. Make no mistake, it does what it does very well—presumably as well as it could possibly be done. What may come into question is whether it needed to be done at all.
The conceit of the film is right there in the title—this is Kobe going to the office. It takes place over the course of one evening, during one important game (playing the Spurs in the Staples Center on April 13, 2008). Lee and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Pi, Iron Man), shadow Bryant as he suits up, stretches, watches game tape with Jackson, and gets ready for the game. Once it begins, they put 30 cameras on the game and put a wireless mic on Bryant, getting into his space and his head during an important play-off game.
Bryant does extemporaneous narration throughout—a device that’s a little off-putting at first. It’s something akin to watching a movie for the first time with the audio commentary on (and many of his comments have that same kind of tone—“This is funny watching because I didn’t realize I talk all that damn much”). Once you get used to it, however, it does work, and he provides some real insight into his strategies for defense and pacing himself, as well as the moment-to-moment play of the game. In general, the film’s use of sound is masterful; Lee does some experimenting in the design, occasionally isolating effects; in one key moment, he takes out every sound but the bouncing of the ball and the swish of the net, nicely augmented by Bruce Hornsby’s charming score (it’s a jazzy piano number that kind of reminded me of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm).
The cutting is fast-paced without going overboard; it moves, yes, and the multi-camera set-up is fully exploited, but this isn’t an MTV job. Lee stays with shots during slower moments and lingers on close-ups when necessary. Visually, the film is at its best when Spike stops worrying about the game and starts to play around—he trots out some pretty inventive tricks. Slow motion is used at a couple of key moments but not abused; on a couple of other occasions, he shows a play or a trick move in a series of black and white stills rather than moving images (shades of his very first feature, She’s Gotta Have It). The only problem is, when Lee isn’t playing with his photography and having fun with his effects, it feels like we’re just watching a game on a movie screen. It’s a good game, and an expertly photographed and assembled one, but it’s a movie of a game nonetheless. For some people, that idea is very exciting. I found myself wishing Spike had found a few more devices that would keep his movie-nerd fans interested.
* * *
Yoav Shamir’s Defamation is a fascinatingly honest and open personal documentary that seldom steps wrong until its final moments, when he kind of blows it (more on that presently). Shamir, an Israeli director, takes on the broad and difficult concept of anti-Semitism—specifically, is it a prevalent and terrifying threat that could tip the world into another Holocaust, or a scare tactic used for purposes of guilt, fundraising, and attention to agendas?
The truth of the matter is, it’s somewhere in between. Shamir’s film is distinctively homemade (right down to the handwriting style of the on-screen text), but he certainly doesn’t lack for ambition; he travels from Israel to America to Moscow to Poland to points in between, talking to school kids, fellow journalists, activists, professors, and his slightly crazy grandmother.
His interview strategy is one of the simplest but most effective: he lets people keep talking. An astonishing percentage of the time, even the most reasoned and thoughtful interview subject, allowed the rope of uninterrupted camera time, will proceed to hang themselves. He talks to a couple that represent the West coast branch of the Anti-Defamation League, and they end up confessing that they don’t agree with a lot of what they’re supposed to agree with. ADL head Abe Foxman seems an incredibly bright and effective guy, but he’ll occasionally carry his logic to a realm that can only be called paranoia. Most disturbingly, author Norman Finkelstein gives a piercing rebuke to “warmongers from the Hamptons” which had people in our theatre laughing and cheering—and then he proceeds to compare Foxman to Hitler, a comparison that he only withdraws because it “isn’t fair to Hitler.”
Shamir manages to be fair and still personal; he lets everyone say their piece, as borderline insane as it may turn out to be. It’s occasionally worrisome but, it seems, accurate—there are no good guys and bad guys in the film, no easy targets, no black or white. It’s all shades of grey, too complex and difficult for easy designations.
