Saturday, May 8, 2010

New on Blu: "Saving Private Ryan"

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan begins with one of the most deservedly famous sequences in all of recent film, a vivid and graphic recreation of the D-Day battle at Omaha Beach. He approaches the scene hesitantly, nervously, as the American troops approach the beach; when their landing craft opens up, the front wave of soldiers are immediately dispatched in a wall of gunfire, and Spielberg, in that instant, explodes our war movie mythology. The battle lines are not clean, and “our boys” are losing, badly. This is war—it’s messy, it’s dirty, it’s bloody, it’s brutal. “War is hell” may not be the most original message, but it’s rarely been so vividly illustrated.

In that first half-hour or so of Private Ryan, which features some of Spielberg’s most potent and shocking imagery (you can’t shake the way that bloody water drips out of Miller’s helmet, or that dazed soldier, wandering around looking for his own arm), we’re seeing something extraordinary: a good-time filmmaker who knows how to thrill us, casting off his little tricks and going for an effect of pure aesthetic power. There is no exposition (aside from a brief on-screen caption), no proper introductions, and the dialogue is all utility chatter, shouted over gunshots and explosions. For that first chunk of the film, this traditional, classicist director is flirting with a very experimental notion—the kind of “action as characterization” storytelling that The Hurt Locker went almost all the way with last summer. In that way, and in the sheer visceral punch of the sequence (and the one that mirrors it at the picture’s end) is thrilling—just not in the way we had come to expect from the creator of the Indiana Jones movies.

In the Omaha Beach sequence, Spielberg never steps wrong; it’s a shame how quickly he loses his footing when it’s over. Some of the expositional shorthand towards the end of it (like the tidy little cans of dirt in the bag of Tom Sizemore’s Sgt. Horvath, each neatly labeled with their country of origin) is a little too easy, but we’re disappointed to discover that Robert Rodat’s script isn’t taking the risks we thought it was with that long opening sequence—he’s merely reshuffling, postponing until after the battle the kind of sluggish exposition and historical pageantry we were so thankful that the picture was skipping. In a snap, we’ve gone from flesh and blood soldiers to speechifying wax figures, none more dull and lifeless than Harve Presnell’s General George C. Marshall, who recites (from memory!) the words of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, we need to introduce the proper plot—that of the three Ryan brothers, all killed in combat within the same week, and the directive from on high to track down the only remaining brother, Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), and send him home—but there’s got to be a more energetic and congruent way to do it than this.

Once Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his unit get going on their mission, however, the film regains its steam. Yes, the characters are types (the Brooklyn wiseguy, the tough Jewish kid, the Southern sniper), but as such, we can identify and engage with them quickly—and, a dozen years on, it’s actually easier to follow the characters now that the men who play them have all met with some degree of success. The eye for strong young actors here is really remarkable; not only do we have Damon, but Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, and Edward Burns fill out the unit, while Paul Giamatti and Nathan Fillion pop up in smaller roles along the way. It is a little jarring when more recognizable older actors like Dennis Farina and Ted Danson appear, but both actors turn in dialed-down, natural performances; as with Hanks, we are reminded that men of all ages and backgrounds were called upon to fight in WWII. With Hanks’s Capt. Miller—whose back story is such a secret, the men in his unit have a pool going for who can guess it correctly—his “everyday guy” manner and appeal meshes perfectly with the reluctant soldier, who confesses, in the moment of his greatest candor, “Each man I kill, the further away from home I feel.” That’s elegant writing, and Hanks’s unsentimental playing of it is absolutely right. So is the low-key acting of Hanks and Sizemore in the scene they share at a rubbled-out church (both are simple and unaffected), though Sizemore oversells the speech towards the end where he spells out the title. The other men each get at least a moment to shine as well—Damon (so young, so genuine) telling a funny story about his brothers, Goldberg taunting the German POWs, Pepper explaining his particular take on faith. (Only one of their scenes is fumbled: the bit with them coldly divvying up and joking about the dog tags is effective, but Spielberg strangles it by holding so long on the hurt faces of passing men that he belabors the point.)

When the unit finally tracks down Ryan, he refuses to go with them—his own ragtag unit needs him to stay and defend a bridge from an approaching German reconnaissance crew. The table is set for another difficult battle sequence, but we detour first for the quiet scenes of the men waiting for the Germans to arrive, a calm before the storm. Are these scenes (with the voice of Edith Piaf warbling from a handily abandoned Victrola) too conveniently evocative? Perhaps. But they doesn’t render them any less poignant (particularly when Miller tells Ryan, of a memory of his wife, “That one I keep for me”). The subsequent battle may not be quite as torturous as its first-act counterpart, but it is more emotional—we’ve grown to know these men, and to care what happens to them in terms of their humanity, and not just as human beings. As such, the way that he stops the sequence for that terrifying moment when Upham may or may not have come behind the stairway wall is just excruciating, and when Goldberg’s Mellish is in that torturous battle for his life, we’re holding our breath.

Saving Private Ryan isn’t a perfect picture—the symmetry of the so-called “Steamboat Willie” character is too obviously constructed, and I’m still not certain if those bookend framing sequences with the old man in the cemetery work, or are even necessary (though I’m pretty sure those last couple of shots were inevitable even when the film was released). But the picture’s emotional force is intense and relentless enough to overpower its missteps in our memory. At its best, it remains one of Spielberg’s greatest accomplishments.

"Saving Private Ryan" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, May 4th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

In Theaters: "Iron Man 2"

When the original Iron Man was released two summers ago, the wave of good reviews and positive word-of-mouth were rooted very much in a sense of surprise—who expected yet another tiresome superhero movie to have this kind of wit and intelligence (in addition to, of course, blowing stuff up real good)? There were hints that it might be something special—Jon Favreau was an unusual choice for director (with a background more in character comedy than slam-bang action), and Robert Downey Jr., while firmly on the comeback trail, wasn’t anyone’s idea of an action hero (or anchor for a potential tentpole). But those were risks that could have backfired, and one of the many pleasures of the original film was watching how beautifully those risks paid off.

The one thing that Iron Man 2 can’t replicate is that sense of surprise—in fact, as most sequels do, it battles the considerable expectations set by its predecessor. We love to build these franchise pictures up, and then we love to tear them down, which is why some of the initial buzz has been less than stellar. But it doesn’t have much to do with the movie itself, which is slick, good-natured, exciting, and frequently funny.

Favreau and actor-turned-screenwriter Justin Theroux (who co-wrote Tropic Thunder) find a clever way to link up to the end of the first movie: with a TV airing the press conference at that film’s conclusion, where billionaire bad boy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) announced that he was, in fact, superhero Iron Man. We then pull back and see who’s watching that television: dying Soviet scientist and one-time Stark employee Anton Vanko, and his son Ivan (Mickey Rourke), now bound and determined to extract familial revenge from Stark. Meanwhile, Stark is being called up before a Senate subcommittee (headed up by a terrific Garry Shandling), which demands he turn over the Iron Man suit so that it can be replicated by the U.S. military. He is, to say the least, reluctant.

