Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tribeca: "Just Like Us"

One of the most interesting new forms of nonfiction film is the “comic-doc exploration,” in which a stand-up comic and social commentator uses the tools of the documentary film and his own sense of humor to cook up a dish more funny and conventionally entertaining than your average essay film. Bill Maher took on organized religion in Religulous, Chris Rock investigated black hair issues in Good Hair, and now Egyptian stand-up comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed (one of the stars of Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show and The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour) explores American and Middle Eastern relations (and the place of comedy within those relationships) in Just Like Us, a slender but enlightening travelogue of his trip through the Middle East with an international group of comedians.

He begins the film with some of his own background, explaining the importance of humor and independence within his family. We then follow him on the road with his comic friends—a shifting group of comedians that include Omid Dajalili (star of the Tribeca hit The Infidel), In Living Color alum Tommy Davidson, The Wedding Ref host Tom Papa, and Ahmed’s Wild West Comedy Show co-star Sebastian Maniscalco. The crew starts in the United Arab Emirates, “the melting pot of the Middle East,” where there are some issues with profanity—worried about the local standards (he’s just finished serving out a year-long boycott from the UAE), Ahmed urges his fellow comics to “think of it like a Tonight Show set,” an instruction which Whitney Cummings and Dajalili almost immediately screw up.

From there it’s on to Beirut, where standards are far more lax (the city has adopted the “what happens in ___, stays in ____” slogan from Las Vegas), and then to Saudi Arabia, where the comics are escorted to the show by a Harley Davidson chapter and fear that the actual “religious police” may show up to shut them down. Next is Ahmed’s family’s homeland of Egypt, where “everyone wants to be a comic” (several small children end up crashing his set, just to get on stage). There is also a charming sequence where he visits his relatives, and big laughs from plus-sized Greek comic Angelo Tsarouchas’s encounter with a camel.

Finally, the tour winds up at Comix in New York City, and a poignant encounter with an Egyptian man that Ahmed meets on the Staten Island Ferry—a newly unemployed fellow who reminds Ahmed very much of his father. Their conversation after the show (at which he and his family are Ahmed’s guests) is surprisingly touching; it says more with their honest conversation and heartfelt reactions than all of the frankly treacly narration (“you’re gonna see the Middle East like you’ve never seen it before”).

Just Like Us is briskly paced and snappily cut, even if it does feel at times like a home movie (which, well, it kind of is). Ahmed gets his points across suitably in the abbreviated 72 minute running time, though I wish he would have padded it out with a bit more of the stand-up material—these are funny folks, and we barely hear from some of them. Still, running too short is a criticism that can be lobbed at very few films these days; smart and wickedly entertaining, Just Like Us is a funny, thoughtful treat.

"Just Like Us" screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "Get Low"

Robert Duvall gets one of the best entrances of his career in Aaron Schneider’s Get Low. He’s chasing (with a shotgun, no less) one of the many young boys who throws rocks and runs from his remote cabin in the woods; he’s first seen only in flashes—a hand on his gun, his feet on the ground. He chases the boy into his barn, where he’s seen only in silhouette—and then he steps into the light, revealing the scraggly hair and beard of a Confederate general. (It’s a moment that also subconsciously recalls Duvall’s reveal in his film debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he also played an object of derision in a small Southern town.) It’s a wonderfully prepared entrance, and confirms what we’re hoping for—Duvall old-cooting it up in a Southern Gothic tale. What it doesn’t hint at is the depths of the film, the emotional power that its closing scenes will pack. I like movies that catch you off-guard like this one does.

Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who has lived in a self-imposed exile in the Tennessee woods for the better part of 40 years. His only friend is his mule; when he goes into town, he’s likely to start a fight (and win). But he’s feeling mortal these days, so he goes into town to ask the preacher (Gerald McRaney) to help him make preemptive funeral arrangements. The preacher’s not much help, but Buddy (Lucas Black), who works at the local funeral home, overhears the conversation, and tells his boss Frank (Bill Murray) about it. The pair visits Felix and offers their services. He explains what he wants—to throw a big “funeral party” before his death, so that he can attend. He wants to hear the stories that everyone thinks are true—and tell a few of his own.

Schneider’s direction is loose but involving—he’s not in a hurry, but doesn’t bore the audience either, keeping a deliberate but steady pace. The screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell (from a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeke) has some funny bits—like Murray’s piqued interest in Duvall’s “hermit money” or the scene where he takes Duvall to get a promotional picture taken (when the photographer asks, “Do you want him to smile?”, a bemused Murray replies, “That is his smile”)—and is full of warm little throwaway moments, like the way Black interacts with his baby when his wife is in a foul mood. Most impressively, they manage to make the increasingly tiresome device of the gradually-revealed flashback (the film opens with the image of a burning home and a fleeing figure, and it’s not explained until Duvall’s big scene at the end) not only play, but play beautifully.

Duvall continues to amaze me; he’s reached that magical age for an older actor, where they’ve been doing it so long, it becomes second nature. His lantern-lit chat with Sissy Spacek is so off-hand, yet so absorbing—you can’t catch either of them “acting.” And he’s absolutely unafraid to underplay, as in the uncomfortable scene with McRaney’s preacher, which he basically harrumphs and grunts his way through. But he’s never at a loss for words, and when he tells his friend Reverend Charlie (the wonderful Bill Cobbs) that “I built my own jail and put myself in it, and stayed in it for 40 goddamned years,” he burns with bitterness, anger, pain. Murray’s medicine-man dialogue patterns, meanwhile, mesh perfectly with Duvall’s guttoral tones. Murray is funny here, but in a legitimate and unselfish way—he’s never funny outside of the character, nor does he merely transform Frank Quinn into a “Bill Murray type.” And though it’s mostly a comic role, he doesn’t blink when the script puts him eye-to-eye with Duvall. It’s a disciplined, fully realized piece of work. Complimenting them both, Lucas Black (who I still think of as the kid in Sling Blade) continues to develop into a fine actor, full-faced and handsome, his distinctive accent still one of his best qualities.

Get Low’s many fine elements—those down-to-the-bone performances, the rustic photography, the jangly yet mournful score—come together masterfully in its closing scenes, the funeral party itself. There’s a moment towards the end where Duvall looks at himself in the mirror intensely, the images layering and rotating on the screen as they do in his mind, and then he walks out in front of the town and tells them his deepest, darkest secret. It’s an extraordinary scene, and Duvall holds the audience in spellbound silence. This is an actor. And Get Low is one of his finest hours.

"Get Low" screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival; it opens July 30 in limited release.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Tribeca: "Legacy"

Thomas Kimi’s Legacy is a puzzle; it should work, and has all of the elements in place to work, and then it doesn’t. It has a crackerjack opening, and an intriguing political allegory at its center, and Idris Elba acting up a storm in basically every scene. But it never connects from moment to moment, and those discombobulated moments end up being slung together into a particularly unsatisfying trick ending.

In the slick, rapid-fire action sequence that kicks the picture off, an elite “black ops” unit led by Adenuga (Elba’s old Wire colleague Clarke Peters) botches a mission to take down a Ukranian arms dealer. Malcolm Gray (Elba) is subjected to brutal physical and psychological torture, so when he returns to America, he’s looking to even scores—he reaches out to a reporter (Lara Pulver) with information about the secretive unit, and holds his brother, Senator Darnell Gray Jr. (Eamonn Walker) responsible. Senator Gray is a fierce hawk and national security booster; he was a major player in the formation of the unit. He has also, in the time Malcolm was gone, married Malcolm’s girl Valentina (Monique Gabriela Curnen).

Aside from that opening (and flashbacks to it), the entirety of the action is contained to the dingy Brooklyn apartment that Malcolm rents upon his return. Within that space, Kimi (and cinematographer Jonathan Harvey) create an atmosphere of itchy paranoia, of walls tightening, closing in. The atmosphere is sweaty and nervous, even if you ding Kimi for using the tired device of the phone that won’t stop ringing. He also has a resourceful action sense; there’s a rough-and-tumble fight scene inside the apartment in which he eschews conventional score and uses, instead, the sound of a teapot whistling on the stove.

Elba is credited as an executive producer on the film, and you can tell why he wanted to get it made—at times, it plays less like a narrative than like his actor’s demo reel. His work here veers between grounded and heart-wrenching and wildly overheated, with stops at all points in between. The role provides him opportunity for some Stringer Bell-style quiet intensity, which comes across better than when he bugs out and plays crazy. His monologue confessions into a video camera are a contrivance, but he mostly brings them off. It is, no question, a tour-de-force performance, but self-consciously so—he’s so busy studiously performing that he seldom seems to actually disappear into the character. We’re watching an actor working very, very hard.

