Saturday, April 24, 2010
The documentary Feathered Cocaine operates at a peculiar junction of fact, advocacy, and outrageous conspiracy theory; suffice it to say, it’s not a smooth mixture. It starts as a biographical portrait of Alan Howell Parrot, one of the world’s foremost falconers, and his crusade to end falcon smuggling, but along the way, it gets sidetracked and becomes a thin, illogical attempt at political exposé, and it sounds less like fact and more like tinfoil-hat stuff the more you think about it.
I was a bigger fan of Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars, an ambitious dual biography of Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar and Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar which will later appear as part of ESPN’s wonderful “30 for 30” series. The Zimbalist brothers have found a way to mate two of our most cinematic documentary subjects—sport and crime—and they get every ounce of vigor out of them that they can. The film is masterfully edited, full of tight, razor-sharp montage cutting and breakneck narrative; it just plain moves, knocking back and forth between the two men’s intersecting stories, from the lightness of power and fame to the darkness of disgrace and death.
The one to look out for is Paul Fraser’s My Brothers, a quiet, melancholy little picture about three brothers preparing for their father’s death. I have no idea how personal the tale is for screenwriter Will Collins (or director Fraser), but it feels personal, which is more important anyway. It knows these relationships inside out, and brings them to gentle life. It’s is a sentimental tale, and the subject matter is emotionally charged. But they don’t overdo it; there’s an admirable elegance to the film’s simplicity and restraint.
On tomorrow’s menu: two more documentaries (Vidal Sassoon: The Movie and Sons of Perdition) and Monogamy, starring Chris Messina and Rashida Jones and directed by Dana Adam Shapiro, who helmed Murderball.
All of that stuff is interesting, full of good explainers of the motives, the logistics, and the profitability. It’s smoothly made—somewhat dry and boilerplate, yes, but intriguing. And the film has its fair share of juicy investigative stuff, like the revelation that Prince Bandar bin Sultan (aka “Bandar Bush”) was himself caught smuggling falcons in 1986 (they even dig up the $150K check he wrote to pay his fine to the Department of Justice). The film’s middle section focuses on Parrot’s efforts to rally support for his cause, to save the species, and his tireless efforts are admirable. “It’s such a battle,” he says, “Money corrupts everybody.” No arguments there.
But then it takes a hard turn in the last half hour. The always-fascinating Robert Baer (the former CIA field officer who inspired the Clooney character in Syriana) pops up to explain that falcon hunting camps are where business is done in the Middle East; meetings and cash hand-offs are the norm, and presumably, that’s where Osama bin Laden took care of at least some of his financial and logistical planning. Bin Laden was at a falcon hunting camp in southern Afghanistan when Clinton administration officials nearly took him out in 1999. Feathered Cocaine’s filmmakers contend that Richard Clarke advised Clinton to stand down for nefarious reasons of his own—that he didn’t want to upset senior officials from the United Arab Emirates government. Why? Well, the on-screen narration pointedly informs us, Clarke’s firm now counts the UAE among its clients. So Clarke clearly was… thinking ahead to who he’d need on his client list a decade later? Pretty thin basis for those kinds of allegations against one of the few public officials who was willing to say that the United States might have screwed the pooch in the run-up to 9/11.
But the film goes deeper into the weeds. Parrot says he has a source, a professional smuggler (though not of falcons, of course) who says that bin Laden is in Iran, and the Iranian government is protecting him, and he’s gone falcon hunting with bin Laden several times over the past few years. We watch an interview with this source, a sketchy-acting dude in a ski mask and sunglasses. He doesn’t seem the most reliable source. Parrot then proclaims that bin Laden’s falcons all have tracking devices on them, so if we were to go to Iran during hunting season, the signals from those falcons could be used to triangulate his location. Uh huh. He claims to have given all of this information to the government, but he’s been ignored by both the previous and the current administrations, so clearly, our government doesn’t actually want to catch Osama bin Laden. He would go himself (he says early in the film that he thinks of bin Laden primarily as not a mass murderer, but a falcon smuggler—a moment that, in retrospect, should have sounded a louder alarm in my head), but he says he’s been warned that if he goes to Iran, U.S. intelligence will alert Iranian officials, who will throw him in their jails. Uh huh.
The transition from straightforward documentary to vessel of wild, buckshot-spraying conspiracy theory is, to put it mildly, a rocky one; it sort of blindsides the viewer, who has been lulled into taking in information, instead of second-guessing the tinfoil-hat action on screen. Call me naïve, but I don’t buy it; there’s no motivation for our government keeping bin Laden hid that would outweigh the political capital afforded to whichever administration would have a big prime-time press conference and display the terrorist’s severed head on a stick—and if there is one, this movie doesn’t provide it. Towards the end, as Parrot bemoans his fate as the great stifled truth-seeker, it all just seems self-inflating—and a little irresponsible.
Sorry for inserting politics here; I didn’t expect to, but then again, I didn’t expect Feathered Cocaine to be such a politically provocative picture. But those odd shifts keep the film from landing, even as a curiosity, and after spewing all that stuff out on the screen, it strangely turns back into a “love the birds” nature documentary in its closing moments. It’s an odd final note for this strange, uneven, herky-jerky film."Feathered Cocaine" is screening on April 26 and 29 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
The film itself doesn’t fare so well. It’s the latest from Edward Burns, the onetime Sundance phenom (and occasional actor) who has seen his directorial efforts slowly slide out of even the arthouse consciousness. Watching Nice Guy Johnny, you start to understand why you didn’t hear about his last three or four efforts; he’s made no growth as a filmmaker. It has all of the same problems as The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One—but they’re less forgivable now, because he’s not a novice anymore.
Matt Bush (best known as the guy who kept nut-punching Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland) plays Johnny Rizzo, a would-be sports talk radio host, grinding it out on the overnight shift at a station in Oakland. His fiancée Claire (Anna Wood) is losing patience; he promised her a good-paying job by the time he turned 25, so he’s heading back home to New York for the weekend to interview for a job her father has set up for him. Once there, he connects with his horndog uncle Terry (Burns), a free-wheeling bartender and ladies man who thinks his nephew is far too young to get married and settle down, so he spirits the kid off to the Hamptons for the weekend to help him “get some strange.”
It doesn’t work out like that, though; Johnny is a nice guy, and nice guys don’t cheat on their fiancées, even when they meet a charming knockout like Brooke (Bishé). But they end up hanging out anyway, and then they start to like each other, and she of course thinks it’s ridiculous for him to give up his radio dream, and there are misunderstandings and fights and confessions and so on, and everything happens pretty much exactly as anticipated.
The movie’s biggest problem is Bush, about as unsteady a leading man as you can imagine—I’m not sure what Burns saw in this kid, but whatever it was, it doesn’t come across on screen. First of all, he looks to be approximately 12 years old; Bishé towers over him, and their romantic scenes look, at first glance, like a hot babysitter throwing herself at the kid she’s in charge of. Towards the end of the film, when he gets impatient with Terry, he bangs himself around in his seat like a five year old, whining “Can we go, I wanna go!” But his boyish looks aren’t the only problem—his voice is a high-pitched squeak, rendering his already-unconvincing “on air” scenes entirely implausible. Has Burns ever listened to sports radio? Does he know a radio voice when he hears one? And does he know that they sound like they’re speaking extemporaneously—as opposed to this guy, who is clearly reciting words Burns wrote in a script for him? Not to beat up on the poor guy, but seriously, if the radio scenes are bad, the movie’s entire premise falls apart; we understand why Claire wants him to give up being a radio show host, because he’s a terrible radio show host. She’s the sensible one in that relationship.