He’s also finding it tougher to be both a businessman and a superman, so he makes his faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) the CEO of Stark Industries, and hand-picks a hottie from legal, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), to take her place by his side. That’s all well and good until Vanko makes an attempt on Stark’s life, with the help of technology not dissimilar to the so-called “arc reactor” that keeps Tony alive (though less stably these days). Vanko’s stunt catches the eye of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Stark’s chief competitor, who helps fake the Russian’s death and puts him to work building a new Iron Man-style “drone” that will put him over.

Looking over that hefty description (and I haven’t even mentioned Nick Fury or “Rhodey” or Agent Coulson), it sounds as though the critics are right, that Iron Man 2 is too plot-heavy, that Favreau and Theroux try to jam in too many characters, too much story, too much stuff. But that’s what’s great about it—the film is all about story and character, and the story and characters are so compelling, we don’t even realize how long they take to get Stark into the suit, fighting. The picture delivers on action sequences, but it’s not built around them—they’re the logical outgrowth of the dizzy plot, which is as much about character (and, frequently, character comedy) as it is about teeing those set pieces up.

Downey continues to inspire; with his off-hand line readings and full enjoyment of the gaudy spectacles he creates, he continues to operate with the gleam of an actor who’s getting away with it, though he puts on exactly the right amount of a straight face for the reasonably intriguing examination of Stark’s daddy issues (Mad Men’s John Slattery is wonderful as the senior Stark, seen only in old movies). Downey again bring out the best in Paltrow; the film preserves and furthers their His Girl Friday-style repartee. Don Cheadle (stepping in for Terrence Howard) doesn’t have too much of a character to play, but he gives it some spin, while Rourke is plenty creepy and Rockwell is at his smarmy, entitled best. But the most valuable new player is Johansson. She is, first of all, absolutely stunning—it’s kind of charming the way the movie just stops to stare at her after she makes her first entrance, in the innocent but awe-struck way that old movies used to regard their glamour queens—and her first few appearances, all flirty dialogue, plunging necklines, and unexpected physicality, give the movie a quick, dirty thrill. But she’s also got action chops; when she’s unleashed for a lightning-fast break-in to a well-guarded facility, slithering down the hallway and dispatching all comers with grace and ease, it damn near stops the picture.

Favreau remains a savvily comic filmmaker, always up for throwing in little visual gags in the middle of a big action sequence, like Johansson’s move with the mace or the payoff to the tiny rocket joke. But he’s also not laughing at his material—there’s a real story arc at work here, with the first film showing the character’s rise, and this one the inevitable fall. Most importantly, though, he carries over a sense of wonder, of awe, of holy-shit-I’m-flying fun. Is the picture too busy? Maybe. Does it top the first film? Not quite. But when you get down to it, Iron Man 2 only has one job: to entertain. It does so, with wit and skill.

"Iron Man 2" is currently playing in a few theaters here and there.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 5/7/10

Iron Man 2: Iron what? Hmmm. Haven't heard of it.

Babies: Is this some kind of a very-late female response to Swingers?

Mother and Child: Smart counterprogramming by the folks at Sony Classics. A terrific cast (Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits), a subtle but hearfelt screenplay, an intelligent movie for grown-ups.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Dudes, I can't even begin to put across how well-made, entertaining, and fucking infuriating Alex Gibney's expose of Washington corruption is. But I can tell you this much: if you get a chance, see it.

In Theaters: "Mother and Child"

“Her birthday’s coming up,” Karen tells her mother. “She’ll be 37.” Karen gave her daughter up for adoption on the day of her birth; she was 14 at the time. She hasn’t seen her since. But she’s out there; her name is Elizabeth and she’s successful and upwardly mobile, but closed off and unapproachable. They have that in common. Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child is about how their lives finally intersect, in none of the ways that you might expect from the summary thus far. And it is the story of another woman, Lucy, who is looking to adopt as well; she’ll come into their lives, but also in a surprising way.

Karen (Annette Bening) remains haunted by the baby she gave up. She thinks about her all the time, writes long letters to her, has never gotten over the loss. It put her into a state of arrested development—she never moved out of her home, never fell in love again, never married. She spends her days as a physical therapist, aiding elderly patients, before coming home to care for her aged mother. She’s a caregiver, but she’s far from personable; she’s cold and bitter to Paco (Jimmy Smits), a warm and soft-spoken co-worker with the patience for a strained, off-key courtship. We see how Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) has inherited that coldness, how she keeps people at a distance, but pushes that further into a destructive mean streak. She’s a rolling stone—no attachments, no dependence, and, it might seem, no emotions. She has no romantic relationships; she takes up with her kind-hearted, widowed employer (Samuel L. Jackson), but she sees him mostly as an efficient source of sexual satisfaction. And then there’s Lucy (Kerry Washington), a good-natured and likable career woman whose seemingly perfect marriage has one big problem: she’s infertile. She and her husband (Ahmed Best) have decided to adopt, and they may have even found a potential mother—Ray (Shakeera Epps), who looks Lucy straight in the eye and dares her to bullshit her.

Writer/director Garcia utilizes a quiet, low-key construction to build his narrative; it seems draggy at first, until we start to see what he’s up to. His arcs are not built from forced conflict or storytelling convenience. Instead, he uses brief, deeply felt, impressionistic scenes that grab a kind of representative moment, and then move on. He doesn’t overplay his hand, he just lets the scenes play, and lets us draw our own conclusions. But this is not to say that the writing isn’t sharp or well-formulated—take, for example, that first scene between Lucy and Epps, which is loaded with smart, layered, tricky exchanges. Or a childbirth scene, which, so help me God, avoids all of the clichés of movie childbirth scenes. Or Elizabeth inviting her boss back to her apartment, resulting in a rare sex scene that’s both genuinely erotic and that tells us something valuable and concrete about the characters. It’s neither superfluous nor exploitative (they both stay almost completely clothed), but it is invaluable from a dramatic viewpoint. Who is this woman? Why is she like this?

Garcia draws us in quietly like that throughout the film, moving confidently from scene to scene, never letting the strings show. It’s not a perfect screenplay—the opening scenes of preliminary business interactions mistake formality for stiffness, and the scenes with Elizabeth and her neighbor girl Violet (Brittany Robertson) are cutesy and overwritten in a way that sticks out from the rest of the picture. And there’s also the question of math—without giving anything away, it seems that two characters give birth around the same time when one of them should have done so long before the other.