That’s why his final voice-over is such a misfire. Throughout the film, he has followed a group of Israeli students as they prepare for an extended trip to visit the sites of the Holocaust’s greatest crimes. Early in the trip, there is a riveting sequence where they visit a concentration camp and feel horrible—but only for not getting more emotional. Later, however, they go Auschwitz, and it is powerful and moving. Shamir doesn’t interfere, doesn’t ask so much as a question. He hangs back and observes. But then, in the final scene, he offers up a brief and not-terribly-insightful voice-over, wrapping it up with his take on the issue. The film, and the issues it addresses, are too inscrutable for that, and the efficacy of the final sequence doesn’t require a director to come in and tell us what to think. We’ve put it together for ourselves—and some of us may have arrived at a different conclusion than he does.
* * *
In the nearly-perfect film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, the hero gets over a new break-up by comparing it unfavorably to his “top five break-ups,” which he takes us on a tour of. In that film, it’s an effective device for setting up the character and his hang-ups. In Julian Kemp’s My Last Five Girlfriends (which tries so hard to be Hornby-esque, it’s almost embarrassing), that’s the whole movie. Which is not to say that it’s doesn’t have its own charms—it does. You just wish it would get out of its own way after a while.
The trouble is, Kemp is trying too damn hard to be clever. They’re constantly stopping the movie with these asides and bits and devices and little jokes to break things up. Some, especially those towards the beginning, are genuinely funny (like a detailed analysis of exactly what the odds are of Duncan and the first of the five meeting on an airplane); others (like the film’s extended motif of a visit to “Duncan World,” an amusement park of his neurosis) are, to put it politely, a stretch.
And that is not to say that it is without some pleasures. In general, it’s a bright, candy-colored pop confection, and all of the performers are good-looking and charming and funny in that lovely British way of theirs. But it’s often too self-consciously cute for its own good, and that hurts the narrative; it’s so fast-paced and in such a hurry to dazzle us with all of its little tricks, we don’t actually find out much about Duncan (Brendan Patricks) or these women or their relationships. They just provide a construct for all of Kemp’s little skits.
The sole exception is Gemma (played by the charismatic Naomie Harris), the final of the five. Her character is actually well-developed and has some meat for her to play, and there is some very good material in their section—most of which is played straight, without all the artifice. It gives you an idea of what the film could have been, if Kemp trusted his characters and his material.
But at least that comes towards the end, so the stronger third act (and the satisfying if predictable ending) may give the film a stronger overall impression than it deserves. There are some laughs and insights in it, and it has some smart performances, and some people may even like all the gimmicks. It’s fun, I guess, as long as you don’t think about it too much.
Friday, May 1, 2009
great food. Trouble is, most of it is a little on the pricey side, and
that shit adds up over an 11-day festival.
But at Two Brothers Pizza, over on St. Mark's, you can get two slices
and a can of soda for the bargain price of $2.75. I've eaten here more
times in the last week than I'd care to admit. Ive also eaten at
Papaya King and Nathan's and, God help me, KFC. I am uncultured swine.
But I'm not broke!
Thursday, April 30, 2009
It’s been twenty long years since Steven Soderbergh took Cannes by storm and proved that independent films could make money with his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape. That loaded title, with all of its scandalous implications, played no small part in the film’s buzz; those who bought a ticket, however, would be disappointed to learn that it wasn’t really about sex at all, but about intimacy and honesty.
The casting of hardcore star Sasha Grey in the leading role of Soderbergh’s new picture The Girlfriend Experience is the 2009 equivalent of that dirty title; it promises more raunch than the movie itself delivers. It, too, is about intimacy and honesty. But the director isn’t repeating himself; much as Scorsese did with The Departed, Soderbergh is making a film that is, in many ways, a culmination of his recurring themes and unique style, and is also something altogether new.
From the opening moments (an intriguing montage of ambient music and striking visuals), we’re watching a mature, accomplished filmmaker who is in absolute control of his material. His confidence and maturity have never been clearer—nor has his efficiency (The Girlfriend Experience clocks in at a brisk 77 minutes, in a stark contrast to his last picture, the two-part, four-plus-hour Che). And the damn thing is just beautifully shot; using the Red high-def video camera, Soderbergh (lensing under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews) creates a series of elegantly composed tableaux; he seldom moves his camera for effect, so when he does, it actually means something.