Some of the smaller details are bothersome. The key TV interview with Senator Gray is too smoothly and too obviously scripted, with none of the spontaneity of real television news—and that goes double for the clever ending, which is nearly wrecked by some egregiously bad acting by the TV reporters. But the main disappointment, as the close of Legacy’s 95 minutes, is that we slowly begin to realize that (contrary to the set-up), the film is not about character or story. It’s about narrative trickery. When the film’s bag of tricks is empty, we can go home.

"Legacy" screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca Report No. 7

I’m starting to get that sinking feeling—the end of Tribeca is in sight, with only three more days until I can no longer flash a laminated badge and see several movies a day for free. I’ll let out a heavy sigh and soldier on, doing my best to enjoy the six movies left on my itinerary (and trying to come up with new and interesting things to say about them—god I hope I’m not repeating myself in these reviews).

Day number eight was won by the British comedy The Infidel, a spirited, ballsy picture that takes on a tricky issue (the friction between Jews and Muslims) with edgy vigor, cloaked behind its broad humor and jovial leading man. This gentle tale of a British Muslim who finds out that he was not only adopted, but born a Jew, dodges charges of anti-Semitism primarily in the deftness and good humor of the playing. David Baddiel’s script sets up the pins of the story smoothly, gingerly, and then knocks them down with precision; he and Josh Appignanesi know how to build a comic sequence and pay it off. Indeed, much of the picture functions as a series of comic blackout sketches, held together by the broad strokes of the narrative and several well-cultivated running jokes. It’s a little edge, a little provocative, and a lot funny.

Also worth seeing is Beware the Gonzo, a high school comedy that is smart and connected, with a real authenticity—I’m not sure if this is what high school is like now, but this is a lot like I remember it. Performances from the gifted cast of young actors are all sturdy (particularly those of Ezra Miller and Zoe Kravitz), and the film gets some laughs while never cheapening its “fight the power” spirit. Some of the writing is a little soggy, but likeability counts for a lot here, and while Beware the Gonzo may not be the best film I’ve seen at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it’s one of the more charming ones.

Clash is constructed with an abundance of slick Hollywood style, all quick cuts and hot, saturated lighting and tough-guy sunglasses attitude. What’s different is that when the characters open their mouths to speak, Vietnamese comes out. Clash, from director Le Thanh Son, is a clever mash-up of John Woo-style gunplay and whiz-bang martial arts, whipped up at top speed with the help of rapid-fire editing and a pounding, pseudo-techno soundtrack. It has its moments, but it is one of those films that seems to benefit from its international pedigree; take off the subtitles, and you’ve got The Losers—and if you didn’t notice, The Losers didn’t play too many film festivals. Clash is a sturdy action picture, and it gets the job done. But let’s don’t go confusing it with art.

Then there’s William Vincent, which is neither fun nor art, though it certainly thinks it qualifies as the latter. Indeed, it looks like a work of art—the thicky, chewy cinematography is striking—but it’s a film that appears to know exactly how to achieve a look and no idea how to tell a story. The endless narration is drab and colorless; the dialogue scenes are turgidly paced (If they took out all the pauses, the movie’d run about 20 minutes). Some of the performances are interesting, but William Vincent is ultimately a flat, flaccid, self-indulgent picture.

Three more movies tomorrow: Idris Elba in Legacy, the Spanish neo-noir Blood and Rain, and one of my most eagerly-anticipated titles: Bill Murray and Robert Duvall in Get Low.

Tribeca: "William Vincent"

I’m not sure how director Jay Anania and cinematographer Daniel Vecchione achieved the specific look of their film William Vincent, but whatever they did, it worked. There’s a remarkable density to the images; the blacks seem deeper, richer than in other films, thicker and more detailed, adding a uniquely vibrant feel to its New York locations. What’s more, they appear, in the camerawork, to be going for (and pulling off) the sleekly intimate New-York-Wave look of Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. The film is never less than handsome; every frame is lovingly composed. The trouble is that, as much as Anania appears to know exactly how to achieve a look, he has no idea how to tell a story. Through the first half-hour or so, you can’t decide if he’s building up to something really interesting, or boring us with general pretentiousness. Unfortunately, it’s the latter.

James Franco is the title character, a mysterious drifter who shows up in New York, takes on a new identity for reasons unclear, rents a storefront apartment, and picks pockets for fun (he tosses the contents after he pulls them). One afternoon, a young and powerful gangster known only as “The Boss” (Josh Lucas) observes William in action, and decides he’d like the pickpocket to work for him, running various errands. As an incentive, he offers William the friendship of pretty Ann (Julianne Nicholson) as a “gift,” but when William and Ann start to get attached, things go sour. Yep, that’s right, William Vincent is apparently an arthouse remake of Mad Dog and Glory.

The film is held together by narration—a lot of narration. Most of it is by William, in the form of a letter he sends to Ann several years later. But he also works as an editor of educational nature films, so we hear the female narrator of those films as he cuts, and then, for a while, suddenly she’s the narrator of the film we’re watching. How many narrators does this thing need?

However, the montages of ponderous narration and marginally-related visuals are more successful than the turgidly-paced dialogue scenes. While much of the talk is flat chatter, Anania’s screenplay does include a few modestly amusing Pinteresque exchanges (William: “What do you do?” Ann: “I do things.” William: “Things like what?” Ann: “What I do. So it’s that”). The trouble is the pacing; every line is preceded by a pause you can build a house in. Anania seems to have directed his actors to contemplate and reflect on every thing they say, before and after they say it, so they’re up there doing all this damned acting, and we’re checking our watches. If they took out all the pauses, the movie’d run about 20 minutes.

Some of the performances are interesting. There’s a haunted quality to Franco’s man of few words turn; he’s ultimately left flailing, but early on, he has one entire good sequence, a charming bar encounter with a random pretty girl (well-played by Zoe Lister Jones, who would be a star by now if more people had seen Breaking Upwards). But William (or whatever his name is) is basically an enigma, with Fracno inside him struggling manfully for things to latch on to. Nicholson, so good as the wounded lead in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, finds some deliberate shadings within her one-dimensional role. Lucas is pretty much forgettable, but as his right-hand man, Martin Donovan—who is not the most likely choice to play a heavy, being mostly known for milquetoast roles like Christina Ricci’s brother in The Opposite of Sex—ends up creating one of the most nuanced things in the picture.

Even the distinctive look doesn’t always work; there’s a couple of scenes early on where you can’t make out a damned thing, and some key shots later that seem designed for the sole purpose of making the audience nod and murmur “ah, the symbolism” appreciatively. And this stylization has its drawbacks—one of the final scenes is lit only from above (perhaps from a single source), and the light falls in such a way that we can’t see either of the characters’ eyes, in a moment were it is really, really important that we do. Instead we just get empty black holes in the shadows of their brows. In some ways, however, it’s an appropriate and symbolically appropriate ending for William Vincent: the look comes first, the emotion and narrative a distant second.

"William Vincent" screens April 30 and May 1 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "The Infidel"

The Infidel is a spirited, ballsy comedy that takes on a tricky issue (the friction between Jews and Muslims) with edgy vigor, cloaked behind its broad humor and jovial leading man. It’s a tremendous balancing act that director Josh Appignanesi and writer David Baddiel pull off here; it mines considerable comic gold from a topic that’s not exactly at the top of anyone’s “funny issues” list.

Omid Djalili plays Mahmud Nasir, a moderate British Muslim who, near the story’s beginning, gets the news that the mother of his son’s fiancĂ©e has just wed Arshad El Masari (Yigal Naor), a well-known radical Muslim activist who Mahmud dubs “Fundamentalist Fatty Fatwa-Face.” But El Masari must give his blessing to the young couple, so Mahmud promises to live up to the request of his son (Amit Shah) to convince him that they’re “proper Muslim.” And then there’s a bombshell: in going through the papers of his deceased mother, he discovers that she doesn’t have his birth certificate, but does have his certificate of adoption. He never knew, nor did he knew that his birth parents were (gasp) Jewish. So there’s a potential conflict of interest there—he must keep the revelation secret from his family—but it also prompts an identity crisis within Mahmud.

Baddiel’s script sets up the pins of the story smoothly, gingerly, and then knocks them down with precision; he and Appignanesi know how to build a comic sequence and pay it off. Indeed, much of the picture functions as a series of comic blackout sketches, held together by the broad strokes of the narrative and several well-cultivated running jokes, like the reactions to his “very Jewish” birth name (“Solly Shimshillewitz”) and everyone’s hatred of finger quotes.

The picture is anchored by the inventive comic performance of Djalili, a stand-up comedian and actor who brings a quick-thinking improvisational energy to his role; there are few things in the film as simple but funny as his scene in the mirror, trying his hand at making “Jewish faces.” But the film is also smart enough to give him a foil and partner in the form of the brilliant Richard Schiff (“Toby” from The West Wing) as Lenny, a Jewish American cabbie who helps Mahmud get in touch with his Jewish side. Schiff, who’s never met a line he couldn’t underplay, is a perfect counterpart to the wound-up Djalili; in the scene where they give a shared toast at a bar mitzvah, they’re like a great vaudeville two-act.