But that’s entirely by accident; the film paints the fiancée as a one-dimensional shrew with no redeeming qualities, which adds up to no suspense as to who Johnny’s going to end up with. We can’t imagine what they ever saw in each other, so we can’t fathom what would keep him with her. Burns deals from a similarly loaded deck with the career business; the job her dad (a therapist) has lined up is the comically undesirable position of warehouse manager at a cardboard box facility. Seriously? Wouldn’t Johnny’s choices be more interesting if he were choosing between two different but desirable women? Or between a starter position in his preferred field, or a good job that just wasn’t his dream job?
Burns, as always, is natural and charismatic, but his many, many dialogue scenes with Bush are all dead declaratives and forced banter—there’s no rhythm to his writing, no pulse. Good actors (like him and Bishé) can make it work, but when an actor’s not up to the task, watch out. Then again, these are the same problems his films have always had: pedestrian coverage and cutting, uneven performances (remember how badly Mike McGlone and Maxine Bahns stuck out from the rest of the solid performers in She’s the One?), heavy reliance on music montages (some of these lyrics are laughably literal), repetitive dialogue that gets some laughs but mostly sounds like first draft (if I had to hear about Johnny’s dreams one more time, I would have screamed). Ultimately, with nothing much at stake, Nice Guy Johnny is not terribly funny and not really dramatic. Most scenes are greeted with stony silence, and it evaporates from the audience’s memory the moment it’s over. But I’m telling you: Kerry Bishé. Keep an eye on that one. She’s gonna be a movie star.
"Nice Guy Johnny" is screening April 25, 28, and 30 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
The two men weren’t related, but they were connected. Pablo, “the world’s richest criminal” (he was listed in Forbes) was heavily involved in Andrés’ team, the Atlético Nacional; he used it as money laundering operation, cleaning his ill-gotten drug gains. But he was also a fan (we’re told that he saw the team as a toy to play with, and would fly players in to his own field for high-stakes private matches), and he took his football seriously—so much so that many suspected he ordered the 1989 shooting of referee Alvaro Ortega in light of a controversial call.
The Two Escobars moves smoothly back and forth, between Pablo’s rise to power and Andrés’ rise to fame. The Zimbalist brothers have found a way to mate two of our most cinematic documentary subjects—sport and crime—and they get every ounce of vigor out of them that they can. The film is masterfully edited, full of tight, razor-sharp montage cutting (particularly in the sequences of Nacional’s winning streaks) and breakneck narrative; it just plain moves, knocking back and forth between the two men’s intersecting stories, from the lightness of power and fame to the darkness of disgrace and death.
Colombia sails in to the 1994 FIFA World Cup heavily favored to win, with Andrés right on top—he has an offer from Italy and plans to move there with his fiancée to start a family. But in their first match, the team’s play is mediocre; their defeat is material but also psychological. There’s a darkness looming over them, with pressures ramped all the way up to death threats, when they take on the U.S. for their second match. “It is unthinkable for them to lose against the United States,” announces a commentator, but they do just that—and the primary cause is Andrés, who in an attempt to block a shot, accidently knocks the ball into his own goal.
By the time of that (shockingly) deadly mistake, Pablo Escobar was already dead, after incarceration, escape, and murder by the hand of his countrymen. “Things would have been different,” one of his underlings says, of what happened to Andrés after. “Pablo had rules.” This might be the case, though we can’t help but wonder if the film soft-soaps the ruthless kingpin just a touch; many mentions are made of his charitable contributions, how he was loved by the poor, built them houses, etc. And that’s all good and well, but let’s not forget how much of the world’s supply of cocaine this guy was responsible for (how he makes his money doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, despite the film’s slightly flabby 100 minute running time). Maybe Andrés would have met a different fate; or maybe Pablo would have lost a whole lot of coin because of Andrés’ slip-up, and been as angry at him as he was at that ref.
What is clear is that the fates of the title characters changed Colombian soccer; everything changed with the two of them off the scene. Without the steady stream of shady revenue, the Nacional couldn’t aggressively recruit and pay at the same high rates they once had. By 1998, the team had dropped from fourth to 34th in world standings. They haven’t played in a World Cup match since. But success comes at a price; as their coach notes, “We exchanged winning for our safety.” The Two Escobars examines that choice from the inside out, and the outside in.
"The Two Escobars" is screening April 25 and May 1 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. It premieres on ESPN's "30 by 30" series on June 21.
As the film begins, the father (Don Wycherley) is already knocking on death’s door. “Soon it will be over,” writes the oldest son, Noel (Timmy Creed). “Soon it will be every man for himself.” They’re dealing with the slow-motion tragedy in their own ways. Noel broods, writing poems and journals and generally being depressed. Youngest brother Scwally (TJ Griffin) is trying to remain practical: “If Daddy dies on the holidays,” he asks, “do we still get time off from school when we get back?” Middle child Paudie (Paul Courtney), a chubby jokester with big thick glasses framing his round face, tries to keep everyone entertained with his snappy retorts and funny songs (“I am a champion farter…” he croons, following a demonstration of his gifts).
I have no idea how personal the tale is for screenwriter Will Collins (or director Fraser), but it feels personal, which is more important anyway. It knows these relationships inside out—the unfortunate fear that a child can feel for a dying relative, the camaraderie and humor shared by the two younger (and closer in age) siblings, and the brother dynamic, where “I’ll tell” is the ultimate rejoinder (“This ‘I’ll tell’ business won’t last forever,” warns Noel. “It’s all I’ve got, though!” Scwally replies).
The picture is primarily structured around an impromptu road trip, and yes, it’s a construct. But it’s neither written nor played like one; it’s sort of become a road movie before we realize it. Noel has swiped his dad’s watch as something to remember him by, but a school bully snatches and smashes it. The young man then decides to “borrow” the van that he delivers bread in, and drive it down to the seaside arcade where “Da” got the timepiece in the first place. The brothers end up tagging along; car troubles and unfortunate encounters ensue, as do the expected flare-ups and fights.
We can sometimes hear the story’s gears grinding—a scene where Paudie crashes a girls camogie practice is clumsily staged and structurally unfortunate, the sibling conflict arriving as if on a timer. But the scene that follows, in which Paudie stumbles across a creepy stranger, is subtly played while still coming across as genuinely frightening. And the journey gives Fraser (and cinematographer PJ Dillon) the opportunity for some lovely visual touches, like a scene where Paudie writes across the frame with a sparkler, or the evocative nightfall scenes at the seaside.
Along the way, Noel meets a friendly young woman, with whom he shares a late night of drinking and confession. “I’m afraid they won’t remember Dad like I do,” he tells her. But late in the film, there’s an extraordinary scene where the boys, driving, listen to an audio tape of their dad in healthier times, joking and doting on his youngest son. It’s a deeply moving moment, a study in the power of the voice, but also in the memories that it conjures up. My Brothers is a sentimental tale, and the subject matter (as well as the powerful music by Gary Lightbody and Jacknife Lee) is emotionally charged. But they don’t overdo it; there’s an admirable elegance to the film’s simplicity and restraint.
"My Brothers" screens April 25, 27, and 30 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
What a relief it is when a classic film lives up to its reputation. Fritz Lang's M is a startling picture, simultaneously a terrifying mood poem and an awe-inspiring testimonial to the sheer visceral power of the cinema. For director Lang, following up his acclaimed but financially disappointing sci-fi efforts Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, it marked a vital turning point; we see him developing the style of the film noirs made after his emigration to the United States in the mid-1930s.