And yes, it stars a porn star. I’m not sure what exactly the director saw in Grey that made him think she could carry a real drama (something not really hinted at in any of her, ahem, other work). Whatever the reason, his risk pays off big. It’s not stunt casting; she’s terrific, incredibly natural, altogether believable, and this is not a lightweight role. It could just be that old saw about everyone being capable of one great performance (playing themselves), but I doubt it; this is an actor, and a good one.
Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who, improbably, also penned Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13) and editor Mary Ann Bernard (whoops, that’s another Soderbergh alias) scissor their story into shreds, hopscotching around in the timeline, the cuts drawn organically from key words or ideas. They’re shaking up the form here; a fairly standard narrative is being told, but in an unexpected and unpredictable way. As a result, we don’t see the familiar gears of the three-act structure grinding, the strings being pulled; they take the air out of the mechanics of the plot, and manage to skip some of the triter scenes altogether, since we’re not seeing things in order so we can fill in the gaps.
If all of this sounds disorienting, fear not. Yes, there are stretches (particularly towards the beginning) where you’re not quite sure what’s going on and what Soderbergh is up to. But even when you’re in the woods a little, the film always keeps your attention, and the pieces ultimately come together beautifully.
* * *
Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Wag The Dog) may very well have stumbled into a career renaissance, albeit in a slightly different career—with PoliWood, he’s made a personal documentary that’s better than any narrative film he’s done in quite some time. Levinson wisely puts his cards on the table right up front; the opening credits don’t include the customary “A Barry Levinson Film” but instead “A Barry Levinson Film Essay.” There’s something about that phrase, film essay, which changes our expectations; the last movie that I remember willingly embracing that label was Orson Welles’ wonderful F For Fake, and it was a better picture for it; the connotation of that label is looser, more personal and freewheeling.
He finds a good format for the film, alternating (often non-chronological) documentary footage and interviews—from his work with the Creative Coalition (an organization of entertainer/activists) during the 2008 presidential campaign—with his own, straight-to-camera commentary breaks, which are among the film’s high points.
What’s surprising about PoliWood is that it turns out to be about more than we anticipated; yes, the issue of celebrity-as-pundit is addressed, and thoroughly, but Alterman makes such a compelling case for it early in the film that we don’t require much more in the way of logical argument. What Levinson does that is so interesting and unexpected is his subsequent shift to a larger analysis of mass media and political discourse. There is some frank and astute discussion of how, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, handlers must “create the character” of the politician, just as these actors create the characters they play in their films. From there, it’s no leap to draw parallels between Hollywood and Washington, D.C.—and between the negative connotations of both cultures.
Late in the film, the cameras follow Levinson to a “focus group with celebrities” that he has organized with the help of Fox News’ Frank Luntz (who gained a bit of notoriety for his “independent” focus groups during the campaign, but never mind that). He and several other coalition members sit down with a group of regular folks, and for a while, it is tough and uncomfortable to watch—they let these actors have it with both barrels. And the actors listen, but then they all start to talk and listen to each other, to have an honest debate and an attempt to find some ground. It’s the closest thing to a happy ending that we could hope for in a culture this polarized, and Levinson’s thought-provoking and entertaining documentary is a valuable part of that kind of conversation.
* * *
Amir Nedari’s Vegas: Based on a True Story tells a difficult story in a difficult way. Most audiences won’t have the patience for it. I admired its refusal to compromise, to make its characters (one, in particular) relatable or even alterable. But as much as I found admirable in it, I didn’t like it all that much.
It’s done in a quiet, slice-of-life style; there’s a homemade feel to the film, and its diners and bars and trailers feel inhabited and populated by real people (the cashier at Tracy’s job has, I believe, one line, but there’s not a hint of artifice to her). Nedari’s pace is leisurely, if not lethargic, and he looks this story right in its eye. There is a point in the film where the characters do some digging (okay, it’s quite a lot of digging) and most movies would have covered that in a 90-second montage that would have been rapid, but dishonest.
Moments like that are important because they don’t let the audience off easy (which plenty of audience members won’t cotton to). But that exhaustive chronicling of the process is vital, because Vegas is ultimately not a film about money, or recovery, or any of its other ostensible topics. What it turns into, in that uncompromising back half, is a riveting examination of compulsive behavior. Like addicts and alcoholics, gamblers have addictive personalities, and when they can’t gamble, they act out their compulsions in other ways. Eddie and, to a lesser degree, Tracy do that here. Boy, do they.
