Saturday, April 30, 2011

#TribecaFest Report: Days 9-10

So remember all that big talk in my last Tribeca Report about going to see Scorsese and all that? Yeah, I got sick. Correction: I’d been sick, since I woke up Tuesday morning with a monster sore throat that refused to dissipate, but fuck that, it’s Tribeca week, I’ll fight through that shit. But when I got up Friday morning, it clearly needed to be a sick day. So I stayed home and streamed a couple of titles, and ventured back out today. All of the ones I’ve written about are good. There’s one more, which I didn’t write about—later for that.

#TribecaFest Review: "Janie Jones"

Well, Abigail Breslin has arrived. She’s worked steadily since her breakthrough five years ago, in the title role of Little Miss Sunshine, and has done plenty of good work in that time, but Janie Jones feels like it was custom-made as a vehicle for what she can do. She sings (well), she cries (convincingly), she acts (naturally). This is not a cute-kid role, as many of her previous ones were; Janie Jones is only 13 years old, but she’s dealing with some heavy shit. Breslin has moments in this film that she plays with more depth and sensitivity than actors twice her age; dig the nuance she gives the line “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” like someone who is trying so badly to keep the hurt from showing, and almost—almost—pulling it off. There’s not a hint of contrivance to her performance, and that goes a long way towards making this very conventional story into something fresh and engaging.

This is my 1,000th post.

Not too shabby for a blog that I started just over two years ago. So yeah, have a drink.

I suppose I should say something pithy and inspiring, but frankly, I've still got another Tribeca review to write. So I'm gonna go do that instead.

Thanks for reading, though!

#TribecaFest Review: "The Guard"

Throughout John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, you can’t help but think of In Bruges; it’s not just the Irish settings and the big, open face of star Brendan Gleeson, but the snappy dialogue, quick and dirty, which moves at such speed that the filmmaker takes it on good faith that audiences will keep up. The resemblance is not just superficial, it is fraternal—In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh is this filmmaker’s brother. They put something in the water in that house.

Friday, April 29, 2011

#TribecaFest Review: "Love Always, Carolyn"

There are people—writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers—who change their art forever, and whose imprint on that art is felt within the world around them, which is indelibly changed. And then there are those who circle in their orbit—the friends, lovers, spouses, protégés—who end up spending their lives functioning as a kind of footnote. They are defined, to many, less by who they are than by who they knew.

Carolyn Cassady is one of those people, and in her very first pre-title interview in the documentary Love Always, Carolyn, she is up front about it. She was married to Neal Cassady and lover to Jack Kerouac, and “that’s all the interest is in me,” she says, matter-of-factly. “No one has ever cared about anything else.” The film, directed by Maria Ramström and Malin Korkeasalo, attempts the tricky feat of caring both about who she knew and who she is, and mostly succeeds.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Theaters: "Exporting Raymond"

Phil Rosenthal stumbled into a pretty good thing in 1996, when he co-created Everybody Loves Raymond with star Ray Romano. His new documentary comedy Exporting Raymond begins as that show is winding down, with home movies taken backstage and the final tapings of what was, by then, one of the most durable family comedies in TV history. It ran nine years and 210 episodes before drawing to a close, still in top, in 2005. “And then,” Rosenthal says, “the Russians called.”

#TribecaFest Report: Days 7-8

Hey look guys, it’s Michael Rapaport from Friends and Boston Public and Big Fan and Bamboozled. And he’s the director of Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, one of the best documentaries of a festival that’s full of them.

#TribecaFest Review: "The Assault"

Julien Leclercq’s The Assault, with its bleached-out color scheme and you-are-there handheld recreation of a real event, is just asking for comparisons to Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and (especially) United 93. It doesn’t hold up well under that rubric; the film is slick and professional, but doesn’t pack the visceral intensity and sheer emotional power of those works. But it has its moments.

#TribecaFest Review: "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest"

Michael Rapaport’s Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest opens with footage from the group’s 2008 headlining spot on the Rock the Bells tour. The footage is slowed-down, though, accompanied by semi-provocative interview snippets. The sound is eerie, almost ghostly, but in a way that’s appropriate—the picture summons spirits of hip-hop and lets them rattle around for a while, for old time’s sake. The energy of the music crackles through every frame.

