Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Theaters: "Big Fan"

In an NPR interview, Patton Oswalt says he was drawn to his new starring vehicle Big Fan because of its similarity to dark 1970s character dramas like Fat City and The King of Marvin Gardens. Those influences come through, and clearly, in the finished product, which complements its grubby, low-budget aesthetic with a throwback vibe—like those films, from that more daring time, it gives it characters the freedom to live and breathe in their own worlds, and presents them without apology.

Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a diehard New York Giants fan who lives in a closed-off, sports-obsessed world. He toils away as a parking garage attendant, listening to sports talk radio and drafting his notes for his nightly call to “The Sports Dog.” Those calls (he’s known on the show as “Paul from Staten Island”) are his sole outlet, his single release valve for the day, but he has to do them quietly—though in his mid-30s, he still lives with his overbearing mother, his perpetual adolescence illustrated by his bedroom decorated with sports posters, his bed dressed with NFL sheets.

Paul’s favorite player is Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop; one night, Paul and his only friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan, spot-on), spot Bishop tooling around Staten Island and follow him to a Manhattan strip club. The two fans try to approach their hero, but a misunderstanding is followed by a melee; Paul ends up getting beaten senseless by his hero.

What follows—Paul’s uncertainty over what action to take, his family’s confusion and frustration with his timidity, his realization that the incident is preventing his QB from playing and what could be more important than that, and the slow-motion implosion of his entire world—unfolds with the inevitability and believability of documentary. The picture’s resemblance to Taxi Driver has been duly noted in many corners, but mostly on a purely superficial level; what writer/director Robert Siegel (the former Onion editor who penned The Wrestler) has most cleverly siphoned and repurposed from Paul Scrader’s brilliant script to that film is its structural ingenuity. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is spurned by the girl of his dreams, and ends up lashing out—but at a surrogate, so as not to sully the object of his love. Siegel’s excellent screenplay toys with that notion, and he draws out his climactic sequence with enough skill to put more seasoned directors to shame.

Siegel’s visual style is so subtle, you may not realize how striking it is, and how thoroughly it’s working on you. He shoots in close—uncomfortably close at times—keeping Paul front and center and daring us to look away from his discomfort and misery. Oswalt, a brilliant stand-up comic (one of our best) making his dramatic debut, is up to the task; it’s an outstanding performance, raw and unvarnished and without a glimmer of dishonesty. And though the overall picture is grim and bleak, there is plenty of humor in the film; at a family gathering, Paul and his family watch his lawyer brother in a bad TV spot that’s perfectly executed, and there are throwaway jokes here and there to lighten things up (when Sal wonders what Bishop is doing in Staten Island, Paul guesses, “Maybe’s he’s here to see the Wu-Tang!”).

Big Fan runs a brisk 85 minutes, and my only real criticism of it is that it is perhaps too tight and efficient; I frankly wouldn’t have minded a little more of the first act, more of an opportunity to live in Paul’s world and soak in the rich details. But how often can you complain about a movie being too short and disciplined? Big Fan is a stark, vivid character study, and confirms what The Wrestler suggested: Siegel is an exciting, first-rate new talent.

"Big Fan" is currently playing in limited release.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In Theaters: "Taking Woodstock"

Taking Woodstock isn’t a bad picture, but the problem is that it knows the words and not the music. The director is Ang Lee and the screenwriter is James Schamus; they’ve proven one of the most fruitful director/writer collaborations of modern cinema (Schamus wrote or co-wrote all of Lee’s features to date, save for Sense and Sensibility), but this time, there’s something just a little off. The exposition is surprisingly clumsy (particularly the early scenes with the banker and with the sister), and there’s a strange, listless quality to its early sequences. It’s not that it doesn’t play—it’s just that you keep waiting for it to catch fire.

The film tells the true story of Elliot Tiber (stand-up comic Demetri Martin), a would-be artist and designer slumming it in his parents’ ramshackle Catskills resort. He then hears that a neighboring town has pulled the permit for the upcoming Woodstock music festival, and offers up an alternate location—providing a permit, a nearby farm, and, of course, accommodations. In doing so, he ends up with a front-row seat as the festival spins out of control and away from expectations, and becomes the event that defines his generation.