The screenplay (credited to Nedari and three other writers) has some weak spots; some of the dialogue is a little worn-out, and Eddie and Tracy have that peculiar screenwriter’s dialogue affectation where they say each other’s names in nearly every sentence. But the actors manage to cover much of that (particularly Thomas, who is a startlingly accomplished young actor). Nedari’s compositions are sometimes odd and sometimes arresting, but his blocking within those frames is occasionally awkward and unnatural. And as much as I liked the ambiguity of his ending, the closing shots are more than a little heavy-handed.
Those are momentary lapses in judgment (though it’s a shame that one of them is the last thing we see). Nedari makes plenty of other smart plays. The one I admired most comes at a key, difficult moment between Eddie and his son; Nedari pulls the sound all the way out, and then shoots it at a rather oblique angle. It’s a distancing effect; frankly, he doesn’t want to get too close to this. We can’t blame him.
* * *
Anders Banke’s Newsmakers is a slick, sleek, professional thriller with all the trimmings—chases, car crashes, explosions, and shoot-outs. Lots and lots of shoot-outs. It was also made in Russia. That’s worth mentioning right off the top, since it’s sturdily constructed and plenty entertaining, but I can’t help but wonder how much attention it would get if it were English.
Director Banke has got a great eye; his picture is handsomely photographed with an abundance of gloss and style. And, refreshingly, it has a sense of humor; there are all kinds of little verbal and visual jokes (my favorite was the lunchtime sequence, with the scores of cops in their riot gear, enjoying their take-out sushi).
He also has a sure hand with action; the violence comes fast and frenetic, exploding in bursts of furious energy. But the fact of the matter is, he’s aping countless cops-versus-killers action/comedies, throwing in chunks of gang war pictures and hostage movies into a blender and pureeing, and while there’s nothing shameful in that, let’s also not make it more than it is. If it were, in fact, the glib Hollywood actioner that it looks so much like and may very well still be remade into (I’ve got a feeling Angelina Jolie may have already been rung about stepping into Katya’s high heels), it certainly wouldn’t be playing at Tribeca and other film festivals.
And it’s not a matter of doing what other foreign directors have done with American genre pictures; when Truffaut and Godard paid homage to the old Warners gangster movies, they mated them with their own unique ideas about character and construction, and when John Woo did his Hong Kong action flicks, he amped up the gunplay and choreography into the realm of the surreal. Anders Banke made a fine, sturdy action picture in a hard, cold, efficient way. It gets the job done. But let’s not go mistaking it for art.
I'm now at the "screening library" (pictured), where we can watch screeners of some titles on DVD. About to watch Barry Levinson's "Poliwood," which has only one showing, while I'm at work tomorrow night.
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Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
Tomorrow morning I see the Soderbergh movie. And some other things, also.
"Soul Power" has all these wonderful musical numbers, but it's skewed too much towards the behind-the-scenes doc stuff. Needed way more music, but what's there is amazing.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Here's why this doesn't make any damn sense: I've been to two general public screenings so far, and it didn't run in front of either of those films. So somewhere, someone decided that they just wanted to ram this fucking thing down our throats-- you know, the people who are going to be going to many, many screenings.
And why would you show a commercial for the festival AT THAT FESTIVAL? Clearly, you know, we've heard of this "Tribeca Film Festival" thing. We might even be covering it for media outlets!
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is about such a thoroughly repulsive bunch of people, I wonder if my distaste for the film is just a byproduct of my dislike for them. The Whites gained notoriety back in the early 1990s, when the PBS documentary Dancing Outlaw, profiling Jesco White, became something of a cult phenomenon. It’s exactly the kind of film that you can imagine Johnny Knoxville knowing by heart and quoting with his friends; he’s the executive producer of this follow-up, which introduces us to many members of the extended White clan.
