Monday, April 25, 2011

#TribecaFest 2011 Report: Day 4

We find a theme in today’s reviews: the great performance in the not-as-great movie. Zoe Lister-Jones in Stuck Between Stations, Chris Evans in Puncture, and Dennis Farina in The Last Rites of Joe May are all, in their specific ways, just terrific—and all are in the unenviable position of attempting to elevate their middling material to their level of skill. Their mileage varies.

Ms. Lister-Jones, the co-writer and star of the inexplicably underseen Breaking Upwards (it’s on Netflix Instant, so go ahead—you can always click back to this review), is not only achingly beautiful, but has a fizzy energy and a wonderful, dry way of delivering a line. It’s impossible to tell yet what kind of range she’s got, but never mind that—let’s just enjoy this period of getting to know her on-screen.

She co-stars with Sam Rosen in Stuck Between Stations, a one-long-night romance in the Before Sunrise/Quiet City mold. It is, yes, a shade on the twee side, and it is occasionally too precious for its own good—both in dialogue and situation (their visit to a public access television station is cutesy and more than a little irritating). But the actors play well together; Rosen hangs back most of the time, letting Lister-Jones set the tone and tempo, and bounces off of her accordingly. But neither of them can do anything with the closing scenes, which degenerate into an acting class exercise. Stuck Between Stations is problematic. But it is also lovingly photographed, and moves at a nice clip, and it has Zoe Lister-Jones. Those things might be enough.

* * *

As brilliant lawyer and highly functional drug addict Mike Weiss in Puncture, Chris Evans concocts a wired, cranked-up performance, equal parts bullshit bravado and utter sincerity, and there’s a mad, improvisatory energy to it—you can see him thinking, working the angles, and enjoying his character’s hedonistic nature. It’s a take-no-prisoners piece of work; it’s got a grimy kick, it’s so trashy and funny (we’re so in tune with the character by the midway point that he gets a laugh by clicking his pen and saying, simply, “sure”). And though he only lets us glimpse the character’s darkness, we see enough to know there’s more where that came from.

The film that surrounds him is, alas, not quite as unpredictable. Chris Lopata’s dialogue is a little clangy, and the construction of the story is fairly obvious—he lets the seams show too often. I get that we have to be made aware of the stakes, but there are far too many scenes of his partner lecturing him about how they have to drop this case because they’re running out of money. That’s a pretty thankless role; perhaps realizing that, co-director Mark Kassen plays it himself. (His brother Adam directed with him.) The Kassen brothers (pictured above) direct in an indistinct but fluid style; the film feels like a calling card for bigger Hollywood efforts, and should fill that function nicely. Puncture is a sturdy piece of professional filmmaking—and it would be pretty forgettable save for Evans, who tears through the picture like a whirling dervish.

* * *

Let us consider the face of Dennis Farina. It’s a great, grizzled face, the lines of age set deep, the eyes of the actor—who served 18 years as a Chicago cop—weary from the things he’s seen. It’s a face that you believe, that’s puts a real lifetime of experience behind every character he plays, and the best moments in The Last Rites of Joe May are those that simply let us study that face; late in the film, he’s just sitting on a bus, and the tragic music that’s slathered over it is entirely unnecessary, because there’s no way it can tell us as much as that mug does.

The Last Rites of Joe May comes via the auspices of Steppenwolf Films, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s an impressionistic, slice-of-life story that is more concerned with character moments than plot points. In its opening scenes, that’s just fine. But then they slam all this plot stuff into the third act, and it goes to hell. Farina has so rarely been used to his full potential that it’s tempting to give Joe May a pass as an actor’s showcase and leave it at that. But that’s just not enough this time.

* * *

Dick Mass’s Saint opens with St. Nicholas and his goons on horseback, terrorizing a village which then raises their pitchforks and burns him alive. So yeah, right away, not your average Christmas movie. Saint has a forceful and wicked sense of humor—Maas has clearly ingested copious amounts of American horror movies, and regurgitates them with a wink and nudge. When St. Nick is stalking a family at Christmastime, he’ll give us the peeking-in-through-the-window point-of-view shot—but the windows are frosted over, and the kids inside are singing Christmas carols. It took me until about the 20 minute mark, as the three teenaged girls were walking home from school—two dirty birdies and a virginal “good girl”—to realize that, up to that point, the film was a total structural recreation of Halloween.

Much of the picture is clever and fun, though the big third-act action climax, in its attempt to play serious, comes off looking that much sillier. Or maybe it’s not trying to play straight—it could just be that the joke, while a good one, has worn thin by that point. Saint is two-thirds of a really clever movie, and the rest of it isn’t bad enough to sink what comes before. It’s good, trashy fun, and those who are in the joke are going to love it. You know who you are.

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