Those moments flutter away from our overall memory of the film, however, because of the overall smoothness of the package and the skill of the playing. Bening isn’t working all that much these days, and that’s our loss; she’s becoming one of these actors, like Newman or Duvall, who is getting comfortable doing less on screen, just being present and relaxed and believable. It’s hard to play this kind of socially inept hard case without wearing out the viewer’s patience (Ben Stiller faced a similar challenge recently in Greenberg), but Bening approaches her with such matter-of-fact, unapologetic humanity that we’re with her in spite of herself—and when she breaks, late in the film, it packs a wallop.

Watts is equally good—indeed, she’s so reliably, unfailingly compelling that we’re in real danger of coming to a point where we take her adroitness for granted. But she’s doing some tricky work here, playing the kind of calculating career woman that can easily veer into stereotype, and dodging all of the easy indicating. The revelatory performance, however, is Washington’s; she constructs a mask for Lucy that’s already starting to slip early on, and then falls away and shatters with a pair of scenes later in the picture of raw, hard heartbreak and frustration. She’s excellent. So are the supporting players—not just Smits and Jackson, in similar but strikingly original roles, but clear on down the line (even the small roles are filled by the likes of David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Cherry Jones, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tatyana Ali, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Buffy’s Marc Blucas).

Garcia wades into some deep waters in the closing scenes, and the emotions of the last twenty minutes are so are somewhat overwhelming; we find ourselves focusing urgently on the matters at hand, thinking through what’s happening on screen, understanding and digesting the consequences before the characters have. That kind of cerebral yet poignant storytelling is in short supply these days—it’s important to embrace it. Mother and Child is a lovely film, beautifully done.

"Mother and Child" opens Friday, May 7 in limited release.

In Theaters: "Casino Jack and the United States of Money"

There’s plenty to be said, mostly by people smarter than me, about the corrupting influence of lobbying and campaign fundraising on the legislative process. Everyone, no matter what their political stripe, will complain that “nothing gets done in Washington, D.C.”—that no meaningful legislation that’s good for Americans can get to a vote because of the wealthy business interests who money up against it, that politicians can’t get any work done because of the amount of their time they have to spend hosting fundraisers and calling people to beg for money. And thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, now corporations can spend freely to buy even more influence. But start talking about fixing the system, about comprehensive campaign finance reform, and everybody loses their mind. You can’t dictate that, genie’s out of the bottle, socialism, whatever.

“Has it always been like this?” asks a narrator, early on in Alex Gibney’s terrific new documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. “Or has something changed?” Who knows? What is safe to say is that there’s no going back—not if a story like that of Jack Abramoff didn’t change things. The press focused on his villainy, his courtroom attire, whether he had met Bush this time or that, how deep in it Tom DeLay was. There was more to it than that. There was much more to it than that.

Casino Jack is a wide-ranging tale, broad in its scope, going from the Reagan years to the second Bush administration, from the U.S. to the Marianas Islands to Malaysia, from college Republican clubs to the corridors of Washington’s most powerful people. Using archival footage, new interviews, wiretap recordings, and occasional reenactments, Gibney tracks Abramoff’s rise to D.C. supremacy, starting with a fascinating look at the young Republicans who ended up shaping modern conservatism—Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and a ridiculously young-looking Karl Rove. From there, we see how Abramoff and his ilk ascended following the Republican Revolution of 1994, and made a fortune defending reprehensible corporate interests and flim-flamming Indian casinos well into the Bush administration.

Gibney is a documentarian of tremendous skill (his previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as the recent Tribeca selection My Trip to Al-Qaeda), and Casino Jack is strikingly well-made—cleverly edited, fast-paced, clear but smart. The most fascinating element is the exposition, the nuts and bolts, how all this worked, how he moved the money, how he bought influence with it, how he chopped it up with his accomplices, how he (for all intents and purposes) laundered it for allies like Reed and DeLay. “Lobbying is a system of legalized bribery,” contends Representative Peter Fitzgerald. There’s not much reason to dispute that claim.

Casino Jack is not a dull, “talking heads” doc; there are crackerjack stylistic touches (like how the incriminating emails between Abramoff and his partners are presented) and genuinely cinematic sequences, such as the eventual “fall of the house of cards” (thrillingly assembled to the strains of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”). But it ultimately thrives, as most good docs do, on the personalities of the fascinating characters assembled—not just villains like Abramoff and Reed or regretful fallen men like Bob Ney and Neil Volz, but dupes like David Grosh, the lifeguard who became the president of a front “think tank”. Most of the time, when you see someone involved in a story like this who claims that they had no idea what was actually going on, you don’t believe them. You totally believe this guy.

Gibney skews more critical of Republicans than Democrats, but then again, Republicans were more complicit here (and the Democrats involved certainly get their due). It’s an honest picture—he rabble-rouses without pandering—but it is infuriating, particularly as Representative DeLay, disgraced and charged with criminal violations of campaign finance laws and money laundering, sits with a straight face and tells Gibney’s cameras that no, everything’s fine, the system works, these kind of hefty donations should be defended as an issue of “free speech.” But it’s not about free speech. It’s about greed and corruption. It is, as we’re told at the beginning of the film, about “the selling of America.”

"Casino Jack and the United States of Money" opens Friday, May 7 in limited release.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Tribeca on VOD: "The Swimsuit Issue"

One thing that I didn’t mention enough during my Tribeca coverage was that several of the films in the festival are available across the country on demand—including The Infidel, Metropia, sex & drugs & rock & roll, and The Trotsky. They’re also running several films that I saw last year; this is the first time these full reviews have appeared online.

The Swimsuit Issue is an affable little comedy that reminded me, quite intentionally I’m sure, of The Full Monty; it too is the story of a crew of men, past their prime, who find a love and passion for something they probably have no business doing. It’s a likable picture, and it’s just light as a feather, which I mean as neither a dig nor a compliment. You’ll have forgotten it by the time you walk out the theatre door, and there are some moviegoers who don’t mind that at all.

It’s a Swedish film, but that’s of little concern; it’s the kind of foreign film that could feasibly do well Stateside because you could remake it in English and not change a word. Fredrik (Jonas Inde, who bears a marked resemblance to Martin Freeman from the U.K. Office) is a divorced dad and somewhat shiftless man of a certain age; one of the movie’s better running jokes is a dispute over whether he quit or was fired from his last job. His daughter Sara (Amanda Davin) is a skilled synchronized swimmer, but their relationship is touch and go; when her mother gets a job in London and has to move a few months ahead of her, Fredrik doesn’t have the highest hopes for he and his daughter’s cohabitation (“This will spoil our relationship, guaranteed,” he laments to a friend).