The story is pretty straightforward stuff. A child killer is on the loose; a city is paralyzed with fear. Police have no leads, so they conduct random searches in an attempt to find the murderer. The city's criminal element is furious--the heightened police presence threatens to put them out of business, so they hire the city's beggars and homeless to patrol the city and flush out the killer, who is finally identified as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a whistling psychopath. The criminals attempt to capture Beckert before the police can get their hands on him, and mete out the justice that they deem appropriate.
Lang tells the tale with thrilling style and confidence, mating his considerable power for visuals (as exhibited in his silent masterpieces) with artful use of sound--and silence. It was Lang's first sound picture, and while countless other filmmakers were adapting to the new technology by shooting clunky, lead-footed bores that amounted to little more than filmed stageplays, he produces a German equivalent to Citizen Kane--a film that is both a culmination of the technical possibilities of film, and a daring glance forward at what it can do. His compositions are forceful, memorable, and gut-check powerful--as in the elegant sequence when a mother's calls for her missing daughter are illustrated by the girl's empty place setting, the ball we saw her playing with rolling out of the woods, and the balloon the madman purchased for her caught high in the power lines. But we're not allowed to be passive observers; cinematographer Fritz Amo Wagner keeps his camera active, restless, roving among the beggars, looking down at the terrified citizenry, grabbing jarringly close point-of-view shots, catching a framed reflection of a possible victim in the window and then the moment that follows, as Lorre vividly imagines what he'll do to the young girl. What's more, through both the construction of the story and the clever photography, we barely get a good look at Lorre until something like the halfway mark; he's seen first as a shadow on a wanted poster (not subtle, but chillingly effective), then with his back to camera at the balloon vendor. And, of course, there is Lang's iconic use of darkness and shadows, par for the course in German expressionist cinema, but seldom as evocatively rendered as here.
But his inventive use of audio is even more impressive (again, particularly considering the moribund sound designs of so many of his contemporaries). He's not afraid of going dead quiet--there's no sound at all to accompany the striking graphics that begin the picture, and no music to speak of (save Beckert's creepy whistling, which ultimately proves his undoing). The film then punctures that silence with hard, loud effects--the rhythmic tapping of a victim's bouncing ball on the concrete sidewalk, the shrill whistles that break the thick silence of the raid sequence or of the criminals' pursuit of Beckert.
The storytelling is similarly inventive (and mature--the adult subject matter and salty language would surely have been unthinkable in Hollywood films of the period). Ever the silent master, Lang steers clear of clunky exposition and dialogue overload to impart the narrative; it's gathered in images and in flat, matter-of-fact small talk. As mentioned, he also keeps the killer out of focus for the first half of the film; we're just as clueless about him as the police and the citizens are. Instead, our attention is on their creeping paranoia ("Why look at me when you say that?") and the powerful charge of mob rule ("We have to catch him ourselves"), while the complimentary powwows of the police and the criminal element are carefully, inventively intercut. It then moves into a kind of police procedural mode, the noose beginning to tighten as the cops and the crooks hone in on Beckert.
In the leading role, Lorre is phenomenal; the camera hooks in on his smooth baby face, his wide terrified eyes, and he lets us see the twisted terror behind them. Lang's script (written with Thea von Harbou) paints him as more than a simple monster; his tough, painful monologue in the "kangaroo court" near the film's end, in which he explains how he runs from and fears himself ("Don't I have this cursed thing inside of me?") shows the full depth of the characterization--and of Lorre's full-throated interpretation of it.
There are a couple of structural misfires. We linger too long on the aftermath and investigation of the Beckert kidnapping--we're antsy to know what's happening to him, and his absence is surely meant to build suspense and uncertainty, but Lang stays away too long, and the tension goes slack. Once the narrative returns to him, the film snaps back into focus, with the mock trial that's all too real. But the closing scene is a miscalculation; while seemingly intended to be stark and powerful, it comes off as not just inconclusive, but incomplete (and the lack of end credits had me checking the chapter menu to make sure there wasn't a disc glitch). I'm all for open endings, but this one just leaves us hanging--and the final lines are singed by the kind of ham-fisted rhetorical finger-pointing that would be more in place at the close of a 50s exploitation picture. But to ding Lang's masterwork for those momentary lapses of judgment would be a crime; as it stands, M is a first-class piece of work from a master filmmaker at the top of his game.
M is easy to dissect academically, to analyze in terms of not only its aesthetic innovations, but its rich subtextual commentary on Germany in the early 1930s. But too often, great films like this one are thought of as objects under glass in a museum, rather than works of art that live and breathe. Lang's film isn't just an airless "classic"; it's a visceral, disturbing picture that burrows under your skin and settles in.
The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of "M" hits on May 11; for full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.
Carmel Winters’ Snap isn’t quite so audience-friendly; there’s a jagged, jittery uneasiness to the picture, which is an unblinking look at everyday evil slowly uncoiling, in ways both expected and inexplicable. It is permeated by a sense of awful things about to happen—or to be revealed. Winters, an Irish playwright making her film debut, shows a natural gift for cinema; Snap is a dire, upsetting picture, but it is done with unquestionable skill and visceral power, and it got under my skin in a manner I wasn’t fully prepared for.
J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed begins so confidently—the first act of the picture is lean, mean, tight-fisted filmmaking, briskly paced and cold-blooded—that you figure they can’t keep it up, and you’re right. The brute force of those opening sections soon gives way to a series of too-clever twists and flashy turns, tamping down the considerable tension in favor of narrative panache. But it’s still worth seeing; there are some terrific set pieces, and the trio of performers (the only three people in the movie) are evenly matched and sharply directed.
And then there’s Oliveier Dahan’s My Own Love Song, a creaky, cliché-ridden road movie with Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker, who have both seen better days and better films than this. Dahan’s formulaic, tin-eared script is a real clanger, and his showy direction only highlights the emptiness of the pat struggles and trumped-up conflicts. There’s not a surprise in it; it’s all re-heated leftovers from other, better pictures.
Tune in tomorrow—I’ll be reviewing the sports doc Two Escobars, Ed Burns’ Nice Guy Johnny, the falcon-smuggling (!) documentary Feathered Cocaine, and the lyrical Irish family drama My Brothers.
The first act of the picture is lean, mean, tight-fisted filmmaking—briskly paced and cold-blooded. There are exactly three characters in it: Danny, Vic, and the object of their crime, Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), who they’re holding for a $2 million ransom from her wealthy family. We only get this side of the story—there are no scared parents or level-headed cops—and Blakeson doesn’t even follow Vic out of the apartment when he leaves to communicate with the family. The film confines itself to its single, claustrophobic location and squeezes it like a vise.
We’re drawn in to that first act, it’s so taut and slick and mysterious. Modern audiences may be reminded of Reservoir Dogs, but it’s even closer to Hitchcock’s Rope—particularly in a later sequence (involving the quick recovery of a telltale clue) which evenly mixes fast, snug close-ups with a giddy shot of black humor. But then, about a third of the way in, it takes a turn that you’re not sure is a smart move; it threatens to break the heightened mood. That left turn ends up working, but then there’s another twist some time later that feels arbitrary, and like a bit of a cheat as well. It’s as though information has been withheld solely for the sake of a shock moment—a twist for twist’s sake.
