Friday, April 27, 2012

#TFF Review: "Knuckleball!"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

It would be fair to say that the knuckleball is not the most respected pitch in baseball. Some call it a trick pitch, a distrusted tool of oddballs, and indeed, there are only two knuckleballers in the majors as the 2011 season begins: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's documentary Knuckleball! takes a look at those two men, their season, and the history of this very patient pitch.

#TFF Review: "The Playroom"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Chances are you're not going to find a critic that can resist mentioning The Ice Storm when discussing Julia Dyer's The Playroom, and you can hardly blame them: It is, after all, a tale of middle-class family dysfunction set in the mid-1970s. But the similarities aren't where the movie ends—and it is, after all, a period ripe with possibilities for examining the crumbling of the American ideal. The Cantwells, the family at the center of The Playroom, aren't quite as well to do as the Hoods of The Ice Storm; they're also more explicitly desperate and unhappy, which they attempt to smother in fantasy (the kids) or drown in booze (the adults).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

#TFF Review: "Broke"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Sports documentaries can often dazzle you with their statistics, but the first numbers to pop onscreen in Billy Corben’s Broke are astonishing: according to Sports Illustrated, 78 percent of all NFL players are broke within three years of their retirement. The NBA’s numbers are barely better: 60 percent of all pro basketball players are out of money within five years of stepping off the court. It’s hard to jibe these numbers with those that follow, in a quick montage of former athletes divulging the amounts of their contracts and bonuses. The story is the same: “And then I went on a splurge.”

#TFF Review: "Lola Versus"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

“I know that change is inevitable,” admits Lola (Greta Gerwig) in the opening narration of Daryl Wein’s Lola Versus, “but what if I don’t want things to change? What if I like my life exactly as it is?” You can’t blame her; at 29, she’s got a handsome artist fiancée with a killer rent-controlled loft, and she’s close to completing her graduate school dissertation. Good friends, good guy, good life—and then she comes home from a busy day of wedding planning and finds her husband to be (Joel Kinnaman) sitting on the couch with a look of stern worry.

#TFF Review: "Trishna"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Confession: It was with something less than fevered anticipation that I dragged myself into a morning screening of Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. There is such a thing as too early in the day for Thomas Hardy, or for film versions of 19th century English literature. I needn’t have worried: from the opening scenes, of young guys smoking cigarettes, hanging out, and driving around blasting rock music, this clearly isn’t your standard Tess.

In Theaters: "The Five Year Engagement"

The Five-Year Engagement runs 124 minutes. Let’s put that number out there and deal with it, since everyone seems so weirdly obsessed with the fact, even though producer Judd Apatow’s films regularly run north of the two-hour mark (Bridesmaids: 125 minutes; Knocked Up: 129 minutes; Funny People: 146 minutes), or just shy of it (The 40-Year-Old Virgin: 116 minutes; Superbad: 113 minutes; Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express: 111 minutes). That freedom from the confines of the 90-minute running time is, I would argue, a key component into the astonishingly high success rate of his comedies, since those expanded canvases allow greater experimentation, more indulgences in serious scenes and themes, and the opportunity to create a genuine texture for the characters and their situations. Sure, there are a few scenes and a couple of supporting characters that a ruthless editor could have hacked out of The Five-Year Engagement; there’s probably a perfectly adequate 97-minute version to be made of this film. It would be a lesser picture. In its current form, the film is messy, unruly, and roughshod—and that’s exactly as it should be.

In Theaters: "Citizen Gangster"

The tale of the good man driven by desperate circumstances into a life of crime is one that’s been told almost as often as that of the colorful bank robber who becomes a national folk hero, so a more jaded filmgoer might conclude that you’re getting two overdone movies for the price of one with Nathan Morlando’s Citizen Gangster. But to dismiss the film based on its logline would be a mistake—Morlando may be telling you a story you’ve heard, but he tells it as though he doesn’t know that. Set under the perpetually overcast skies of post-war Canada, Citizen Gangster is less about the crimes than it is about the criminal, less interested in the thrill of theft than about what’s going through the head of the man holding the gun. Morlando may not break any new ground here, but he spins the familiar yarn into something fresh and urgent.

