Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Vanity Fair

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Something is wrong here. How can such a brightly colored film with a fine cast and enough soap in the story to clean every grimy extra until they shine... Well, how can it be so dull?

Part of the problem is that there is a lot of story to be compressed into a movie. The original novel is about 900 pages long; the movie itself is about 140, which means each minute must cover six or seven pages. Clearly, something needs to be left out, but the filmmakers don't exactly cut with surgical precision. Perhaps the most peculiar choice, whether made in the screenplay or editing room, is when William Dobson (Rhys Ifans) receives a letter in India and says he must go back to England... and then isn't seen again until after a "12 years later" caption. It's not the only storyline to lead into a blind alley, although other situations spring up out of nowhere to compensate.

Even setting that sort of mess aside, though, this movie's got problems. The biggest is the way lead character Becky Sharp is portrayed. I love Reese Witherspoon, but she doesn't seem to be given much direction from Mira Nair on how to portray this character. She's too self-aware to be an ingenue, but even as she's given some good lines as a scheming social climber, the character doesn't seem to be much good at it. Her climb upward isn't as relentless as someone with her obvious intellect should be capable of, and we mostly linger on her failings. I found myself more interested in the downward path of her friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), but she often disappears for long stretches.

There are numerous other issues. The casting of the movie gives us a lot of similar-looking characters, and I don't know whether it's an issue with the source material or the screenplay, but there are numerous points when it seems like characters could avoid a lot of trouble by speaking up when it would behoove them to do so. Sure, societal norms were different two hundred years ago, but it's the job of the movie to make that feel natural. Instead, it just feels arbitrary.

Visually, Ms. Nair does some nice work; I like Reese Witherspoon's bright red costumes (the extra weight from her pregnancy looks good on her); the smart military uniforms, though they contribute to the characters looking the same; and the unflinching look at the period's social stratification. Her visual skill doesn't absolve her of for where her storytelling lacks here.

A Vanity Fair movie just may not be a great idea in this day and age - the other versions on the IMDB indicate that the previous theatrical adaptation starred Myrna Loy, while the more recent versions have been TV mini-series, which seems like a better medium for the material - a recent 1998 version was over twice as long, for example, and it would be possible to insert natural breaks into this episodic story. Seventy years ago, it was more acceptable to make much more drastic cuts; today, there's more interest in a faithful adaptation, but not necessarily the time for it.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Jesus, You Know (Jesus, Du Weisst)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener; projected video)

Ulrich Seidl's Jesus, Du Weisst isn't a very good movie. Its static cinematography and odd framing are off-putting, and for a documentary it certainly feels staged, if not outright rehearsed. It doesn't have a strong voice, and even at 87 minutes seems like a long sit. Even bad documentaries, however, are useful in terms of provoking discussion.

Jesus, Du Weisst sets up cameras in the churches of six devout Austrian Catholics and films them as they pray aloud. The aesthetics of this are peculiar; you mostly wind up seeing these people along in a large cathedral, looking directly into the camera, as if they were praying to the audience. Perhaps even more creepy are the cutaways to the worshippers' actual lives, which are silent and on occasion quite peculiar.

I wondered if perhaps Seidl's point was that people who spend a lot of time talking to God don't talk to each other; it's especially telling with a young couple who pray seperately, telling Jesus about the problems in their relationship, but are mute in their scenes together. As they play ping-pong in the church's rec room, there's a huge crucifix between them.

Other subjects are somewhat disturbing, such as a teenager who is considered strange by his family for attending Mass every evening and who seems to have channeled so much of his energy into his faith that he's completely unable to handle the new emotions puberty is injecting into his mind. Others are just sad, such as the middle-aged church caretaker who worries for her husband, a Pakistani Muslim who recently suffered a stroke.

There is potentially interesting subject matter here - though an introduction suggests that the film was conceived to illustrate how prayer strengthens people, the picture that emerges is one of isolation and sometimes greater despair. I can't imagine that the churches would have given Seidl as much access as they did if that was his original plan, and he may not have been prepared to deal with that.

The counter-argument to that, though, is that this is a deadly dull film to watch. The camera never moves, and the composition is both very static and odd. Ever church and worshipper is shot the same way with the differences being how far off-center they are, with what seems like a lot of space at the top of the frame emphasizing the emptiness of the church behind them. On top of that, the movie looks artificial; the subjects seem to be wearing the same clothes each time they come in to pray, and there's something off about staging. One person in the discussion group noted that though the couple stood at a ping-pong table and hit the ball back and forth, they didn't seem to be playing, in terms of trying to get the ball past the other player. Similarly, some of the shots of people walking into the church looked subtly wrong, as if the person was more worried about getting every step right than they would be without a camera there.

I enjoyed the discussion with the other Brattle/Clotrudis members afterward, far more than the movie itself; I freely admit that a fair amount of what's written above would have been absent without it. But if you're not going to talk it over with somebody afterward, I can't see any reason to watch this.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Shaun of the Dead

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

What Shaun of the Dead does right isn't something that this year's remake of Dawn of the Dead does wrong, exactly, but is something it sort of overlooked: It recognizes that present-day characters would recognize situations from a million zombie movies (even if, like me, they've seen very few), and be influenced by them. At the same time, though, it doesn't get self-referential to the point of the characters recognizing that they're in a movie like a Scream or There's Nothing Out There.

Like Dead an Breakfast, Shaun of the Dead is classified as horror but isn't really going to scare anybody. Unlike Breakfast, it does become, in its last act, a reasonably effective action movie. For the first half or so, it's mainly a comedy, and a clever one, even if it occasionally goes for the cheap pop-culture or gross-out joke.

That said - this is a zombie comedy with a functioning brain. The opening titles, which feature people in their everyday lives who could be mistaken for zombies at first glance, is clever, and the foreshadowing dialogue is wry but not too obvious. There's also a fair bit of wit to be found in how many of the characters are so wrapped up in their own lives that they do not, initially, recognize that the recently dead are coming back as zombies.

Before anyone dismisses it as just an allegorical thing, though, that's not all it's got. As much as someone can find more intelligence under the surface, that surface is pretty good, too. The interplay between the characters is often crude but also funny, and the slapstick is well-choreographed by director Edgar Wright. Those that like the blood and the guts will get their fill, and sharp-eyed audiences will recognize how much the filmmakers love movies, managing to tip their hats to their favorites without Shaun devolving into a "restage scenes from better movies in a funny voice" parody.

Co-writer Simon Pegg is a ton of fun as the title character. Shaun's the sort of well-meaning slacker we've seen a million times, but Pegg's offbeat appearance and easily distracted nature make it work. Kate Ashfield's Liz is probably too cute for him outside the confines of a movie, but she's got the appealling knack of looking better fighting zombies in her sweats than when made up for a night out. Nick Frost does good obnoxious slob friend. Other characters along for the ride are Lucy Davis and Dylan Morgan as Liz's roommates, plus Penelope Winton and Bill Nighy (who seems to be in every British movie these days) as Shaun's mother and stepfather. My DVD budget isn't what it used to be, but I find myself hoping Spaced gets a US DVD release, as that TV series features much of the same cast and crew as this movie.

Now, if someone from a foreign country without any knowledge of zombie movies were to stumble into Shaun of the Dead, the probably wouldn't enjoy it that much, not having a frame of reference. But I don't know how many of them there are, and most everyone else should find something they like.

Bright Young Things

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Sadly, Stephen Fry is in his mid-forties, and probably both too old to play a Bright Young Thing and too vital to play a character like Jim Broadbent's Drunken Major. Fortunatley, he's available to make his feature writing and directing debut.

In America, the "Gilded Age" is said to be roughly from 1890 to World War I; it seems like an appropriate description for the 1930s London depicted in the film. The title characters are attractive, titled if not actually monied, and at least speak well. Underneath, though, things aren't so pretty. Nina (Emily Mortimer) won't marry Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) until he's solvent, but his first novel has been detained at customs. Like the rest, their existence seems to be a steady stream of travel, parties, drinking, cocaine (I do like the euphamism "naughty salt"), and not taking anything seriously. The only ones who appear to be gainfully employed are the ones who write gossip columns about the others for the entertainment of the masses.

What's really quite remarkable is the amount of affection Fry (working from the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh) manages to get us to feel for these characters. They're shallow and near-complete libertines, but they're self-aware and capable of pathos when the real world finally catches up with them. The downside of this is that Fry never really goes in for the kill with the satire; even the song he penned for a visiting religious group ("Ain't No Flies on the Lamb of God") isn't as vicioulsy funny as it perhaps could be.

The plot is rather thin - it's got the form of a romantic comedy, as Adam tries to make secure his position with Nina, whose fickleness is one part shallowness and one part practicality, but the movie happily takes regular side trips. The end is a bit forced, both in terms of jumping forward in time and somewhat ham-fistedly using WWII as a means to make the characters take stock (although I gather the book did that too, quite a neat trick what with it being written in 1930 and all). Makes for a fine and fitting final scene, though.