All of that is well and good, and once the hippies start showing up and the festival gets into full swing, there’s a lot of Taking Woodstock to like. But boy does it take some time to get going. The first half of the film is downright rudderless, meandering oddly from scene to scene, and the punch lines don’t quite land; the picture is being marketed as a comedy, but Lee’s timing isn’t quite right. And as much as I like Martin, he just may not be leading man material—he’s a little too bemused, too low-key and low-energy, to really carry a movie.

I can see why Lee cast him; in the second half, Martin does a fine job of projecting the quality of an innocent drinking it all in (a concept that works from the viewpoint of boilerplate narrative, though his naiveté seems somewhat at odds with the character’s bohemian past). The second act’s uptick also owes a great deal to the presence of a be-dragged Liev Schreiber, who waltzes in around the halfway mark and all but steals the picture. Eugene Levy is also quite good (he’s spot-on as likable but practical Max Yasgur), and Dan Fogler is actually tolerable (a first for him), though Emile Hirsch fails to make much of an impression.

There’s a wonderful moment when Ritchie Havens’ voice floats over from Yasgur’s Farm, and Elliot smiles and says, “It’s starting.” The film’s sound design is inventive; once the concert begins, we hear distant but recognizable performances, always off-screen, but present and lending context and atmosphere. In fact, Taking Woodstock is near-perfect, technically; the editing frequently apes the split-screen cutting of the Woodstock documentary, while Eric Gautier’s cinematography is so spot-on, you’d swear they grabbed some outtakes from the original doc. And it has one truly magnificent shot, which tracks with Elliot as he moves slowly through the various festival goers and observers.

But even once the narrative takes off, the script keeps letting us down; the business with the hash brownies (seen in the trailers) is a lazy, easy laugh, and the dialogue in Elliot’s last scene with his father is so trite and cliché, you can sit in the audience and write it yourself. Again, Taking Woodstock is worth seeing, and there is much in it to recommend. But it’s ultimately passable rather than exceptional, and from Lee and Schamus, that’s a letdown.

"Taking Woodstock" is currently playing in theaters.

In Theaters: "It Might Get Loud"

In the ingenious opening scene of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White McGyvers a makeshift guitar, pretty much just using a chunk of wood, a Coke bottle, and a piece of wire (“Who says you need to buy a guitar?” he muses). It’s a fine party trick, but it also sets the appropriate tone for Guggenehim’s doc, which is simultaneously reverential and irreverent, taking the art of rocking out with the appropriate degree of seriousness (which is to say, some, but not too much).

The film is built around a filmed meeting on January 28, 2008, during which “three musicians came together to discuss the electric guitar.” Those three were Led Zeppelin’s guitar god Jimmy Page, U2’s brilliant guitarist The Edge, and White Stripes/Raconteurs frontman White (who confesses, on the way, that he plans “to trick these guys into teaching me all of their tricks”).

That meeting forms a through-line and jump-off point for the film, but less screen time is spent at it than you might think; much of the picture is spent on the three guitarists’ individual biographies and current working methods. Page takes the cameras to the house where Led Zep recorded their immortal fourth album, while Edge visits the secondary school where he and his mates met and first rehearsed and performed (he even finds the bulletin board where Larry Mullen posted the note that assembled the group). White is seen traveling and hanging out with a nine-year-old version of himself (it’s a bizarre contrivance that somehow plays; don’t ask me how). All three discuss and play recordings of the music that inspired (and continues to inspire) them; Page’s sheer joy of listening to Link Wray’s “Rumble” is only eclipsed by White’s emotional (yet eloquent) response to the music of Son House.

An Inconvenient Truth director Guggenehim and editor Greg Finton jazzily hopscotch between the three biographies—all have great stories to tell, and the archival footage is priceless. U2 fans will eat up the vintage TV clip of the band; they seem impossibly young, though they look like old bluesmen when compared to Page’s first TV appearance as a kid skiffle player. There are aural treats as well, particularly a scene where Edge plays some old four-track recordings from the Joshua Tree sessions.

That scene made this particular U2 fan just about pee his pants. However, if there’s one flaw to be found in It Might Get Loud, it’s that fandom might be a requirement; I love all three of these guys and have their bands on permanent iPod rotation, so for me, every anecdote was fascinating, every performance exciting. But more casual observers might find the film uninteresting, even dull. Then again, I don’t have much use for anyone who doesn’t like at least a couple of these guys.