The Infidel dodges charges of anti-Semitism primarily in the deftness and good humor of the playing. Some of these lines (Lenny explains a Jewish Buddhist: “they believe you should renounce all material things, but keep the receipts”) and sequences (Mahmud’s “Jewish lessons” with Lenny, learning to say “oy” and reading Portnoy’s Complaint) sound absolutely offensive on paper, but the light touch of all parties involved brings them off without so much as raising an eyebrow.

In its second hour, the picture loses its sense of pace a bit (it runs 105 minutes but feels longer), and the turn to the serious comes on too hard, too fast with the sad bastard music montage—the playing of a more serious beat in the next scene feels much more genuine (and it is then wisely punctured). As a director, Appignanesi has a nicely unobtrusive visual style, keeping his actors mostly in mediums and allowing them to create their own conversational rhythms, but he’s at a bit of a loss in big crowd sequences; the closing scene is strong, but he keeps cutting away to bland crowd reaction shots like he’s John Landis or something. Still, The Infidel gets a lot more right than it does wrong—it tackles a potentially inflammatory topic with grace, ease, and big, big laughs. That’s the kind of chance that fewer and fewer films will take these days, and frankly, we’re worse off for it.

"The Infidel" screens May 1 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "Clash"

Clash is constructed with an abundance of slick Hollywood style, all quick cuts and hot, saturated lighting and tough-guy sunglasses attitude. What’s different is that when the characters open their mouths to speak, Vietnamese comes out. Clash, from director Le Thanh Son, is a clever mash-up of John Woo-style gunplay and whiz-bang martial arts, whipped up at top speed with the help of rapid-fire editing and a pounding, pseudo-techno soundtrack. It has its moments, but it is one of those films that seems to benefit from its international pedigree; take off the subtitles, and you’ve got The Losers—and if you didn’t notice, The Losers didn’t play too many film festivals.

The picture begins with the assembly of the team; as expected, they each have exactly one character trait (smoothly professional, trigger-happy, bumblingly comic), and they are assigned nicknames that, in an apparent shout-out to Reservoir Dogs, one character complains about. (That same character makes a disparaging dialogue reference to “Hong Kong movies,” and since this scene is ripping off Res Dogs which itself ripped off said Hong Kong movies, the snake is truly eating its own tail here.) The team is led by Trinh (Thanh Van Ngo), aka “Phoenix,” and she’s the kind of tough babe that these movies love: frequently a better fighter than her male opponents, the fighting-a-girl awkwardness is mainly avoided because the men who take her on never get in a shot anyway. But there’s also the required scene where she has to doll herself up, so that the male members on her team can get a load of her slithering around and drop their jaws. One of them, Quan (Johnny Nguyen), ends up joining her for a tango, the cinematic shorthand for upcoming sex, the camera caressing her svelte red dress for a good three minutes of screen time so they can extract a tiny, negligible piece of information.

Anyhoo, Trinh is pulling these dangerous jobs to work off her debt to a ruthless gangster who rescued her from prostitution and took her daughter as collateral. The primary objective is the acquisition of a laptop computer, but that’s the movie’s MacGuffin; the plot’s primary function is to provide excuses for the multiple action sequences. Most of them work in about the same way: they begin as shoot-outs, and then when the bullets run out, the fists come out. (In one scene, well into the martial arts portion of the scene, another bad buy shows up with a machine gun, and our heroes seems pretty annoyed by his bad manners. Didn’t he know he missed the gun part?) The gunfights have a kinetic intensity, while the martial arts scenes that they bleed into, supplemented with knives and swords, are acrobatic and full of scrappy tension, what with the way Trinh keeps doing the move where she clenches her legs around some poor sap’s neck and flips him to the ground, the easier to snap him out.

Director Son know show to rev the picture’s motor—he doesn’t stick to the same tired tempo, the way too many American action flicks do. The effort is at least appreciated; the non-action scenes, however, are the weakest ones. In one, Trinh tells Quan her sad story, and she weeps as the operatic music swells and clobbers the scene. In another, we discover that our colorful villain has a thing for opera music. And so on. Some of these sequences (like the love scene set to a tender pop song) seem even more ridiculous in a foreign tongue—now we’re on the outside looking in, and this stuff looks mighty silly.

It probably shouldn’t matter—we’re mostly at Clash for the action, and it’s very good, even if the barnburner of a final showdown is nearly ruined by the cackling, bug-eyed acting of the villain and the corny black-and-white montage of previous tender moments. What matters is that it goes bang-bang and chop-chop real good and real fast. It’s a sturdy action picture, and it gets the job done. But let’s don’t go confusing it with art.

"Clash" screens April 30 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "Beware the Gonzo"

"After all I did,” Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman confesses, at the beginning of Beware the Gonzo, “I probably got off easy.” He tells the camera this in a videotaped confession/apology; we then circle back to the beginning of the story, to find out exactly what it was he did. “Gonzo” (Ezra Miller) has taken on the moniker of Hunter S.Thompson; he’s a hilariously intense writer for the school newspaper, but he gets thrown off of it early in his senior year by the smug editor and BMOC, Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney). Gonzo decides that he will not be silenced, so he and his misfit friends decide to launch an underground paper, with one primary goal: “We’re going to piss a lot of people off.” They accomplish their mission.

Beware the Gonzo is the directorial debut of Bryan Goluboff; his primary previous credit of note was for the screenplay adaptation of The Basketball Diaries. His script for this film is smart and connected, with a real authenticity—I’m not sure if this is what high school is like now, but this is a lot like I remember it. It’s not just that the school is ruled by the rich preppie jocks (though it is), but that everyone else is invisible, forgotten, unnoticed. When the paper begins, Gonzo aims to make them visible again. But the main focus of the venture ends up being him.

Gonzo takes himself with absolute solemnity, sitting at his computer, an All the President’s Men poster on the wall behind him, chugging Red Bulls and pounding out his angry screeds, he’s every high school intellectual who ever carried around a dog-eared copy of The Great Shark Hunt. Miller taps into that dogged determination. He’s got a focused, lanky, angular presence (kind of like a less obnoxious Justin Long), and he’s plenty versatile as well—it took me the first fifteen minutes of the film to realize he was the same actor I saw playing a gay teen just a few days ago in Every Day.

Gonzo’s primary ally on the paper is Evie (Zoe Kravitz), the bad-rep girl with an axe to grind. Kravitz, the offspring of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, made an impression a couple months back in The Greatest, but this is a better showcase for her talents—she’s genuinely gifted, charismatic and funny (and a knockout, no surprise considering her lineage). McCartney, who I guess is some kind of a teen recording artist (god, I’m old) is properly smarmy and punchable; he’s a rich punk villain in the grand William Zabka tradition. Campbell Scott and Amy Sedaris don’t get nearly enough scenes as Gonzo’s parents, but they make the best of them—Scott with his arid dry wit, Sedaris right up on the edge of crazy.

Beware the Gonzo suffers somewhat in comparison with The Trotsky, another Tribeca film about a politically conscious teen battling apathy and the powers-that-be at a high school level; it doesn’t have that film’s pointedly intellectual wit. But it also has a stronger third act, in which Gonzo is brought down by his out-of-control ego, and goes too far to cling to his celebrity and relevance. Goluboff sails towards some fairly predictable plot points, and some of the writing towards the end gets a little sappy. But likability counts for a lot here, and while Beware the Gonzo may not be the best film I’ve seen at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it’s one of the more charming ones.

"Beware the Gonzo" screens May 1 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

In Theaters: "The Human Centipede"

About halfway through The Human Centipede, as I was recoiling from what I was being shown, I asked myself a couple of fairly reasonable questions: Where does it go from here? And is anything going to happen that I actually want to see? I spent the next fifteen minutes staring at the screen with something akin to shame. At about the hour mark, I started to gather up my things; I’ve never walked out of a critics’ screening before, but I was ready to. And then I stopped myself, because I would feel dishonest, writing a review of a movie I hadn’t seen through to the end. But not writing this one up would be letting it off to easy. No. We need to talk about this movie.

It starts off interestingly, as these things go. Yes, the set-up is a little obvious—Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), two American tourists, are on a road trip through Europe. En route to an obscure nightclub, they get lost on a back road, flat tire, you know the drill. They wander through the nearby woods and end up at the home of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), who is plenty sinister. He lets them in, pretends to make a call, roofies their water, and takes them down to his basement lab.