#TFF Review: "Wagner's Dream"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

I am not a fan of the opera. Well, correction: I’ve never been to the opera, so that’s probably unfair. Like (I believe it’s fair to say) most people of my generation, my impressions of opera are forged from its short and usually less-than-reverential appearances in other media; the idea that it’s a fundamentally silly art form for old, rich people, filled with fat ladies singing in horned helmets, grabs you at a fairly early age (never underestimate the impact of What’s Opera, Doc) and pretty much holds. Yet, even with my total disinterest in the art at its center, I found myself quite involved and invigorated by Susan Froemke’s documentary Wagner’s Dream, an up-close look at the Metropolitan Opera’s two-year quest to stage Wagner’s epic, four-part Ring cyle, a piece considered by many to be unstagable. “The quest to produce a perfect Ring,” we’re told early on, “remains opera’s greatest challenge,” and the Met’s attempt to conquer that challenge made for high drama both on and off stage.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

#TFF Review: "Deadfall"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) are making their getaway from a heist at an Indian casino when their car hits a deer, flipping the vehicle and killing their driver; when a trooper shows up, Addison puts a bullet in his head. Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a former boxer just out of the joint, goes to his old gym to collect a debt from his trainer; their altercation gets physical, and Jay accidently kills the guy. Liza, fleeing the scene of her crime, is picked up on the snowy road by Jay, fleeing his, and the two spur-of-the-moment murders converge.

#TFF Review: "Searching for Sugar Man"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

His name was Sixto Rodriguez, though he just went by his surname when he started recording for Sussex Records in 1970. He was from Detroit, and his songs were about poverty, struggling, survival; he was called an “inner-city poet” by one of the three superstar producers who created his two studio albums. He had the right people behind him and a voice perfect for his troubled times, but it somehow didn’t click; in spite of rave reviews, his two records didn’t sell. His label fired him, and the man they called Rodriguez went back to working construction in Detroit. He faded into obscurity. Sorta.

#TFF Review: "Sleepless Night"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Frederic Jardin's Sleepless Night starts with a bang and doesn't much let up for the next 90 minutes. In its tense opening sequence, Vincent (Tomer Sisley) and Manuel (Laurent Stoker) put on ski masks, crash into a car, and steal a big bag of cocaine from the occupants, leaving one for dead. But these are no everyday jackers: these men aren't crooks, but corrupt cops. Trouble is, they've been recognized, and the intended recipient of the coke nabs Vincent's son. His ransom is the coke.

#TFF Review: "The Fourth Dimension"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The trouble with anthology films, as I’m well aware many, many others have pointed out, is their inherent tendency towards inconsistency; it’s all but guaranteed that there will be a couple of good segments and at least one that stinks, rendering it tough to recommend a film in its entirety. Joe Dante and George Miller’s segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie are unforgettable, but you have to sit through that notorious Landis and woeful Spielberg to get to them; there’s fun to be had in Rodriguez and Tarantino’s sections of Four Rooms, but boy are the other two a drag; the Wong Kar Wai and Steven Soderbergh pieces of Eros are outstanding, but you want to snip out the Antonioni yourself. And so on. This brings us to The Fourth Dimension, which features an odd but engrossing film by Harmony Korine, a fascinating short by Russian filmmaker Alexey Fedorchenko, and a closer by Polish director Jan Kwiecinski that’s utterly worthless. So it goes.

#TFF Review: "Fairhaven"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

There is a thin, dangerous line between presenting listlessness onscreen and creating it, and that’s a line that writer/director/actor Tom O’Brien mostly stays on the right side of in his new film Fairhaven. It’s a story of three old friends from a small town, the kind of place where you spend a lot of time in bars, or working menial jobs, or sleeping with the wrong people. Dave (Chris Messina) moved away; Sam (Rich Sommer) and Jon (O’Brien) did not. Now Dave is back, for the first time in years, for the funeral of a father with whom he was not close. “I wasn’t gonna come at all,” he shrugs, and for much of the film, it seems that might’ve been the best idea for all concerned parties.