The set-up of their storyline is a lot more convincing than that of the primary plot. See if this tracks with you: Fredrik is putting together the bachelor party for one of his “floorball” teammates, and he sees a picture of Sara’s synchronized swimming team and says, “This is what we should do for the bachelor party!” Uh huh. So we get a sequence of easy laughs, with these middle-aged guys gallivanting around in women’s swimsuits and bathing caps, and what do you know, their videotape of it gets edited together in time for the wedding, where a rich socialite friend sees it and wants to hire the guys to come do their little routine at a fancy party. Uh huh.

At any rate, that doesn’t go so hot, but Fredrik gets a somewhat inexplicable desire for them to become a great sync swimming team, and they decide to do just that and compete at the men’s world cup in Berlin. The film’s trouble, from a narrative point of view, is that we’re not sure why Fredrik wants to do this (maybe to connect with his daughter? It’s hard to tell), and the guys seem to go along with it immediately, for reasons similarly difficult to discern. The Full Monty was bolstered by the real and definite economic impetus for those busted guys; here, there’s no urgency or motivation except that they have nothing better to do.

But they embark on this journey nonetheless, and to be fair, there are plenty of funny sequences (like a locker room scene where the guys discuss the strategy of pedicures) and good lines (“What about a normal mid-life crisis?” one of the wives complains. “Dye your hair, pierce a nipple!”). Most of it is fairly predictable (we have an inevitable appearance by that old warhorse, the training montage), but there are a few unexpected touches, like a budding romance between Sara and a younger team member that I first thought was underdeveloped, but on reflection, feels practical and matter-of-fact—just an example of life going on outside the frame.

The most interesting surprise is that the subplot—the sometimes-difficult relationship between a divorced dad and his maturing daughter—is actually more compelling than the main story. Their very tentative bond is handled with grace and sensitivity, and puts far more at stake than, say, the manufactured third-act crisis over a mix-up in the number of competing swimmers.

Director Måns Herngren orchestrates the film with smooth, appropriate professionalism, even working in some showy angles in the photography of their inevitable triumphant program (he also wisely uses some parallel shots in both the failed and successful performances). And I’ll give him kudos for one of the most admirably restrained endings I’ve seen recently; in an age where movies frequently go on and on and on, this one ends sooner than expected but no later than it needs to. The Swimsuit Issue is an easy pill to swallow; it’s charming and has much to like, entirely forgettable though it may be.

Tribeca on VOD: "My Last Five Girlfriends"

One thing that I didn’t mention enough during my Tribeca coverage was that several of the films in the festival are available across the country on demand—including The Infidel, Metropia, sex & drugs & rock & roll, and The Trotsky. They’re also running several films that I saw last year; this is the first time these full reviews have appeared online.

In the nearly-perfect film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, the hero gets over a new break-up by comparing it unfavorably to his “top five break-ups,” which he takes us on a tour of. In that film, it’s an effective device for setting up the character and his hang-ups. In Julian Kemp’s My Last Five Girlfriends (which tries so hard to be Hornby-esque, it’s almost embarrassing), that’s the whole movie. Which is not to say that it’s doesn’t have its own charms—it does. You just wish it would get out of its own way after a while.

Duncan (Brendan Patricks, who begins the film looking like something of a British Matthew Lillard) begins the film in a bad way—he’s writing a suicide note and blaming all of his emotional woes on, you guessed it, his last five girlfriends. We then flash back for a full tour of his relationship woes.

As a premise, it’s not a bad one to hang your hat on. The trouble is, Kemp is trying too damn hard to be clever. They’re constantly stopping the movie with these asides and bits and devices and little jokes to break things up. Some, especially those towards the beginning, are genuinely funny (like a detailed analysis of exactly what the odds are of Duncan and the first of the five meeting on an airplane); others (like the film’s extended motif of a visit to “Duncan World,” an amusement park of his neurosis) are, to put it politely, a stretch.

And that is not to say that it is without some pleasures. In general, it’s a bright, candy-colored pop confection, and all of the performers are good-looking and charming and funny in that lovely British way of theirs. There are good throwaway lines (“Why did she find Patch Adams so funny?”) and inventive bits (I liked the scene where he chats with a potential lady love’s stuffed elephant).

But it’s often too self-consciously cute for its own good, and that hurts the narrative; it’s so fast-paced and in such a hurry to dazzle us with all of its little tricks, we don’t actually find out much about Duncan or these women or their relationships. They just provide a construct for all of Kemp’s little skits.

The sole exception is Gemma (played by the charismatic Naomie Harris), the final of the five. Her character is actually well-developed and has some meat for her to play, and there is some very good material in their section—most of which is played straight, without all the artifice. It gives you an idea of what the film could have been, if Kemp trusted his characters and his material.

But at least that comes towards the end, so the stronger third act (and the satisfying if predictable ending) may give the film a stronger overall impression than it deserves. There are some laughs and insights in it, and it has some smart performances, and some people may even like all the gimmicks. It’s fun, I guess, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Tribeca on VOD: "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia"

One thing that I didn’t mention enough during my Tribeca coverage was that several of the films in the festival are available across the country on demand—including The Infidel, Metropia, sex & drugs & rock & roll, and The Trotsky. They’re also running several films that I saw last year; this is the first time these full reviews have appeared online.

So do you have to like the people in a film to like the film itself? It seems like a ridiculous question—of course not. There’s nothing to like about Jake LaMotta, but Raging Bull is a great film (one of the greatest, in my opinion). But there’s something else happening there; the movie seems to see him more clearly than he sees himself, and feels appropriately about him, and it’s great to look at, and the performances are amazing, and it’s got the Scorsese humor. Yep, Raging Bull was a great movie. Wait, what the hell am I talking about?

Ah, yes. I ask this question because The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is about such a thoroughly repulsive bunch of people, I wonder if my distaste for the film is just a byproduct of my dislike for them. The Whites gained notoriety back in the early 1990s, when the PBS documentary Dancing Outlaw, profiling Jesco White, became something of a cult phenomenon. It’s exactly the kind of film that you can imagine Johnny Knoxville knowing by heart and quoting with his friends; he’s the executive producer of this follow-up, which introduces us to many members of the extended White clan.

They all live in Boone County, West Virginia (all but Poney, who escaped to Minneapolis); all of them introduce themselves to the camera by explaining their relationship to Jesco, and they’re all… well, I’ll cede my opinion to that of Hank Williams III, who calls them “the true rebels of the South.” It’s a huge clan of thickly-accented mountain folk, who spend their short days and long nights drinking, shooting, fighting, yelling, and getting high—sometimes from weed, usually from grinded-up pills, which they snort like coke (early in the film, young Derek White rattles off a list of meds with alarming precision).