So far, not so bad. The constant name repetition in the dialogue is irritating (there will be no doubt, by the end of the film, that one of the girls is named Lindsay, and the other is named Jenny), but the dread is thick, and the pseudo-Kubrickian photography is clean while creepily off-putting. Director Tom Six knows from atmosphere and gets the job done in these early scenes, slamming the “young women in jeopardy” set-up into a worst-case scenario, coldly and efficiently.

But some of it is just plain goofy, and it only gets worse when our evil genius lays out his ridiculous plan. Here it is (spoiler warning, etc.): the good doctor, who made his name and fame successfully separating Siamese twins, now plans to do the opposite. He explains to his two hostages, and the third one he’s added, that he is going to connect them into a kind of (title!) human centipede. How will this centipede work, you ask? Oh, he explains it (and here’s where you want to click away if you’ve got a weak stomach): he will surgically attach them to each other, mouth to anus, running the intestine from the front one, through the second, and into the third.

Somebody made a movie about this.

This is around when I started eyeing the exit. Most of the rest of my notes are along the lines of “Yep, they’re really gonna show us this” and “This is actually happening.” No, you think. They don’t actually show that, it doesn’t actually happen. Oh yes they do, and yes it does. The result is a cinematic geek show—there’s absolutely no engagement with it whatsoever, because we spend the entire second half of the story feeling bad for the actors. They spend the second half of the film in that “human centipede”, their faces buried in each other’s asses, the girls (of course) topless. It’s reprehensible. What this sadistic director has put them through runs parallel to the madman at his story’s center—but this is worse, because it really happened. However much they paid these actors, it wasn’t enough.

There’s tension here or there, and skill in some of the performances—the girls are likable, and Laser has a real presence, though he turns too obvious at the climax, overacting grotesquely and then becoming laughably stupid at the plot’s convenience. There’s even some suspense in the repulsive climax, before the laughable attempt to shoehorn in some kind of bullshit philosophical nonsense.

But it’s cheap, repugnant filmmaking. I can’t imagine the director who would want to make The Human Centipede, or the distributor who would want other people to see it. But more than anything, I can’t imagine the audience that would want to subject itself to it. I know, in writing a review this harsh and strongly-worded, I’m risking drawing people to it. Well, if it got that kind of response, if it’s that fucked up, I gotta see it, right? Please trust me on this. I don’t mean to be the carnival barker here, but it’s seriously the most vile, sickening thing I’ve ever watched. You can’t un-see it. Don’t go, or the consequences could be dire. How, you ask? Well, there’s a moment of confusion when the opening title comes up (ah, that lovely, simpler time in my life, the last moment before I’d seen The Human Centipede), because it reads The Human Centipede (First Sequence) . What the hell does that mean? When I went to imdb later, I found out: currently listed as “in development” is, of course, a sequel: The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence). Young actors looking for a break, beware.

"The Human Centipede" opens Friday, April 30 in limited release (though not nearly limited enough).

In Theaters: "Harry Brown"

Roughly an hour into Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown, there’s a scene that pretty much encompasses everything that’s wrong with the movie. Our titular character, a widower and former Royal Marine played by Michael Caine, has been pushed into vigilantism against the violent gangs who control his council estate following the murder of his friend (David Bradley). He has gone to the hideout of a pair of local criminals to buy a gun. He enters a den of sin and inequity; it’s not enough that the guys are two tattooed scumbags, or that one is snorting coke, or that the other is injecting heroin into a near-comatose girl on the couch. No, there’s also a sex tape of one of the guys and the dead-eyed smack girl going. Oh, and on the way into this cheery scene, Harry is brought through a marijuana grow room that would make Conrad from Weeds jealous.

So what I’m saying is, subtlety isn’t the movie’s strong suit. But it’s more than that; the sequence drags out about twice as long as it should, as the camera lovingly caresses every dirty detail of the repulsive scene. As a director, Barber can’t get his shit together—he can’t decide if he’s making a gritty social document or an escapist vigilante shoot-em’-up/modern-day Western. In trying to have it both ways, he accomplishes neither; the picture is too shallow to be thought-provoking, but too unseemly to work as an entertainment.

It starts off well enough, with a harrowing opening sequence of a horrifying crime and its aftermath (inventively staged as cell phone video). After that little corker, we meet Harry, who lives in a grim, cheerless building and trudges off dutifully every day to visit his dying wife. “I don’t think she knows I’m there anymore,” he confesses to Leonard (Bradley), who he meets every afternoon in the neighborhood pub for a game of chess (nobody in movies ever plays chess just to play chess, of course, so the game is trotted out as a metaphor later). When his wife finally goes, he leans even more heavily on Leonard, so his friend’s death in the hands of local toughs hits him especially hard.

Caine’s work in these early scenes is masterful; he’s not afraid to play Harry as a fragile old man (there’s a tremendous scene where a door closes and he just falls apart), but when Leonard asks, of Harry’s Marine days, “Did you every kill anyone?”, the darkness in the old man’s eyes as he looks up at his friend tells us everything we need to know. But, aside from those isolated moments, we’re about halfway through the picture before we realized how underdeveloped the character actually is. The film leans heavily on what we already know and feel about Caine (and particularly the flinty characters he often played in the ‘60s and ‘70s) without giving him much of an actual personality to play; first he’s sad and feeble, and then he’s a badass.

There’s a subplot concerning the investigation of Leonard’s death by cops Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles), but in spite of the actors’ best efforts, it’s a non-starter; the resulting scenes are all “been there, done that” duds, from her development of the wild theory that maybe, just maybe, that old guy could be behind it all to her partner’s resigned insistence that “As far as I’m concerned, Harry Brown’s doing us a favor.” Barber’s got some directorial style—the menace is thick, the cinematography is flashy, the shock sound design gets multiple rises out of us—and his set pieces (like the big riot scene at the end) are impressively staged. But frequently, they exist solely as flair, adding little to the big picture.

Harry’s Christian name is surely no coincidence; in its broad story beats, Harry Brown is a throwback to the hard-line ‘70s “one-man crusade” pictures like Dirty Harry and Death Wish (there’s even a telltale moment at the end of a slimeball cop/politico referencing the force of the “silent majority”). But Barber is frequently distracted by the film’s own odiousness—he’s so busy fetishising the lurid details that he loses focus of the narrative (there’s a sense of the filmmaker getting off on the pulpy brutality of it all). In a manner reminiscent of Joel Schumacher’s 8mm, it only manages to see this grisly world from the outside in, all neon surfaces and grainy flash. But in keeping its distance, it sensationalizes the material less than a film that’s truly willing to get inside its lurid, grim world of urban decay (like, say, Taxi Driver), yet somehow leaves you feeling dirtier afterwards. With its self-conscious artsiness and tsk-tsk moralizing, Barber seems to strive for higher ground than the vigilante-picture roots, but when it comes down to the wire, he goes for the cheap thrill every time. Harry Brown delivers, yes, but on a basic, primeval, and frankly ugly level.

"Harry Brown" opens Friday, April 30th in limited release.

In Theaters: "The Good Heart"

Dagur Kari’s The Good Heart opens with Lucas, a shaggy-haired young homeless guy, sharing dinner with a kitten and singing it to sleep. We then meet Jacques, a crabby bar owner who gets so angered by his “relaxation tape” that he literally gives himself a heart attack. These are not encouraging scenes. They don’t exactly portend a lot of subtle shadings in the forthcoming picture. I’m not quite sure what to make of The Good Heart, primarily because its intentions are so unclear. It’s supposed to be a comedy, I guess, but it ain’t funny; when it tries to move us, it’s even less successful. It’s a singularly unlikeable picture, shot through a washed-out, desaturating haze that tamps down the color and amps up the drabness.

The set-up is that Jacques (Brian Cox) and Lucas (Paul Dano) end up sharing a hospital room, and Jacques takes something of a shine to the young man. He has no family and no friends, and this was his fifth heart attack, so he decides to take Lucas under his wing and teach him how to run the bar so that he can leave it to him. I may not frequent enough New York bars, but it would seem that if there’s one guy you don’t want to learn the business from, it’s Jacques; he abuses any new customer that wanders into the establishment, since he apparently makes enough to pay the rent and bills from his half-dozen or so regulars, all “colorful characters” straight out of Central Casting.

These scenes are painfully tedious and one-note, punctuated by would-be comic interludes like the long scene where Jacques tells Lucas about how broccoli makes him fart. The whole enterprise is overdone and boorish, and then it takes a whimsical turn, which doesn’t play either. April (Islid Le Besco) wanders into the bar one rainy night, and, through an improbable series of events, her and Lucas wind up falling in love and getting married, which drives a wedge between he and Jacques, who hates everyone so she’s no exception, but maybe he doesn’t, and oh who cares.

