Sunday, September 10, 2006

Boston Film Festival 2006 Day Two: Ice Kings, Homie Spumoni, Jam

None of these are in the HBS database yet, since they've been too busy with Toronto. Story of the BFF's life. Still, I'd like to get them posted if only to give folks a heads-up about Jam, which is playing again tonight and is pretty good.

Oh, and no "Day One" post because when I finally got off the bus last night, Homie Spumoni (the only thing playing) was sold out. No big deal, as it was the only thing playing during its time period today anyway.

Ice Kings

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival '06)

Sometimes, when producing a documentary about sustained greatness and achievement, it's necessary to wait a while, in order to have a proper ending. Every time Ice Kings pushed forward a few years with a montage of Mount St. Charles Academy winning state championship after state championship, I imagined filmmaker Craig Shapiro gritting his teeth, wishing they'd lose so his film could have a final act.

It probably didn't happen that way, but it could have; "The Mount" won twenty-six consecutive Rhode Island state hockey championships from 1978 to 2003, making that program the most successful high school athletic program in the country. A streat that long, and the history leading up to it, provides Shapiro with an excellent framework with which to examine R.I. high school hockey - and its fandom - in general.

And why not? After all, its popularity rivals football in Texas. Ah, you might say, but Texas is a region of the country unto itself, while geographers are currently considering reclassifying Rhode Island as a "dwarf state". In some ways, that makes what it has produced even more impressive; when on high school finals features a half-dozen future pros, that's got to count for something.

The film spends some time at the start giving the audience a little background on the state's general history, quirks, and accent (you're in for eighty minutes of it) before starting to focus on hockey. Starting with the enormously popular minor league Rhode Island Reds (just a notch below the NHL's Original Six at the time, before "minor league" and "farm system" were synonymous), we see Rhode Island's hockey mania and large number of French-Canadian immigrants feed on each other, as Reds players settle in mill towns like Mount St. Charles's Woonsocket and help create the next generation of fans and players. This provides a nice segue to Mount St. Charles's first dynasty, built on the backs of players imported from Quebec as ringers.

One story of a legendary student athlete who chose not to go pro later, the film is ready to focus on the Mount's quarter-century on top. Much as the story of a high school dynasty must, Ice Kings focuses less on the players (after all, the team roster turns completely over six to eight times over the course of the run) than on the coaches nad opponents who would try to topple them. The coach is a personable enough character - Bill Belisle played for the Mount as a teenager, and after a stint in the army worked a series of blue-collar jobs that culminated in his position as the Academy's rink manager. Made coach after a last-place finish, he institutes a rigorous practice schedule that emphasizes quality skating (his own forte as a player). Despite perhaps coming off as a harsh taskmaster in the interviews with former players, the impression he leaves is of a serious but low-key instructor, a tough old french guy who seems about a decade younger than his seventy-five years. We also meet his son, Dave, who took over temporarily after Bill took a puck to the head and has been his assistant (Bill running practices, Dave running games) for the twenty years since.

The challengers are interesting stories themselves; we meet Don Armstrong, who was the coach of another hockey powerhouse, Bishop Hendricken, during the eighties, and Sarah Costa, the female goalie (and future Olympian) hwose Toll Gate High Titans team nearly ended the streak in '95. Star players from Mount St. Charles are also represented, including Brian Lawton, the first American ever to be an NHL #1 draft pick.

One of the things Shapiro does very well is to pull threads that don't necessarily seem to have anything to do with the main story and tie them in; the "and they got married and had many children..." ending to the segment about Joe Cavanagh opting not to turn pro initially seems like bloat but is, in fact, important later on. He also does a very good job of keeping the Mount from becoming villains of the piece - aside from being obvious overdogs, the film hints that they exploit a real home-rink advantage in underhanded ways (caroms only they know about, overheating the visiting locker-room). The film also avoids explicit mention of whether Mount St. Charles is public, private, or parochial, although mention is made for the other schools - that the Titans are a public school is considered a special victory when they play the Mounties. It's also sometimes difficult to tell what relationship the person currently being interviewed has to Mount St. Charles; a lot of ex-hockey players are interviewed, and a caption stating someone was on the San Jose Sharks from 1992 to 1994 isn't always helpful if you don't remember how that guy was introduced a half-hour earlier.