What they don’t do is work; they get by on a variety of entitlements and disability checks, along with what, according to older sister Mamie, is “called the hustle, rustle and bustle. That’s how you get by in the country!” Most of the things they say in the film would be best punctuated by an exclamation mark; in spite of the fact that so many of their lives are mess, you certainly can’t deny that they enjoy a certain zest for living. That often gets out of control, of course, whether it’s son Brandon Poe’s current incarceration for an attempted murder and police standoff (“I just went on a rampage, pretty much”), or daughter Kirk’s confession of how she tried to stab her ex, Dennis, to death (after she tells the tale, she then asks if anyone will see this; you hear the filmmakers hedging, but she actually just wants to make sure Dennis will see it).

Kirk actually has one of the film’s rare moments of insight; after the birth of her new baby, she talks about how she wants better for her daughter than she had. It’s a nice moment whose spell is broken by the next shot, in which she snorts up some crushed pills in her hospital room, in front of the baby. The hospital ends up keeping the baby and turning it over to Child Protective Services. Shocking!

Director Julien Nitzberg invests a lot of time and potential emotional energy in Kirk’s struggle (she decides to clean up so she can get her baby back), but it feels like he’s trying to have it both ways. It’s an example of the film’s schizophrenia: how does it feel about these people? It’s easy to look down at their willful ignorance and hicky voices (“If he ain’t high on drugs, if he ain’t high on alky-hol…”); it’s easy to sneer and laugh. But is the film doing that? Further, it’s such a full-throated celebration of their bad behavior, you wonder if it’s somehow encouraging said behavior. A relative worries that the spectacle of Jesco being who people want him to be “is gonna kill him,” but is a film like this proliferating that notoriety and spectacle?

Knoxville got MTV Films to front a chunk of the funding, and it is certainly cut for an MTV audience, utilizing a slice-and-dice editing style that’s fast-paced and music-heavy (a hangover sequence late in the film is scored with the country tune “Sick, Sober, and Sorry,” and it gets the kind of cheap, easy laugh that a music cue like that gets on The Real World or The Hills). That audience is primarily there to laugh at the funny rednecks and cheer their drugging and drinking and fucking and huffing. So what will they make of the attempts to downshift to genuine emotion in the third act? Of the brief interlude that contextualizes their behavior within the mining town culture? The audience that will be affected by that stuff has probably already walked out.

There is, without question, a train-wreck quality to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. As repulsive as these people are, you can’t help but watch as they revel in their excesses. But by the one-hour mark, I had lost patience with them, and with the film. It’s just kind of sad and depressing to spend time with them. And the images that close the film, of the next generation of Whites, are frankly a little terrifying.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

This Week (and Last Week's!) New DVDs- 5/4/10

Shit was all crazy last week, what with that film festival and all, so I didn't have a chance to note your big new releases, which were mostly bad. But it's okay, because this week is pretty weak too! Let's look at both of them then, for fun.

It's Complicated: It's not, actually: Nancy Meyers is a terrible filmmaker, and It's Complicated is an awful, unfunny film. See? Simple!

Nine: Rob Marshall's latest attempt at a credible movie musical (see, the songs and dances are all in their heads!) is all shiny, and has some good performances (though not Daniel Day-Lewis, whose brooding intensity is all wrong). But it doesn't have any get-up-and-go; it crawls along from vignette to vignette, and most of the songs are either bad or forgettable.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Good luck finding a bigger Terry Gilliam fan than me, but even I was bewildered and a little bored by his latest, which seems more like a mediocre imitation of a Terry Gilliam movie than the genuine article.

Mine: A documentary about people trying to track down the pets they lost in Hurricane Katrina sounds about as depressing as you can imagine, but this skillful and heartfelt doc is moving and well-done. Yep, it's my one real recommendation this week.

Tooth Fairy: You see, it's funny because Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is a big gruff muscle-y guy, but he's the tooth fairy! With big wings! Get it? Plus Billy Crystal is in it, so how could hilarity not ensue? Eh? Oh, and the tagline: "You Can't Handle the Tooth"! You know? Like that one movie, eigteen years ago? Heh? HEH? FUNNY!

Tribeca Wrap-Up

After 12 days and 85 features films (plus 47 shorts), the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival has drawn to a close. It was my second year covering the fest, and I had a terrific time taking in another slate of (mostly) fantastic films. While my total of 38 films seen and reviewed came up a little short of my 50% goal, I did manage to match up a little better with the award winners this time; last year, when the awards were announced, I hadn’t seen a damned one of them. And though I missed Best Narrative Feature winner When We Leave, Best New York Documentary The Woodmans, and Heineken Audience Award Winner Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, I did manage to check out Best Docuentary winner Monica & David, Best New York Narrative winner Monogamy, and Best New Narrative Filmmaker winner Kim Capiron’s Dog Pound (though “new” appears to be a relative term, as Capiron also directed the 2006 feature Sheitan).

In terms of general trends, the festival remains strongest as a showcase for documentaries—and I didn’t even see several of the high-profile docs, like the omnibus adaptation of Freakonomics, Alex Gibney’s Untitled Elliot Spitzer Documentary, and Ice Cube’s Straight Out of L.A—and world narrative entries were acclaimed as well. American narrative selections remain the festival’s weakest area; the selection committee too frequently favors star power over quality, so just as we had inexplicable inclusions like Stay Cool and Serious Moonlight last year, I can’t imagine why anyone thought that My Own Love Song had any place at this festival, except if it meant getting Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker onto the red carpet.


1. Micmacs: A delightful little fun house of a movie and a welcome return to form for the playful French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). 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.

2. Please Give: Nicole Holofcener’s smart and poignant comedy/drama uncoils slowly and deliberately, carefully establishing the characters’ specific personalities in the opening scenes, then slyly slamming them into each other to see what happens. The narrative is compelling, but it’s not in a rush; Holofcener is a confident, controlled filmmaker, and every detail is just right. Her writing and direction also excels at looking potentially melodramatic situations right in the face, and dealing with them practically—she sets up situations and scenes that never play as dopey or soapy as they might. It’s a solid piece of work from an exceedingly underrated filmmaker.

3. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg’s extraordinary documentary profile spends a full year with the comic legend, an artist struggling with her own relevance, her vulnerability, and her public image. Their access to Rivers was apparently unlimited, and the Botox-and-all portrait that emerges is furiously funny, startlingly candid, and fast-paced without being shallow. It’s a sharp, terrific doc, a film that made me rethink my indifference towards its subject, and pulled me in close to her odd, prickly world.

4. Get Low: I like movies that catch you off-guard like this one does. Robert 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. Bill Murray is splendidly funny, but in a legitimate and unselfish way--he's never funny outside of the character, nor does he merely transform his character into a "Bill Murray type." Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black are flawless in supporting roles. The picture’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, which hold the audience in spellbound silence. It’s a wonderful film.