The film keeps its momentum, thanks in no small part to the trio of actors that inhabit it. Marsan (previously seen in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) is an actor whose face seems to default into a sneer; this is a muscular performance, all spittle-spraying impatience and cold, dead eyes. As his younger and edgier accomplice, Compston is also quite good; he’s a bit of a cipher at first, but that ends up being the correct starting note for his modulated, enigmatic performance. And Arterton (best known on this side of the pond for her turn as “Strawberry Fields” in Quantum of Solace), in the film’s most physically taxing role, is outstanding; she thinks well on her feet and works each moment all the way through, giving a tough, raw-edged, smeary-eyed performance.
But Blakeson ultimately lets the clever twists take over—he keeps spinning the narrative top until we’re weary of chasing it. His script follows the logic and finds the action, but (with the exception of a flash of psychological meat in the trio’s last scene together) there’s little of the brute force of those opening sections. The Disappearance of Alice Creed is impressively made, and has its share of nasty thrills and jumpy winces. But it turns into a kind of bloodless thrill machine, a jack in the box that expects you to keep winding it up and playing it out.
"The Disapperance of Alice Creed" is screening April 24, 25, and 26 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. It opens August 6 in limited release.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Oliveier Dahan’s My Own Love Song is the latest entry into this creaky sweepstakes. Oscar winners Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker play Jane and Joey, who share the kind of friendship you tend to see more in movies than in real life. She was a successful country music singer whose career was cut short by a wreck that put her in a wheelchair, killed her husband, and caused her to give up singing and put her son up for adoption. Joey, who is (as we say where I’m from) “not quite right,” lost most of his family in an accident as well, so he copes by talking to their angels and ghosts. Joey’s favorite author on the subject is doing an appearance within driving distance, so he talks Jane into accompanying him there; she doesn’t know that he’s planning to trick her into attending her estranged son’s first communion, which the boy invited her to in a letter she never opened (but Joey did).
Of course, nothing goes as planned; there are car breakdowns and tag-alongs and thefts and odd encounters, all leading to the “I’m getting too old for this shit” of road trip movies, the moment when Jane utters the immortal line, “And now we’re all stuck here in the middle of God-knows-where!” Dahan, who also directed La Vie en Rose, wrote the script—his first in English, so maybe he doesn’t realize that Americans only say things like that in movies (and they also don’t say each other’s names every time they speak to each other). But none of the dialogue is as bad as Zellweger’s occasional voice-over narration, which sounds like warmed-over Tennessee Williams.
The damage his script leaves undone, his look-ma-no-hands direction takes care of. In its early scenes, the film is visually stimulating; his cinematographer is the excellent Matthew Libatique (frequent collaborator to Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky), and there’s a warmly lyrical quality to some of the quieter passages, in which the frames are lovingly arranged and the lighting is moody and atmospheric. But when the script gives us an improbable car chase, Dahan does it in an irritating series of moving and sliding split-screen images, an irritating, show-off move that clutters up the screen and takes us out of the action. When a fellow traveler (Madeline Zima) gets the phone call they’ve been building up to since her introduction, it’s done in a big obnoxious circling shot that pulls us right out of the moment—they’re staging distractions to soften the obvious payoff. Worst of all, when Nick Nolte enters the picture and gives it an immediate jolt of dangerous energy, it’s undercut; as soon as he gets something going, Dahan goes to a cheesy illustration of the story he’s telling (that of Robert Johnson at the crossroads, which is relayed as if it’s some little-known folk tale). But even with all of the missteps, the elements are still in place for the climactic scene to move us—and then it’s blown by the cornball staging.
Whitaker, who hasn’t done much of anything resembling a good movie since he won his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland , doesn’t acquit himself any here. He’s doing the worst kind of overheated acting—playing “slow”, hammering his stutter, projecting his Southern drawl to the rafters. It’s not a characterization; it’s a collection of affectations. Zellweger, de-glammed but still doing her weird lemon face, wisely chooses to underplay; she has some nice moments, and her two songs are well-performed. The songs and score variations of them are contributed by Bob Dylan, most from his last album Together Through Life; they lend the picture a swampy atmosphere that it certainly doesn’t earn on its own.
My Own Love Song is rigidly schematic filmmaking, closely following a blueprint that is weathered from age and overuse. Within the first ten minutes, you can guess at the pat, trumped-up conflicts that will come to a head on the road. Will she sing again? Will she see her son? Will Joey’s favorite religious author turn out to be a laughably broad, racist charlatan? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, you haven’t seen enough movies. And if you haven’t seen enough movies, you might not notice that everything in this one has been done before, and better.
"My Own Love Song" screens April 24 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
The film, subtitled “a year in the life of a legend,” begins with startlingly tight close-ups of Rivers’ (badly) sculpted face as she is made up. The proximity is shocking, but appropriate preparation for the picture to follow; they may be the only time we see her out of her make-up, but it is not the last time she lets her guard down. Rivers will turn 75 years old in the course of the film, but she isn’t slowing down. She is, in her manager’s words, “a chronic workaholic.” Early on, we see her and her assistant Jocelyn going over her “books”—the schedules of her various appearances and engagements. They’re looking too empty to Joan. She looks through an old book and sees busier days. “That’s a good page,” she says wistfully. “That’s happiness.”
Stern and Sundeberg rotate between verité¬style home and work footage, interviews, and Rivers’ biography. There are fantastic vintage clips of her on Jack Paar, Mike Douglas, and Carson, clippings, photos, memories. She’s surprisingly candid—she talks about her surgeries, talks about her marriage, her difficulties balancing work and family. “She referred to her career as ‘The Career,’” her daughter Melissa remembers. “And it occurred to me one day that I had a sibling.” And she remembers the rough years—the ugly break-up with Carson, the failure of the Fox show, the suicide of her husband Edgar (which, oddly enough, she and Melissa reenacted for a TV movie, a move she claims was rehabilitative but still seems mighty weird). The dynamic with Melissa is quite interesting—nobody sees through Joan quite like her daughter, and when they do Celebrity Apprentice together, we get a peek inside their relationship (Melissa seeking affirmation, or chastising her mother for turning her insecurities into criticism of their co-stars).
Rivers’ involvement in that reality show might make one question the authenticity of her portrait here; is it an honest impression, or a calculated performance for the camera? I’m honestly inclined to think the latter—or at least, that it’s as honest a portrait as we’re going to get. Rivers has been performing so long, it could be said that she is always “on,” that the clear boundaries between person and persona evaporated decades ago. Whatever the case, the primary takeaway from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is how vulnerable she is. She pours her heart into an autobiographical monologue/biographical play called “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress”; it kills at the Edinburgh festival, but when West End reviews are just so-so, she shuts it down instead of taking it to Broadway (her previously stated goal). Why? Because she was so badly hurt by the Broadway critics when she last appeared there—in 1972. “No one will ever take me seriously as an actress,” she says, and you can see the pain in her eyes. She fronts that she’s a tough broad, but the barbs hurt. As a protective measure, she’s her own worst critic; when she appears at the Kennedy Center tribute to George Carlin, she says of her fellow presenters, “they’re all gonna be so much funnier than I am.” But the toughest hits come when she subjects herself to the indignities of a Comedy Central roast because she’ll make some badly-needed money. “They keep telling you it’s an honor,” she muses. “If I had invested wisely, I wouldn’t be doing this.” Clips of the roast are seen, and the cracks are predictably vile; the filmmakers slow down the tape and hold on Rivers as she tries to keep her brave face on.