The picture is ultimately undone by our inability to engage with any of the characters onscreen. In Lucas, we have yet another of Dano’s sullen, withdrawn loners; I’m not saying he’s a bad actor (There Will Be Blood makes a compelling case to the contrary), but on the heels of Little Miss Sunshine, Gigantic, and Explicit Ills, I’m beginning to suspect that maybe he’s not the most versatile one. His sole acting choice here appears to have been to develop an irritating little habit of standing and walking with his hands up and tightened, like Mr. Burns. Cox is always fun to watch, but he’s way overdoing it here—it’s an undisciplined, overcooked performance, the kind of thing he usually comes up with when not guided by a strong director. His blustering interpretation, and the lack of subtlety in the writing, keeps us from giving a damn about Jacques, which is a real problem when we’re supposed to care about him in the end. The script gives him a couple of softer beats in the third act, but by then, it’s too little, too late. Le Besco makes no impression whatsoever with in her one-dimensional role; I can’t even recall what she looks like, much less anything about her performance.

Everything about The Good Heart is forced—the atmosphere, the humor, the performances, and the ending, which is so obvious that it borders on insulting. In many ways, it feels like the result of an Indie Filmmaker’s Mad Lib; it has all the ingredients (actors with street cred, gritty look, and a quirky, devil-may-care attitude about narrative), but no soul, no momentum, and no payoff. This is the kind of indie that makes moviegoers long for a big, empty studio picture, full of pretty people and lots of explosions.

"The Good Heart" opens Friday, April 30th in limited release.

Tribeca Report No. 6

My seventh day at Tribeca began on an unexpectedly goofy note. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the new movie by Once director John Carney, but it surely wasn’t a full-on, laugh-out-loud spoof comedy from the Mel Brooks/Zucker-Abrams-Zucker school. Zonad isn’t exactly a parody of anything in particular—it opens with the heroic music and deep-voiced intro of a superhero movie, and its protagonist dresses the part. But the film is more of a sci-fi comedy, with broad jabs at provincial life thrown in. The target doesn’t really matter anyway; what Zonad captures is the free-wheeling spirit of those Brooks and Z-A-Z movies, where anything goes, and no laugh was too cheap to lunge for. It’s all so good-natured and cheery, even the gross-out jokes don’t spoil the party. Zonad is a delightfully silly movie, sweetly ribald and funny as hell.

Next up was Gerrymandering, Jeff Reichert’s documentary on the crooked, dirty process of re-districting, and if that sounds like a dry topic, believe me, it’s not. The United States is basically the only civilized government that lets the politicians themselves re-draw the lines, well, they’re often re-drawn to the advantage of that politician and/or their party. We see clips of presidents from JFK to Obama decrying the process, but it’s not stopped, because it’s in the best political interests of whoever is in enough of a majority to stop it—and, in many cases, it’s a quick and easy way to rig the process in your favor. The more you hear about the process, the more steamed up you get—though the film is far from an angry political screed. It’s snappily paced, smartly assembled, and frequently funny, while commentary (from political figures like Howard Dean, Ed Rollins, Governor Schwarzenegger, and his predecessors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis) is pointed and valuable.

One of the more controversial films in the festival is Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, a tough, hard-boiled little picture, cold and brutal and efficient. Its violence and pathology will, no doubt, disturb some audiences (and already has). But the fact of the matter is this: the craftsmanship on display is undeniable, and the black-hearted storytelling, true to the noir novel (by Jim Thompson) on which it’s based, pulls in those with the stomach for it. The photography is lovingly rich, but it’s not just designed to look like noir; it feels like it, unfolding with the same nightmare precision. As complications stack up around him, the “hero” keeps is cool, and Winterbottom does the same—he resists the temptation to overcook the scheme spinning out of control, relying instead on his measured, calculated direction. It’s a difficult movie, but absolutely worth seeing.

Though it sports a stellar leading turn from Melissa Leo, an actor who couldn’t play a false note if her life depended on it, Travis Fine’s The Space Between was the day’s weakest film. Iwants to be a great movie; it’s clearly aching to be one. It wants it so bad, you want it too. But it’s not a great movie. It takes a very good idea—a ground-level view of 9/11, as seen by a jaded stewardess and the Muslim “unaccompanied minor” in her charge—and plugs it into yet another “road movie” structure. In its closing scenes, you start to see what Fine was going for, and where he wanted to arrive. If he’d have found a more interesting way to get where he was going, then he might’ve really had something here

We’ve got an interesting mix on tap for tomorrow: the teen comedy Beware the Gonzo, the martial arts epic Clash, Richard Schiff in The Infidel, and James Frano in William Vincent.

Tribeca: "The Space Between"

Travis Fine’s The Space Between wants to be a great movie; it’s clearly aching to be one. It wants it so bad, you want it too. But it’s not a great movie. It takes a very good idea—a ground-level view of 9/11, as seen by a jaded stewardess and the Muslim “unaccompanied minor” in her charge—and plugs it into yet another “road movie” structure. God, I’m tired of road movies. This is the fourth one I’ve seen at Tribeca, and there’s more (there’s even one called Road, Movie). Attention indie filmmakers: get some new ideas.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things in it that work—it does, after all, star Melissa Leo, who couldn’t play a false note if her life depended on it. As Montine, a cranky, short-fused flight attendant on a New York-to-Los Angeles route that gets grounded on 9/11, she’s spot on; she has an inverted indifference and barely-concealed sadness that reads without overpowering the characterization. She’s already on thin ice for snapping at travelers and various other infractions when she is assigned to watch over Omar (Anthony Keyvan), a ten-year-old Pakistani-American who is flying cross-country to attend an esteemed Muslim school. He doesn’t want to go, and locks himself in the lavatory. He falls asleep in there; when he wakes up, the plane is empty (it’s a wonderfully dreamlike sequence) and Montine takes him into the terminal, where he pushes through a crowd of people gathered around a television and sees the smoking towers. (It would be a masterful reveal if it weren’t, somehow, a shot-for-shot match for the same scene in Dear John.) He has to go home, to his father, but getting him there is tricky, and there’s your road movie.

Fine’s direction is controlled and sensitive—perhaps too much so, as in the early scene where Omar’s father and schoolmaster discuss his future in high-minded platitudes; Fine all but gives them an angelic glow. The inclination towards a positive view of Muslims is admirable, of course, but the Muslim characters in The Space Between have no dimension—they’re all saints, and saints are boring. Montine is flawed, and she’s interesting. (This is not to disparage Keyvan’s performance—the kid is terrific, unaffected and well-matched to his more experienced co-star.) Leo lets us see the pain in her face, the hurt in her eyes; it’s a terrific performance.

But they make the duo do all the expected, worn-out road-movie stuff—we get the views of rolling landscapes, the transportation troubles, the blow-ups, the colorful characters. It’s a chore to get through all that stuff, and when Montine’s big secret is finally revealed, the story symmetry is too damned neat. Some of the supporting characters along the way are good (Brad William Henke from Choke is earthy, gregarious, and real as Montine’s brother), but we wish Fine’s screenplay wasn’t marching them through such a worn-out formula.

There is one thing that The Space Between does especially well: it remembers, vividly, what those days right after 9/11 felt like. There’s a quietness to the film, a delicateness, particularly towards the end, when years of Montine’s grief finally boil over. That’s a good sequence, as is the final scene, during which I did begin to well up. But Fine inexplicably hurries through the effective, emotional ending; it’s shot as though they were trying to get the camera back to the rental shop, fading to black just as it’s starting to get to us. That’s a shame; in those last scenes, you start to see what Fine was going for, and where he wanted to arrive. If he’d have found a more interesting way to get where he was going, then he might’ve really had something here.

"The Space Between" screens Friday, April 30th at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tribeca: "The Killer Inside Me'

Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me begins with such a bouncy, stylized opening credit sequence that you might not be quite prepared for what follows. Based on the 1952 novel by Jim Thompson, it is a tough, hard-boiled little picture, cold and brutal and efficient. Its violence and pathology will, no doubt, disturb some audiences (and already has). But the fact of the matter is this: the craftsmanship on display is undeniable, and the black-hearted storytelling, true to the noir novel on which it’s based, pulls in those with the stomach for it.

Casey Affleck stars as Lou Ford, a small-town Texas sheriff’s deputy; he’s lived there his whole life, and is comfortable there, mostly. “The trouble with growin’ up in a small town is that everyone thinks they know who you are,” he explains, in voice-over narration. One day, responding to a complaint, he meets someone who doesn’t know him: Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who’s just set up shop in town. He tells her to leave by sundown, and she responds by screaming and hitting him. After she wails on him a while, he hits back. It triggers something in both of them. They begin an intense, sadomasochistic relationship; he desires her, burns for her, even though he is officially dating town good-girl Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). That’s when the noir set-up kicks in to full gear, as Joyce devises a plan that will make a stooge of a town rich boy who loves her, enabling them to swipe enough money to leave town together.