I'm a fan of Fry - when I heard Bright Young Things was playing the Boston Film Festival, I joked that if I wangled an interview, it would quickly devolve into something like "The Chris Farley Show". He's extremely talented, as a comic actor and a writer in just about every medium he's tried (television, stage, print, radio, and film), and here shows potential as a screenwriter and director. His directorial debut is solid, and well worth a look.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Duane Incarnate

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #4 (Boston Film Fetival)

As I started watching Hal Salwen's Duane Incarnate, I got a little worried. The narrated montage that opens the movie seemed rather mean-spirited, as narrator Gwen (Caroleen Feeney) described her three best friends, Fran (Kristen Johnston), Connie (Cynthia Watros), and Wanda (Crystal Bock). Gwen, Fran, and Connie are all beautiful, successful women with great boyfriends, while Wanda... Well, she falls short in every category. Fortunately, while the movie is mean-spirited, it sets its targets on the right people.

Because, see, the pretty girls can't cope when Wanda gets a new boyfriend, Duane (Peter Hermann), who is apparently everything a girl could want. He's handsome, sensitive, incredibly intelligent, gregarious, a good dancer, has a great job, and is skilled and considerate in bed. He can, it seems, do a lot better than Wanda, and he makes the other girls' boyfriends look bad.

Understand - even as the audience feels vaguely disgusted by how Gwen and company patronize Wanda, they understand it. Wanda is plain-looking, out of work, and even if she is smart, she doesn't articulate herself well; she also has a sort of annoying voice. There is a sort of cruelty to her relationship with the others, as if they keep her around in order to feel better about themselves, while she puts up with their patronizing comments and actions because, hey, at least she's hanging with the cool crowd. Very high school, when you think about it.

Of course, I might also sort of looking down at these characters because we don't really get to see grown women as comic leads that often and aren't used to it. Mean Girls and the slapstick comedies on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel show teenage girls acting silly, but once they're old enough to vote, it seems women in comedies are either objects of men's desires, the sane wife/girlfriend who reels the stupid man in, or a comic character with little screen time. Duane Incarnate is somewhat unusual in that it gives the women almost all of the jokes.

The movie's world reminded me a bit of Just A Kiss, in that it seemed to recognizably be our world, although the characters sort of push the envelope of believable behavior. The characters are aware of that, though, as they see the events of the story as an anomoly, nay, a danger to an orderly and comprehensible universe. Writer/director Salwen is good at convincing the audience to go along with it, though, especially with the introduction of Sheena (Amber Cather), a potential rival for Wanda who seems as unlikely a creation as Duane himself.

The movie's most recognizable cast members, Johnston and Watros, have a sitcom background, while most of the rest are (I assume) New York stage actors. Given the off-kilter style of the movie, though, this acting style actually works better than I think the usual (for film) naturalistic approach; it heightens the unreality of the situation. The movie looks good, and appears to use the independent "we'll use what locations we can get" situation to its advantage ("a bowling alley will let us shoot there if we thank them in the credits? Well, heck, this is an opportunity to show that Wanda's not good at anything").

Duane Incarnate is a quirky, off-kilter thing. I like this brand of comedy when it's done well, which isn't that often: It's hard to create a sort of exaggerated environment without going too far and leaving the audience without context. This movie is occasionally shaky, but mostly manages the trick.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #4 (Boston Film Festival)

My first impression of Kontroll was that it was the work of a sort of Hungarian Danny Boyle, although the specific movie it reminds me of most is Doug Liman's Go. That's pretty good company to be in; Nimród Antal's movie is a fast-paced, occasionally dark comedy with a driving soundtrack, populated by young characters living on the fringes.

The film centers around a group of ticket inspectors in the Budapast subway; apparently, instead of having turnstiles, passengers just walk right in, and it's up to the inspectors to make sure that the people on the train have actually paid. It is not, as one may imagine, a job which confers much respect or pay, and attracts the peculiar.

The group that the audience follows is nominally led by "The Professor", a sad-faced middle-aged man resigned to this as his lot in life; it also includes Tibi the new guy, Lescó the narcoleptic, Muki the belligerant guy, and Bulscú (Sándor Csányi). Bulscú never actually leaves the Metro, sleeping in the stations during his off-hours and making friends with one of the drivers, Béla.

As humdrum as the inspectors' jobs sound, it's frequently peculiar or downright surreal. There's a stupid workplace rivalry with one Gonzó (who is favored by the bosses) and his group that leads to a potentially fatal rail running race. There are weird customers, such as the one who brings his unmuzzled dog on the train, or the pimp and his "clients" who tries to pay via barter. One passenger who captivates Bulscú is a pretty girl (Eszter Balla) riding the subway dressed in a big teddy-bear costume. There's a vandal called "Bootsie" whose ass, the team feels, desperately needs kicking. On a more disturbing note, the number of suicides committed by people jumping into that path of an oncoming train is on the rise, and the audience can see that they're not suicides at all.

Kontroll has a lot of balls in the air, but Antal has the knack for moving quickly and for prioritizing. It's clear early on that the movie is Bulscú's story, and while the other characters are entertaining and undoubtably have stories of their own, the movie never becomes an ensemble piece. There's only one or two scenes that seem to go on too long, and not by much, and the director knows that a little obvious foreshadowing can go a long way. There are also a few exciting (and funny) chase scenes, full of pushing and shoving in crowded tunnels. When violence happens, it happens with shocking suddenness.

Full disclosure - I didn't immediately "get" one of the more surreal sequences; one of the disadvantages of the festival experience is that by the fourth movie of the day, your mind might not be totally sharp, especially if you're shuttling between two theaters and subsisting on a popcorn diet. I get pretty literal-minded at that point, although the metaphor of the tunnel to the hidden part of the subway system (Bulscú's entire world) should be fairly obvious to most.

Hungary doesn't seem to produce a lot of movies, or at least not a lot that make it to the United States, and don't know what sort of thriving film industry the country has. I'm guessing a somewhat conservative one from the disclaimer at the front, making sure we understand that Kontroll doesn't accurately reflect the employees of the Budapest Metro but that they chose to allow filming anyway to support the filmmaker's art (which struck me as simultaneously progressive and quaint). So a film like Kontroll is a pleasant surprise, filled with actors free of baggage from previous roles and feeling rather polished despite its grimy setting.


Well, I was going to have the last two reviews from the Boston Film Festival up last night, but Matt screwed that up, obtaining Red Sox tickets from his co-op job at Northeastern. I don't really mind. Wound up going straight from work to the game, which was long and annoying. I think my brain stopped working after the Orioles got an extra run via Melvin Mora being an idiot and strolling toward home from third on a walk when the bases weren't loaded, avoiding a ten-throw rundown, and scoring when the catcher dropped the ball near the third base bag. That's a "why do the baseball gods hate us so?" moment.

Anyway, movie related, the team announced during the game that Fox was shooting a scene from next summer's Fever Pitch at the park after the game, and we were welcome to stay, watch, be extras, etc. As I told Matt: "Fox just sold thirty thousand DVDs".

Maybe closer to ten thousand, as a bunch of folks left by the end, including Matt and Heather - I don't get why you don't stay another twenty minutes under these circumstances, especially if you're studying acting/theater/filmmaking or just love movies like Matt. It was fun, though - I moved down front, watched Drew Barrymore evade a bunch of security people while nearly knocking Johnny Damon over, and clapped as she and Jimmy Fallon hugged at the end of the movie. I think Damon and David Ortiz were the only actual players not replaced by extras. I did find it kind of amusing that they had the game be against Tampa and had the scoreboard show Rocco Baldelli batting; the Farrellys are Rhode Island natives and RI-er Rocco is pretty popular there, even if the team they root for is the Red Sox.

So, anyway, it was almost 11:30 by the time I got near a computer again and I was tired. There will be reviews of Kontroll and Duane Incarnate tonight. It will happen.

Monday, September 20, 2004

The Boys From County Clare

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2004 at Loews Boston Common #16 (Boston Film Festival)

The Boys From County Clare is kind of a topsy-turvy movie, with the familiar character actors in the lead and the good-looking romantic pairing in supporting roles. If Miramax picks up the rights, you can almost guarantee a cover that focuses on Andrea Corr and Shaun Evans with Bernard Hill and Colm Meaney nowhere in sight.

Hill and Meaney play brothers, John Joe and Jim, who learned to play the fiddle at their father's knee and now, forty years later, have only their passion for traditional Irish Ceili music in common. John Joe (Hill) is a lifelong bachelor, still working their father's old farm in County Clare; his band has won the top prize at Ireland's largest folk festival two years running. He and Jim (Meaney) haven't talked for twenty-four years, during which time Jim has married five times while becoming a millionaire builder in Liverpool, but now he's put together a ceili band of his own and aims to win the trophy himself. John Joe's band includes Anne, a supremely talented (and beautiful) fiddler played by musician Andrea Corr; Jim's includes Teddy, a shy fellow played by newcomer Shaun Evans.

Anne's mother Maisie (Charlotte Bradley) is also in John Joe's band, and this fact should allow even folks who have never seen a movie before to figure out how this one goes; the family feud isn't just about who has possession of their father's fiddle. The conclusion, especially, is telegraphed early and often. Still, the screenplay works around its difficulty in deciding just what it wants to be (I nearly shamed myself by using the sniglet "dramedy" to describe this movie, but that's a rant for another day), and director John Irvin keeps the melodrama around Anne and Maisie seldom clashes jarringly with the occasionally-cartoonish parts of the brothers' musical rivalry and Jim's band of oddballs.

I should probably say something about the music, but beyond knowing that Andrea Corr does this stuff for a living (as part of The Corrs), I know pretty much nothing about Irish music. In particular, all the ceili numbers sounded alike to me, although there's enough dialogue about the finer details and scenes the focus on performance almost exclusively to suggest that writer Nicholas Adams knows his stuff. Of course, John Joe and Jim might have been selecting identical songs as a way to show that they're still connected no matter how much they don't get along.

The cast is good, individually, and plays well off each other, although I question casting Hill and Meaney as brothers. They really don't look a bit alike, their accents don't match, and the apparent age difference between the characters in the "present" (circa 1968) belies how close in age they are in the flashback to 1926 that opens the movie. Hill gets the more reserved, affable part, while Meaney's blustering, obnoxious Jim is more likely to stick in the audience's memory (he gets the last word, with gusto). Corr and Evans likably play likable young people; Evans gets and "Introducing" credit while Ms. Corr gets billed before the title along with Meaney & Hill, so I gather someone sees them as being movie stars, though it's tough to tell from these supporting roles.

The Boys From County Clare is a good little movie. I went because I couldn't remember ever seeing Colm Meaney in a lead role before (though he's probably had more character roles than all the other supporting actors on every Star Trek series combined) and found myself at least enjoying the funny bits, even if two vomit-related gags is at least one too many. The serious bits are a bit iffier, especially around the Anne/Teddy/Maisie resolution, but not enough to seriously detract from the film.

King of the Corner

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2004 at Loews Boston Common #15 (Boston Film Festival)

I hate to bag on Peter Riegart and his film, since unlike many festival guests, he introduced and did Q&A for all four screenings and even seemed somewhat familiar with the area, discussing which theaters his film might get a chance to play in. But let's face it; movies like this are among the main reasons people say they hate independant film.

I'm all for building a movie primarily based on characters, but I've also got a preference for stories that aren't quite so grounded in everyday experience that I stand a good chance of hearing a version with different names by simply asking my next-door neighbors what was going on with their lives. I can get that for free, any time.

What makes it more irritating is that the protagonist (Riegert) is a complete ingrate. The problems his Leo Spivak has probably sound pretty appealling to the audience. Like his obnoxious father Sol (Eli Wallach) in an Arizona retirement community; sure, it's far away, but it's where papa chose to be and, hey, you can afford to fly cross-country from New York and visit him every other weekend. Or his "out of control" only child Elena (Ashley Johnson), who is pretty, unpiereced, doing homework practically every time we see her and on the one time she and her boyfriend are out past curfew, suggests grounding her for two weeks as a reasonable response. Oh, and he's married to Isabella Rosselini. Any woes he may have, he brings upon himself, generally in ways that really defy logical explanation.

And I realize that that's sort of the point, that like most of the audience for this film, Leo has a pretty good life but allows his daily aggravations to skew his perspective, and it takes blah blah blah. What it takes is ninety minutes of watching Leo bitch and moan and generally act like a jerk, and then there's the anecdote from which the title is drawn, and then I guess we're supposed to mist up.

Most descriptions I've seen for this movie involve the word "comedy" somewhere, and I can see where it makes an earnest attempt or two, but it just doesn't happen. Characters who are supposed to be idiosyncratic just come off as strange. There's also one intensely annoying scene in the nursing home about two-thirds of the way through the movie, which I think is going for "darkly comic" but fails in part because the back-and-forth banter mores at too slow a pace and in part because I have real trouble imagining the scene the two characters describe visually. I'm not sure how much of this falls on writer/director/star Riegert and how much comes from the source material (a collection of short stories by Gerald Shapiro), but does it matter?

Pretty much every minute of King of the Corner feels banal or unlikely, and the "unlikely" is seldom entertainingly unlikely.

Man Dancin'

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #1 (Boston Film Festival)

The Glasgow of Man Dancin' is a depressing place; as Jimmy Kerrigan (Alex Ferns) returns there after a nine year prison term in Northern Ireland, the city seems rotted, hollow, and dirty. There are large industrial structures with no sign of activity, and when he walks into a tavern, even the blind guy recognizes him immediately. Nothing, one gets the sense, has changed, and it's no wonder Jimmy wants to serve out his parole and then maybe emigrate to a warmer, more prosperous place.

The interesting thing about this story is that while Jimmy found God in prison, it's initially a private faith. Jimmy just wants to look after his brother (who has become a junkie in the ensuing decade), visit his bedridden mother in the nursing home, find work and save some money. However, the priest (Tom Georgeson) who was supposed to be placing Jimmy in an anger management class notices that Jimmy did drama in prison (it was that or basket-weaving) and instead elects to cast the ex-con in the church's passion play. All well and good, except that Jimmy's mother always asks him to read to her, and this one day there's naught but a bible, and Jimmy gets a rather different impression of Jesus than the one being portrayed in the play.

In the Q&A afterward, director Norman Stone made no bones about the debt this movie owes to Jesus of Montreal; though I haven't seen that film, the premises are basically the same - people putting on a passion play find their lives paralleling the last days of Christ's. Some may find it to be a bit of a stretch to offer a former gunrunner as a Christ figure, but I think that oversimplifies Jimmy. His message isn't primarily religious, but more down to earth - he connects with the rabble-rousing Jesus, the one who had scorn for tax collectors and tyrants, and his oratory focuses more on taking control of one's life than putting one's faith in God, which doesn't go over so well with the gangsters Jimmy used to work for.

I liked it, though. Though the structure of this film comes from a religious source, the story isn't limited to any particular faith. It is, basically, about a guy who wants to make the world, or at least his corner of it, a better place, inspires others to do so, and collides with the forces who profit from misery. Jimmy's not perfect, but he does his best.

A big part of why we like Jimmy is the actor playing him, Alex Ferns. Not (yet) well-known in the United States, Alex spent a couple years as a popular villain on the long-running soap EastEnders, and makes use of his boxer's physique well here. Even if he has put his past behind him, he still looks like a thug, and one wonders if his newfound passion will fly out of control.

Ferns is ably supported by the rest of the cast, including Cas Harkins as Jimmy's brother Terry, Tam White as "Johnny Bus-Stop", a one-time pop star now old, blind, and playing on corners for beer money, and Kenneth Cranham as the corrupt detective on the payroll of gangster Donnie McGlone (James Cosmo). Making the cop and the gangster physically similar is a clever (if intentional) move. The Mary Magdalene surrogate is played by Jenny Foulds with pretty-but-grimy attitude.

While talking with the festival audience, the director made some unnecessary apologies for how Scottish folks talk and his worries that Americans wouldn't understand the dialogue, referencing the annoying subtitles on Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, and the remnants of a subplot that had a great deal removed in the editing stage involving the dead sister of one of Jimmy's old mates. Mr. Stone implied that he may just excise it altogether by the time the movie is released on DVD in the US. I hope that's not the case; it makes sense if you're paying attention and gives depth to a supporting character. I can see where those might be a problem for those who sort of half-watch

So far, I do't know if Man Dancin' has a US distributor, and it likely won't see a theatrical release anyway - Stone claimed it would just be a vanity release and he feels an obligation to the folks who funded the movie. It's worth a look when it arrives on video, if you happen to spot a copy squeezed between bigger releases.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Dead & Breakfast

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #4 (Boston Film Festival)

Dead & Breakfast takes the form of a horror movie but is not actually scary at any point. It's a comedy that involves evil spirits and attacking corpses, and manages a few good gags, but co-writer/director Matthew Leutwyler hews too closely to the horror handbook and the end result is a movie that doesn't cross genre lines but instead straddles them uncomfortably.

The movie starts out with our six young folks getting lost on their way somewhere, in this case a wedding. The characters don't really need names, since their types are so familiar. Among the girls, Sara (Ever Carradine) is The Tomboy, identifiable by her jeans, sneakers, and ingenuity when the violence starts; Kate (Bianca Lawson) is The Bitch, notable for her nice shoes, angry look, and tendency to make snippy remarks to her boyfriend mid-crisis; and Melody (Gina Philips) is The Screamer, the sweet, girly vegan who has a hard time with hurting anything, even zombies. Meanwhile, among the guys, David (Erik Palladino) is the Meathead who gets gung-ho about killin' some zombies (and would be obnoxious except that he's The Bitch's boyfriend and has to deal with her); Christian (Jeremy Sisto) is The Wiseass who is somewhat detached (heh) from all that's going on; and Johnny (Oz Perkins) is The Weirdo, who in a more postmodern movie would be a walking encyclopedia of horror clichés but here just acts a little squirrelly.