Moments like that might stack the deck a tad too much in the icon’s favor, but who cares? Our goodwill toward Joan Rivers is strong enough even without those moments; she’s a survivor, she’s a hard worker, and most of all, she’s hilarious. Clips are interspersed throughout the film of her working new material in a small Manhattan cabaret, and she is explosively funny (and filthy as hell). She shows, in her office, a card catalog—30 years of jokes, alphabetized by subject, typed up on 3 x 5s. This is what she does. We see her out on the road, working the showroom of a Wisconsin casino (looking over her accommodations, she advises an assistant to get the check before the show), and she slays them—and when a heckler interrupts to protest the offensiveness of a joke, threatening to stop the show cold, she burns the guy right down to the ground. It’s an amazing piece of footage, but it’s reflex for her. This is what she does. “This is where I belong,” she confesses. “The only time I’m truly, truly happy is when I’m on a stage.” After seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, we’re inclined to agree.
"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" screens April 26, 28, and 29 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. It opens June 11 in New York City.
Slowly, we begin to understand what happened. Winters’ screenplay has the same kind of zig-zag chronology as an Egoyan picture, utilizing a jigsaw construction assembled from the story’s far-flung pieces. Between scenes of Sandra’s confessions and denials, her son Stephen (Stephen Moran) lures a wandering toddler back to his grandfather’s empty home. After a time, images of parents pleading for the return of their abducted infant appear on the television set. Stephen switches the channel. And then there are other scenes, flashes deeper into the past, horrible trespasses, secrets held.
Given those outlines, one could take a pretty good guess at how a story like this one would turn out, and in most cases, one would be right. But Snap is not interested in conventional outcomes and easy exposition. It is an unblinking look at everyday evil slowly uncoiling, in ways both expected and inexplicable, and it is permeated by a sense of awful things about to happen—or to be revealed.
It is given a firm, unyielding center by O’Sullivan’s enthralling performance; she holds the screen with an intensity that tightens the entire picture. It is, in many ways, an actor’s showcase role, but trickily so—there are countless opportunities to go over the top, to chew the scenery, and she craftily sidesteps each one of them. It’s one of the most thrillingly nuanced performances I’ve seen recently; she’s simply incapable of a false note, even when the script seems to be daring her to avoid one (name me one other actress who could pull off that gut-churning sex scene). The searing force of her performance is matched by the impenetrability of Moran’s; through most of the film, he (and director Winters) stubbornly refuse to give us a clue what this kid’s thinking, which plays like a thumb in the eye to our conventional need for rational explanations.
Winters, an Irish playwright making her film debut, shows a natural gift for cinema. Her framing is tightly composed but not over-controlled; her scenes don’t feel staged, but nonetheless seem (in retrospect) designed for a specific effect. Even when her script occasionally falters, as in the reach for a too-clean dénouement in the closing scene, the series of shots and matching actions are quietly devastating. Most importantly, she doesn’t let the dark, disturbing subject matter overtake the movie, to become its primary purpose. Snap is a dire, upsetting picture, but it is done with unquestionable skill and visceral power, and it got under my skin in a manner I wasn’t fully prepared for.
"Snap" is screening April 24, 25, 26, and 28 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
Today’s slate was a half-and-half mix of documentary and narrative films, though (surprisingly), the docs were the weaker half. Thieves by Law offered up a fascinating glimpse at the Russian mob and the logistics of their brand of organized crime, and the impressive access to three prominent gangsters (all memorable characters with a fascinating story to tell) is the film’s greatest virtue. But it plays more like an overlong TV special than a feature documentary; it mostly just skims the surface; we know all about what these guys have, and what they’ve done, but very little about who they are and what makes them tick. But its got some good stuff in it.
Chuck Workman’s Visionaries, an examination of the American avant-garde cinema movement, is beautifully assembled by Workman (the gifted editor who cuts the montages for the Academy Awards telecast). The vintage clips are fascinating (burning with energy and passion) and they are sometimes, at the same time, unbearably pretentious—and the same goes for some of the filmmakers in Workman’s viewfinder. He stumbles badly with some misplaced intellectual snobbery here and there, but there’s still much to admire in his detailed documentary.
Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky is an uncommonly smart and funny indie comedy; it is predominately about teen characters, but it’s not a “teen movie”—it’s brainy and mature, and put together with smooth professionalism. Jay Baruchnel gets the leading role just right, and he is ably supported by a talented cast of welcome character actors and impressive new faces. The Trotsky isn’t quite a great movie—it’s too off-pace, a good fifteen minutes too long, and it puts a few too many bows on at the end—but it’s an enjoyable one. And it’s got a heart, which it reveals subtly and unexpectedly. It’s a grin-inducing and rather irresistible picture.The best picture of the day, though, was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, a delightful little fun house of a movie and a welcome return to form for the playful French filmmaker. It’s an utterly charming picture that takes a dark tale and puts a whiz-bang spin on it—a valentine to the cinema, particularly to the silent comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, full of clever bits and go-for-broke sight gags. Jeunet is up to something tricky here—he savvily navigates whimsical comedy with gunplay and explosions, and I can’t think of a single other filmmaker who’s done that (or, frankly, one crazy enough to try it). The results are masterful. Micmacs is a real treat.
On the slate for tomorrow: the documentary portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker in My Own Love Song (press notes: “with original music by Bob Dylan.” Bailey: “YES!”), and the British thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed.
To bed, then. What a day.
Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) keeps a board on his bedroom wall with his nine-part plan to emulate the life of Leon Trotsky. We can’t help put notice that it includes items like “7: SOCIALIST UTOPIA!” and “9: Get assassinated.” Leon doesn’t just pattern himself after Trotsky; you see, the Bolshevik revolutionary’s original last name was, in fact, Bronstein. Leon has convinced himself that he is Trotsky reincarnated. “For a Marxist, you make a great Hindu,” muses Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), the grad student he is trying to woo—he’s probably coming on a bit too strong, seeing’s how he keeps telling her that she has the same name as Trotsky’s first wife, and that pair had the same age difference as they do, so they’re destined to be married. Takes a real smoothie to pull off that approach.Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky is an uncommonly smart and funny indie comedy; it is predominately about teen characters, but it’s not a “teen movie”—it’s brainy and mature, and put together with smooth professionalism. Some of it is a little obvious, some of it is a little easy, and some of it wants to be Rushmore so bad, you’re almost embarrassed for it. But its Rushmore resemblance is something like Rocket Science’s to Election; yes, they’re similar, but once you get past that superficial proximity, you see that it goess off into some pretty entertaining directions of its own.
The Trotsky isn’t quite a great movie—it’s too off-pace, a good fifteen minutes too long, and it puts a few too many bows on at the end—but it’s an enjoyable one. And it’s got a heart, which it reveals subtly and unexpectedly. Tierney directs with an infectious sense of good-natured fun; he can put together a stylish and clever sequence (like the various costumed student factions—Black Panthers, Maoists, etc.—assembling for the “social justice dance”) and slide clever jokes in along the edge of the frame (“A girl dressed as Ayn Rand said you kicked her out!”). The crowd-pleasing ending may be predictable and overdone, but I was all-in by that point; it’s a grin-inducing and rather irresistible picture.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Chuck Workman knows his way around movies; for years, he’s been the guy who cuts the montages for the Academy Awards telecast, and he won one of those golden boys himself for 1986 film montage short Precious Images. He also made an amazing feature-length doc called The First 100 Years: A Celebration of American Movies, and I know, I know, the rights issues have got to be a nightmare, but seriously, let’s get that thing out on DVD. At any rate, that film was a retrospective of mainstream studio filmmaking; for his new documentary Visionaries, he flips it around and profiles the experimental film subculture.Subtitled “Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema,” it is a comprehensive history of the underground cinema movement, all the way back to the earliest filmed images, back to the surrealists and the early experimental films (Un Chien Andalou, The Man with the Movie Camera, Zero For Conduct) and formative influences like Maya Deren. But his focus is on the art film movement that popped up in the 1950s and 1960s (“The New American Cinema”), and its practitioners: Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Peter Kubelka, Norman Mailer (briefly), Robert Downey (Senior), and Mekas, the filmmaker, Village Voice and Film Culture writer, and founder of New York’s invaluable Anthology Film Archive.