#TFF Review: "Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The Morton Downey Jr. Show
was a pop culture phenomenon that rose and fell with equal expedition—it went on the air in New York in October 1987, went nationwide early the following year, and was cancelled in July of 1989. Within that brief but loud period in the spotlight, the show prompted endless hand-wringing and countless editorials: it was, people worried, an appeal to the viewing public’s basest instincts, a show that celebrated the worst of human nature, a worrisome indication of where we were heading as a society. Ha ha, they might’ve been right; experiencing that circus for the first time since its heyday in the stimulating new documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, it’s impossible to see not only the DNA of Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore, but of O’Reilly, Hannity, Glenn Beck, and the rest.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

#TFF Review: "The Zen of Bennett"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

"I love to sing and paint," says Tony Bennett, "and as far as I'm concerned, I've never worked a day in my life." There's a reason he's remained such an enduring presence on popular culture, why he had a giant hit MTV Unplugged album when he was pushing 70, why far younger performers like Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, and John Mayer lined up to sing with him on his Duets albums. It's not just that he's an incredible singer or a big star—there are plenty of those. It's that he is, and always has been, cool. It's an intangible, indescribable, yet inarguable quality; some people have it, and some people don't. Tony Bennett has it. Unjoo Moon's documentary The Zen of Bennett is about many things: his life, his family, his musicianship. But it is mostly about that quality, and how it manifests itself in his life now.

#TFF Review: "Cut"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Shuji (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the central character in Amir Naderi's Cut, is a figure not unknown to anyone likely to see the film in America. He lives alone, in an apartment wallpapered with lobby cards and movie stills. He hosts screenings on his roof, running prints of Keaton and Ford films. He reverentially visits the tombs of Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. And he walks the streets with a bullhorn, shouting pronouncements of the dire state of cinema. "The artistic side of cinema is dying! Most of today's movies are simply made to entertain!" he seethes. "They have no right to extinguish pure cinema!" He has attempted to contribute to the art himself, but his films thus far have only managed to lose the money provided to Shuji by his brother, a yakuza enforcer. Then Shuji finds out that those debts were never repaid—and his brother has been killed. He has inherited the balance of the debt, over 12 million yen. He has two weeks to make it right. The threatening man who gives him that information doesn't say what will happen at the end of that two weeks. He doesn't have to; there's a head-sized box on his desk.

#TFF Review: "Hysteria"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

“Isn’t she a Chinese firecracker?” notes Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), after meeting the equally wonderfully-named Charlotte Dalyrmple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria. And he’s right. The daughter of a rich doctor, she has cast herself out of her family and spends all of her time working at a poorhouse, while occasionally dropping in on the household to raise a ruckus. “Does she slam every door?” asks her father’s assistant, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy). She does. It’s one of her best qualities.

The good news about Hysteria is that Gyllenhall’s performance is rich, earthy fun—she’s both fervid and utterly charming, somehow managing to play the character’s contemporary leanings without making it a distractingly contemporary performance. The unfortunate news is that it is very much a supporting role in a film preoccupied with other matters—and matters which don’t intersect with her story in a particularly satisfying way.

#TFF Review: "The Giant Mechanical Man"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

So many movie romances seem to occur out of inevitability—here’s who we are, here’s why we’re here—that the rare film which contains a sense of surprise and discovery is commendable, even when it comes in a package as flawed as The Giant Mechanical Man. It’s a film that’s plagued with problematic writing and irritatingly convenient coincidences, but it has at its center a fundamentally sweet and credible relationship, in which two people find each other and are pleased by what happens next.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On DVD: "Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour"

Patton Oswalt’s first half-hour HBO special a decade and a half ago (I’m as surprised as you) marked the arrival of a unique comic voice, one that would, in the subsequent years, assume a place alongside Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Eddie Izzard as one of the foremost working practitioners of the art. Along the way, he continued to develop a specific comedic style, deftly mixing generous portions of pop culture geekery with trenchant political commentary, absurdist flights of fancy, and occasional confessional sidebars.