Because Johnny is a weirdo, they get lost, and wind up staying at a bed and breakfast in Nowhere, Texas. The proprieter is David Carradine, and there's a weird French chef named Henri (Diedrich Bader) there, too. And, soon, a couple of dead bodies that prevent anybody from leaving town while the Sheriff (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) completes his investigation, focusing mainly on a drifter (Brent David Fraser).

So, there's the horror set-up. It's not going to work as a horror movie, though, because Leutwyler is so matter-of-fact about it. He and his co-writers don't seem to realize that dead bodies with blood all over the place are familiar sights in slasher movies, but not to the characters in slasher movies. So when you've got them acting like it's some sort of minor inconvenience, you lose credibility. This movie tries to fill the space with comedy, including frequently funny musical interludes, and does an okay job with it, although only a few moments achieve "that's sick and I'm laughing anyway". The evil spirits are also a sort of generic evil; they're coming to kill the living, but only because the structure of the movie demands it.

This is a pretty nice cast, though. Gina Philips and Ever Carradine are likable heroines who deserve shots at higher-profile gigs, and Erik Palladino makes a character who is more than a bit of a jackass into someone who's fun to watch just from his enthusiasm and belligerance toward the undead. The real standout, though, is Oz Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins but struck me more as a young Jeffrey Combs. That lineage probably gives you an idea of who the crazy head zombie is, but he works it, eating large chunks of scenery and giving the only performance that really transcends the movie making little sense.

Leutwyler gives an obvious shout-out to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies at one point, but he's no Sam Raimi; he doesn't have the knack for moving the audience from one mood to another smoothly and he never chooses one mood and sticks with it. He's also got no skill wit blood & guts other than to say "hey, look - blood & guts!" That makes for a movie with good parts, but not much else.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2004 at AMC Fenway #12 (preview)

"Sky Captain causes happiness." - Matthew Seaver, immediately upon the movie's finish

I don't know where to begin with what I loved about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, so I'll start with the opening credits, which have a wonderful 1930s look that required twenty-first century computer graphics to create. The soundtrack is perfect, borrowing from the same sources that John Williams used for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Superman. Speaking of Superman, the general feel of this movie brought to mind those great Fleischer Superman cartoons. In the real 1930s, animation was the only way to create this kind of bigger-than-life adventure on the screen, but writer/director Kerry Conran has incredible tools at his disposal to build a world directly out of his imagination. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's got Jude Law and Gwynneth Paltrow, either.

Paltrow, in particular, is perfect here as Pollly Perkins, the kind of thirties career girl who could handle anything the men could while also looking gorgeous in her red lipstick and high heels. She's perfect glammed up for the period, able to toss of wisecracks, wither men with a look, and take the wonders around her in stride. She's an icon but also an individual.

Law's character is iconic, too; his Joe Sullivan is the courageous playboy adventurer who finds the girl initially annoying but falls into an easy rapport with her. During the period in which Sky Captain is set, the "superhero" hasn't yet been codified, and there's a feeling that any kid could grow up to be him. He's as quick-witted as Polly but not as sharp-tongued.

Also on board is Angelina Jolie as Captain Frankie Cook, who doesn't appear until halfway through the movie but manages to crank the tension between Polly and Joe up a notch and is a commanding presence in the midst of a fantastic anachronism.

It's worth bringing up the cast first because they are the ones who sell this world to the audience. The world of Sky Captain is almost entirely created inside a computer, even more so than the last two Star Wars movies were, and though I'm one of those movies' staunchest defenders, it's this cast that displays the most comfort with their unreal (and non-present) surroundings. They're good enough that they can react to a swarm of CGI robots and banter wittily at the same time. Heck, Conran even ends the movie on a joke, letting our last impression be how these guys play off each other.

But this movie's got more than just characterization; any movie with a decent script can do that. This movie's got some of the most stunning visuals committed to film, and it just keeps coming. From the giant robots invading New York, we move on to other robots, incredible air battles, monsters, gigantic flying fortresses that would make Nick Fury jealous, an incredible underwater battle, and the astonishing inside of the sinister Totenkopf's private island. I realize I'm talking like the front of a 1935 pulp magazine here, but it's fitting. Kerry Conran and his brother Kevin, the film's production designer, swipe liberally from old comics, Old Hollywood, and old pulps to construct a consistent world, and then have great fun pitting Joe, Polly, and Frankie against Totenkopf's forces.

By now many have seen the way the Conrans filmed the actors against blue screen and then built the movie around them, and it's got a somewhat surprising effect - even in cases where the special effects aren't absolutely perfect, it's okay, because that's in line with the rest of the movie. By building the movie as a patchwork, they manage to make it cohesive. And they clearly love this genre and period. Even as the movie is frequently very funny, it's funny in a genuine 1930s manner, not mocking the trappings at all. That's why when the movie serves up cliffhanging adventure, it can get away with trapping Joe and Polly in a room stuffed to the rafters with dynamite. And when an action sequence finishes with an improbable escape, the audience doesn't sneer, and doesn't just laugh - the preview audience responded with actual mid-movie applause. You'll know which sequence when you see it.

The applause rule alone would get Sky Captain a perfect rating, but that's just the point when everyone in the audience expressed their joy. I had a foolish grin on my face for the entire hundred-five minute running time, and not just because I love the comics, pulp sci-fi, and movies that the Conrans borrow from so liberally. Sky Captain doesn't just borrow; it knows what makes a fun movie and delivers it in its purest form.

Shorts Package 4

Seen 12 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #1 (Boston Film Festival)

If I can get a little bloggy here, I nearly missed this screening because (a) I foolishly tried to fit showing my apartment to someone in between Easy and Short Package 4 and (b) something closed the red line down between Park and Kendall just when I needed to use it. So, I'm half an hour late getting back, I miss the potential roommate, and by the time I get back the first short has already started. I don't think I missed much of it, though.

"The Basement Tapes" - * *

Some folks just shouldn't be parents. When Paolo's reaction to his wife wife Rachel announcing her pregnancy is to walk to Jerusalem (Texas), dragging his buddy Mickey along (until Mickey's had enough)... well, it's not exactly heartbreaking to find out Rachel lost the baby. Until, of course, it sends Paolo off the deep end.

This is a pretty fractured movie, partially by design. Mickey is an easily distracted narrator, and though he mostly tells the story in chronological order, it feels like he's jumping around; filmmaker Josh Gosfield doesn't seem to have mastered the art of editing yet. Also, the end is just disturbing; as nuts as Paolo gets, I almost think that the way the short ends is the worst possible result.

"Genesis 3:19" - * * *

This short from Mexico's Dany Saadia is a weird one; it involves a man dying from leukemia asking his friend to carry out some last wishes involving a girl he saw - but didn't actually speak to - at a café. What could have been a really creepy "stalking after death" story actually winds up sort of sweet, as the friend and the girl find they have some things in common. It manages to fill in a fair amount of backstory without showing it. Note that what Ilan asks Eric to do with his ashes is kind of on the disturbing side.

"Twins" - * * ¾

I guess you'd call this a documentary; shot by Martin Bell at a Twins Days Festival in Ohio, 23 sets of twins were asked twenty questions, and the answers are spliced together. At seventeen minutes, it quickly becomes a little repetitive, as many of the twins have the same answers about how close they are. It's really affecting at times, but there are points where it just seems to be going to the same well too often.

"Spin" - * * * ½

Filmmaker David Marmor does as good a job of making physics interesting as anybody, encompassing everything from free-body diagrams to quantum theory in the midst of a good story of a physicist's mental breakdown after colliding with a car on his bicycle. "Spin" is hardly a dry lesson, though, as it becomes an intriguing study of a character who is so used to trying to figure out how the world works that he can't handle the randomness of the event that nearly killed him.

"Sparks" - * ½

"Sparks" made me want to slap characters around for being so stupid in record time. I'm not sure what bothered me more, the dancer working her day job as a cleaner in a hospital constantly wearing headphones and thus not being able to hear patients in the room flatlining, the hospital attendants who mention that one of the patients is capable of communicating my blinking Morse Code although nobody seems to bother to learn how to interpret what he's saying (that just strikes me as cruel), or the final bit of idiocy revealed at the end.

Now, here's the question: Does the "based on a true story" bit at the end make my anger a sign that the movie did a good job or not?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #5 (Boston Film Festival)

Marguerite Moreau is kind of adorable in Easy, even as her character blunders along in her love life, leaping to conclusions about the men in her life that make her feel foolish even when she's correct. I liked her Jamie Harris, even as I was occasionally aggravated by the situations writer/director Jane Weinstock put her in.

