Friday, September 15, 2006

Boston Film Festival 2006 Day Six: Ways of the Flesh

Missed days five and seven, both days when the cable company's annoying refusal to schedule around when I could be home caused me to work from the house. I don't know about other folks, but I have a hard time getting work done when I'm home, and not just because the VPN connection and power supply have a knack for choosing terrible half-seconds to not work. And, yesterday, there was a query kicking my butt. Fortunately, most of the movies shown during the days I missed already have release dates scheduled (heck, I missed The Last Kiss on Tuesday and it opens today), and the others are ones I'm okay with missing. I'd rather not, but I can deal.

Which left Ways of the Flesh as my mid-week getaway to the film festival. Not a bad movie, not a great one. I probably wouldn't give it many second thoughts if it wasn't part of a festival program, but since it's independently produced and chosen to screen by people I assume know something about film, I'm more likely to give it a chance than I would if it were just film #8 on the multiplex's marquee.

The picture in the program was dark and reproduced in such a way that I didn't realize this was something aimed at the African-American audience. The story itself is hardly black-specific at all, although some of the execution left me not nearly as amused as it maybe ought to have. In a way, these African-American-oriented films have the same sort of effect on me as Bollywood - my brain just doesn't have the jacks to interface with them properly, and as much as I appreciate that they're made for someone with a different cultural background, that doesn't obligate me to really like them.

And yet, the writer/director looked nearly as white as me - I told Matt afterward that he reminded me of Wallace Shawn minus thirty years and plus a fair amount of hair. He had that kind of voice, and it's certainly not the voice you expect to hear going on about how studios don't know how to connect with the black audience outside of T&A-laden gangsta flicks. Which, of course, is absolutely true; it's just a bit tricky to accept someone who looks a lot more like me than that audience as the voice of authority on the subject.

Ways of the Flesh

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival)

The opening credits to Ways of the Flesh don't quite come out and say "based on a true story", although they imply it, and during the Q&A after the movie, writer/director Dennis Cooper never came close to talking about a real Dr. Zachary. Where these characters came from doesn't really matter; I'm just curious to know whether the muted feel of this movie is Cooper trying to show specific people or whole groups in a good light.

Inspired by a real person or not, Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris) is the film's narrator, constantly dictating material for his book and standup comedy routine into a tape recorder. He's doing some research on laughter as a palliative medicine, and also observing one of his new interns, Dr. Ray Howard (Brian J. White). Howard is a gifted Harvard graduate who has left Boston for Florida because of a woman (Mya), and comes with a well-deserved reputation as a player. Assisting Sidney with his literary endeavors is his girlfriend Donna (Zoe Saldana), an artist whose life he once saved; supporting cast includes arrogant department head Dr. Graves (Scott Paulin), his sycophant Dr. Propper (David S. Lee), and nervous intern Mitchell Kwan (Kenneth Choi).

All of this goes into Sidney's tape recorder and on-screen, and indeed the very beginning announces what kind of genre tropes we're in for: The mentor who has run-ins with an uncaring bureaucrat, the muse who inspires him, the cocky player who becomes a better man. And it's not so much the standard pieces that are the problem so much as their announcement; when the narrator neatly summarizes the movie up front, then what follows has to either cleverly subvert those expectations or be the best darn example of them that it can be (or at least be as good as an average episode of Grey's Anatomy). It doesn't help that Sidney, having chosen Ray as the subject of his book, occasionally discusses Ray's growth as a doctor and a person with Donna or Ray himself; it's elementary self-referentiality that doesn't make the movie seem any cleverer, even if one or two of the scenes are kind of cute. Similarly, I'm not sure how a story about someone making use of humor is, itself, funny - even when the jokes are on, the audience is a little too aware of the effort to make them funny.

Read the rest at HBS.

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