#TribecaFest Review: "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life"

I’m sure it’s possible to dislike Carol Channing, but I’m not sure how. In Dori Berinstein’s documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, she strolls Broadway’s “Shubert Alley” and points out the theaters nearby where she’s played (“There are ghosts,” in the Booth Theater, she tells us. “Wonderful ghosts of great actors!”). She comes upon members of the cast for Next to Normal, who have stepped out during their matinee, and says, of the opportunity to perform on Broadway, “We should pay them!” She mentions that she’s almost 90, and the young men burst into spontaneous applause; “I don’t know why you applaud that, it just happened!” she exclaims. “I had nothing to do with it!”

#TribecaFest Review: "Grave Encounters"

The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters is a modestly clever riff on a film we’ve seen many, many times before. The first scene, an interview with a TV producer, explains the premise: several years ago, he was pitched a reality show, in which Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) and his crew would seek out paranormal activity and shoot their attempts to contact the spirit world. The first five episodes, we’re told, went fine, “and then,” he says ominously, “they got to episode six.” And with that, he introduces footage from their “eight-hour lockdown” in Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital.

#TribecaFest Review: "Shakespeare High"

I got a sinking feeling early in the new documentary Shakespeare High—not through any fault of the film. Quite the opposite, in fact. That feeling, which started to settle in my stomach as I watched the teenage students of an inner-city California high school express their love for acting, explain their difficult pasts (“I used to gangbang. I want something more. I want to be somebody”), and show the cameras the modest apartments that they share with their large families. Oh dear, I thought. This movie is going to wreck me.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

#TribecaFest Review: "Black Butterflies"

Black Butterflies is an uneasy meshing of sex drama, political tract, and father/daughter melodrama; it tries to do everything, and does nothing well. It is ostensibly a biography of Ingrid Jonker, the South African poet whose most famous piece was read aloud by Nelson Mandela in his first speech to South Africa’s first democratic parliament in 1991. Director Paula van der Oest plays that Mandela audio at the end of the film; it gives the picture a credibility that it otherwise doesn’t earn. Until then, it's basically a pretentious bore.

#TribecaFest Report: Day 6

I forgot to snap any new pictures at Tribeca today, so here’s a photo of my cat. You’re welcome.

#TribecaFest Review: "Catching Hell"

No single entity is producing more great documentaries these days than ESPN Films (here’s where I throw in the required mention of their 30 for 30 series), and no filmmaker is directing more great documentaries than Alex Gibney (whose recent output includes Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Client-9, and a segment of Freakonomics), so it should come as no surprise that their collaboration, Catching Hell, is so unabashedly terrific—a potent stew of everything that is great about both parties.

#TribecaFest Review: "Everything Must Go"

When Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) comes home and finds all of his stuff on the lawn and the locks to his house changed, he buzzes the intercom and pleads, “Are you in there? If you are, can this happen another day?” It’s not an unreasonable request; he’s home from work early because he’s been fired from his cushy executive job. It’s because of his drinking problem (and a sexual harassment complaint stemming from it). She’s not inside, though; she’s left him, for good this time. He surveys the accumulation of items spread across the lawn, and decides to have a seat and finish his beer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#TribecaFest Review: "L’Amour Fou"

Maybe I’m just not the audience for L’Amour Fou. I will admit to the vast indifference of my feelings toward the world of high fashion; I’m a guy who favors hoodies and jeans and movie poster T-shirts, so a biographical profile of one of the biggest names in haute couture was probably not created with me in mind. But I’ve been riveted by documentaries concerning subjects of little to no interest before. This is not one of those times.

Monday, April 25, 2011

#TribecaFest 2011 Report: Day 5

It’s difficult to pan a movie at a film festival like this one, because—as odd as it sounds—there’s a chance the filmmaker might actually read it. Indie directors are more likely to seek out feedback from people who are covering the festival, and it’s kind of a key moment for a small film, and it pains me to write a bad review of a small movie—not because I actually have the power to crush a movie (let’s be honest), but because I don’t like the idea of hurting hard-working director’s feelings. I used to be one of those guys. I remember the bad reviews. I can still quote them to you.

But everybody’s at the film festival with a job to do, and mine is to write about the films, and sometimes they’re terribly. I saw a really bad one today, so I wrote about how bad it was. During the pre-festival screenings, I saw a couple of real turkeys, and I’ve sat on those reviews, because it pains me to put them out there. Then again, I know people who are considering going to see some films that are not very good, and I have a responsibility to them too.

I don’t mean to get all pompous and self-important. I saw a couple of movies, and wrote down why I didn’t like them. Let’s get on with it.