They’re a huge crew of thickly-accented mountain folk, who spend their short days and long nights drinking, shooting, fighting, yelling, and getting high—sometimes from weed, usually from grinded-up pills, which they snort like coke (early in the film, young Derek White rattles off a list of meds with alarming precision). Daughter Kirk actually has one of the film’s rare moments of insight; after the birth of her new baby, she talks about how she wants better for her daughter than she had. It’s a nice moment whose spell is broken by the next shot, in which she snorts up some crushed pills in her hospital room, in front of the baby. The hospital ends up keeping the baby and turning it over to Child Protective Services. Shocking!
Director Julien Nitzberg invests a lot of time and potential emotional energy in Kirk’s struggle (she decides to clean up so she can get her baby back), but it feels like he’s trying to have it both ways. It’s an example of the film’s schizophrenia: how does it feel about these people? It’s easy to look down at their willful ignorance and hicky voices (“If he ain’t high on drugs, if he ain’t high on alky-hol…”); it’s easy to sneer and laugh. But is the film doing that? Knoxville got MTV Films to front a chunk of the funding, and it is certainly cut for an MTV audience, utilizing a slice-and-dice editing style that’s fast-paced and music-heavy. That audience is primarily there to laugh at the funny rednecks and cheer their drugging and drinking and fucking and huffing. So what will they make of the attempts to downshift to genuine emotion in the third act? Of the brief interlude that contextualizes their behavior within the mining town culture? The audience that will be affected by that stuff has probably already walked out.
There is, without question, a train-wreck quality to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. As repulsive as these people are, you can’t help but watch as they revel in their excesses. But by the one-hour mark, I had lost patience with them, and with the film. It’s just kind of sad and depressing to spend time with them. And the images that close the film, of the next generation of Whites, are frankly a little terrifying.
* * *
God, but this is a hard film to watch. Libby Spears’ Playground is a thorough and gut-wrenching examination of the child sex trade—how it works, and how it harms. It is an emotional film, but it looks at the problem through clear eyes and with sharp focus. The executive producers are Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and his producing partner Grant Heslov, a fact that I mention because, in putting their names on a film like this, they’re doing the best thing you can do with the reputations they’ve attained. Plainly put, I saw the film because their names were on it. I might not have otherwise, but I’m glad I did. Playground is like a kick in the head.
The picture is cannily constructed. Spears focuses on one particular case, an 11-year-old Oregon girl named Michelle who was discovered turning tricks in Vancouver. The daughter of an addict, Michelle had been in and out of countless foster homes and was one of those kids who just got “lost in the system.” Her story made international headlines, but after she was returned to another foster home, she disappeared again. Spears and her crew, with the help of the appropriate agencies, try to find her, providing an ingenious arc for the film’s duration.
Within that construct, other stories are told. Spears utilizes a wealth of interviews, both with witnesses and experts, as well as startling statistics and (in what sounds like a trite gimmick, but isn’t) haunting animations by Yoshimoto Nara. Not all of her devices work; the shots of empty, badly chipped playground equipment, for example, feel like exactly what they are—a heavy-handed piece of symbolism in a film that’s powerful enough with it. And while some of the cultural criticisms are valid, others are painting with a pretty broad brush. While the film’s profile of a sex offender is valuable and insightful, the film is generally more successful at explaining how these things happen, rather than why.
“We all failed her,” says Michelle’s social worker. That may very well be the case. We certainly leave Playground feeling that, in many ways, she didn’t have a chance—particularly in grasping how this industry works, and how easily its clients can attain their desires. I won’t reveal what becomes of Michelle, except to say that the final piece of information about her just knocks the wind out of you. That goes for the movie, too.
* * *
The fixer’s job is multifold. He is hired by foreign journalists as a translator and facilitator; when they come into his country for a story, he uses his connections to get them access, set up interviews, and make things happen. For a foreign correspondent, particularly in wartime, a good fixer is vital. Ajmal Naqshbandi was a very good fixer, and in 2007, he was kidnapped and killed by the Taliban.
Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi tells his story. It’s constructed like a thriller and plays like a procedural drama, reconstructing his ordeal and his life before it with methods both expected and unique. The opening sequence’s on-screen text tells us that he was murdered; the story isn’t played for suspense. In fact, the knowledge of his fate lends a poignancy to the rest of the film. Instead, we jump back to six months before the kidnapping, when he was working with Nation reporter Christian Parenti on a story about top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, and we see him and Parenti at work, intercut with the story of his kidnapping and ultimate death.