5. Monogamy: Dana Adam Shapiro’s low-key drama is that rarest of beasts, an actual grown-up movie about sexual desire, repression, and obsession. Chris Messina and Rashida Jones are astonishingly good in the leading roles, sharing an easy, relaxed chemistry and a sense of shared history—their dialogue has the natural rhythms of actual overheard conversation, full of inside jokes and shared history. Later in the film, when they have a fight, it feels like the real thing; the climactic scenes have the emotional brutality of a Cassavetes picture.

RUNNERS-UP: Other particularly good films included Ondine, Dog Pound, Snap, Sons of Perdition, The Infidel, Zonad, Beware the Gonzo, Gerrymandering, My Brothers, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, and The Trotsky.

WORST FILM OF THE TIFF: The aforementioned 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. Oliveier 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. (The watching-paint-dry drama Lola and the unbearably pretentious William Vincent were no walk in the park either.)

GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me, Rashida Jones and Chris Messina in Monogamy, Melissa Leo in The Space Between, Adam Butcher in Dog Pound, Aisling O’Sullivan in Snap, Kim Cattrall in Meet Monica Velour, Collin Farrell in Ondine, Kerry Bishé in Nice Guy Johnny, Omid Djalili in The Infidel, and the entire ensembles of Get Low and Please Give.

NOT-SO-GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Matt Bush in Nice Guy Johnny, Rachel Nichols in Meskada, Forest Whitaker in My Own Love Song.

Thanks again to all of the nice folks at Tribeca for making DVD Talk so welcome, and for putting on such a lovely shindig. See you next year!

Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy
Beware the Gonzo
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
Dog Pound
Every Day
Feathered Cocaine
Get Low
The Infidel
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Just Like Us
The Killer Inside Me
Meet Monica Velour
Monica & David
My Brothers
My Own Love Song
My Trip to Al-Qaeda
Nice Guy Johnny
Please Give
sex & drugs & rock & roll
Sons of Perdition
The Space Between
Thieves by Law
The Trotsky
The Two Escobars
Vidal Sassoon: The Movie
William Vincent

Monday, May 3, 2010

On DVD: "Nine"

Rob Marshall's Nine is a movie that knows exactly how it wants to look, and no clue how it wants to make us feel. It's designed within an inch of its life--the cinematography is gorgeous, the costumes are impeccable, the choreography energetic--and there are fine performances and entertaining numbers abound. But it doesn't add up to much of anything; it's a film of moments rather than a unified whole. That said, there are some great moments in it.

The film is based on the Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit, Mario Fratti, and Maury Yeston, itself based upon Fellini's classic 8 1/2 (which means, if you take the middle man out of it, Nine is basically a remake of 8 1/2, but with songs). Daniel Day-Lewis steps into Marcello Mastroianni's shoes as Guido, the famous Italian filmmaker who is watching helplessly as his next picture swings into production, in spite of the fact that he has produced no script (and has no ideas for one). As he tries to work his way out of his "director's block," he also must deal with his faltering marriage (due to his many indiscretions) and his memories of the women in his life.

Nine's primary problem is one of tone. The famous story goes that when Fellini began production on 8 1/2, he put a handwritten note on the camera for his actors to see; it read, "Remember, it's a comedy." If one thing is clear in Nine, it's that director Rob Marshall had no such note on his camera; the whole thing is taken oh-so-seriously, and it's a problem that begins with his key casting choice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Day-Lewis is woefully miscast as Guido. It's painful to say, because you'll find no greater admirer of Day-Lewis' work; his performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood are among the finest of the decade. But therein lies the problem--is there anything in either of those turns that inspires the thought, "Hey, they should get that guy to front a musical"? He is, perhaps, too good an actor for the role--he's so studied and focused that he lacks the light touch that the picture so badly needs. While it isn't written anywhere that the leading man of a musical must be a smiling dandy in the Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire mold (though it sure as hell doesn't hurt), his is a far more downbeat and navel-gazing interpretation than the material requires. Day-Lewis appears to have bypassed the robust inspiration of Mastroianni's Guido, and chooses to play him like Hamlet or something.

Some of the musical numbers are enjoyable. Marshall directs with a snazzy zeal for the mood and atmosphere, and the opening overture has a wonderfully operatic feel. Penelope Cruz manages to make an entrance that even tops that of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, performing the slinky "A Call from the Vatican" and stopping the show--she's never been more sensuous in a film. A flashback scene with Fergie as an earthy prostitute is inventively shot, with tight close-ups and roughly erotic choreography. Judi Dench's song makes wonderful use of the film's occasional rich, chewy black-and-white photography. Kate Hudson's number "Cinema Italiano", new for the film, is sexy enough, but good lord are the lyrics insipid; it sounds like a second-rate rip-off of Madonna's "Vogue," and if hearing it once is bad, hearing it again during the opening credits is unbearable (it's nominated for a Golden Globe, of course). Indeed, few of the songs are terribly memorable--most, particularly those late in the film, are dull and stagnant (with Marion Cotillard's divine "Take It Off" a notable exception).

Even the good songs mostly overstay their welcome, and the blackout-revue pacing makes several of them feel arbitrary, as though they're not taking the movie anywhere in particular. As with Marshall's previous picture of note, Chicago, the stylistic decision to make the musical numbers fantasies, daydreams, and flights of fancy is intellectually gratifying (busting into song and dance mid-scene simply won't do in today's movies), but, as in that film, in some strange way it feels as though he's apologizing for the musical interludes. The device makes logical sense, but then again, there's little logical about a great musical--it either plays or it doesn't, and Marshall keeps hedging his bets.

Still, much of it is worth praising. The screenplay adaptation, by skilled screenwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, has some good lines, and the opening scene (an interview with Guido about how making a film is the process of killing a dream) gets at something real and truthful about the art of moviemaking--though it doesn't hint at that particular magic again until the pitch-perfect closing scene. Dench gives the picture's best performance as Guido's costume designer, and seemingly the only person who will level with him ("You're such a dope, aren't you?"); their relationship is endlessly entertaining. Cotillard is wonderful as his wounded, bitter wife, while Cruz gives her bruised mistress dimensions only hinted at in the text. Kidman's turn is snazzy and good-humored, while the mere appearance of Sophia Loren will make even the most jaded cinephile smile.

Nine is worth seeing--a big, well-crafted musical is still enough of a novelty to warrant at least a cursory glance, and Marshall's intentions are good, even when he can't quite execute them. It is a fundamentally flawed picture, but it doesn't know it, and does some interesting things along the way.

"Nine" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 4th.

