Saturday, September 17, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day Three: Four Lane Highway and Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits

None of the Boston film festivals seem to attract much interest outside the area. That's not necessarily a bad thing - showing a local audience movies they wouldn't otherwise see - but it's tough to guage reactions when the crowds often seem entirely composed of family and friends. Sure, Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits sold out, but not because of any particular buzz, other than "I know someone in that movie!". There were a lot of local connections for Touched, too. Wannabe was nearly deserted, and a good chunk of the audience for When Do We Eat? were Roswell fans excited about seeing Shiri Appleby. Four Lane Highway wasn't exactly packed, nor was Swimmers.

Boston probably won't ever be an influential film festival - it runs concurrently with Toronto, although Slamdance has gained some notereity as an alternative to Sundance - but the audiences for these films suggest that not only is Boston not drawing outside audiences, but the locals are only seeing studio previews or things of local interest.

Four Lane Highway

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

Four Lane Highway is the kind of independent film that appeals to the independent film fans as a clique. Its characters are almost all artists of some sort; it's all about relationships and personal weakness rather than about facing some challenge from without. Part of it takes place against the backdrop of a New York "scene" (in this case, the art scene, but the specifics aren't terribly important). It's the kind of film that gets most of its audience at festivals, after which the audience falls all over themselves to say how great it is that there are true artists out there making smart films about people. And they're right; it is nice for this kind of film to get made, even if this particular example is not exactly exceptional.

Sean (Frederick Weller) and Lyle (Reg Rogers) are educated, articulate men of around thirty who live in a small Maine college town and mostly put their brains to use chatting up college girls. As Sean is leaving making his way off campus one morning, he sees a sign about a former faculty member's gallery show in New York. This artist is his former girlfriend Molly (Greer Goodman), who left him two years ago. He decides to drive to New York to confront her, or see her work, or something. Lyle tags along, and we flash back to how the relationship started and how it fell apart.

This is, for the most part, an actors' movie, and leads Weller and Goodman are excellent choices for their roles. They're good-looking, of course, but not model-pretty; a fair amount of Goodman's expressiveness is derived from the lines around her eyes. She's often a better actress than she at first appears, with her early line readings seeming sort of flat, or a little bit more heartfelt than they need to be. It's the style of acting one might associate with the theater, but also somewhat appropriate because we first see her in Sean's flashbacks, and I imagine that in those we're often seeing an idealized version of her - or at least an idealized pest, when she tries to convince him to start writing again. She becomes much more nuanced and natural when we meet her in the present day.

Weller (not the one in Robocop) plays the character we spend the most time following, and Sean's an interesting enough specimen. Sean is a blue-collar guy partly by choice and partly by default, and he hits the combination pretty much spot-on, projecting an uncomplicated image but able to pull out the intellect when necessary (and even then, when he explains why he doesn't particularly like sculpture to a snotty art writer, it's not using big words, but making a strong argument). He makes a perfectly miserable drunk, which is appropriate. He communicates feelings well, which is the most important part of the job for this role.

Decent, but somewhat less impressive, are Reg Rogers and Elizabeth Rodriguez as the roommates. These are characters that exist mostly to give the principals someone to talk to (or, more often, lectured by), although they also serve as surrogates by which director writer/director Dylan McCormick can talk about addictions. Rogers's Lyle is an alcoholic, constantly with a drink in his hand, and though he's usually the cheerful, friendly type of drunk, he's a pathetic figure. Too much of the last act of the movie, when we really should be concentrating on what's going on with Sean and Molly, is spent on him being taken to task, hitting bottom, trying to get help, etc. Indeed, Drink seems to be the root of all evil in the film's latter half, as Lyle crashes, we see that Sean was drinking during most of the times things went wrong with Molly, we're told his no-good father was a drunk, and the bartender who has kicked the habit solemnly tells us that it isn't the solution to one's problems. There's nothing wrong with a pro-sobriety message, but if Sean's drinking was the main problem in the relationship, that's not very interesting; and if not, then that's a lot of late-movie time spent on a secondary issue. In contrast, the promiscuity of Rodriguez's Sasha is hit just often enough to be distracting, but never amounts to much other than her looking at a passed-out Lyle with a look on her face that says "wow, in my own way I'm as pathetic as him!"

So if the conflict doesn't arise from the drinking, what is its source? Apparently, Molly's conviction that Sean isn't reaching his potential because he hasn't written in years, because he fears being unable to live up to his famous-writer father (who told Sean that his first story was only published as a curiosity, since he's the son of the man who wrote "Four Lane Highway"). The trouble is - we are never given any reason to believe that Sean is any kind of gifted writer. We don't read his writing, or hear it read; we just see him freeze up when asked to tell his nieces a story. So, if the audience is thinking "damn, woman, just accept that not everybody is some kind of artist and leave him alone! No wonder he feels driven to drink!", isn't it kind of pathetic that he's crawling back to her two years later? What should be evidence of growth and maturation looks a bit like spinelessness. Perhaps even worse, it's not Molly's confidence that spurs him to change, but something which, if he really had matured, wouldn't have so much of an effect.