Until this point, the film functions in a slick and fairly straight-forward style; it’s a little dark, yes, but its movie stars engaging in rough, sweaty eroticism, and are having fun smoking their cigarettes and driving their period cars. And then Lou reveals his true nature, in a sequence of shocking violence. The sheer blunt brutality of the scene is stunning, a sucker punch to the audience, a bombshell in the face of audience expectation and, frankly, acceptability—and it keeps going, on and on. What is Winterbottom up to here? We’re gut-checked right out of the picture, and it takes a good couple of scenes to bring us back. It seems like a reckless move, but in retrospect, I think the director may have been going for a deliberately alienating effect—turning our impression of our lead character on its head with as much force as possible, and then rubbing our nose in it with those flashback shots, dripping with movie-star glam. Is it mean? Sure. Is it effective? You bet.

Once he’s knocked us off balance, he’s free to follow Thompson’s snaky plot wherever it slithers. Lou’s story is one of those tales where sins of the past are returned two-fold, and while the Freudian subtext (surely a daring ripple at the time of the novel’s publication) is a touch overplayed, the period details are just right. The photography is lovingly rich, but it’s not just designed to look like noir; it feels like it, unfolding with the same nightmare precision. As complications stack up around him, Lou keeps is cool, and Winterbottom does the same—he resists the temptation to overcook the scheme spinning out of control, relying instead on his measured, calculated direction.

There’s a bit of narrative confusion—after we realize that Lou’s plan is quite different from Joyce’s, we’re not sure, for too long, exactly what his plan is, so we’re not sure, at key moments, if it’s going wrong. (In retrospect, I’m still not sure exactly why he does what he does, aside from seeing if he can get away with it.) And some of the music choices are, frankly, a little too precious. But he pulls some terrific work out of his performers—Alba and Hudson are better than they’ve ever been, the invaluable Ned Beatty pops up with the voice and air of a man accustomed to running things, and Bill Pullman roars in at the eleventh hour for a brilliant character turn. Affleck’s performance is dangerously good, all smoky, steely resolve and, later, gallows humor.

The Killer Inside Me comes apart a bit in the third act, primarily because it can’t shock us anymore—though some appalling things happen (and the final moments are deliriously over the top), Winterbottom blows his load too early, so we’re treading water with the later turns (there’s no air left in us for the movie to take away). But it’s still a bold and daring picture. Thompson’s book was filmed once before in 1976 (apparently not successfully) and nearly remade several times since, and you can see how it would make the previously-attached actors and directors nervous, so dark and cold is the subject matter. Others might have shied away from that darkness; Winterbottom embraces it, holding his scenes, staging the deaths in what feels like agonizing slow motion. He’s not fucking around—this is not one of these cutesy throwbacks, where someone throws some light through the blinds, has everyone smoke and talk dirty, and calls it noir. “You want noir?” he seems to be asking. “Here it is. Can you handle it?”

"The Killer Inside Me" screens April 29 & 30 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. It opens June 18 in limited release.

Tribeca: "Zonad"

The parody movie has become so corrupted by the evils of various Wayanses and their demon spawn, Friedberg and Seltzer, that I think most of us had basically given up on the form; we’d always have our fond memories of Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Carl Reiner, and Zucker-Abrams-Zucker, but Hollywood doesn’t aim that high any more. Imagine my surprise to find that a couple of Irishmen went off and made the best spoof comedy in a good twenty years. Zonad isn’t exactly a parody of anything in particular—it opens with the heroic music and deep-voiced intro of a superhero movie (“Earth… center of the known universe), and its protagonist dresses the part. But the film is more of a sci-fi comedy, with broad jabs at provincial life thrown in. The target doesn’t really matter anyway; what Zonad captures is the free-wheeling spirit of those Brooks and Z-A-Z movies, where anything goes, and no laugh was too cheap to lunge for.

The title character, a chunky freeloader in a red leather suit (he bops through the picture like a plump cherry), is discovered passed out in the living room of the Cassidys, a pleasant nuclear family living in the Irish hamlet of Ballymoran. When he awakens, he explains to them that he is from outer space and has come to their village to observe earth life. That’s all rubbish; he’s actually an escapee from a mental institution (he’s in for alcohol rehabilitation). But he quickly becomes a local celebrity, treated to free drinks and perks and the affections of the local girls.

Zonad is played by Simon Delaney, who brings exactly the right kind of sprung comic energy to the picture; he’s particularly adept at showing his less-than-brilliant character thinking out loud, adjusting his answers impatiently, recalibrating his priorities while leering at the Cassidys’ daughter, Jenny (Janice Byrne). Jenny is an exquisite comic creation; a busty blonde packed into a schoolgirl uniform at least two sizes too small, she begins the film by cheerfully explaining to her dense, androgynous boyfriend Guy (Rory Keenan) that she’s ready for sex, laying it out in a serious of crystal-clear metaphors about flowers being ready to bloom, filled with seeds, etc. (We get an immediate sense of the film’s sense of humor when, at the end of her speech, the camera pulls back to reveal she’s been walking hand-in-hand with her family members during the entire speech—great reveal.) When Guy doesn’t take the broad hints, Jenny’s frustrated; she looks like a champagne bottle about to pop. Zonad picks up on this, of course, leading to the almost-obligatory line “What is this kissing?”

The film is written and directed by brothers John and Kieran Carney; John is best known for writing and directing Once, a film that couldn’t be further from this one. He’s certainly a versatile filmmaker. The brothers adopt the grubby visual sense of early Brooks or ZAZ’s Kentucky Fried Movie; it’s not a great-looking movie, but then again, when has stylish filmmaking ever helped a knockabout low comedy? (In one scene of obscenely bad rear-projection, the brothers seem to be consciously quoting Airplane!) They also give Zonad a goofy musical number, a rival spaceman, and a wonderfully on-target broadside of movie training sequences. It’s all so good-natured and cheery, even the gross-out jokes don’t spoil the party.

Zonad is not a moment too long at 75 minutes, and even at that abbreviated length, it’s running on fumes a bit at the end. This is a typical problem of the parody movie; it’s all gags with no interest in plot, so by the time it gets to the point where there should be a climax and resolution, it looks pretty silly trying to create one. The Carneys manufacture a boxing match between Zonad and his rival Bonad, but can’t find any jokes for the sequence that are up to the laugh-out-loud standards of what came before; they end up relying on the music cues (like “Intermezzo” from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which was the opening credit music in Raging Bull, or “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” from Kill Bill) for laughs. But by that point, we don’t care much; Zonad is a delightfully silly movie, sweetly ribald and funny as hell.

"Zonad" screens April 29 and May 1 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "Gerrymandering"

Definitions first: “Gerrymandering” is the process of re-drawing the districts for state and federal legislatures. In the House of Representatives, for example, the census might determine that particular body’s seats have to be redistributed because of population shifts; gerrymandering is the re-drawing of those lines. But it’s done at a state and local level too, and because the United States is basically the only civilized government that lets the politicians themselves re-draw the lines, well, they’re often re-drawn to the advantage of that politician and/or their party. It’s a crooked, dirty process, and early in Jeff Reichert’s documentary Gerrymandering, we see clips of presidents from JFK to Obama decrying the process. But it’s not stopped, because it’s in the best political interests of whoever is in enough of a majority to stop it—and, in many cases, it’s a quick and easy way to rig the process in your favor. Or, as one commentator puts it, “Why stuff ballot boxes when you can draw districts?”

Reichert’s film uses, as its framework, the 2008 California ballot measure “Prop 11,” designed to remove politicians from the process and allow re-districting to be done by an independent panel. The movement is backed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who appears at rallies and comes to the offices of California Common Cause; while there, he sees the documentary crew and ends up giving them structural advice for their film (they should come to the election night party so the picture has “a beginning, a middle, and an end… then it will be like a real movie.”)

As Reichert tracks that initiative, we get a history of the process (there’s a terrific explainer with sharp, helpful graphics) and examples of how it affects, and in some instances negates, the democratic process. Some of the stories are small but stunning, like that of Hakeem Jeffries, the New York State Assemblyman who, after an unsuccessful but closer-than-expected pervious run for the office, saw the 20-year incumbent redraw the district right around Jeffries’ block. There are examples of prison-based gerrymandering, where the prison population is used to pad districts (even though those prisoners can’t vote); “the ideal district,” an observer notes, “would be a prison and your house.” And then there are the racial politics—as the film explains, Barack Obama may very well have lost his first bid for public office because of gerrymandering, and won his subsequent Senate partially because of it.

One of the film’s centerpiece sequences is centered on the Texas state legislature; there was a big hullabaloo in 2003, when fifty-some Texas Democrats fled across the state line to an Oklahoma Holiday Inn (Jon Stewart is seen having a great time at the lawmakers’ expense). Much hay was made of the state legislators fleeing their responsibilities, but we finally get some context here—Tom Delay had coordinated an out-of-nowhere re-drawing of the lines to pick up extra Republican seats, and the Democrats were attempting to push the vote past a deadline. Delay won; that November, Republicans picked up six more Republican seats.