Part of the problem is that this movie takes what Roger Ebert calls the Law of Conservation of Characters to an extreme. Jamie appears to know approximately seven or eight people (including family) in this movie, and once the movie is past its midpoint, the only way a new person is going to be introduced is if another character gives birth. So when Jamie's life takes on the characteristics of a soap opera, it's among a group of characters so tight-knit that it almost feels incestuous. I was shocked that D.B. Woodside's character (a chiropractor who lives next door to Jamie) didn't get sucked in. I mean, it would have made more sense than some of the other inevitable pairings. Maybe they could have done something with him and the woman whose suicide Jamie prevents early on, as she disappears soon afterward.

The group is so constrained that I really noticed that Jamie has one of those jobs - a "namer" - that exists in real life but whose function in the movie seems to be that it lets her work from home and somewhat insulate herself from the world at large, which may contain practical people. Note that her first boyfriend, played by Naveen Andrews, also has one of those jobs, being a "poet". It also means that Jamie can wind up in more awkward situations than is really credible.

Which is too bad; I like Jamie and some of her supporting cast. I know she's meant to be something of a screw-up, but she seems to be the one his is dumped on more often than not, and aside from being pretty, she's big-hearted and funny. Of course, I sometimes had to remind myself that Moreau is playing an adult rather than the teenager that actresses with her looks often play, but that's on Hollywood, not her. I liked her sister, played by Emily Deschanel, although I thought potential boyfriend #2 (Brian F. O'Byrne) did seem a little bland for someone who was supposed to be a professional funnyman.

It's too bad that one pretty damn good performance can only take a movie so far. Ms. Moreau makes Easy worth watching, and her worth watching out for, but can't raise the movie as a whole out of mediocrity.

Short Package 3

Seen 11 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #1 (Boston Film Festival)

Rule of thumb for theater owners: If at any point during the presentation, the movie stops - especially if it happens twice during perhaps the best short of the festival, and we're already getting a little less value for money because a short that was expected to be about a quarter of the package's runtime didn't show - you hand out free tickets on the way out. Especially if your theater is Loews Copley Place and you need all the goodwill you can get.

"The Shabbos Goy" - * * ½

I'm not a religious person at all, and I tend to be amused by the demands churches make on their members that don't seem to do much to further what I figure is the purpose of religion, encouraging people to be nice to each other. Those sorts of rules figure prominently into "The Shabbos Goy", as Avram, a Hasidic Jew living in Venice, CA finds his marriage suffering because of them. When he turns out to be infertile, the rules tell him that artificial insemination is apparently out, and since sex is supposed to be strictly for procreation and he's not capable of that, then he must be celibate. Hence the issues with his marriage.

Ah! But the rules apparently also say that a non-believer can do the work of an Orthodox Jew during Shabbos. Feeling quite clever about finding this loophole, Avram sets this plan into motion, while his wife justifiably feels he may be worrying too much about the letter of Talmudic law and not the intent.

It's an okay short. I think the concept of it is a lot funnier than the execution; it's a case where absurdity doesn't automatically translate into comedy. We also don't learn much about the characters outside of this incident, so they don't feel like fleshed-out, whole people (perhaps this will be remedied in the feature that filmmaker Rachel Ann Pearl is writing based on these characters). It also suffers by being filmed on 16mm stock and being something of a chore to watch due to its graininess.

"The Invisible Hand" - *

Okay, I get it. Corporate crime is bad and so are the people who commit it. I won't argue against it being a worthwhile point for Lori Hiris's animated short to make. Her execution is pretty ham-fisted, though. She uses a style that combines the court artist with the chalkboard, and the latter makes this feel like something of a condescending lecture. Many of the facts that get written on this chalkboard also disappear too quickly to be read in full, and her message is diluted somewhat by jumping back and forth between executives stealing or despoiling the environment (bad) and being paid a lot and buying expensive homes (tacky).

Like a lot of overtly political works of art, I can't see this having any effect on its audience's hearts and minds other than making those who already agree a little more smug.

"Fate" - * * ¾

Qian Qian Sun's short is colorful and nice-looking, although the story is kind of thin. A man visits a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles and is caught by surprise when he recognizes the Chinese nun standing at the gate (and vice versa). From that sentence, you can probably guess the twist ending. Nice cinematography, though.

"Rent-A-Person" - * * * *

Perhaps the only 12-minute black-and-white musical comedy ever to have to rhyme "smells like ass" within its lyrics, Kurt Kuenne's hilarious short tells the story of a mild-mannered men's room attendant who strikes it rich by running a business where he rents homeless folks to solitary commuters who want to use the carpool lane, only to come crashing back down to earth without meeting the girl that his job doesn't give him a chance to meet.

Simply flat-out funny, from its Golden Age Of Hollywood opening credits to its silly premise to the absurdity of a chorus of men on the john. If the end is kind of corny, well, that's the idiom that the director is working in. I fully expect to be quite ticked when this isn't Oscar-nominated.

"Rosa" - *

Nothing happens. Seriously, nothing happens - a woman cleans her apartment, dresses up, and gets as far as opening the door before backing away, afraid. This is in black and white and interspersed with color footage of the city outside, which Rosa never sees.

Yes, I get the point the program makes about being trapped by one's own fear of the outside world, but, geez, do something.

The Almost Guys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2004 at Loews Boston Common #19 (Boston Film Festival)

Writer/director/star Eric Fleming admitted that this isn't necessarily the sort of film one associates with a film festival. It's a deliberate throwback to the 1970s, the sort of laid-back road caper that Burt Reynolds was once known for. The result, like its main character, is scruffy but likable.

Rick (Fleming) is a repo man, behind on his child support, prone to getting beat up and parntered with "The Colonel", a 73-year-old repo vet played by Robert Culp. Rick's already been smacked around twice, once by a tough called "The Monk" (Tae-joon Lee) and once by his ex-wife's new boyfriend, when he and The Colonel find something extra in the latest car they repo - big-league pitcher Jim Anderson (James Edson) tied up in the trunk, whom the car's owners intended to ransom in the days leading up to the World Series.

So, they should be heroes, right? Well, the pitcher was in on it, or was until his partners changed the plan, and the kidnappers are making threats, so Rick collects his son Buddy (Oliver Davis) and heads out with Buddy, the Colonel, and the pitcher to try to stay out of trouble and maybe see if they can't make the plan work for them. They wind up joined by Jim's first ex-wife, "Bigger" (Shawnee Smith).

The charm of this movie is that while Rick and The Colonel basically steal things for a living, they're actually not very good at crime. Jim gets beat up, the Colonel suffers the indignities of age (including a small bladder, the tendency to nap, and hands that really shake too much to hold a gun), and even the Italian kidnappers are a little outraged at how too many Americans carry guns. Bigger and Buddy tend to be the smartest and most level-headed of the group, and considering that Buddy is nine and Bigger's friendly with the blonde stereotypes even if she doesn't embrace them... Well, things go amusingly wrong.

Fleming does a good job with his feature debut - he's mostly worked at developing television since getting buzz with a 1997 short. He's got a good cast to work with (and said during the Q&A that he was quite frankly amazed at the people who expressed interest in Robert Culp's part), and finds humor in just about every corner, from slapstick to dialogue to subtitles. He actively avoids coolness, making his characters believable people who screw up in believable ways, but also grow to like each other.

It's a fun little movie, worth a look if it gets distribution.

Short Package 2

Seen 11 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #5 (Boston Film Festival)

The first of two groups of shorts I saw on Saturday; this is the one that included most of the not quite experimental, but sort of oddball shorts, where the unconventional looks and filming methods are most important. The media-is-the-message types. In some ways, shorts are better at this than features; it's not so terribly important to have a through-line when a film is no more than fifteen minutes long, and if the filmmaker does one thing well, that's great. End it while the audience is still saying "cooooooool" and there's no "yeah, but what about the characters and dialogue?"

"Tap Heat" - * * * *

Take "Tap Heat", for instance. This dialogue-free movie is all about celebrating tap dancing, and while it does offer a bit of a story to string together the first half and allow for some build-up, it gleefully throws this away once it has worked its way up to song-and-dance extravaganza time. It's fanciful, as 70-year-old Arthur Duncan plays a detective in the Tap Squad of New York's Dance Police, called in to deal with a young tap dancer played by Jason Samuels Smith, all basketball gear and aggression.

The two are both formidable dancers, with Arthur displaying smoothness and grace and Jason raw power and energy. And tap is just fun to watch, especially for those of us who know nothing about dance - the clicking of the tap shoes serves as a reminder that, yes, there's more going on with more precision than we initially realize. It's a mildly surprising project from writer/director Dean Hargrove, whose career consists mainly of TV mysteries, but a delightful one.

"Ola's Box of Clovers" - * * * ½

Genevieve Anderson uses puppetry for her short, and doesn't try to hide it - you see the big sticks that are used to manipulate the marionettes, but it doesn't take away from anything. Indeed, when combined with the narration in voice-over, it solidifies the impression of a woman telling a story. Since the idea is that this unnamed narrator is trying to understand her grandmother, having the story not look objectively real is a good aesthetic decision.