It’s structurally reminiscent of Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s brilliant 2002 documentary Bus 174; the fascinating background is crosscut with an urgent, unwinding event. The background material is very good—I’m not sure why so much of the Nation investigation was filmed, but it was not done carelessly. The image is sharp, well-shot, and well-framed, even if we do spend an awful lot of time watching people driving around in cars talking.
Olds’ also uses images from the raw, repugnant Taliban-produced videos; many of them are scarier than any horror film. He is reasonably tasteful and tactful in what he does and doesn’t show, but often these clips are even more disturbing with the obstructions than they might be unedited—we’re imagining what’s behind that black box based on what we are seeing, and it’s not pretty. It’s barbaric, and it’s horrifying. So is the footage of Naqshbandi and Parenti going into an area just after a suicide bombing; that’s another sequence that’s not for the squeamish.
Fixer is a sturdy, accomplished documentary, and its parallel timelines are a masterstroke. It not only sustains the storytelling, but it hurts a little too—there is some uncomfortable foreshadowing when we hear Naqshbandi explain exactly how and why he’s not in danger of exactly the kind of fate that he met. That’s a tough moment to take. In moments like that, and in its extraordinarily powerful, quiet ending, Fixer approaches greatness. It’s a fine, fine film.
Nothing makes this cinephile happier than a good movie about movies—I’ve watched Z Channel and The Celluloid Closet and A Decade Under the Influence and This Film Is Not Yet Rated more times than I’d care to count, and Blank City may not quite approach the five-star quality of those films, it is still a stellar, well-constructed doc that vividly recaptures a very specific moment in underground cinema.
Its opening passages are its best; director Celine Danhier is skilled with montage, and she assembles a fast-paced, eye-catching collection of striking images that sucks you right in and throws you into New York’s East Village in the late 1970s. She’s also good with context, utilizing period footage and eloquent, often witty recollections of just about anybody who was everybody in that scene to help explain where America, New York, and Cinema were when a bunch of artists, writers, musicians, and misfits started picking up Super-8 cameras and making movies their own way, following their own rules.
The enthusiasm that they had, and still have, is infectious; everybody was being creative, everybody was working with everyone else, no one had any money, and they were having a great time. Danhier just grabs a line or two from this film, some shots from that one, but some of these films seem, candidly, just unbearable. At this point in time, the stories behind them may be more interesting than the films themselves; they were important, they made waves, and they gave a lot of important directors, actors, and musicians their start. And you can’t deny that even the worst of them had a genuine energy, a heedless abandon that this film shares—it’s got a great momentum.
Blank City only falters as it winds down; it runs just a little too long, and you can feel that in the last half-hour or so. The fact of the matter is, the second movement that rises from the ashes of the first isn’t nearly as interesting; they all just seem like annoying, truculent nihilists. I worried that my preference for the earlier sections was just because they were interviewing participants that I knew and liked (Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, Steve Buscemi, etc). Then I realized that there is a reason that I’ve heard of them and not the folks in the second half.
So it could use some tightening there. But Blank City is still a terrific documentary, with great clips, funny and insightful interviews (seriously, is there a movie that John Waters didn’t improve by sitting down to talk?), and a palpable love of the subject matter. “They may have been naïve, or badly made,” someone notes at the end. “…but they were passionate.” Indeed.
* * *
American Casino is a documentary so timely, it feels like they finished cutting it last night. It deals with the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent recession with such immediacy and clear-headedness, you’re willing to forgive it for perhaps taking on too much, for taking too many detours (interesting though they may be). It’s a solid, workmanlike piece of nonfiction craftsmanship.
The film’s first act is primarily spent on Wall Street, examining how deregulation enabled the investment “casino” to go into business. Director Leslie Cockburn talks to numerous experts, gets some candid commentary from an (anonymous) former Bear Sterns employee (“You have to follow the money,” he advises), and shares some shocking internal emails from the S&P, detailing exactly how diligently they were rating those bonds with all the dodgy mortgages in them. This section is smartly edited and mostly clear—Cockburn does her best to keep the language plain, although the film does occasionally get bogged down in the jargon (and the decision to occasionally use on-screen text during interviews confuses more than it helps).
