Thursday, September 15, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day Two: Wannabe and When Do We Eat?

Before getting to the actual reviews, let me discuss my main frustration with the BFF this year, compared to previous years: It is impossible to see every movie. Now, this is true for most festivals, but what makes this year's really frustrating is that there's no apparent need for this. They have two theaters rented out, but during much of the festival, only one had actual movies playing on the screen (unless there were private critic/industry screenings I wasn't invited to). And then, during the weekend, the times were staggered so that what was on screen #17 overlapped with what was on screen #18.

In fact, on Saturday, I originally bought tickets for three movies, but Love, Ludlow was rescheduled from 5:30pm to 6:30pm, meaning I had to choose between it and When Do We Eat?, which started at 7:30pm. This is in no-one's best interests: It doesn't serve me, as I get to see fewer movies I might not otherwise get a chance to see; it doesn't serve the filmmakers, who don't have me talking up their movie (even if I didn't have the HBS/EFC forum and could just provide word of mouth); it doesn't serve the festival, since they don't get my $10 and I carry away this irritation in addition to how much I enjoyed the movies.

Now, the way I figure it, the job of a festival - its very purpose - is to connect movies with audiences who might not otherwise have a chance to see them, or see them this soon, or interact with the filmmakers. The audience should have the chance to see as many films that interest them as possible. Staggering start times is good theater management, because it means that there's a constant, manageable flow at the concession stands and in the hallways, and most people are only coming to the theater to see one movie anyway. For a festival, I would think you'd want TV-style timeslots, so that the person seeing the movie in theater #17 at 7pm can choose either the movie in theater #17 or #18 at 9:30pm, depending on their preference. And if their tastes are eclectic enough to want to see both, there should be opportunities to do so.

One of the things the old management for the festival did well was to use its five theaters so that you could, theoretically, see everything at the festival: See the three playing at Copley Place in the afternoon, and the two at Boston Common in the evening, and repeat. I can understand why Warner might want you to only have one preview screening of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang rather than four or five, but what's a small independant film got to lose? OK, so the festival is only using two screens this year, but the first one was dark all afternoon Saturday, so I went off to do something else between these two movies. Compare this to Fantasia, where I was seeing movies all day, jumping between theaters as necessary and able to catch second showings of movies I missed, and the BFF is tremendously frustrating.

Anyway, on to the reviews:


* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival) (projected video)

One of the earliest pieces of advice given to any writer just getting started is "write what you know". Now, the world would be a somewhat dire place if people didn't grow out of that advice, or when what they know is not particularly interesting (my early attempts at blogging are all the evidence one needs to see to believe that). Thankfully, the makers of Wannabe have accumulated enough interesting anecdotes about trying to get one's start in Hollywood to fill an eighty-minute film.

Like Craig Robert Young, the actor who plays him, Steve Williams is a young actor from Nottingham who was in a boy band five years earlier, scoring a couple of English top ten hits before moving to Los Angeles because what he really wants to do is act. A few scenes come from experience, though with some embellishment - both actor and character are deaf in one ear, and were hounded out of an audition for a "disabled actors' showcase" by other hopefuls who felt he wasn't disabled enough (or so we were told in the Q&A afterward); both at one point made up a fictitious manager to be taken more seriously in auditions. And even the stuff that is completely fictional has the ring of truth; it's easy to see these characters pin their hopes on Jerry Bruckheimer being aware of their short film.

The film is presented as a "where are they now?" documentary about Williams, complete with opening narration, flashbacks to stock footage, and the inevitable looking over one's shoulder to talk directly to the camera. The specific story that evolves is Steve's battle with Paul Stannard (Adam Huss), which is as trivial to the world at large as it is desperately important to him. Paul was once in a different group, and though they each say it's water under the bridge, Steve tenses up at Paul's claim that he won "Best Dancer" on a "battle of the boy bands" TV special, and things only get worse when both Steve's agent (Elizabeth Warner) and Steve's roommate Molly (Anna Becker), whom he is rather smitten with, both take an immediate shine to Paul.

That Steve is the sane one in this film serves as a perfect example of how insane Hollywood is, at least the way Young and director Richard Keith (who wrote the screenplay along with Young) see it. Steve is not exempted from seeming childish or insane - not by a long shot. The fight over the award is ridiculous, and the lengths he goes to to find work are sometimes kind of sad. Still, he's generally a decent guy who tries to maintain some level of professionalism, isn't to proud to find honest work, and tends to be caught flat-footed when something crazy happens next to him. It would be easy to portray this character as stupid or just terribly naïve; instead, Young takes the route of having him not quite be as far over his head as he first appears, and, besides, we've all been in his situation before, where no-one else seems to be able to see that some person isn't nice but is, in fact, Satan.

The rest of the cast of unknowns is fairly entertaining, too. Huss plays Paul as sort of the opposite of Steve, not really willing to work for success, but initially seems industrious because he likes to clean. Most of the other characters have their own brand of insanity - the casting director who won't shake hands, the vicious disabled people, the dancer/bowler, the director who manages to be an out-of-control egomaniac despite only directing a zero-budget short film. None of these are really fully fleshed-out characters, but one does have to give the actors credit for looking straight into the camera and saying some of this stuff with a straight face.