The summit of the great guitarists provides some wonderful, if controversy-free, footage. There are some clear philosophical differences between the three men, occasionally highlighted by the editing; Edge’s explanation of his love for effects units is seen as a direct contrast to White’s disdain for technology, while Edge’s list of the excesses of the rock era that preceded his includes a couple of items (like 15-minute solos) that Zep certainly indulged in.

But observing the trio playing, listening, and talking shop, we reflect that it’s rare to observe this kind of powwow between skilled artists and craftsmen. Watching the three men jangling away at the power opening of U2’s early single “I Will Follow” is a joy; seeing them collaborate on Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of My Dying” and the White Stripes track “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” is downright thrilling. But perhaps the highlight of those scenes is the look on White and Edge’s faces as they watch Page play the signature riff from “Whole Lotta Love.” In that moment, and in the finest moments of Guggenheim’s documentary, we are reminded that true musicianship is not just about playing music, but hearing it and understanding it and, above all, adoring it; it is only then that, as White says, you can become a member of “that family of storytellers.” It Might Get Loud is a love letter to that family, and from it.

"It Might Get Loud" is now in theaters.

Today's New in Theaters- 9/11/09

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself: Ugh, this fucking guy. Tyler Perry has built an empire by serving an audience so starved for entertainment, they'll lap up the steaming dogshit he serves them just because it's on a dinner plate. He's a bad actor, a terrible director, and a ghastly screenwriter, but none of these offenses would bother me (there's plenty of all three floating around) were it not for his bloated ego. Who the fuck puts their name in the titles of all of their movies? It's not Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island or The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man or Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, and those are all filmmakers of greater natural talent, accomplishment, and skill than Perry could ever dream of; I'll watch their worst films a hundred times over before taking one look at his best. Fuck that guy, and fuck his new movie. (And, okay, fine, if you need a real "review" by someone who actually "saw the movie", here.)

9: So this one looks interesting, at least on a visual level, and the voice talent assembled is impressive. Ebert gives it a thumbs-up.

Sorority Row: You'll never believe it, but they remade a horror movie from the '80s! I KNOW, RIGHT? Orndorf gives it a no-star review-- in spite of the presence of Carrie Fisher.

Whiteout: You'll never believe it, but they made a film adaptation of a comic book! I KNOW, RIGHT? I will say that this one looks intriguing, and Beckinsale is on a good run lately (after Snow Angels and Nothing But the Truth); Rich at DVD Talk, who I usually agree with, recommends it.

No Impact Man: This eco-doc could have been a long slog of liberal posturing, but it's a surprisingly thoughtful and funny examination of a man who decided to put his money where his mouth was, environmentally speaking.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In Theaters: "No Impact Man"

Colin Beavan’s heart is in the right place, but you can see how he’d be a little insufferable. No Impact Man is the documentary account of how he decided that he was going to spend one year making no environmental impact. He did it as an experiment, and also to provide himself with subject matter (Beavan is an author—he kept a blog throughout the project and just published a book about the experience); more importantly, it gave the self-proclaimed “guilty liberal” the chance to put his money where his mouth is.

The rules of the “no impact” year are multitude: no automated transportation (biking only), no non-local food, no material consumption, no new clothes, no trash generation, no packaging. No meat and no television (there’s the part where you’d have to count me out). Six months in, no electricity. And (gulp) no toilet paper.

What keeps No Impact Man, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, from descending into the well-intentioned but dull rhythms of most liberal eco-docs is the fact that Colin doesn’t take on the experiment alone: he also has a two-year old daughter (she’s charming and good on camera, which helps) and a wife, Michelle, who writes for Business Week and loves her retail and Starbuck’s coffees. Her presence in the picture is absolutely invaluable; she’s funny and interesting, and provides a valuable counterpoint, particularly in the early scenes.