We then move into the more personal stories of those who were hurt worst by the mortgage crisis (thankfully, Cockburn doesn’t trot out the already tiresome “Wall Street/Main Street” meme). American Casino’s most effective scenes are those where we’re told the more personal stories—they’re the ones that make it real and tangible. In a heartbreaking sequence, a high school teacher named Denzel takes the camera crew on a tour of his foreclosed home, which we see being auctioned (to an audience of one) on the courthouse steps that very day. We’re then shown exactly how his mortgage became one of the giant pools of money. “Nobody told Denzel that he was a chip,” we’re told.
The only real structural problem is that the film is occasionally too ambitious, getting off on occasional tangents that are of interest but ultimately don’t move us the way the rest of the film does. Some of this is valuable context, but what are we to make of the sequence at the end, where we see how untreated pools in abandoned homes are drawing mosquitoes that may carry the West Nile virus? It’s gross, yes (as are the big close-ups of rats floating in the pools), but it’s a strangely secondary matter to deal with so close to the film’s conclusion.
It’s hard to make too much of a fuss over these minor infractions, however (when was the last time you complained about a movie with too much information?). As it is, American Casino is a smart and frequently devastating dissection of a disaster—how we got there, why we got there, and what to know now that we are there.
* * *
Tomorrow’s looking to be another all-documentary day, which is fine by me. Seriously, there is some amazing doc work out there, and it’s exciting to get to see so many of them on the big screen. For now, it’s off to get my 5 hours of sleep.
Monday, April 27, 2009
survival kit. Here's what I take every day:
- my notebook
- my credentials
- 1 book (I'm currently rereading Kael's "For Keeps", as every film
writer should every few years)
- many pens
- 1 bottle of water
- 1 corner-store bought donut
- 1 bag Cheez-It
- 1 bag Wheat Thins
A word about the food: you have to have snacks, I've found, mainly
because sometimes your movies are scheduled so tight that you don't
have time to go get a proper meal. And that part--eating out here--is
tricky too. More on that later.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
I saw your film Hysterical Psycho this afternoon, and wanted to talk directly to you about it. You see, it seems to be very much your baby, at least based on the credits; you’re in it, you directed it, you executive produced it, some of your family was in it. And you also have this credit: “Written and created by Dan Fogler.” I’m not sure what that even means (if you wrote it, shouldn’t we presume you created it?) but either way it goes, Hysterical Psycho is clearly your film. And Dan, I don’t even know where to start with your film.
To start with, why is it so ugly? I’m not talking about the subject matter (though that’s not the most inaccurate descriptor). I’m asking, why is it so hard to even watch? A few of the outdoor shots look good (black and white exteriors are pretty hard to screw up), but the indoor lighting is terrible, and the camerawork is downright obnoxious—the clunky handheld camera is always zipping around into someone’s face. And here’s the other problem: I couldn’t make out huge chunks of dialogue, due to poor audio recording. And the music—I don’t mean to sound like an old fogey (I’m 33, for God’s sake), but why is your movie so loud? All of the performers seem to be screaming their lines (even when they’re not lines where they’re screaming), and scene after scene ends with you slamming in a loud, “thrill” music cue, presumably to create the illusion that something is happening, or to wake us all up. I’ve never complained about volume in a movie before, but seriously, it felt like this movie was raping my ears. Between the pushy camerawork and the screeching sound, your film gave me an ice cream headache.
Of course, none of this—the full-volume performances, the wafer-thin characterizations, the shoddy camerawork—none of it would matter if Hysterical Psycho was funny. But it isn’t. I realize that humor is subjective, and not everyone finds the same thing funny. But your movie is so crude, so puerile, that I can’t imagine who would find it funny; and I’m not sure how funny you think it is, since you basically give up on the humor in the third act and try to make it a straight horror movie or something. Unfortunately, it’s not scary either.
I don’t mean to be mean about your film, Mr. Fogler. I’ve made a few of these things myself, and let me tell you, my first film is no treat either. But I have to be clear on this: In its current form, Hysterical Psycho is unwatchable. It’s like going into a theater to watch a YouTube video that you want to click away from two minutes in. Better luck next time.