"Gerrymandering" screens April 30 and May 1 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca Report No. 5

I love the Village East Cinema, where the bulk of the screenings are held; it’s an underrated theater, and it’s nice to see it getting some attention. The only trouble with the joint is that, in all but the main auditorium, the layout is such that the entry door is in front of the theater, right next to the screen. It’s a little distracting. I realize that different people attend festivals differently; a lot of these are press and industry screenings, and a lot of industry folks are coming and going freely, because it’s more important for them to see bits of everything than all of some things. But it’s a little unnerving; some of the more daring films have felt like they were having a lot of walkouts, even when they may not have been “walkouts.”

Most stayed put for the crowd-pleasing Meet Monica Velour; it’s a lightweight, enjoyable comedy with a career-best performance by Kim Cattrell. As a former porn star turned washed-up would-be stripper and single mom, she has a dignity and flashes of vulnerability that lend the characterization some real weight. It’s an enjoyable movie, if a bit on the safe side—it too frequently goes for the easy joke or plays for the easy pathos, sanding down a story that might have been more interesting with some rougher edges.

Mat Whitecross’s sex & drugs & rock & roll charges onto the screen like a runaway train, filling the screen with loud music and trick angles and zippy filmmaking, hoping to distract us from noticing that it’s yet another “rock star behaving badly” biopic. Director Whitecross orchestrates the picture’s tempo changes like a good rock album—it hits furious peaks, slows for the introspective ballads, veers off for a bit of comic vaudeville business. However, there are drawbacks to the film’s fast, free-for-all style, and the been-there-done-that nature of the second half is unavoidable. But it’s done with enough energy and pizzazz to spackle over at least some of the familiarity.

And finally we have the stark documentary Sons of Perdition, a profile of three teenage boys who are exiled from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the polygamist sect led by convicted rape accomplice Warren Jeffs. We see the three young men adjusting to the opening up of a whole world around them, all the while coping with the total estrangement from their families (and trying, with varying degrees of success, to help the family they left behind escape the sect). The trust that the directors earn over the two years of shooting results in an unguarded honesty from their subjects. That’s particularly true in the closing scenes, in which these under-educated but suddenly street-smart young men articulate their notions of family and what part religion can and should play in that family. In those moments, the picture really gets to you; it’s a strong and weighty film, potent and powerful.

Going for four tomorrow: the Irish comedy Zonad (from the folks who brought you Once), the political documentary Gerrymandering, Michael Winterbottom’s dark The Killer Inside Me (with Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson), and Melissa Leo in the 9/11-inspired drama The Space Between.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tribeca: "Sons of Perdition"

The documentary Sons of Perdition opens with the frenzied tension of a heist sequence. Two young men arrive at a middle-class home. They note that the expected cars are not in the driveway. They stroll in the front door and have a terse conversation with a girl inside. The next thing we see is items being tossed into their vehicle, and the girl’s frenzied voice, imploring them to go, go, go. Later in the film, we see the full scene, and understand its context: the two young men were teens exiled from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the polygamist sect led by convicted rape accomplice Warren Jeffs. The girl they were trying to help was the 14-year-old sister of one of the boys.

The film, directed by Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten, tracks with three of these young men, who have broken with the sect/cult and, as a result, are cast out of “the Crick,” their hometown of Colorado City, Arizona; they are allowed no access to their families and no support of any kind. Joe is 17 years old, as is Sam; Sam’s cousin Bruce is 15. We first meet them when they’re two months removed from “the Crick,” living 30 miles away in St. George, Utah, and while they all miss their families, they’re excited to be really living their lives for the first time. In FLDS, they have no contact with the outside world and no recreation—no books, no television, no radio, no public schools, no sports, no nothing. They are allowed to work (starting at about age 14), to study scripture, and to listen to devotional messages from “the prophet.” Those creepy recordings of Jeffs pontificating show up in the film, full of splendid advice to his followers (to the wives: “obey and do what Father wants”).

We see and are helped to understand the way that the whole world opens up to these young men—they enjoy a drink or two, maybe more than that, and Measom and Merten keep having to identify them with on-screen text because they all keep dying their hair different colors. But they long for home; in one scene, two of the tough-talking boys, going through CDs, find what they call “Crick music,” devotionals recorded by children of the sect, and as they play it they’re immediately emotional, singing along without a hint of irony or sarcasm. This was their lives until mere months ago. They’re still trying to cope with the fact that, according to their own parents, they’re now going to hell.

Throughout the film, Joe tries several times to help his mother and sisters escape from Colorado City. He is helped by fellow exiles, and the police do what they can, but the psychological hold that “father” holds on these women cannot be broken by a couple of hours in the sun. Through the female exiles, we start to get why these young men are cast out so freely but the young women are held onto fiercely. As young teens, they are at, as far as the men in the sect are considered, prime marrying age; the older men are starting to lobby for them. They are treated “as a commodity,” like “any cow in the pasture,” often traded and passed around to those who tithe well in some sort of a sick caste system. With that kind of background, you can’t help but feel a sense of smug satisfaction watching Joe’s teenage sister at a mall salon, getting her first haircut.

There’s more to say about Sons of Perdition than this kind of extended summary, but it’s such a rich and compelling picture that you don’t really take much notice of the unobtrusive filmmaking. There is a sequence of stunning cinematography at the beginning, beauty shots of Colorado City, gorgeous landscapes hiding the skin-crawling evil lurking underneath. But most of the film adopts an on-the-fly approach, and it works; the trust that the directors earn over the two years of shooting results in an unguarded honesty from their subjects. That’s particularly true in the closing scenes, in which these under-educated but suddenly street-smart young men articulate their notions of family and what part religion can and should play in that family. In those moments, the picture really gets to you; it’s a strong and weighty film, potent and powerful.

"Sons of Perdition" screened as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "sex & drugs & rock & roll"

From its trippy, Python-style opening credits, Mat Whitecross’s sex & drugs & rock & roll charges onto the screen like a runaway train, filling the screen with loud music and trick angles and zippy filmmaking, hoping to distract us from noticing that it’s yet another “rock star behaving badly” biopic. It very nearly succeeds, giving us a rise to fame that pulls us in with such gusto that we all but forget the second act fall that the structure dictates. Whitecross (and writer Paul Viragh) know that we’ve seen this story before, but at least they toss some glitter at us along the way.

It is the story of Ian Dury (played by Andy Serkis), frontman of the seminal British punk/New Wave group Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury wasleft disabled by a childhood bout with polio, and somewhat psychologically scarred by his time at a school and hospital for disabled children (in flashbacks, a perfectly vile Toby Jones is his main adversary there). Ray Winstone pops up as his dad, who advises him, “Being the underdog with nothing to lose is a nice place to start.” Ian charges forward with that notion, living his life with reckless abandon—he headily pursues his off-beat punk/pop career (in spite of the indifference of club audiences), partaking of drink and women, fluttering in and out of the country home he shares with his wife (Olivia Williams) and children while keeping an apartment with his young girlfriend (Naomie Harris).

The first half or so of sex & drugs & rock & roll has a cheerfully anarchic spirit, but with a sadness brewing right underneath. Director Whitecross orchestrates the picture’s tempo changes like a good rock album—it hits furious peaks, slows for the introspective ballads, veers off for a bit of comic vaudeville business. It’s all done in a snappy multimedia mosaic, complimenting the straight biography material with a kind of life-in-review concert framework (similar to the recent Bronson), and it’s fun to watch—the concert scenes pulse with the vibrancy of a great performance movie like The Last Waltz or Monterey Pop, all hurdy-gurdy camerawork and punchy zooms and smash cuts. There are drawbacks to the film’s fast, free-for-all style, though; the Blockheads’ rise to fame, for example, is done in a lickety-split montage, and while it’s got a giddy kick, its brevity means that we never get a sense of how they developed their style or found an audience that wanted to connect with them. There’s no time for explanations—it’s all go-go-go adrenaline, which is pleasurable but has its limits.

For all the high style that Whitecross employs to tell the tale, he can’t avoid the trap of all rock star biopics. They all hit roughly the same beats in about the same fashion, because rock stars learn so depressingly little from their contemporaries, and Dury screws up in all the same ways, indulging in all the anticipated excesses (what do you expect, they’re right there in the title). But even when the story is going through its paces, Serkis is giving it his all. He is electrifying—ranting, raving, joking, and hurting (“I’m a bit in need of saving,” he tells Harris after a rough patch. “Where have you been?”). Williams, as the tolerant sometimes-wife, has perhaps the trickiest role; when she proposes a divorce, he immediately replies, “It’s far too logical.” Williams knows the only way to play a character like this is as honestly as she can, and she gives the film a grounded center amidst all the insanity. Harris does the best she can with her tired character; she comes on like gangbusters, but by the end, she’s saddled with lines like “I don’t know who you are anymore.” Blergh.