Gabbert and Schein’s cameras clearly had full access to the Beavan family throughout the year-long project, observing some difficult conversations between the married couple. If some of it feels somewhat set up, or at least amped up for the camera, it is at least acknowledged; at one point, Colin remarks, “This feels like a reality show, to have this conversation on camera.” But the film is unquestionably well-assembled and compelling, particularly in the section dealing with the media scrutiny his experiment generated (some of it critical and mean-spirited). And not every critical voice is on the page or on the Internet—in one fascinating, uncomfortable scene, the organic gardener who Colin is working with takes him to task for his wife’s place of business. He notes that trees are chopped down for the magazine, which “promote(s) the fully fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people” and tells the writer that if “it’s your contention that she makes up for it—that it evens out—because she doesn’t take the elevator in your Fifth Avenue co-op, I have to say, you are either dishonest or delusional.” When those kinds of harsh, but honest and complicated ideas become a part of the conversation, No Impact Man is thoughtful, complex, downright fascinating viewing.

And in many ways, Michelle sort of saves the movie; she begins as the cynical voice of reason and practicality (a naturally sympathetic position, thanks to both her natural wit and the extremity of the project) but, through the duration of the film, slowly comes to embrace and celebrate their new way of life. To some degree, she becomes the audience surrogate, and that’s a valuable storytelling tool that is too often missing from documentary films (due to the nature of the beast). The picture doesn’t really come to a definite ending—it ends more with a dash than a period—but I prefer that kind of modest, unassuming ending to the moralizing and monologues of something like Super Size Me (which the filmmakers pinpoint as an influence). That kind of caution is admirable; the content and ideas of No Impact Man could easily veer into the territory of the overbearing, but the naturalistic filmmaking and engaging personalities of the parties involved keep the documentary light and nimble while remaining contemplative and informative.

"No Impact Man" opens in limited release on Friday, September 11th.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 9/8/09

There's not much in the way of new movies out on disc today, but plenty of good TV. A few thoughts on the slate:

Homicide (Criterion Collection): I haven't seen David Mamet's third picture as a writer/director in years, but it's been MIA on DVD for too long. DVD Talk's Jamie S. Rich gives Criterion's disc high marks.

The Office- Season Five: God, but I love this show. It's only getting better with each passing season--funnier, smarter, more comfortable, with a recognizable shorthand. And for what it's worth, I like the fact that Pam and Jim are kind of boring; I'll take their easygoing domesticity over bullshit drama and convoluted break-ups any day of the week. (Randy Miller III likes it too!)

Parks and Recreation- Season One: Expectations were high for NBC's new comedy from the Office team, and while it has taken it some time to find its footing, I like where it's going. And let's not forget how wobbly the first few episodes of The Office were.

Important Things with Demetri Martin- Season One: Martin is one of our most intriguing (and consistantly funny) stand-ups; his Chappelle's Show-style Comedy Central series is occasionally uneven, but when it hits (like in the Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Galileo at TGIFriday's sketch), it hits big. (Rich's review of this one is also quite good-- dude seems to have gotten all the good discs this week).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

In Theaters: "Playground"

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.

Spears begins with a brief summary of the international sex trade; we all think of predators traveling to Thailand or Cambodia to have sex with children, preferring to put it in the box of issues that we can’t control, things unfortunately in the hands of less civilized societies. But it’s not an off-shore problem, as Spears’ film makes painfully clear; there is a horrifying child prostitution problem right here on our streets.

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. We meet a young girl in jail for prostitution; she relates that she was raped by two men the week previous as if she’s ordering a sandwich, and when her indifference is questioned, she casually explains that after all she’s been through, being raped isn’t a big deal. We meet Nina, now 22, who relates how she lost her virginity to the man who would be her pimp when she was 13—“I still had my school uniform on at the time.” And one of the film’s many police witnesses tells the harrowing story of a girl whose mother prostituted her to over 150 men for drug money.

Along the way, related issues are explored. Plenty of valuable points are raised about the flaws of the sex offender registry programs. The notion that only the children of lower-income families are victimized is disabused. And, in the film’s most squirm-inducing section, the supply and demand of child pornography is dissected. Some of the topic-to-topic transitions are a little clumsy, but we’re ultimately grateful that the films is willing to go so many dark places.

Spears tells the tale with 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. (One minor technical complaint: there’s some very bad sound in a couple of key interviews, including one very important one late in the film. In that one, flawless audio recording clearly wasn’t an option, but subtitles should have been employed—I literally don’t know what was said there.)

“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.

"Playground" is currently showing at New York City's Quad Cinema.