One thing that is a lot of fun to see is several decades of hockey footage, from the early years of the Reds to the present. There's a lot of talking heads, and that breaks it up nicely. Very little else looks like old sports footage, and even the more recent clips, being locally-produced broadcasts of high school games, don't have the slick, over-produced look of many professional sportscasts. The archival footage is also in great condition.

I'm not much of a hockey fan - baseball and basketball have tended to rule in Seaver households - so a lot of the hockey-specific details may have flown right past me. It's a nifty story, though, even for non-fans, and I expect hockey fans may appreciate it even more.

Homie Spumoni

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival '06)

I'd call Homie Spumoni cringe-worthy, except that it strikes me as the type of movie that would take that description as a badge of honor. The idea, after all, is to get a rise and a laugh out of pervasive but not malevolent racism. Like most of the characters, it's got a good heart that belies the crudity of its exterior.

The film opens with a flashback, as childless Italian couple Enzo (Alvaro D'Antonio) and Angelina (Michelle Arvizu) discover a baby floating down a nearby river in a basket. Since the bambino is black, they fear the reaction of their small town, and so set out for America. Twenty-five years later, the family is settled in Providence, where Renato (Donald Faison) works in Enzo's deli and volunteers at the animal shelter. It's there he meets Ally (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) when she's looking for a dog. The usual comic hijinks ensue because her mother has a nice jewish doctor picked out for her, but what really causes trouble is when Thelma (Whoopi Goldberg) and George (Paul Mooney) show up, claiming Renato is their long-lost "Leroy" - and they'd like him to come with them to Baltimore to get to know them and his older brother Dana (Tony Rock). This really throws Renato for a loop, since he had never been told that he was adopted, as opposed to being an unusually dark-skinned Italian immigrant.

The premise sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but holds up well enough once you figure Renato isn't likely to question his happy, loving family. Besides kicking the story into gear, it enables a very funny performance form Donald Faison. When you get right down to it, there's probably nothing extraordinarily difficult about the basic Italian-American city kid (who, having grown up in Providence, likes hockey far more than basketball) that Faison essays; it's just unusual for someone of Faison's skin color, so the audience is more likely to notice any slips (which Faison doesn't make). Faison deserves credit for more than pulling off a stock role without a hitch, though - he gives Renato kindness to go with his frequent crudity, and there's palpable hurt when Renato's world collapses around him.

Director Mike Cerrone (co-writing with his brother Steven and Glenn Ciano) seems to be trying to take the same approach as another set of Rhode Island filmmakers, the Farrellys (the Cerrones also wrote Me, Myself, and Irene), by telling jokes that could easily come off as nothing more than crass and offensive if it weren't abundantly clear how their hearts are in the right place. The filmmakers do manage this trick at a somewhat better than break-even pace, although they don't often manage to be really creatively appalling. A cop with a thick Irish accent using terms like "stovepipe" and "dago" isn't exactly cutting-edge satire, especially when nothing much is done to subvert it.

The support cast is also kind of hit-and-miss. Joey Fatone's best friend character Buddy suffers a bit since (per the Q&A) a running joke build around a certain bit of boorish behviour got cut for length, leaving a payoff without quite enough setup. Whoopi Goldberg, on the other hand, is funnier than I can ever remember her being before. She puts Thelma on the border of heartwarming and psychotic in her devotion to "Leroy", generally going over the top in just the right way. Tony Rock is fairly entertaining as Renato's brother, trying to school him in the ways of blackness. It's a shame Jamie-Lynn DiScala isn't on Faison's level in terms of charm; they're a mismatch, but not a great one. The duet between the two that the film builds to is seriously underwhelming.