And frankly, the same can be said of some of the filmmakers. Downey comes across as candid, frank, and funny, as does Mailer (in what looks to be one of his final interviews). Mekas, while often pushy in print, is a warm and engaging patron saint on camera—Workman was wise to put him in the center of the picture. But Anger, for example, is one of those blowhards who proudly announces he doesn’t have a phone or a TV, as if he’s used to being applauded for it. That kind of high-horse pomposity may have as much to do with why these films remained on the fringe; people don’t like being looked down on. What’s worse, Workman engages in the same kind of hauteur later in the film; he takes his camera to the Anthology Film Archive and interviews some young movie makers who are there as part of the annual 48 Hour Film Project. It’s bad enough that he trots out that ancient documentary device of interviewing random people on the street and asking them about his subject; we’re expected to tsk-tsk and shake our heads sadly because these twentysomethings, guilty of nothing except being hungry young filmmakers, don’t know who Mekas or Brakhage are. It’s a mean-spirited scene, snobbish and irritating—and even more so when, a couple of scenes later, Workman turns around and idolizes the wine-drinking aristocrats, pontificating pompously about film as art at a fancy gallery opening inside the Archive. Who appointed these people the arbiters of good taste? And did anyone bother to ask those kids who their influences were?
There’s still plenty to admire in Visionaries; Workman unearths some good clips (including student films by the likes of Orson Welles and David Lynch), grabs some fine interviews, and puts together opening and closing montages that are stunningly well-crafted (it should be noted, however, that the editing of the interview sound in the print I saw was awfully clumsy). The avant-garde filmmakers joined forces to create “a democratic cinema,” and when Visionaries is honoring that, it stirs and fascinates. And it has a message that any film lover can get behind: when asked how he manages to do so much, Mekas smiles, “I survive on wine, women, and song… plus cinema.” Amen to that.
"If God gave me the chances to live my life again,” confesses a gangster at the beginning of Alexander Gentelev’s Thieves by Law, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” As the film unfolds, it’s not exactly a surprising confession; the film profiles three high rollers in the Russian Mafia, and they do a lot of things in their interviews—tell secrets, show off, point fingers, explain motivations. But there’s no apologizing. It’s not their style.The three Russian Mob men are older now, wiser perhaps, enjoying the fruits of their labor. They live behind armored doors and reinforced windows, wearing designer clothes, surrounded by priceless works of art. But you can’t buy civility; Gentelev’s camera revels in the incongruity of the handsome, tanned, silver-haired man, impeccably dressed for his immaculately prepared seaside breakfast, calmly telling vile stories of cold-blooded violence, like the time he nearly burned that guy to death in prison. One of his fellow mobsters has a scene where he matter-of-factly discusses the virtues of dumping bodies in the sea, rather than burying them. When proud men (particularly criminals) tell stories, there’s always the potential for exaggeration. But you pretty much take these guys’ word for it. There’s a calmness to their criminality that you just can’t fake.
The film’s primary flaw is that it plays more like an overlong TV special than a feature documentary. The graphics and montage of the title sequence have the feel of a History Channel special; the overwritten narration would certainly be at home there. (We also can’t help but notice occasional typos in the graphics and subtitles.) Once the history has been filled in, the picture loses its thrust in its second half. It becomes less a profile or exposé and more a series of anecdotes—some colorful, some drab, like the ramblings of a party guest who’s stayed too long.
Thieves by Law mostly just skims the surface; we know all about what these guys have, and what they’ve done, but very little about who they are and what makes them tick. Still, it has its moments. Late in the film, one of the men explains that after the bloody 1990s, mob violence decreased because so many of them went legit—but also because there was no one left to kill. “It’s horrible,” he says. “Of course it’s horrible.” But he’s chuckling, and there’s a gleam in his eye. Chilling.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is a delightful little fun house of a movie, and a welcome return to form for the playful French filmmaker, who followed up the internationally beloved Amelie with the well-made but underwhelming (and somewhat downbeat) A Very Long Engagement five years back. It’s an utterly charming picture that takes a dark tale and puts a whiz-bang spin on it.The opening scenes are played almost entirely wordless—the scene is set with images and sounds (a gasp, a cry, an explosion), but no dialogue. We begin in 1979, as the father of young Bazil is killed in the Western Sahara by a land mine. The heartbroken boy is shipped off to private school, and trouble spirals from there. Flash forward to thirty or so years later, where the adult Bazil (played by French comic superstar Dany Boon) is nearly killed by a stray bullet in a freakish accident outside of the video store where he works. We get a sense of the movie’s sense of humor with the operating room scene that follows; the doctor explains to his colleagues that removing the bullet from Bazil’s brain could leave him a vegetable, but if it stays in, he could die at any moment, so he’s not sure what call to make. “Anybody have a coin?” he asks. “Heads!” comes the reply. “Okay, leave it in,” the doctor shrugs.
Micmacs is, to date, Jeunet’s most explicit valentine to the cinema—not just the old Warner Brothers pictures (which it quotes, in the opening and title sequence) or modern action movies (which it lovingly satirizes), but the films of Chaplin, Keaton, and the great silent clowns. In the first act, as we watch clever Bazil try to make his way in the big bad city, battling indifference and rotten luck, we can’t help but think of Chaplin’s Little Fellow—and indeed, Jeunet has Bazil play these scenes almost entirely in pantomime. Later scenes—the bit with a large crane magnet, the elegantly constructed airport sequence, or the theft of the suitcases—unwind with the Swiss-watch precision of a Keaton sequence (and it’s surely no coincidence that we have a supporting character named “Buster”). The piano-heavy score even sounds, in spots, like silent movie accompaniment. But the entire film has a go-for-broke sense of humor; it’s full of marvelous sight gags, like the business with the dog and the storm drain, or the moment of Bazil’s big discovery, in which the score swells and camera booms up to reveal an orchestra playing on the steps behind him (they then disappear with a slap to his forehead).
The picture is full of clever visual and narrative flourishes—touches of animation, flights of fancy, endlessly inventive photography, frames within the frame (much credit due to cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata). Some of the throwaway bits don’t quite land (the soccer fantasy scene is odd and out of place), and the goofy band of misfits threaten, particularly in their early scenes, to make the film a little too precious (I, for one, didn’t find the female contortionist to be nearly as charming as Jeunet did). It should also be noted that, for a few brief moments near the end, that the picture takes a serious turn a little to sharply, threatening to throw the whole film off its delicate balance.
It bounces back with grace, however; the third act, in which Bazil ingeniously pits the villains against each other, is wonderfully convoluted, and a giggly counterculture vibe sneaks into the proceedings (as the ragtag crew takes down the “warmongers”). Jeunet is up to something tricky here—he savvily navigates whimsical comedy with gunplay and explosions, and I can’t think of a single other filmmaker who’s done that (or, frankly, one crazy enough to try it). The results are masterful. Micmacs is a real treat.