On DVD: "Tetro"

Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro is a film of startlingly beautiful photography and design; it's an incredibly pleasurable film just to look at. Shot in crisp, textured, glorious black and white that luminously fills the wide 2.35:1 frame, it is packed with shots that are simply stunning. And Coppola doesn't just make pretty pictures; his entire technical presentation is flawless. I've seldom, in recent years anyway, seen a film that so skillfully utilizes composition, sound, hard cutting, and visual tricks to tell its story.

The problem is that it's a story that's barely worth telling. Tetro is a great-looking picture, but there's a void at its center--it's about two characters we don't really care about, played by two actors who aren't terribly interested in meeting us halfway. Those characters are Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a 17-year-old kid who runs off to Buenos Aires to track down his long-lost brother, and Tetro (Vincent Gallo), that brother--well, technically, half-brother. They are the sons of a world-famous composer; he remarried after Tetro and his mother were involved in a terrible automobile accident that left the woman dead. Tetro, a promising writer, left home many years before; he started, but never finished, an autobiographical novel, but went a little crazy and dropped out of society. He now lives with Miranda (Maribel Verdú), a lover/nursemaid who spends a lot of time making apologies for him ("He is like a genius," she muses, "but without enough accomplishments, you know?"). Tetro knows a great deal about Bennie's mother, who has been in a coma for several years, but he's reluctant to share any information with the curious teenager; "He really doesn't want to know his family any more," Miranda explains, but of course secrets will be revealed and old wounds will be opened, as Bennie discovers the text of Tetro's book and decides to adapt it into a play.

In spite of sharing screenwriting credits on most of his best films (and sporting a solo credit on The Conversation), Coppola's screenplay is probably Tetro's weakest element; it meanders, it ends about three times, and most of the dialogue is awfully thin. The wobbly declarative nature of the lines isn't helped much by Gallo's detached hipster line readings, and while Bennie certainly appears to have been written as a cipher, Ehrenreich doesn't do much to transcend that. Strangely, the female members of the cast shine the brightest; Verdú, most memorable as the object of desire in Y Tu Mama Tambien, is just marvelous, turning in a shaded, complicated performance, while an actress named Ximena Maria Locono makes a fine impression in a brief but key role as Tetro's lost love Naomi, seen in flashback.

In a neat flipping of convention, the present tense is seen in black and white while those flashbacks are in color (and in a more conservative 1.85:1 composition, framed within the wider image). That's a nice trick, but some of the other touches (and narrative flourishes) flirt with pretentiousness--and others stop flirting and just go all the way. The film is occasionally interrupted by oddly surreal visual interludes (which the film explicitly states as being inspired by Powell and Pressberger's Tales of Hoffman); they're kind of silly, and the last one morphs into some kind of an story-interpretative ballet sequence (as if we're watching an old Rogers and Hammerstein musical or something). By that point in the picture, they're also competing for screen time with the play-within-the-film, plus the flashback scenes that inspire the play, and at some point, we have to ask how many levels of interpretation this shallow story actually needs.

That and many other questions will be asked in the final half hour, in which the film basically goes splat; a story twist is introduced that is painfully, obviously foreshadowed a few scenes earlier, while a clumsy climax at a peculiar theatre festival is awkwardly staged and entirely unsuccessful. That scene plays like the Solazzo scene in The Godfather, however, compared to the howlingly bad funeral scenes that follow it; the service itself is groan-inducing in its lurching, strident melodrama (including some hoary business with a conductor's baton), while the scene that follows is choppily assembled and full of dialogue so amateurish, we're left wondering if that actors were making up their lines. The final scene might have been effective, had it not been preceded my so much overwrought schmaltz.

But I just can't overstate how great Tetro looks and how exquisitely it is made; it should be seen, just for the pure pleasure of its aesthetics. But the beauty of the images also spotlights the emptiness at its core. Bennie and Tetro have what should be an angrily emotional confrontation in a hospital room, but as Tetro leaves and slams the door behind him, I wasn't thinking about the character or what he was going through; I was noticing how exquisite those white blinds looked on the door, and how bewitchingly they swung to and fro after the angry exit. Suffice it to say, I'm fairly certain that's not what Coppola intended his audience to be considering at that moment.

The phrase "style over substance" gets tossed around too often. It's usually applied to garbage like the Transformers movies, which are technically proficient but stupid on even a basic motor level--the style is all there is, and if it weren't there, the substance wouldn't be worth salvaging. When applied to a movie like Tetro, there's something more poignant; based on his filmography, Coppola clearly know how to spin a yarn. But this is his second film (following 2007's poorly received Youth Without Youth) after a decade-long absence from filmmaking, and he's clearly still re-learning the ropes (a fact he's as much as admitted to in interviews). As a visualist, he's never been sharper. Now he just needs to get his storytelling back up to snuff.

"Tetro" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 4th.

On DVD: "Mine"

In our house, there's nothing that makes us leap for the remote like that awful ASPCA commercial where Sarah McLachlan sings "Angel" while all of the poor abandoned and mistreated cats and dogs look sadly into the camera. It's not that we don't care--quite the opposite. We're pet people, with two cats that we treat like our kids, and that damned commercial rips us up.

I was frankly worried that Mine, Geralyn Pezanoski's documentary about the pets left behind in Hurricane Katrina, was going to amount, psychologically, to an 80-minute version of that commercial. And, in all fairness, there is a lot of that heartbreaking footage at the beginning (the shot of the little dog scratching on the door of the bus carrying his owner away is a killer). But it's not just a sadness show; it's a thoughtful and involving look at a difficult side effect of a terrible tragedy.

You see, when the mandatory evacuation order went out, those who were pulled from their homes, those who couldn't afford to leave the city and had to go to the Superdome, and those who only had room for their families were forced to leave their pets behind. "When I heard the levee broke," remembers elderly Malvin Cavalier, "I said, 'Lord have mercy, what about Bandit?'" Once the storm subsided, and crews began to go back into the still-flooded city to survey the damage, animal advocates and volunteers rushed to rescue "the family member that hasn't been found yet."

There certainly wasn't room for all of the rescued animals in Louisiana shelters--in all, over 15,000 pets were sent to over 500 shelters around the country. But as owners searched for the pets they lost, they enormity of the task began to set in; according to one advocate, the subsequent tracking system was "a mess from day one." Many of the Katrina pets were fostered out, but many were put up for adoption, under the mistaken assumption that anyone who lost a pet in Katrina was a bad owner.

The tricky part is, some of them were. There were plenty of animals that had been mistreated and poorly cared for, and were, in a word, abandoned in the horrible storm (we see an angry rescuer spray-paint "over 100 animals were left to die at this house" on the car in the home's driveway). But some of them were good people who did the best they could in that moment, only to find their beloved pets long gone. We meet some of those owners, and follow them on their hunt, as they find that lack of resources and lack of money results in a lack of pet.