And there are some things that are just more fun with puppets. Old women scaring trick-or-treaters by bursting out of her house with a chainsaw, for instance, along with some other elements of bitter behavior that tend to contradict the granddaughter's memories.

"Notes From the Space-Time Continuum" - * * ½

Kevin Haverty's vignette has style to spare, and a nice electronic soundtrack, but seems awful familiar. Oh, the people around us are automatons, devoid of any individuality. Every day is much like the last one, and we just drift through them (we know this, because the film shows it three times). Sure, worthwhile enough message, and visually well-realized, but when the biggest new contribution is blood, how big a deal is that?

"The Bodies" - * * *

Amy Wendel's short feels like part of a longer story. Her main character, Annie, is working as a live-in nanny for her former boss (well, I guess that would be the boss at her past workplace, since Annie's still working for her) while undergoing chemotherapy. As the movie opens, she's still somewhat weak physically (although that's only really shown once, perhaps because her lead actress looks pretty healthy), but is starting to resent how the family takes her for granted. As the movie progresses, she becomes more and more dissatisfied, but apparently won't assert herself because of the recent memory of being sick and having to rely on others. I liked lead actress Camilla Enders (I think - no IMDB entry and the card doesn't assign actors to roles) and how the movie really focused on a transition point in the character's life.

"The Little Match Girl" - * * ½

James Ricker does a quick, ten-minute adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's story, and it's a nice job of creating a Dickensian London on a short budget, but he grafts on an epilogue of sorts, but I'm not sure how well they really fit together. I suppose both parts can be looked at as girls falling victim to an uncaring world, but I had a little trouble accepting the connection between the girl literally pushed out into the winter chill and the victim of her own self-destruction. I suppose the latter might see herself as the little match girl, but I'm not sure the audience is supposed to go for it.

"Last Night" - * * ¾

Look for this one to be an Oscar contender come winter mainly because it features actors that the voters recognize. Frances McDormand plays a woman with terminal cancer, Jamey Sheridan plays her husband, and Sheeri Rappaport plays a friend who spends the night in their company to act as a witness to an assisted suicide.

It's a dark story, as depressing as one would expect given the subject matter. The performances are mostly good, although Ms. Rappaport isn't quite in the same category as McDormand and Sheridan. It's a longish short, at 22 minutes, and frustrating because at the end, I felt like filmmaker Sean Mewshaw had basically spent that time establishing the characters in order to set up the situation at the end, which is a heck of a lot more interesting than the one at the beginning.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Easter Egg Escapade

* ½ (out of four) for adults; higher for young kids, perhaps
Seen 11 September 2004 at Loews Boston Common #16 (Boston Film Festival)

"In attendance: Co-stars Nancy Kerrigan and Joe Pantoliano". I've got to admit, that had me intrigued, just as an oddball pairing. Kerrigan's a local semi-celbrity, but was an in-demand character actor going to fly cross-country from the set of Dr. Vegas to promote an animated film in which he plays a rooster? Well, no. No Joey Pants, and instead I wound up seated directly behind the director for a movie that I really needed Christin and Madison Weatherbee to help me judge.

See, the girls are six and three, the daughters of a friend of my mother's. They're great kids, and the approximate age of this movie's target audience. I usually enjoy movies in the G/PG range, but that's family movies, made for all age groups. Stuff aimed at five-year-olds specifically, though - I mean, if you can read this review, you just might not be able to get it.

The repetition, for instance. One character is named "Good Gracious Grasshopper", and says "good gracious" approximately twenty times in the first five minutes; and many other characters have nicknames or phrases that they repeat again and again. Drives thirty-year-old men nuts, it does, but I've read that it's good for small chidren. Same for the movie's slow pace, and the very clear voices everyone speaks in. Things that might seem to be a weekness to even a grade-schooler might be just what a pre-schooler needs.

Not many people will be blown away by the animation quality. The work was done in Poland, and appears to be completely hand-done. No computer effects, heck, according to the director, the cels were even hand-painted. And they look it, the movie doesn't have the smooth, three-dimensional look even the traditional animation of recent years features. Sometimes you'll see characters seem to have a low frame rate, or other glitches. Like when they're walking, and each step seems to take them a bit too far, like the characters being overlaid on the backgrounds are being nudged a little.

Some things are pretty nice - the score, for instance, is performed by a Czech orchestra, and writer/director/producer/composer has a pretty impressive voice cast - the aforementioned Pantoliano (and Kerrigan), Brooke Shields, James Woods, Eli Wallach, and Sandra Bernhard, for instance - considering that this isn't being made by Disney or DreamWorks, but an independent company along with First Look Media.

This isn't a movie that transcends its (likely) G rating. I, for instance, held back on asking why the residents of EggTown, split evenly between rabbits and chickens, were so enthusiastic about making Easter Eggs, and why the nasty Takits in the swamp (almost all roosters) were stealing the eggs, apparently to eat. They're chickens, for crying out loud, about to eat hard-boiled eggs. What this would be equivelent to for humans is too ghastly to think about.

But, the screening had a bunch of kids in attendance, with a theater employee or festival volunteer in a Good Gracious Grasshopper outfit. I wasn't going to spoil it for the kids.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2004 at Loews Boston Common #11 (Boston Film Festival)

Usually, I'm annoyed by comments that you need to watch a movie more than once to really get it. There are other movies to see, and if it's only playing one night of a film festival, well... Still, there's irony to using that claim to describe Primer as it moves from geek infighting to the science-fictional.

It's low-budget science fiction, without anything in the way of special effects, but compensates by paying a little more attention to science and story. As the movie opens, Aaron and Abe are sharing a garage lab with two other techies, trying to supplant their income by making tools for hackers and trying to build the revolutionary, patentable technology that will free them from their boring, unrewarding jobs. Writer/director/star Shane Carruth has a math and science background, and the tech-speak is authentic. Rest assured, though, that when the breakthrough finally comes, it is explained in meticulous detail.

This lends a certain reality to the procedings. Most movies that screw with spacetime use a certain amount of handwaving; the detail Carruth supplies puts clear limits on what the magic tech can do. Also, the characters' less than ambitious use of their new invention fits the characterization; they're too paranoid to use their newfound power to try and rule the world!

You've got to like your sci-fi a lot to get into this, though. No flashy visual effects, lots of jargon, spoken by first-time actors. The film itself is shot an Super-16 and blown up to 35mm, and mostly looks OK, although some scenes (especially night scenes) are extremely grainy. In a couple places it's probably deliberate, but it's often distracting. In his after-film Q&A, Carruth gave the usual responses about how it's the conflict of the characters that's really important, and he does pretty well there. The characters don't change all that much, but they've got a good, creepy paranoia to work with.

This is very much a niche film, and art-house sci-fi is a pretty small niche. If it's one you're into, then Primer has something to offer.

Short Package 1

Seen 10 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #5 (Boston Film Festival)

The short films are probably the most overlooked part of the film festival experience. They don't get written up in the previews of the event, they don't get picked up for distribution by a studio, and they don't have celebrities in attendence to promote them. The filmmakers are often young, some showing things that they'd done for film school, and sometimes the projects are a little rough.

I like shorts, though, and try to make it a point to see all the short packages at the Festival every year. Not all stories require at least ninety minutes to tell, or even the twenty-two minutes for a sitcom episode - presuming you want to see all these characters again. It's unfortunate that there's not really a place for short films anywhere, except at festivals and maybe as filler between features on cable channels.

Of course, just because I like the concept of the short film doesn't mean I'll like every one made. The first group of short films at this year's Boston Film Festival was a decidedly mixed bag.

"Field Trip" - * *

Kids are tricky. The thing that's most appealing about them is their utter lack of pretense. A child who can give a good performance is peculiarly gifted, and cuteness is a blunt tool that needs to be wielded delicately. Writer/director/producer Anita George hasn't quite got the knack yet, as her "one-minute play" about three Texas grade-schoolers on a field trip is eminently forgettable up to its twist ending. Which is, I'll grant, clever; I'd been concentrating so hard on deciphering the kids' accents and what inconsequential thing was of vital importance to them that I hadn't given much thought to where and when this field trip was.

"Dodge City" - *

This short is exactly what the description in the program says it is - two children playing in a kid-sized version of Dodge City (but not playing cops & robbers or anything involving firearms) intercut with images of warfare and its nasty effects. The program would have it that Dodge City and the violence associated with it is a metaphor, or maybe filmmaker Jeff Dell just wants to contrast sweet and innocent children with the brutality they are capable of someday causing.

Where Dell fails is making the connection anywhere other than the program. This short's an example of the most annoying type of film snobbery - juxtaposing opposite images with no linkage and expecting social outrage (as opposed to aesthetic outrage) from the audience.

"Bert Prentice, CEO" - * * *

Some short films that are little one-joke bits. They could be skits on Saturday Night Live, except that they generally rely on filmmaking techniques that wouldn't work well with an audience - in this case, a pull-back reveal in the last few seconds. Thus, Kevin Nibley's film about a corporate brown-noser ends with a one-two punch. I laughed.