The film spans about three decades, coming to a conclusion that seems to stop a little short (we don’t get much of a sense of his last two decades). But they make the smart play by saving “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3” for the end credits, closing the show on a pitch-perfect note. sex & drugs & rock & roll may tell a familiar tale, but it does it with enough energy and pizzazz to spackle over at least some of the familiarity.

"sex & drugs & rock & roll" screens April 28 & 29 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: "Meet Monica Velour"


Sometimes small films can have unexpected heroes. For my money, one of the most valuable players in the indie comedy Meet Monica Velour is the graphic designer (or designers) who worked up its opening credit sequence. It gives us a kind of quickie history of the title character, a superstar of the Nina Hartley-Annie Sprinkle order, who headlined skin flicks during the “golden age of porn” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But these folks don’t just find someone with the look of the period, and think up some funny porn titles; they work up posters for titles like “Hooked on Hookers,” “New Wave Nookie,” “M*U*F*F,” and “Pork ‘N Mindy” that look absolutely authentic to both the source material and to the period. (I think. From what I’ve heard about pornography. Um…) That kind of attention to detail is part of what makes Meet Monica Velour, a fundamentally scanty little movie, work as well as it does; they create a little world credibly, so that even the broader moments have a degree of reality to them.

Tobe (Dustin Ingram) is a dork and outcast, about to graduate from high school. He doesn’t fit in, primarily because he’s hung up on the past—1950s cars, 1930s music, 1970s cinema. He’s particularly fond of the work of Monica Velour (Kim Cattrall), who did the standard swing from girlie magazines to stag films before dropping out of the scene in the mid 1980s and basically disappearing. His crush on her offers a distraction from his depressing life; he doesn’t know his father and his mother died when he was young, so he lives with his grandfather (Brian Dennehy) and works at the “family business,” a giant wiener-mobile. The opportunity to sell that vehicle puts Tobe on the road; he gets an offer from a Pop artist (Keith David) in Indiana to buy it, and discovers that Monica is doing a strip-club appearance nearby. It doesn’t go well; she’s heckled by some frat boys, and when Tobe tries to defend her honor, he gets his face smashed. So begins their peculiar relationship, which is the focus of the picture.

The years haven’t been too kind to Monica. She looks great for her age, of course (Cattrall is de-glamed but still magnetic), but she’s had a rotten couple of decades, luck-wise; she lives in a trailer home, she’s broke, and her scumbag ex-husband (Sam McMurray) is keeping their daughter from her. Writer/director Keith Bearden wisely resists the urge to write Monica as some kind of a heart-of-gold clichĂ©—she’s made some bad decisions, and in the course of the film, she makes some more. But Cattrall gives her, beyond the required toughness, a certain dignity and flashes of vulnerability that lends the characterization some real weight (even when she’s mouthing pat—though funny—lines like “Swear to God, you screw a few hundred guys and the world turns against you”). It’s a fully-realized, three-dimensional performance.

Ingram is a likeable nerd; he occasionally veers into Jon Heder territory (particularly in the strip club scene, which his overplaying almost wrecks), but he’s engaging; you’re on his side. Dennehy doesn’t do much new here—he’s been playing these crusty grandpa roles for years now (to a young neighbor boy: “Yeah, yeah, I’ll supervise you. Get me another beer!”)—but he’s mighty funny. Keith David is a welcome addition as well; he’s got a great little speech about pop culture artifacts, and a wonderful reaction when Tobe tells him he’s in love with Monica (“I hate to be the one to say this to you, but you may not be big enough to go on this ride”).

Meet Monica Velour is enjoyable, if a bit on the safe side—it too frequently goes for the easy joke or plays for the easy pathos, sanding down a story that might have been more interesting with some rougher edges. But there’s also an innocence to its dirtiness, a likability reminiscent of the R-rated 1980s comedies that, in some ways, helped usher out the films that Monica and her brethren fronted. It’s a funny, sweet movie—and some of the best work Cattrell has ever done.

"Meet Monica Velour" screens April 29 and 30 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

On DVD: "Crazy Heart"

In 1983, Robert Duvall starred in Tender Mercies as an alcoholic country singer whose tentative romance with a good woman and her young son turns his life around. In 2009, Duvall co-produced and co-starred in Crazy Heart, the story of an alcoholic country singer whose tentative romance with a good woman and her young son turns his life around. Never mind the replication of the broad strokes; this story's been told before, and it will probably be told again, and here it is told very, very well. Tender Mercies also won Duvall his first (and, inexplicably, only) Oscar, and the same reward came to Crazy Heart's star, the brilliant Jeff Bridges.

And seriously, is there a more consistently undervalued actor than Bridges? He's created countless iconic characters (The Dude, Starman, Duane in The Last Picture Show, Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and always delivers, his body of work impressively eclectic and customarily high quality. Pauline Kael wrote of him, way back in 1971, "Jeff Bridges just moves into a role and lives in it--so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character's soul." If that was true then (which it certainly was), it has only become more accurate through the passing decades; as washed-up country singer "Bad" Blake, Bridges has never been better or more believable. He becomes this guy, gets down to his whiskey-soaked essence without ever playing an easy note or pandering for unearned sympathy. It's a marvel of a performance, and the movie damn near matches it.

Writer/director Scott Cooper (adapting Thomas Cobb's novel) sets the scene beautifully, with an extended sequence tracking with Blake through the day of a typical (and slightly humiliating) gig, playing for a small but devoted crowd on the bandstand at a bowling alley. The next night, as a favor to his piano player, he grants an interview to the musician's niece, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a local newspaper writer; their late night interview, in which he turns on his "famous charm," is delicate, tender, and wonderfully played ("Where'd all those songs come from?" she asks, and he replies, "Life, unfortunately"). They develop a kind of an understanding--they like each other, and perhaps they can lean on each other a little, as long as she doesn't push too hard and he doesn't drink in front of her young son (the wonderfully unaffected Jack Nation).

As a musician, Blake is mainly famous as a peripheral character; one of his old band members, Tommy Sweet (an unbilled Colin Farrell), has become a country music superstar, and he resents the younger man's success, all the while angling to get him into the studio for a duet. Tommy can't do that, but he throws Blake a one-off opening slot, and promises his old mentor a handsome payday for writing him some new songs.

A number of reviews compared Crazy Heart to The Wrestler, and it shares not only that film's low-key approach and awards-friendly leading role, but a sure sense of its milieu; it feels authentic, whether dwelling in the world of back-roads honky-tonks and run-down motels or zipping around backstage at a big stadium show (the brief scene in which Blake bickers good-naturedly with the board op during his sound check is one I witnessed countless times while working at a performing arts center). The music, supervised by T-Bone Burnett (including input from Stephen Bruton, Gary Nicholson, and Ryan Bingham), is exactly as good as it should be--you can hear, within the songs, that Blake is genuinely talented (Bridges' singing and guitar playing are quite convincing) and could have been famous, but not so good as to blow the credibility of his fall from the spotlight. Tommy Sweet's songs have a glossier, poppier sheen; Burnett and crew get that distinction right as well.

As Tommy, Farrell is relaxed, natural, and just plain good, better than he's been in years. Gyllenhaal role is a bit thankless (she has to cry a lot), but she gives it some real life and energy, and her chemistry with Bridges is better than it probably should be, considering the massive age gap. And then there's Robert Duvall, who pops up after you've forgotten he's even in the movie; the quiet scene that finds him and Bridges out on a leisurely fishing trip is like a laid-back master class in acting. Bridges has several moments like that; there are two key scenes (a telephone chat with his estranged son, and a desperate talk late in the film with Gyllenhaal) in which he slowly realizes that the conversation isn't going to go the way he imagined, and the way that understanding flickers and passes across his face is the kind of great acting you just can't teach.

There's only one major flaw, though it's a doozy. Cooper, with grace and quiet elegance, brings the film to an absolutely perfect ending, and cuts to black; I took in a sharp breath, unable to believe that it had closed on such a sublime note. And then they fumble it, with one more scene, one scene too much, a tacked-on epilogue of unnecessary information and afterthoughts. It's a huge mistake, though certainly not enough to negate what comes before it; for the rest of its running time, Crazy Heart is a picture that doesn't take a false step.

Crazy Heart's story may be old hat, and its ending puts too neat a bow on this messy little life, but it's a warm and welcoming tale of redemption and survival. More than that, it's a beautifully constructed showcase for some of our finest actors--especially leading man Bridges, who steps into his tailor-made role and wears it around with the ease of an old pair of blue jeans and a beat-up pair of boots.

"Crazy Heart" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.