As much chemistry as Weller and Goodman may have - and one does get a warm fuzzy when seeing them together during the good times - it's not really a relationship worth rooting for. It should be, but the fairly major miscalculation of spending more time on drinking than writing sabotages a potentially very good movie. It's a shame, because it's well-shot and acted, with both the New York and "Maine" (actually Chatham, NY) locations nicely chosen. McCormick has a knack for showing how fine the border between homey & comfortable and run-down can be, both in the New York trendy lofts hidden behind grafitti and how Sean's house looks when he's with Molly compared to after she leaves.

So, it's not a particularly good movie about relationships and people, but it doesn't outright stink.

Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits gives the appearance of being a sketch of some sort stretched to feature length. The credits include mention that star John Fiore created the character of Johnny Slade, although Larry Blamire is credited with the screenplay. Watching it, I could imagine how it worked - Fiore comes out as Slade, sings a silly song, banters with the audience a little, and so on. It's kind of a good bit, especially since the songs aren't bad at all. Once you get Johnny off the stage, he's out of his element a bit, but he's also likable enough that the movie actually does a bit better than avoiding being a chore.

Johnny Slade (Fiore) is a Boston-area lounge singer who refuses to sing anything but his own compositions, which are eccentric. He plays to empty houses and occasionally cuts an album on a vanity label, and is considering hanging it up. Then, one day, he's offered a new job out of the blue - headlining at a classy new club. The only hitch is that he has to sing a song written by the reclusive Mr. Samantha (Vincent Curatola) every night - songs which don't make any sense, but seem to correspond to the next morning's crime news. Soon, he figures out what's going on, but he can't just get out: Samantha's men, the Irish mob, the FBI, and sexy club owner Charlie Payne (Dolores Sirianni) all know what's up, and stopping could be hazardous to his health.

It's a thoroughly preposterous story, of course; the plot has as many holes as a thing with a great many holes. The characters are all, initially, sort of obnoxious, but they soften as the movie continues - a little fear does wonders for Johnny's cockiness; Samantha comes to enjoy writing his goofy lyrics (although Johnny doesn't like the idea of being considered a joke); and Charlie takes a shine to Johnny. We learn a little more about them, and hearing that Johnny works blue-collar jobs between gigs softens him a little. He's just trying to chase dreams, as is his agent Jerry (Richard Portnow), who would really like Johnny to hit it big so that he can get rid of the used car lot.

What makes Slade work as well as it does, I think, is that unlike most expansions of a character bit (if that's what this is), the title character plays the straight man most of the time. Sure, his songs are silly, along with the album covers we see in the opening credit montage - "The Soda Fountain of Love" is especially double entendre-rific. When he's dealing with the mobsters and feds, he tends more toward "last sane man in the city". It's not a great performance, but Fiore also writes most of his own songs, and is a surprisingly appealing leading man. Not bad for a guy who has made a career out guest-starring on Law & Order and The Sopranos.

The rest of the cast seems to be mostly composed of New York's B-list and local Boston guys. Portnow gets more than a few funny moments, as does Curatola as the oily, bad-tempered mob boss hiding out in a ridiculously small office (it's nigh-impossible for Fiore's Slade to fit into the chair on the other side of Samantha's desk, since there's no room to pull it out). Dolores Sirianni makes both an entertaining foil and love interest for Slade. Also amusing is Jennifer Blaire as Angela, a textbook mix of sex appeal and psychosis working for the Irish mob.

Ms. Blaire is undoubtedly in the movie in part because she is married to the film's writter director, Larry Blamire. Blamire's IMDB biography lists him as primarily being a playwright, but he's worked in film before. Unfortunately, his previous film is The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a painful failure to recreate the campy atmosphere of 1950s monster movies. In a way, Johnny Slade is another attempt to do deliberate camp, with Slade's songs being corny by design, much of the plot being composed of bad clich├ęs, and a thug's deliberate attempt to create a catchphrase (although I admit, the idea of a guy atually making an effort to end every sentence with the phrase "like a f---ing monkey" is a good parody of characters who beat a phrase to death). As with Skeleton, though, the jokes and plotlines are all fairly obvious and straightforward, stuff a clever twelve-year-old with the right pop-culture background could have come up with. It works better here, since everyone involved is trying to make a good movie, as opposed to trying to get you to laugh at how bad it is, but the double meaning of the title is about as clever as the movie gets.

That doesn't count against it; there's some genuine talent in its cast of character actors given larger roles, and they execute fairly well. I wonder, though, whether I'd love it in a regular screening, as opposed to a packed house that included a lot of family and friends of the local cast and crew. Laughter is contagious, after all, and this is a crowd well-predisposed to like the film.

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