"The Other side" - * * ½

... and then there are the "chapter one" shorts. "The Other Side" comes from Rumania, and is based on a current Rumanian urban legend about ghost villages. Here, writer/director/star Andrei Aureliano Popescu gives a story about a man and his wife, who is about to go into labor, driving through the countryside. He gets out of the car in "Black Cat Village" to find help, but instead finds a farmer with a gun ranting about him stealing their livestock. He runs into the fog, only to find the world very much different when he emerges.

And that's it. It's well-shot and acted, but it feels incomplete. Even if you're going for a "horror of the unknown" vibe, where the hero is stymied at every turn in his attempt to understand and resolve what has happened, well, you need more turns than an eight-and-a-half-minute short can provide before the audience is really creeped out.

"Boys' Night Out" - * * * ½

One of only two animated shorts among the 25 scheduled for the festival, and pretty entertaining. It's got a rounded, unabashedly cartoony style that reminds me somewhat of Bruce Timm, though co-directors Bert Klein and Teddy Newton come from a character-animation background. The story is simple enough - while nine-year-old Linberg's mother is off at bible study, his new stepfather Chet is left in charge, and promptly brings the kid to a strip club. But don't tell mom - she wouldn't understand.

Some folks find the enjoyment of curvy cartoons incomprehensible; they're not going to enjoy this one nearly as much. It's fairly funny, but if it shows up on Cartoon Network, it'll be on Adult Swim. PG-13 stuff, though.

"Distance From The Sun" - * * *

I'm a sucker for immigrant stories, and there's usually at least one good one in the shorts each year. This year, it's this portrait of a Muslim living in Florida, operating a Middle-Eastern restaurant. We hear in voice-over how our subject had hated helping his mother cook until she skipped out for a day, when he recognized it as a responsibility and a privilege.

Writer/director Eyad Zahra stated in the Q&A that the star was an actual owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant whose backstory was similar to his character's. The rest of the story, where the cook takes offense at some friends who order beer during Ramadan. It's an interesting little story of assimilation versus tradition.

"Joey" - * * * ½

This one's as simple as it gets - a group of family, friends, and acquaintences mourn a 13-year-old boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting while leaving church. Filmmaker Nancy Stein does a fine job of editing, using her gospel soundtrack, demonstrating how much violence there is in the inner cities, and raising questions about police response in primarily black neighborhoods without ever taking away from the individual story of Joey.

"Spare Change" - * * ¾

A lot of shorts are like stage plays - even though they're filmed, they're done on a budget and thus wind up using many of the same tools as theater - a couple people talking in a single environment. In Peter Waal's short, it's a mostly-empty house, where a man whose wife has left him and taken his daughters just passes time. He's visited by an old acquaintance from college - not a friend; the visitor was something of a bully - who seems to have attained some sort of enlightenment. As they talk, both hostility and healing appear in equal amounts.

It's a nice little film, with the feel of a play but a camera that moves around and walls that allow the home to feel empty from every angle. The performances are decent enough, making for a not-badly-spent twenty minutes.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

As glad as I am to have seen Richard Kelly's new/old cut of Donnie Darko, I don't see myself retiring my current DVD anytime soon. Though the director's cut fills in some of the gaps, it does so at a cost.

A little Internet archeology allows me to locate what I wrote about the original cut on 28 January 2002, when I caught one of the eight screenings it had in Cambridge before running midnights at the Coolidge for something like a year:

Ironically, when Donnie Darko screened at Sundance last year, it was pegged as "not indie enough", with its digital effects and high-profile actors like Drew Barrymore, Noah Wylie, Patrick Swayze, etc. I guess that's how it fell through the cracks - too expensive for the likes of Lion's Gate, too offbeat for the majors - and wound up with Newmarket, the company created to distribute Memento, though they haven't done as well getting Darko into theaters.

Which is too bad, because it's worth seeing. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a great performance as the title character, and writer/director Richard Kelly bears watching after this debut.

The first thing you'll notice is that this movie is funny. Explosively funny. A dinner-table argument that starts between Donnie's older sister Elizabeth (Jake's real-life sister Maggie) and their parents over the upcoming 1988 election somehow shifts to Elizabeth and Donnie, quickly getting personal and profane. The director has this fall into a good rhythm, and always keeps 10-year-old sister Samantha just in frame, and allows just the right amount of time to pass before having her innocently ask "what's a f***mouth?" That kind of comic timing, use of reaction shots and gleeful vulgarity runs throughout the movie - check the look on Darko Sr.'s face after finding out what Donnie said to his gym teacher and under what circumstances, or how Donnie corrects his friends' mistaken beliefs vis-a-vis Smurf orgies. That doesn't even include the bizarre Halloween double feature at the local theater, or the mileage gotten from the phrase "kiddie porn dungeon".

What gives the humor its edge, though, is how worrisome some of it is coming from Donnie; the boy is not well in the head. He's seeing a therapist and on medication, but despite that still sleepwalks and has begun to hallucinate a demonic six-foot bunny named Frank. When Donnie lashes out, no matter how deserving the target or how funny the result, there's the unnerving sense that someone could get hurt.

It's the science-fictional elements that really elevate this film into the realm of the strange and may ultimately prove to be its undoing. Donnie escapes death in the beginning because his sleepwalking (at Frank's behest) results in his being out of his room when a jet engine falls through the roof. Over the course of the rest of the film, Donnie becomes obsessed with time travel, and while this provides one of the film's most intriguing visuals (Abyss-style FX are used to show people as four-dimensional events in spacetime), it ultimately undermines the story, shifting attention away from Donnie's mental problems to a more gimmicky paradox story. Or not. Like Happy Accidents, the director doesn't tip his hand to what's real and what's delusional; unforunately, Happy Accidents has a much stronger finish; I don't think Darko ever really suggests a satisfying way for its puzzle pieces to fit together.

The unfortunate thing about the director's cut is that it tends to emphasize the science-fictional elements even more. While it's nice that writer/director Richard Kelly has worked out a whole mythology for how the time-travel elements in this movie work, that mythology seems very arbitrary, too obviously created specifically to describe this movie. I'm also not sure what to make of Donnie's "visions", which are mostly new and are somewhat meta-amusing for how they look like genuine 1980s sequences.

The tone of the movie has also shifted; I don't recall quite so much ominious underscore in the original cut - at some point, I'm going to have to break out the DVD and see whether I'm remembering some things correctly. I don't recall the student assembly scene being quite so sinister as it is here, for example. The increased emphasis on the time travel makes Donnie a less compelling character. Where before, Donnie Darko was something of a wild card - he may be just crazy, or he may be part of some paradox, and at times we as the audience just didn't know what was going on in his head, making him unpredictable - here he seems to more obviously be fate's tool, and less active a participant.

The changes aren't all bad - we do get a few more scenes with the Darko parents (I had forgotten how much I loved Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell in this movie), and Drew Barrymore's character is fleshed out a little more. Underneath the sci-fi stuff, which is shoveled on even more in this edition, the bits about Donnie and his family and friends are still gold.

I'm glad to see this cut available, and to have seen it once. It doesn't replace the original theatrical cut for me, but the extra information is now in my brain to be called upon whenever I watch the old version.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Danny Deckchair

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #9 (first-run)

Funny how this one just dropped off the radar - two months ago, Landmark Theaters was pushing it with a contest and promos in front of absolutely every movie they played, but when it finally arrived in Boston, it not only didn't play the Kendall Square, but just Copley Place. After one week, it was sharing a screen with Baby Geniuses 2: Superbabies. And to add insult to injury, Superbabies got the 7pm show, leaving Danny Deckchair with only one 9:30pm showtime. Though not much more than a pleasant romantic comedy, Danny Deckchair deserves better than that.

"Pleasant" is probably the best word to describe Danny Deckchair. The story, in which a man floats away from his home after tying forty-odd balloons to a lawn chair, is based on an actual event, although I doubt Larry Walters wound up landing in the back yard of a single woman who would be a much better fit for him than his current girlfriend when he pulled this stunt in real life. The characters are likable, even the ones stuck with the usually thankless task of being the obstacles between Danny (Rhys Ifans) and Glenda (Miranda Otto).

Writer/director Jeff Balsmeyer is occasionally guilty of stretching a somewhat lightweight story - a subplot about a state parliament race seems to exist for no reason than to keep Danny occupied long enough that he doesn't seem to be callously tossing long-time girlfriend Trudy (Justine Clarke) aside as soon as he meets Glenda. He also misses some obvious bits of the plat, as the question of why Danny makes no attempt to assure Trudy or his friends that he's all right is flat-out ignored. The end is a little obvious and drawn-out.