#TribecaFest Review: "Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard"

Here’s the trouble with steps eight and nine in the twelve-step programs: some people don’t want to be reminded. In Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard, Dick Kuchera—who was, by all accounts (including his own) a really terrible human being for most of his adult life—visits his first wife Nola, to apologize for his many infractions. At the beginning of the film, she says, without a trace of irony or malice, “I wish I’d never met him.” When he starts listing all of the things he did to her, she pulls back: “I didn’t want to remember some of this.” And there you have the paradox of this kind of thing—to some extent, it’s not actually for the recipient of the apology and/or amends. It’s to unburden the offender, not the offended. “It’s better to remember the good times,” Nola insists. She may have a point.

#TribecaFest Review: "Roadie"

Chit-chat is not dialogue. Slice-of-life is no excuse for dullness. Style is not the enemy of naturalism. These and other hard lessons are taught in Roadie, a maddeningly inert indie drama from director Michael Cuesta. The raw ingredients are promising—good cast, interesting premise, so on—but the plodding script and Cuesta’s lead-footed direction prevent it from going much of anywhere, including the viewer’s memory. Six hours after it ended, I’m sprinting down the corridors of my memory to summon up much to even say about it.

#TribecaFest Review: "God Bless Ozzy Osbourne"

Near the opening of God Bless Ozzy Osbourne, the new documentary from Mike Fleiss and Mike Piscitelli, the film’s subject celebrates his 60th birthday. “I shoulda died hundred times,” he says, and based the evidence that follows, he’s absolutely correct. Here is a man who spent the better part of his life incapacitated; he destroyed his first family and nearly did the same to his second, to say nothing of himself. That he’s still ticking is something close to a miracle, or at the least, very good luck.

#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.

#TribecaFest Review: "The Last Rites of Joe May"

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.

#TribecaFest Review: "Saint"

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. The notion of a murderous St. Nick caused more than a little controversy here in the States back in 1984, when the cheapo slasher film Silent Night, Deadly Night took it for a spin; Saint is a Dutch film, and dodges some of those issues by trafficking in their Santa iconography instead of ours—i.e., a Saint Nick who arrives via boat and, with his crew of “six to eight black men,” puts all the bad little children in a bag and takes them to Spain. Darker stuff, that. (Your homework assignment before seeing the film: go read David Sedaris’s brilliant essay on this version of the Santa story, “Six to Eight Black Men.”)

Saint also gets off the hook because, unlike Silent Night, it’s got 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: an opening sequence in the distant past, an intermediate scene, and then the present day. (They throw in a nod to Halloween II later, with a scene in a hospital.)

Maas’s Loomis character is Goert (Bert Luppes), a cop wound so tight with hatred for St. Nick that, when a wrapped gift is left on his desk, he unloads his pistol into it. “C’mon, Goert, cheer up!” his bartender grins, but Goert’s not hearing it; this year, December 5 (St. Nicholas Day) falls on a full moon, and the last time that happened, his whole family was murdered. He sets about to stop St. Nick, who “won’t rest until he’s turned Amsterdam into a bloodbath!”

In the process, mythology is established (“bullets won’t harm him, but fire does”), clichés are indulged (there’s not a reliable flashlight in the damn thing), and plenty of pretty young folks are bumped off in cheerfully blood-soaked kills. It’s all done with high style and a good deal of in-joke wit; the score, thankfully, is in on the gag, all thunderous drums and frightened choral singing (like John Carpenter, Maas composes his own music). It’s not just a spoof, though; the scares, telegraphed and expected though they may be, land, and the young hero’s battle with several “Black Peter”s is a genuinely well-executed action/horror set piece with a Raimi-esque slapstick energy.

The rough-and-tumble scenes like that play best; later, when cops chase St. Nick and his horse across the rooftops of the city, the special effects look junky even for a movie like this. Meanwhile, 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 in the picture. 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.

"Saint" screened this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. Its final festival screening is on Wednesday, 4/27.

#TribecaFest Review: "Puncture"

If Puncture were a book, it’d be a beach read—junk, basically, but really hard to put down. It’s not intellectually stimulating, but it moves, popping through its well-worn narrative with style and efficiency. It’s a Civil Action/Erin Brockovich-style based-on-a-true-story backroom legal drama, and like those films, it primarily separates itself from the countless TV movies in the same mold thanks to the efforts of a powerful star performance. In this case, that performance is by Chris Evans. I’m as surprised as you are.

#TribecaFest Review: "Stuck Between Stations"

Stuck Between Stations has got all kinds of problems, but it’s also got Zoe Lister-Jones, so it’s pretty much a wash. 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.