I don’t even know, you guys. The Losers, a flashy new wind-up toy/movie from the team behind… um… Stomp the Yard (you read that right) is, by just about any definition, a bad film—filled with pat situations, hackneyed dialogue, and irritatingly overcooked photography. There are plenty of reasons to hate it, but I can’t quite work up the bile to. It’s a cynical exercise in empty style and tentpole creation, yes, but the whole thing is so openly crass about its intentions, so willing to lay its cards on the table, that you just end up kind of going along with it, and by the time the credits rolled, I felt something akin to affection for the damn thing. I’m not proud of myself, but there it is.It is based on a comic book series, if you can imagine such a thing. Y’know, one of these days, Hollywood is going to run out of comic books to adapt and ‘80s movies to remake and have to spend some time working up some original ideas (stop the presses), but that’s a discussion for another day. Where were we? Ah yes, The Losers. So our titular losers are one of those crack secret military units where everyone has a catchy name, a specialty, and an easily labeled personality type. There’s Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, from Watchmen), the group leader and military man; Roque (Idris Elba, whom the press notes depressingly credit for his work in Obsessed and not The Wire), the icy second-in-command; Jensen (Chris Evans, your future Captain America), the motor-mouthed hacker; Pooch (Columbus Short, your Stomp the Yard carryover), the laid-back driver/pilot; and Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), the marksman/strong silent type.
The story begins with the crew on a mission that goes wrong; they’re supposed to target a drug lord and blow his jungle lair sky-high, but they spot some kids being trucked in (“They’re using kids as mules!”) and that’s where they draw the line. A mysterious super-spook named Max (Jason Patric) on the other end of the radio, however, refuses to abort the mission, so they charge in, save the kids, put them on a bus, barely escape the exploding mansion, and put the kids on their extraction helicopter, which is promptly shot right out of the air. (Yes, you can apparently ice a chopper full of kids in a PG-13, as long as its cartoon violence that leaves only helicopter parts all over the grass instead of, you know, little arms and legs and whatnot.) The crew realizes immediately that they were the intended target, so they go deep cover and plot their revenge against Max. They don’t have much luck with that until they cross paths with Aisha (Zoe Saldana), who pitches a self-professed “suicide mission” that could get them to Max.
The opening scenes are not promising. Director Sylvain White, cinematographer Scott Kevan, and editor David Checel appear to be trying to Bay up the flick, loading it up with garish photography and obnoxious editing (every other cut seems to be accompanied by a white flash, a pop, or a thud). This empty flair pops up back up here and there; it gets to a point where you wish they’d quit showing off and play out the damned scenes (it’s just two people walking down some stairs, for Chrissakes). But once they calm the hell down, they uncover some interesting things.
The main trouble with The Losers is that no one appears to have settled on anything resembling a consistent tone. There are scenes that appear to played with a knowing wink; one gets the feeling that the screenplay (credited to Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt, neither of them dumb guys) was going for something a little more sly and funny than what ended up on screen. It’s not that White doesn’t know how to play a comic beat—it’s that he keeps indulging in tired genre clichés and playing them straight. There are arguments about the car they’re driving, there is a scene of improvised surgery, there is the straight-faced use of the line “Payback’s a bitch,” and there is (I kid you not) the slo-mo badass hero crew walking shot, played without a hint of irony (unless that American flag waving is supposed to be an attempt to veer into the realm of self-parody). But you can’t just trot out these same tired sequence without putting some kind of a new twist on them. White isn’t a nimble enough director to negotiate the line between straight action and smart satire; they co-exist uneasily, and as an audience, we’re never certain whether we’re laughing with the picture or at it.
The damn thing ends about three times (once for a predictable payoff and a lame, lame joke), and proper closure is sacrificed in favor of opportunities for sequels. So The Losers is tonally schizophrenic, over-stylized, and frequently empty-headed—mostly sizzle, not much steak. But I’ll give it this much: I wasn’t bored. It establishes a fast, kinetic energy early on, and holds on to that pace with both hands. I saw an acclaimed international film earlier this week about crushing poverty and death and crime, and I know that film was good for me and this one was bad for me, but here’s the thing: I’d watch The Losers like three more times before I’d watch that one again. Again, I’m not proud of myself, but there you have it. Here’s a picture that is exactly what it is, nothing less, and certainly nothing more.
I usually try not to get all Harry Knowles and make the circumstances under which I saw a film part of its review, because really, who gives a shit. But my experience at the critics’ screening of Paper Man colored my interpretation of the film, and, in a small way, both refocused and reconfirmed my approach to how we see films and write about them. I was seated in front of a well-known, “name” critic, though more notable today for his longevity than for anything particularly insightful in his work, which has been largely irrelevant for years now. But out of curiosity, I did some good old-fashioned eavesdropping, and listened as he held court about how terrible all movies are now. This movie stinks, this movie’s horrible, none of them are worth a damn, he doesn’t even want to write about them. As (basically) an amateur hoping to propel into the ranks of the pros, it was profoundly depressing—not just because a job I’d like to have is in the hands of a bitter person who doesn’t like movies anymore, but because he’s been doing it so long that he clearly can’t find anything to like in good pictures, to say nothing of mediocre ones.Because the fact of the matter is, it’s getting harder and harder to make a truly great movie, or at least one that is not without some flaws. There were maybe a half dozen of them last year. The costs of production and distribution and marketing continue to rise, and the people who determine what money gets spent on which pictures—who have never been a group renowned for their ballsy risk-taking—are only interested in sure things, which means sequels to other hits, films based on‘80s artifacts, and remakes of anything that went more than ten dollars into the black, ever. Movies that aren’t about giant talking robots blowing things up are an endangered species at the studios; they go the indie route, but that’s no shield from the kind of formulization and meddling that makes so many low-budget films into weak sauce.
Take, for example, Paper Man, which is a well-made movie with a good cast that we’d probably forget right away, were it not for one brilliant performance in the middle of it. The actor is Emma Stone, the whiskey-voiced beauty who first made an impression as the object of Jonah Hill’s desire in Superbad and was last seen kicking ass and taking names in Zombieland. She’s not the main character in the movie, but she’s the star, if you know what I mean. The main character is Richard Dunn, played by Jeff Daniels, who has apparently decided (between this, The Squid and the Whale, and The Answer Man) to make damaged writers his specialty. Lisa Kudrow is his sensible wife, Claire, a successful surgeon who has become a bit of a caretaker for her less-than-steady husband. At the beginning of the film, she drives him to a rental cabin in Montauk, where he’s isolating himself to write his second novel (after the less-than-enthusiastic response to his first). She then bids him farewell until the weekend, and drives away, leaving him alone with his thoughts—well, alone except for Captain Excellent.
“You didn’t bring him out here, did you?” Claire asks of the Captain, played by Ryan Reynolds (he’s billed last, which made me smile; for my money, he does best in “and Ryan Reynolds” roles). He did. Since childhood, he’s sought the advice and encouragement of his favorite superhero (decked out in tights, a cape, and bleach blonde hair), and it’s a tie he’s never been able to sever. But Richard has other problems besides the invisible friend. He can’t get past the first line of the novel (now there’s a cliché about writers whose death I wouldn’t mourn). He can’t work if that furniture is in the living room. And then there’s the babysitter.
The babysitter is Abby (here’s where Stone comes in). Richard sees her in town, absently tossing cigarettes into a trash can; she sets it on fire and disappears. He rushes to put the fire out, then follows her. She calls him out, he claims he’s looking for a babysitter, she says she’s available, and they make arrangements. He doesn’t have a baby for her to sit, of course, a fact that she seems strangely unbothered by when she shows up that Friday night. But she rolls with the punches, so he leaves for a while, and then when he comes back, they talk.