One thing that's interesting to note is how much more some of the casually racist comments make the audience wince when said on-screen than they might in real life. It's as if we can forgive a bad habit, but saying the same thing in a movie is the result of planning and effort. Indeed, the outtakes shown over the end credits are often nastier, but also funnier, if only because they're spontaneous.

The film does, as mentioned, do better than break-even on a high concept that seems like more than a bit of a long shot. It's also a nice spotlight for Faison, a funny guy who hasn't gotten nearly the boost from the critics' Scrubs-love as his co-stars have.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival '06)

Before I saw this movie, I admit, I was ready to lead with a snarky "after a Crash inevitably comes a Jam" comment, which is just super-tacky because I haven't even seen Crash. Of course, Jam's producers probably aren't likely to complain too much about their film getting mentioned in the same sentence as an Oscar-winner.

It initially appears that Jam is going to spend a lot of time on race, too, as the auto accident that causes the titular traffic jam is between black cellist Lorraine (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and a white father/son pair, Ted (William Forsythe) and Josh (Dan Byrd). Soon after, dark-skinned hippie chick Lilac (Gina Torres) is given static by white yuppies Gary (Jonathan Silverman) and Judy (Julie Claire) while trying to find help for her extremely pregnant partner Rose (Mariah O'Brien). They eventually wind up in an RV stolen by Curt (Christopher Amitrano) and Jerry (David DeLuise). Also caught in the traffic jam are Dale (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his kids Robert (Skyler Gisondo) and Brianna (Marissa Blanchard), bride-to-be Amy (Amanda Detmer) and her bridesmaids Jen (Elizabeth Bogush) and Stephanie (Amanda Foreman), and older married couple Mick (Alex Rocco) and Ruby (Tess Harper).

Rather than spending the majority of its time on hot-button issues, Jam is mostly concerned with parent-child relationships. The film is set on Father's Day, and the stories include expectant parents, divorced parents on their custodial weekend, grown children missing a deceased parent, a father and son at odds, etc., etc. Even the thread about the bride with cold feet involves her wanting to start a family. It's a theme that holds the film together without being painfully obvious about it; nobody ever says "man, we've all got daddy issues!"

The cast is full of familiar faces, mostly from television, doing what they do best. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is the calm, centering influence she has been ever since coming to American attention in Secrets & Lies; David DeLuise is the not-so-bright but affable guy he's come to specialize in. The trio of Amanda Detmer, Amanda Foreman, and Elizabeth Bogush play off each other very well, feeling like people so used to being friends that they don't realize how much they've grown to dislike each other. Detmer shares a number of scenes with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and they develop a nifty antagonistic chemistry right off the bat. Also of special note is Gina Torres, whom fans of action-oriented TV series have loved for nearly a decade and may, in Lilac, have finally found the role that grabs the attention of a wider audience.

Many of director (and producer/co-writer) Craig Serling's recent credits have been as an editor on various unscripted television programs. While it's easy to reflexively bash those shows, it actually turns out to be a solid training ground for an ensemble drama like this. Both jobs involve introducing the audience to a lot of people in very little time and then balanceing those characters evenly, trying to avoid repetition even though they're all doing more or less the same thing. Often in an ensemble piece, some characters are more equal than others or many seem like filler; Shipley, by and large, manages to avoid that.

What shortcomings the film has likely come about due to the tight shooting schedule. During the Q&A, Shipley seemed pround of how many scenes were shot in just one take, but sometimes that may have happened more out of necessity more than complete satisfaction. An independant film like this casts familiar faces by being able to get them in and out quickly, and if you've only got a central character for two or three days (how long Detmer said she was on set), you may just take what you can get. In particular, the Gary & Judy scenes don't really work, and Forsythe plays much better off Ms. Jean-Baptiste than he does off Dan Byrd.

It occurs to me that "Jam" may have a double meaning, in that aside from depicting a traffic jap, it's a chance for many fine character actors to get together and, well, jam. None really take the lead, but supporting each other is what these guys do best.

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