To Mr. Balsmeyer's credit, his previous work as a storyboard artist serves him well in terms of telling the story visually. When we first see Glenda, for instance, she's watching a fireworks display that's part of her hometown of Clarence's "Macadamia Festival"... alone, in her backyard, surrounded by hedges on all sides. That one shot tells us all we need to know about her without saying a word. Similarly, the establishing shots of Clarence show the town surrounded by trees, implying the disconnection from the Sydney suburb where Danny took off but also a bright, cozy small town where everybody knows everybody else. There are several other examples of his skill at using physical space rather than words to make points.

He's also got a nice cast. Rhys Ifans is probably best known for playing skinny goofballs, though he's not as skinny here as he is in earlier films. Still a goof, though, all restless and nervous energy when he's stuck at home during a planned camping holiday. Miranda Otto is probably best known in the States as Eowyn in the latter two Lord of the Rings movies and Human Nature (where she was also paired with Ifans). She reminds me a little of Julianne Moore's understated beauty, and is winning as a woman seeming to just now remember how to enjoy life. Justine Clarke probably has the trickiest character, as Trudy is somewhat superficial, wanting a more glamorous life than her goofball construction-worker boyfriend will ever be interested in. As much as she clearly enjoys her newfound fame when Danny floats off, and more-than-flirts with the reporter covering the story, she never becomes the story's villain, and still cares about Danny.

Danny Deckchair is a sweet, air-filled marshmallow of a movie. Its Aussie accent works in its favor; set this movie in America and maybe its relaxed, colorful characters seem naïve, as ridiculous a stereotype as that may be. It makes for a fun movie, though.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate 2004

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 September 2004 at AMC Fenway #11 (first-run)

Folks who watch movies beyond new releases will have knee-jerk reactions when they hear certain movies are being remade. When I heard Demme was remaking Charade with Thandie Newton and Will Smith (later to be replaced by Mark Freakin' Wahlberg), I immediately thought "stupid idea", although I wound up liking The Truth About Charlie. I did not have the same worries about The Manchurian Candidate.

I like the original movie, but I found it a little dated when I first saw it. Not so much the subject matter (although the remake makes a good decision in making the threat internal rather than external), but the style. The way films were shot and edited in the 1960s meant that the dreams and memories were kind of set off from the rest of the movie, rather than intruding like they could in a modern film. Laurence Harvey also seemed to effete and pathetic.

The remake doesn't really improve on the first adaptation of Richard Condon's novel, but it does different things well. The tension in the first was generated by the idea of sleeper agents, but that sort of xenophobia wouldn't play so well today, either with American audiences or a Hollywood establishment more dependant on international revenue, so the new one works on the increasing instability of protagonist Ben Marco (Denzel Washington).

Also, where Angela Lansbury gave the most commanding performance in the first, there's nobody who really grabs the movie in this one. Meryl Streep is good in Lansbury's role, and outright steals some scenes, but the best performance comes from Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw, the title Vice-Presidential candidate. It's a pretty nifty accomplishment, since he's saddled with a script that happily makes him whatever is needed at the time. Here he's a mama's boy, here he's deeply resentful; here he's got to time for Marco, here he seeks Marco out. Schreiber also does a fine job making Shaw standoffish, making the testimonials of his troop to his warmth seem flat-out wrong.

Demme's Candidate glosses over the science-fictional aspects, basically asking the audience to accept that the implants work for mind control, although there don't seem to be any effects when one is taken out. There are a couple more plot holes, too. On the plus side, the flashback scenes are believably hellish without being given any air of unreality, and Demme makes a couple nifty decisions with music, especially during the convention scene, where the song and the action are in direct contradiction to each other. I think the movie might have been better if it had ended there; it suffers from an overlong resolution after the climax.

The 2004 Manchurian Candidate is a good movie, but I don't think it will displace the original. In five years, mentioning the name will once again call to mind the names of Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and Lansbury as opposed to Demme, Washington, and Streep, though the new movie will be worth discussing as it relates to millennial paranoia and election worries. It's a decent diversion, but no substitute for the original.

Garden State

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 September 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

Garden State had one of those trailers - the beautiful ones which don't actually tell you the plot of the movie, but which intrigue you with interesting images and music selections. That's a refreshing sort of trailer, but it's best when it's not a completely accurate representation of the movie.

The first half of Garden State quite frankly drove me nuts. The movie was in quirky overload, introducing a new weird character seemingly every two minutes. And I know it's not actually the case, but two or three times it seemed like writer/director/star Zach Braff has built a musical montage or some other sequence for no better reason than liking the song. The movie starts with a solid half-hour or forty-five minutes of that, and it's a rickety foundation for a movie.

And then, there's a good scene. A really good scene. Braff's character Andrew Largeman finally does something more than look on with overmedicated detachment and Natalie Portman's Samantha dials the tics back long enough to deliver a heartfelt eulogy for her dead hamster. After what seems like a long first act, the movie finally starts to treat its characters as something more than a freakshow.

And maybe that's intentional. We learn that Largeman's psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) has had "Large" on lithium and other drugs since the age of ten, but that the son went off his meds for the trip back to New Jersey for his mother's funeral. So perhaps Braff is trying to put us into Andrew's head by making the world and the characters in it seem somewhat detached and unfeeling. It works well enough, if that's the plan, but the little "check it out - quirky!" bits do continue almost to the end.

The scenes with Braff and Portman from the hamster funeral on are pretty close to gold, and easily the film's highlights. Holm is as good as one would expect, a clenched fist of restraint and tension amid the wackiness of the rest of the town. The rest of the cast, to be quite honest, seems to be trying to hard most of the time.

Which can also be said for Braff. Though he wrote himself a restrained character, everything else seems a little overdone. He's got good ideas, but doesn't seem to recognize when he's drifted into "too much" territory. Still, it's an impressive debut for whose resumé is mostly starring in Scrubs. It will be interesting to see whether Braff refines his craft for his sophomore effort, or whether he takes the good critical notices Garden State has received and stands pat.

My brother and a bunch of other folks I respect are using superlatives to describe this movie; I can't quite muster up that level of enthusiasm. It's a good movie, though, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if there is, in fact, a great movie in Braff's future.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Black Voltage aka I, a Woman 3 aka The Daughter (3 Slags Kærlighed)

* ¼ (out of four) (print shown was dubbed)
Seen 4 September 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Back To The Grindhouse. But not really)

I want to know how this movie came to be dubbed "Black Voltage", a name which promises some sort of action or sci-fi element as opposed to this bit of... Well, melodrama, I guess. It's not porn, I don't think, since despite the nudity and the sex-centricity, you never see any penetration. "Erotica" sounds smarter and more exciting than this actually is, though I'm sure screenwriter Peer Guldbrandsen and director Mac Ahlberg thought they were saying something important about race and sex. Unfortunately, no-one involved in the movie seems to be any good at their jobs.

Well, that's not fair. Inger Sundh manages to do a decent job of looking pretty throughout, though she's as awful as the rest of the cast when something a little more demanding is called for. It's not just the cast, though - the writing, direction, production design, photography, and editing are all atrocious.

The story, near as I can follow it, is that the protagonist of the previous two "I, A Woman" movies (though played by a different actress) now works as a nurse in a research hospital and has a 17-year-old daughter (Sundh), who arrives home from boarding school early and sees mother and her married boss going at it. In what is either an incredible coincidence or a response to a request, a young, black, American resident at the hospital meets her in a club, gets into a fight for daring to touch a nice white Danish girl, and winds up taking her home where his lesbian sister (who is a go-go dancer at this club) takes a liking to her.

At least, I think that's about the size of it, because it's quite possible that this is the worst-edited movie of all time. Early on, I figured that maybe the reels had been put together in the wrong order, or that since this was an old, second-hand print, there were just pieces missing. But the ineptitude was so pervasive, and such a constant factor throughout, that I figured, no, this is just a poorly put together movie. For example, that bit with Stephen (the young American) meeting Brithe (the girl) in the club and getting into a fight actually seems to happen twice. It's not a repeated reel, because the second time has a bigger fight, but the second time also seems like the first time the two meet. Maybe it's a flashback; I suppose that's a possibility. But if it is, why the heck do they come back to this place?

And it's not even that sexy. Birthe is a well-constructed girl, but she's so innocent and confused that the power imbalance between her and basically everyone she meets is off-putting. She seems to be pushed from hating sex to liking girls to loving Stephen without any effort. Meanwhile, everyone occasionally stops to say extremely sincere things about how free Denmark is, or how nice it would be for black people to not be persecuted, or how parents screw them up. The sincerity of the characters is not in question, but since it often feels like a dialogue break between nude scenes, it's more than kind of laughable.

And laugh we did. I've mentioned before that certain movies that play the midnight show at the Coolidge are much more fun with the crowd than they would be by oneself at home - the idea of sitting alone in my living room watching this movie makes me feel sort of ashamed, actually. But I want to stress that this does not make Black Voltage a good movie even under those circumstance, for it is a cruel, mocking laughter meant to reassure oneself and the people nearby that one is better than this piece of junk.

Also, it has nothing relating to electricity whatsoever; I wondered if a title card from another movie had been attached, or if, perhaps, in 1970 "voltage" was some sort of euphamism.