None of this is the fault of Ryan, who here gives her most robust performance in years (not a surprise—if you can get past all the weird stuff she’s done to her face, she was actually quite good in last year’s dreadful remake of The Women). It’s a fizzy, spirited piece of work, and her line readings are just sharp as a tack. Timothy Hutton (or “Tim Hutton,” as he’s inexplicably billed) doesn’t quite match up with her. His performance is passable, but Ryan’s just acting circles around the guy, and by the midway mark, she’s so exhausted that she starts acting down to him. It’s not entirely his fault; his role isn’t written as well as hers. When his big moment comes, he tries to underplay it, but it comes across as stilted; he’s just saying lines here. And no young actress projects fierce intelligence as effortlessly as Kristen Bell does, so it’s kind of sad to see her wasted in what’s essentially a nothing, young-and-dumb role.
I will confess to being blindsided by what happens when Justin Long pops in (don’t read the summaries on imdb if you’d like this surprise preserved), but he certainly gives the picture a jolt of nasty energy. It takes a darker turn, and suddenly there’s some spontaneity; the movie’s outcome is up in the air, and our interest perks up. Once the ending arrives, it’s a little on the corny side (though a cop with a bit part scores one of the biggest laughs in the film), and the epilogue is a little too nice and neat, though it tries to remedy that with a final beat that doesn’t play at all.
Serious Moonlight has a little more flavor than the vanilla chick flicks that Ryan made her name on (and that it probably will be marketed to resemble). It’s a little too put-together for my taste, but it has some decent performers and a few solid chuckles, even if it evaporates by the time you’re out of the theater.
The purists have plenty of reasons to loathe him, even if only on a professional level. Early in the film, when introducing some of his pieces, he says, “I made these paintings… with some help.” That’s a bit of an understatement. What he does (shown in a beautifully constructed reveal) is take Warhol’s “Factory” concept and pushes it to the absolute limit: he employs idea people, who come up with the painting concepts, and then hand them off to his artist employees, who paint them. When they’re done, Kostabi signs it. That’s it, that’s all he does. Many of his employees have never seen him paint. The thing is, it’s no secret—it’s what he’s known for. “Modern art is a con,” he said during his heyday, “and I am the world’s greatest con artist.”
He became known less for his art than for his “marketing personality”—basically, his feeling was that the power of celebrity was such that if he became a name, even if it was a name as an egotistical blowhard, that would drive up the price of his pieces. He made ridiculous, hyperbolic statements and presented himself as the bad boy of the scene. Exactly how much of this is a put-upon persona and how much of it was his real personality is up for debate (“I don’t think that’s an act,” says one critic. “That’s below his act”)—and there is, of course, always the possibility that as he became more and more famous, the persona became his real personality.
Kostabi remains a savvy salesman; we see him trying to manipulate his image in the film, advising Sladek that a shot is “good B-roll,” telling an employee, “I want to argue with you for Sladek’s documentary,” reportedly coaching other interview subjects. Sladek seems to get the last laugh by including these and other cringe-inducing moments (like his painful public access TV appearances), but he also inexplicably leaves out one of Kostabi’s most notorious scandals. In a 1989 Vanity Fair interview, he said, “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the eighties. Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.” This happened right before his fall from grace and subsequent bankruptcy in the early 1990s, but Sladek’s film doesn’t mention the uproar, blaming his rough patch in the 90s on the bursting of the Tokyo art bubble.
That’s about my only major complaint with Con Artist, however. It’s well-cut and well-paced, and if Kostabi remains somewhat impenetrable, I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the film—it may not even be possible to know this guy. At one point, he seems to get genuinely emotional about his current lot in life, and asks plaintively, “Do you think it’s insane? To desire to be loved?” In any other person’s interview, we might read this as a penetrating, insightful moment. With this guy, who knows?
I've seen some mediocre films here, and a couple of bad ones, but this is the first one I've seen that made me angry. Who watched this and thought anyone else needed to see it, ever?
Sent from my iPhone
As for the movie, I wanted to like it, and it is likable; it's also pretty disposable, and kind of wastes Kristen Bell.