But we geeks must grow up, and Oswalt did; he was married in 2005 and had his first child two years ago. His 2009 special, My Weakness is Strong, saw a subtle but noteworthy shift in the focus of his material, as concerns of marriage and impending fatherhood started to work his way into the act. The Oswalt of his new special, Finest Hour (which first aired last fall on Showtime), has pivoted further towards these themes—but, thankfully, without abandoning his distinctive persona or welcome edge.

#TFF Review: "Burn"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

“I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen in 32 years of firefighting.” Those words from Detroit fireman Dave Parnell open Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s bracing documentary Burn, subtitled “One year on the front lines of the battle to save Detroit.” It captures a city in crisis, where the population has dropped by two-thirds since the industrial heyday of the 1950s, leaving a place that is, in one observer’s words, like “Katrina without the hurricane.” Poverty is at 33%; unemployment hovers around 39%. Houses are trashed and abandoned, and often those houses go up in flames. The Detroit Fire Department gets about 30,000 fire calls per year, and most of them are arson—the firefighters take them all on, though they have about half as many firefighters as in the fifties, when they fought about half as many fires.

#TFF Review: "Sexy Baby"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Three women, three ages, three cities. Winnie, 12, is a young New York City actress, gymnast, writer, and activist, funny and bright and already possessing a remarkable sense of self. Laura, 22, is a kindergarten teacher and amateur model from North Carolina, and although she’s a stunner, she’s decided that she badly needs expensive labial reconstruction surgery. Nichole, 32, is an exotic dancer and former adult film star; though she’s out of the movies, she and her husband manage other dancers and she gives pole-dancing lessons to local professionals in her Florida home.

This intriguing cross-section of women and points of view provides the framework for Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary Sexy Baby, which takes a tough, challenging, honest look at the ever-popular subject of sexuality in media—but with an eye specifically on this uniquely tech-influenced moment, where Facebook, texting (and “sexting”) and easy access to porn are changing the game faster than most folks can keep up.

#TFF Review: "Mansome"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Morgan Spurlock has always been an entertainer first and a documentarian second, taking special care to make his films primarily accessible and funny, and then worrying about educating or informing. That’s his prerogative, and God knows we’ve got enough serious-minded nonfiction filmmakers carefully laying out theses statements and supporting arguments and putting everybody to sleep. But as he’s getting more ubiquitous and more prolific (this is his third feature in the past year or so, in addition to his A Day in the Life series for Hulu), it’s a quality that is getting further out of his control. Mansome, his latest effort, is his funniest film to date. It is also his most scattershot and undisciplined.

#TFF Review: "Struck by Lighting"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The snappy opening scenes of Brian Dannelly’s Struck by Lighting are so fast and funny, they might lull you into thinking the entire movie is going to run at that speed. It opens with the title event, as Carson Phillips (Chris Colfer) is zapped with a lightning bolt in the high school parking lot; he then narrates own funeral, which includes an acoustic guitar rendition of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” (“Aaaaand my funeral sucks”). He walks us back to his childhood as a know-it-all kid, raised after his father’s abandonment by his harried single mom, played to perfection by Alison Janney. (Failing to assemble the plastic Christmas tree during their first solo holiday, she tosses the pieces and announces, “Screw it—if anybody asks, we’re Jewish.”)

#TFF Review: "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The interview comes about eleven minutes into the NBC News documentary, which was called Mississippi: A Self Portrait, and which ran in 1967. His name was Booker Wright, and he was a waiter at an all-white restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi. He spent his days running his own bar on the other side of town, and that’s where Frank De Felitta interviewed him about working at the restaurant. “Some people are nice,” he told the camera, “some, not. Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim. Some call me nigger.” But no matter what they called him, Wright said, he smiled. “Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile—although you cry on the inside.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

#TFF Review: "While We Were Here"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

It’s hard to know how Kat Coiro’s While We Were Here would play under optimal conditions (still not well, I’m guessing), but the programmers of the Tribeca Film Festival did the picture no favors by slotting it anywhere near the same vicinity as Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz, a film that, like this one, deals with a marriage on the verge of rupture due to a wife’s attraction to a younger, more exciting man. I saw Waltz first; While We Were Here never stood a chance. Everything that was gutsy and nuanced in Waltz is flat and obvious here, and all of the complexities that made that picture so authentic are altogether absent. Godard once said that the best way to criticize a film was to make another one, and while I realize that it’s logistically impossible for Take this Waltz to have been a rebuke to While We Were Here, there are times where it sure as hell plays like one.