In the scenes early in their relationship, we’re struck by how interesting the characters are, and we appreciate not being told exactly what they’re up to. But at the same time, we need some kind of a way in—we’re not sure what their motives are (aside from the self-conscious quirkiness imposed by the narrative), and they wind up rather oblique. But once the friendship is established—whatever the reason for it—we’re intrigued.
Daniels is good, but as indicated, he’s done this role many, many times before. Stone is the film’s real discovery. Her arid-dry delivery in the picture’s secret weapon; she can put a punchy spin on even her weakest lines, and gets laughs and sympathy that the script doesn’t quite earn. But—and this is key—they also don’t fall into the trap of making her wise beyond her years. She’s a teenager, and she’s screwed up, and she’s making bad choices (the portrait of the awkwardness and cruelty of teen sexuality rings particularly true). But she’s doing the best she can, and Stone latches on to that and cranks it all the way up. She takes this sometimes tired material (she gets not one, but two big monologues about death) and breathes new life and energy into it. It’s a firecracker of a performance.
Kudrow has a couple of strong scenes as well, particularly when she loses patience with her mess of a husband, who she’s spent too much of her life taking care of, managing his neurosis. “I think you think this is charming!” she lays into him. “We’re not 23 anymore. Pull it together!” Reynolds plays his vanilla superhero/confessor with just the right mixture of bravado and concern, while Kieran Culkin shares a couple of warm moments with his Abby, his longtime crush.
As the picture moves into the third act, it tosses in one of those unfortunate “surprises” that’s completely transparent, and everything else pretty much crashes together as expected (Richard and Claire’s big falling-out is mostly comprised of lines you’ve heard before). But the Richard-Abby dynamic remains a sturdy thread, and in their final scene, both Daniels and Stone manage to get at something real and true, even if they’re drowning in clichés.
I didn’t overhear my colleague’s reaction after the screening, but I would imagine he found plenty to complain about in Paper Man; indeed, there is credibility to those complaints. A film like this is easily dismissed because of its predictability, its herky-jerky tone and pace, its occasional clumsy dialogue. But Emma Stone is asked to play some beats in it that would mystify most actors her age, and she doesn’t even blink. That may not be enough for a full-on recommendation. But that’s something.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
This is my second year covering the Tribeca Film Festival, a glorious 12-day orgy of independent, foreign, and documentary films, screened in the Tribeca and Union Square/Chelsea areas of New York City. Last year’s fest provided East Coast critics with their first glimpses of some of the spring and summer’s best films, including Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, Duncan Jones’ mesmerizing sci-fi think piece Moon, Kirby Dick’s bomb-tossing political doc Outrage, and the whip-smart political satire (and Oscar nominee) In The Loop. This year’s slate boats 44 world premieres, seven international premieres, 15 North American premieres, six U.S. premieres, and 12 New York City premieres; they’re screening a total 85 feature films from 38 different countries, and if I play my cards right and keep to the back-breaking schedule I’ve set for myself, I should manage to take in about half of them (give or take).So what looks good? Plotting out a schedule when there’s up to nine or ten films in various venues to choose from at any given time can be a tricky proposition. Most of my choices are based on the talent involved, or the reports that have trickled in from earlier festivals that have shown some of the non-premieres. Here are a few of the titles I’m looking forward to:
- Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney is the hardest-working man in the festival. Aside from his May theatrical release (the excellent Casino Jack and the United States of Money), which isn’t even screening here, he has three additional films showing at Tribeca. He’s one of the contributors to the documentary omnibus Freakonomics (along with Morgan Spurlock, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki, and Seth Gordon), and he’s screening his Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film as a work in progress. I may not be able to see either of those, since they’re screening as one-time-only limited-access type events, but I will certainly check out My Trip to Al-Qaeda, his collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower.
- Other intriguing documentaries include the Sundance hit Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; Sons of Perdition, an inside look at the fundamentalist LDS sect led by Warren Jeffs; Chuck Workman’s Visionaries, a history of avant-garde cinema; Thieves By Law, a glimpse at the Russian Mafia; and the political exposé Gerrymandering.
- Edward Burns is a bit of a Tribeca favorite; Nice Guy Johnny is his fifth film to play at the festival. He hasn’t had a film that’s made much noise since Sidewalks of New York back in 2002, but hey, I’ll give this one a shot. In what I’m sure is a wild coincidence, his wife, former supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, also has a film playing this year (the documentary No Woman, No Cry).
- Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me boasts a big-name cast (Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Bill Pullman), but its graphic violence sparked some controversy and even walk-outs at Sundance earlier this year (Movieline says one sequence includes “the most brutal head trauma since Irreversible). Should be interesting to see what kind of response it gets here.
- Some of the other star power assembling in fiction films: Robert Duvall and Bill Murray in Get Low, James Franco in William Vincent, Oscar winners Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker in My Own Love Song, Oscar nominee Melissa Leo in The Space Between, Oscar winner Helen Hunt, Liev Schreiber, Carla Gugino, and Eddie Izzard in Every Day Kim Cattrall in Meet Monica Velour, Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time, and dragon-trainer Jay Baruchel in The Trotsky. - The Infidel features Richard Schiff, aka “Toby Ziegler” on The West Wing as, and I quote from the press notes, “a curmudgeonly Jewish cabbie.” That’s you have to tell me to get me into a seat.
- I may not make it to the film, but still, best title of the festival: Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives.
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The always-interesting Neil Jordan is here with Ondine, a lush, sweetly intimate picture that works both as an adult romance and a fantasy. Colin Farrell stars as an Irish fisherman who pulls a beautiful woman out of the water in his nets and takes a fancy to her; she loves him back, and develops a special relationship with his young daughter. Jordan makes a brave, risky choice in Ondine: to make a film that has infinite potential for absolute silliness, and to then play it straight and make it work. The result is warm, lovely, and lyrical. It’s a perfectly beguiling little movie.
Bobby Sheehan’s Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy tells the dual stories of legendary New York performance artist Joey Arias and innovative puppeteer Basil Twist, and how they came to collaborate. Its best elements are its vivid impressions of New York punk-art scene (the archival footage—ugly old videotapes of low-budget films, performances, and home movies—is priceless), though our interest flags in some other sections. It’s is an interesting and entertaining picture, if a bit too all over the place; though a good time, it lacks the sharp focus and discipline of a truly great documentary feature.
Alexandra Codina’s Monica & David is the documentary account of a young couple with Down syndrome—their romance, their marriage, their first year together. At first blush, it sounds like the worst kind of crass exploitation (a kind of nonfiction version of The Other Sister, perhaps). But it adopts exactly the right voice and perspective—one that carefully avoids cutesiness or sympathy, but sees these two (and the people around them) exactly as they are. The film definitely has a home movie feel, but that familiarity is vital and valuable. It’s a slight but sweet film—not earth-shattering, but still warm and deeply felt.
And finally we come to Lola, which is like a dare to the critic that considers himself even remotely intellectual. It is a naturalistic art picture from the Philippines, a tale of poor people in unfortunate circumstances, done in a semi-documentary style. It is the kind of film a critic fears; confess that it bored you to tears (which Lola does), and you seem some kind of a philistine, a Michael Bay-loving heathen who didn’t “get it.” It’s a risk this critic will have to take; Lola put me to sleep while somehow, simultaneously, giving me both a headache and a stomach ache. Many will look at director Brillante Mendoza’s refusal to dramatize and proclaim the result to be some kind of masterpiece. They have been blessed with good intentions, but poor judgment.
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