The ownership issues and emotional stakes are surprisingly complex; when Jesse Pullins is told by the adopting shelter that his dog J.J.'s new owners have presumably grown attached to their pet, he replies emphatically, "I'm not attached to him. He's mine." But many of these dogs have new families who do, in fact, love them and have cared for them--and, in the case of a lawsuit brought against a rescue organization in Texas, there is certainly evidence that the dog in question might be in a much better home.

Pezanoski takes great pains to fairly portray all sides, which is admirable. The film is a little thin in spots, but to its credit, it doesn't take cheap shots at any of the parties involved in those doggy custody battles--in fact, by the time it arrives at its affecting concluding passages, we've realized that Mine isn't so much about Katrina as it is about our love for our animal companions. In all honesty , it got to me--I watched it with our cat Keaton curled up next to me on the couch, and as easy as it might be to chuckle smugly at Victor's attachment to little "Max," I can't say that I'd respond any differently if we somehow lost our little guys. So those closing scenes are genuinely moving, without resorting to easy sentiment--if anything, we're touched by the goodness of kind people like Ellen and Ron or Tiffany and Jeremy, who understand that attachment well enough to do the right thing. In fact, just about everyone in Mine is trying to do the right thing, so we're treated to some real happy endings... and some that are more complicated than that.

"Mine" arrives tomorrow on DVD.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tribeca Report No. 8

And with that, it’s all done. I’ll have a full-on Tribeca wrap-up late tonight or tomorrow, but for now, here’s quick impressions of the last few films of this epic week of moviegoing.

Aaron Schneider's Get Low promises something irresistible: Robert 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 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. Bill Murray is splendindly funny, 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." Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black are flawless in supporting roles. The picture’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, which hold the audience in spellbound silence. It’s a wonderful film.

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. 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. 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. 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.

In one of the most purely enjoyable films of the fest, Egyptian stand-up comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed 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. It’s 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.

And then we come to Kim Chapiron’s Dog Pound, a film of cutting brutality and searing intensity that examines the conditions of a youth correctional facility, and the boys who inhabit it, with stark, documentary-like precision and attentiveness to detail. There’s not too much happening plotwise (at least on the surface), and that’s for the best—it’s functions, for most of its running time, as more a series of sketches, impressions of life on the inside. What it adds up to, when the violence and brutality comes to a punishing head at the end, is an accumulation of incidents. Nothing in Dog Pound feels placed for plot, but it’s all there for a reason—it’s all pushing the picture towards the body blows of the tough, unforgiving climax.

Tribeca: "Dog Pound"

We meet the three juvenile delinquents individually, out in the world, causing trouble. Davis (Shane Kippel), 16, who fancies himself a ladies’ man (his introduction is reminiscent of the stomach-churning slobberiness of Larry Clark’s Kids), deals pills and coke. Angel (Mateo Morales), 15, is a car thief. And Butch (Adam Butcher), 17, is a hot-tempered fighter who has come to blows with a corrections officer. All three enter Montana’s Enola Vale Youth Correctional Center at about the same time. It doesn’t go all that well for any of them.

Kim Chapiron’s Dog Pound is a film of cutting brutality and searing intensity, a picture that examines the conditions of such a facility, and the boys who inhabit it, with stark, documentary-like precision and attentiveness to detail. In just a few scenes, Chapiron (who co-wrote with Jeremie Deleon) clearly establishes the sheer physical and psychological terror of the place. We come in with Davis, Angel, and Butch, and take it in as they do—the beatings, the bullying, the hopelessness.

There’s not too much happening plotwise (at least on the surface), and that’s for the best—it’s functions, for most of its running time, as more a series of sketches, impressions of life on the inside. There is valuable information imparted in the early scenes, but it never feels like exposition; since the three characters function as audience surrogates, they discover the hierarchy of the facility (the trustees in their polo shirts, the general population in their sweats, the solitaries in their orange scrubs), and their daily routine.

They are targeted early, in different ways, by a crew of the so-called “trustees,” and the intimidation is scary but believably built. The ringleader is Banks, the low-talking punk who runs the drug trade inside; he’s an old-fashioned bully, preying on weakness, playing mind games, and talking with his fists. Butch is singled out by both that crew (for a random beating) and the guards (for not ratting out the perpetrators). He keeps his mouth shut, does his time in solitary, and readies himself for payback. When he unleashes, watch out—it’s furious, powerful filmmaking, first exploiting our voyeur-vigilante instincts, and then pushing them to the absolute limit, and rubbing our nose in them a bit.

The performances (many of them from non-actors) are electrifying. In what amounts to the leading role, Butcher has the fearless intensity of a young Sean Penn; he won’t let you see behind his oblique eyes, and when he finally does, you’re not sure you want to. The slow boil of his work, particularly during his slow rise to power (a turn of events that favorably calls to mind several of the best scenes of A Prophet), is palpable and somewhat disquieting—he’s got this guy down cold. Davis can’t put on the tough front like Butch can, and Kippel hints at the character’s vulnerability and fear without pandering. Morales doesn’t get as much to do as the other two, but there are several splendid supporting performances—chief among them Slim Twig as “Max,” a wry jokester with a chip on his shoulder, and Lawrence Bayne as Goodyear, their primary corrections officer, pulls off the tricky maneuver of playing him as neither a hardass nor a good-hearted pushover. He’s somewhere in between, just doing his job.

The film’s occasional dips into low comedy are hit and miss; the “guy talk” back-and-forth is an authentic release valve (and a pretty accurate representation of the braggart machismo of male teen sexuality), but the flashback to one of Davis’s (presumably fictitious) sexcapades is a miscalculation. And the introduction of a third act clock (a bit of legal wrangling could mean only two more weeks inside for Butch) feels like an arbitrary attempt to impose a structure (and tired “short time” construct) on a film that’s been humming along just fine without one. What it adds up to, when the violence and brutality comes to a punishing head at the end, is an accumulation of incidents. Nothing in Dog Pound feels placed for plot, but it’s all there for a reason—it’s all pushing the picture towards the body blows of the climax.

But as badly shaken as those closing scenes leave the viewer, they’re not the images that have stuck with me. There is the image of the inmates in a physical education class, playing dodgeball (sounds like a splendid idea, right?), throwing themselves into the game with a reckless, bad-boy abandon that recalls Vigo’s Zero for Conduct. There is the look on Davis’ face as he steals back his $100 mall boots. But most of all, there is the sense of helplessness in the sequence, late in the film, when Davis keeps buzzing the guards over the intercom for one reason: he’s hurt, and he wants to call his mom. The subtext here isn’t subtle, but it socks you in the jaw. For all their swagger, for all their posturing, these are not men. They’re boys. Little boys.

"Dog Pound" screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.