#TFF Review: "Journey to Planet X"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

For the most part, I do my best to prevent my reviews from getting overtly autobiographical (because honestly, who gives a shit). But it would seem unfair, dishonest even, to attempt to appraise the documentary Journey to Planet X without acknowledging the part that my own history with no-budget filmmaking plays in my response to it. You see, the film is the documentary account of Eric Swain and Troy Bernier’s two-year production of a 30-minute homemade sci-fi movie, and there are scenes within it that have the embarrassing familiarity of a high school yearbook. It is charming and funny and, in spots, almost uncomfortable to watch.

#TFF Review: "Rubberneck"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The early passages of Alex Karpovsky's Rubberneck have an unpredictability that effectively puts the entire picture up for grabs. Paul (Karpovsky), a mild-mannered researcher, strikes up a chat with pretty new lab tech Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman) at their research and development laboratory's Christmas party. They go home together, in a scene of velvety sensuality. But the next night, Paul presses her for a second date, and it goes quietly awry—in that particularly icky way where one person keeps pushing, and can't let things be.

#TFF Review: "Caroline and Jackie"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Old family photos, accompanied by sad piano music and children’s voices, aren’t quite as reliable as a preface to tales of long-suppressed family dysfunction as home movies (the go-to cliché), but they’ll do in a pinch; one of these days, some filmmaker’s going to throw audiences for a real loop by using faded ephemera in the opening credits of a film about a family that gets along great and supports each other all the time. Adam Christian Clark’s Caroline and Jackie is not that film. What it is, however, is a deeply felt and frequently unnerving portrayal of mental illness and sibling rivalry, one which transcends its occasional markers and dreary subject matter to create something sharp and direct.

#TFF Review: "The Revisionaries"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The ideological antagonists facing off in Scott Thurman’s bracing documentary The Revisionaries may not agree on much, but they could certainly concede this: today’s political battles, contrary to the narratives that take hold on the national stage, are very much being fought on the local level. The culture wars aren’t being fought on the presidential campaign trail—they’re being fought over the “personhood” bills in the state Senates, the union-busting initiatives in the Wisconsin state capital, and at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. Thurman’s film gets a front row seat at the latter, where the teaching and textbook standards were bitterly fought in 2009 and 2010, determining exactly what Texas students would learn about science and American history—and consequently (due to the state’s powerful influence over textbook manufacturers) how those topics would also be taught to students across the country.

#TFF Review: "Let Fury Have the Hour"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Some documentary viewers get all hung up on objectivity and such, so let’s say this right out of the chute: Let Fury Have the Hour is fiercely, proudly, snarlingly partisan. It is a positive documentary about progressive artists, who created a loose movement intended to counter the fear and divisiveness of Thatcher and Reagan. Perhaps you do not agree with that assessment of those figures, and in that event, this is not a film you should see (nor a review you should read). Those who do will find much here that is stimulating and evocative, and may very well get all worked up all over again.

#TFF Review: "Jack and Diane"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Their eyes meet from across the store. Diane’s nose starts to bleed. They hang out that night, their interactions charged by a mutual attraction. “I like you,” Jack tells her, and Diane’s nose starts to bleed again. Nothing’s easy.

Their story is told in Jack and Diane, one of the most schizophrenic movies in many a moon; for the most part, it’s a modest charmer, so light it threatens to flit right off the screen. But it also has scenes and subplots that are utterly inexplicable, so removed are they from the story at hand are the tone so carefully cultivated. It’s hard to know what the hell to make of it, exactly.