Richard Keith shows some promise with his first feature. Shooting documentary-style prevents him from getting too fancy - there's only so many angles you can get inside a car, and knocking out a wall to get a better setup isn't an option. There are a couple of moments when the documentary illusion is broken, and the same scene is apparently shot from different angles, but they're rare. The film is fairly episodic, with about eight or nine titled chapters, and while I don't necessarily think that's a rookie mistake, it has a tendency to highlight when a segment is a digression from the Steven-Paul storyline. Still, give credit where credit is due for how naturally that storyline emerges, spits out jokes, and resolves, even if it does lean on the mockumentary staple of a "six months later" epilogue.

Wannabe will probably feel famliar, even to those of us who haven't been actors trying to get their start. After all, Young and Keith aren't the first people to make a movie set against the less-glamorous part of the Hollywood machine (lots of undiscovered actors, writers, and directors have "written what they know") and won't be the last (there's a never-ending supply). They do it well enough, though, and make the familiar jokes funny. Now the challenge is to do something a little more creative.

When Do We Eat?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival)

During the Q&A after the film, director Salvador Litvak joked that When Do We Eat? was the most Jewish movie ever made. I don't know what makes something more or less Jewish, but I can't recall a comedy with such mainstream sensibilities that was this specifically Jewish. Happily, having an insane family is univeral enough that we Gentiles can enjoy this movie even if we don't really know what, exactly, a seder is.

Which is a good thing, because Litvak is no more interested in explaining it to us than the average Catholic filmmaker is in describing communion or confession to the laity. There is one character who could be used for that purpose, but not only do the other characters not spend much time explaining Jewish ritual to the outsider, she's assumed to know the relationships and some of the past history of the Stuckman family already. So it's not immediately obvious that Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn)) is a half-sister to the other children at the table, or where exactly Vanessa (Mili Avital) fits on the family tree. There's no solemn moment to reveal that grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman) is a Holocaust survivor, since this is something everyone in the family would know and, to a certain extent, take for granted - we initially infer it because Ira Stuckman makes an offhand comment that he manufactures Christmas ornaments because the family that hid him gave him one as a gift.

The story involves the Stuckman family coming together for their Passover seder with the best of intentions. Ira (Michael Lerner) and Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren) have four children: The youngest, Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is autistic; Zeke (Ben Feldman) is skipping school to score ecstasy when we first see him; Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a "sexual surrogate"; and the oldest, Ethan (Max Greenfield), has become much more observant (Hasidic, even) seince his tech company went under. Also in attendence are Vanessa, a cousin far enough removed that her trysts with Ethan are in "a grey area"; Jennifer and her girlfriend Grace (Cynda Williams); grandfather Artur; and Rafi (Mark Ivanir), the Israeli handyman who erected their tent, whom Peggy invited to stay for dinner and Ira thus suspects of being her lover. Everyone means well - they're doing it more by the book than usual to accomodate Ethan, whom Ira hope to bring into the family business - until Ira's temper flares, and Zeke responds by dropping some E in his father's drink.

Balancing emotion and raunch is tricky work; for the most part Litvak and his wife/co-writer Nina Davidovich manage it. There are bits that many will find in poor taste - what's really funny about cousins sleeping with each other, other than the hypocrisy it exposes in Ethan? And while I, personally, find the idea that after sixty years in America, Artur still always has a packed suitcase with him in case he has to run or hide again sort of funny, it's the sort of thing that could have gone horribly wrong and winds up pretty close to "not funny at all" as is. Part of the point of the movie is that one can laugh at even the most awful things, and in fact must, because otherwise you're just angry and making everyone else around you miserable. The jokes work, but like a lot of R-rated comedy, they can rub someone the wrong way.

It's an ensemble piece, and the performances vary somewhat. Lerner bellows well, though he's perhaps given more opportunity to do so than is strictly necessary. He's at his best when playing his character between the extremes - not yelling, but also not obviously under the effect of the drug. Ms. Warren is nice enough, but doesn't really get much chance to be funny. The funniest is probably Mili Avital, who gets to say some of the most outrageous things with the most blasé look on her face (her character is a celebrity publicist, so, she says, she knows about drug overdoses). She's delightfully wicked as she flirts with and torments Ethan. Greenfield sqiurms well, and gives the kind of performance that occasionally makes one wonder how sincere his decision to turn to God in a time of adversity is. It's a good performance, especially since the superior attitude of the newly religious is only one component, when it could have been the whole thing.

The staging of the film is fairly nice, too. Costs add up on an indie, and even after the cast is taken into account (none are box-office draws on their own, but many are familiar faces), there's still budget left over to clear music rights, shoot in and around New York, and throw in some CGI effects for ira's hallucinations. The result is a film that doesn't look like a play, even though it easily could have taken place entirely within the tent and some other nearby location. The jokes come quickly and work more often than not, and if the end's a little on the sappy side, well, that is the nature of the family-dinner genre.

I'm not sure how a wide audience will react to When Do We Eat?; the mix of family-dinner mush and frequently crude humor may be off-putting for some, while others may overlook it for its overt Jewishness (it wouldn't quite work as a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner movie). That's something of a shame, because uneven as it is, it is funny and relatively big-hearted, which is what it's going for.

No comments: